And with this intriguing, tension-filled opening, Elizabeth Loupas propels us straight to the heart of her March 2011 debut novel, a work that is both a literary mystery and an historical novel, THE SECOND DUCHESS.
Set in Renaissance Italy, THE SECOND DUCHESS is the story of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara, and his new duchess, Barbara of Austria, whom he takes as his bride upon the death of his young first wife, the willful and sensual Lucrezia de’ Medici. When Barbara finds the Ferrarese court awash with whispers and rumours about her duke and the dead Lucrezia – and when it seems her own life may be in jeopardy - we are soon plunged into a gorgeously lush tale of intrigue, murder and mystery, as the duke’s second duchess sets out to discover whether her enigmatic husband did, indeed, take the life of his first wife.
Based on the real-life historical figures of Barbara of Austria, Alfonso d’Este and Lucrezia de’ Medici, and inspired by Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess,” THE SECOND DUCHESS has been received with much acclaim:
“Utterly mesmerizing, captivating from the first page. Thick with shadowy court intrigues and lush period detail, The Second Duchess is a Renaissance masterpiece come to life,” writes author Deanna Raybourn. But I think it is C.S. Harris, author of the Sebastian St Cyr Mystery series who sums it up best:
"Rich in historical detail and all the dangerous grandeur of court life in Renaisssance Italy. Think The Other Boleyn Girl meets Rebecca.”
Having devoured the book myself in less than two days, I can safely report that the praise for this richly embroidered tapestry of Renaissance court life, murder, and mystery, is entirely deserved.
With that, I welcome Elizabeth Loupas, who has so graciously agreed to play Twenty Questions with us today ...
1. You have been a radio network vice president, a reference librarian, a magazine editor, and a tutor in English literature. Clearly, words and books are as vital to you as oxygen. What inspired your love of books and words, and writing in particular?
My mother used to tell a funny story about my older brother—she said that when his teachers started teaching him to read in first grade, he came home and taught me (then three years old), backing me into a corner with a book and saying, “Now, this is ‘A.’” It must have worked because I can’t remember not being able to read, and reading has always been my joy and my delight. I started making up stories as a wee girl playing paper dolls, and writing the stories down was a natural next step.
2. Was writing a novel always in your plans? And why did you choose to write historical fiction? Or did the genre choose you?
I thought, “I want to write a novel” for a long time, and finally realized it wasn’t going to write itself. Historical fiction has always been my favorite sort of fiction to read and I never thought twice about wanting to write it.
3. As well as being a work of historical fiction, THE SECOND DUCHESS is also a mystery. Was it a deliberate decision to structure the story of Alfonso, Barbara and Lucrezia as a mystery? Or did you always see their tale being told in this way?
Yes, I deliberately set out to make the story a mystery. What happened to the duke’s first wife? Why does the duke want to keep it a secret? Why does Barbara set out to solve the mystery instead of sensibly keeping her head down (and Barbara is a very sensible woman) and enjoying her life as duchess?
4. Alfonso, Barbara and Lucrezia are complex characters, and so vividly drawn. Did they come easily to you, or were any of the trio easier to see and hear than the others?
Barbara was the first one to come to life for me—she was always my primary voice character. She read a book as a young girl and dreamed romantic dreams—which one of us can’t relate to that? There’s more written about the historical Alfonso, but even so he was harder for me to understand. I think part of it was because many of the attributes of a Renaissance prince are so terribly politically incorrect today. It would have been wrong to make him a modern-day man sent back in time, but I wondered—would people understand him as he really was? He was arrogant, vainglorious, ambitious, cruel—and at the same time a great patron of music and art, a trained soldier, an athlete, an aesthete. No, Alfonso did not come easily. Lucrezia is one of the ghosts of history—she really existed but almost nothing is written about her personally. I gave her older sister Isabella a considerable amount of influence over her, which formed her character in my mind. There’s a wonderful non-fiction book on Isabella, called Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline Murphy. It gives a glimpse of the sort of court Lucrezia grew up in, and how her character might have been formed.
5. Lucrezia, although dead, is a character in her own right, and such a very memorable one at that! She exists in your book as a spectral, ghost-like presence, an “immobila”. Are immobili your own invention? And why did you choose to give Lucrezia her voice in this manner, as opposed to telling her story through flash backs or some other manner?
I made up the immobili. I wanted a special kind of ghost that could only observe, and could not interact with the living in any way—“immobili” means “still ones.” There is an element of the Greek Chorus in the immobili, too.
Originally Lucrezia wasn’t going to be in the story at all—she pretty much forced her way in. I considered flashbacks, but if I had done that, Lucrezia could not have observed and commented on the novel’s present and on Barbara’s relationship with Alfonso, and that is so much of what I love about Lucrezia. It also worked out well to have a different viewpoint to tell the parts of the story that Barbara herself couldn’t tell, particularly at the end.
On research and inspiration
6. Robert Browning’s poem, “My Last Duchess” is a major source of inspiration for your book. Could you tell us how your book grew from the poem, and why it is that “My Last Duchess” strikes such a chord with you?
I’ve always loved “My Last Duchess” because of the Renaissance setting and the hopelessly romantic and mysterious storyline of the beautiful, doomed young duchess and the duke, all cool hauteur on the outside and apparently a seething cauldron of jealousy and madness on the inside. There are hints, though, if you read carefully, that the duchess wasn’t the paragon of sweet innocence she seems. I’d read the poem hundreds of times, and one day, reading it again, the whole story just popped into my mind.
7. Are you like most writers of historical fiction – hopelessly addicted to the research? :-) If so, how to you manage the addiction so it doesn’t spiral out of control, to the detriment of getting words on the page?
I love research, and sometimes it does take over my life. There are so many fascinating bits and pieces that never make it into the book! I’ve learned to (mostly) separate the writing and the research. When I’m writing and I need to know something, I type something like look up 16th century silverworking techniques and highlight it in yellow, then go on with the story. Later when I’m ready for a research orgy, I go through and fill in all the yellow bits with appropriate details.
8. What research did you turn up that you wished you could have included in THE SECOND DUCHESS, but did not?
Oh, heavens, it could be a whole other book! There were the state visits—Barbara’s brother Ferdinand in January—I left that out entirely. So much about music and dancing and art. Details of hunting and of Alfonso’s incredible masques. He was famous throughout Europe for his lavishly produced “festivals”—the only possible modern-day analogue, I think, would be a circus or a Las Vegas show. I had to cut back on a lot of my description of Ferrara itself. Alfonso has a fascinating backstory—his mother, who had Calvinist leanings, was accused of heresy by his father and forced by the Inquisition to recant. Alfonso was present in Paris at the joust in which the French King Henri II (his cousin) was fatally wounded (as famously predicted by Nostradamus), and was one of the first to run to the fallen king. Oh, and Nostradamus corresponded with Alfonso and made a private prediction to him, but it was so sad I left it out.
ATWOP - now, who doesn't want to know what that prediction was?! Intriguing ...
On craft and process
9. I’ve read that you have a background in acting –and that you just might act out your stories as you write them. Is this something you consciously do, or is it just how writing works for you?
Well, kind of both—I started out doing it unconsciously, and when I realized how well it worked I continued doing it deliberately. My husband and the dogs are alternately amused and rather concerned, I think, to hear me emoting away, all by myself, sometimes in multiple voices! I would like to add that my acting background is not professional—just high school and college productions and community theatre.
10. Do you fall into the camp of writers who outline their novels before starting to write, or are you more of a “seat of the pants” novelist?
I am a total outliner. In fact, I write a very detailed outline, which to some extent acts as my “script” when I act out my stories. The outline is pretty much all action—“Barbara goes here, Alfonso does this.” From that I imagine all the setting and emotion and sense-detail and dialogue.
11. Virginia Woolf lamented the lack of a “room of one’s own” for female writers. Do you have a room of your own? And, for the literary voyeurs amongst us, could you describe it?
I do have a room of my own. It’s a small back bedroom with a closet for storing supplies and big south-facing windows. I have four bookcases, a couple of filing cabinets, my desk and chair, a bunch of plants, two dog beds, and my grandmother’s beautiful solid cedar hope chest—I figure as a writer I need lots of hope!
12. When writing THE SECOND DUCHESS, did you have any special inkling that what you were typing on the screen would be published?
Not really. I knew from the beginning I was going to submit it, but other than that all I had was hope (see above). I was fortunate, I think, that historical fiction was just coming back into vogue as I was writing the book. Thank you, Philippa Gregory. :)
13. Securing an agent, and then selling your manuscript, are the pinnacles of many a writer’s career, and the news of such success is often broken via the phone. What was your reaction when you received “the call”?
You know, in these days of email, there’s so much correspondence leading up to the call that the excitement is kind of spread out over time. My agent and I emailed back and forth about the book and about revisions several times before we actually talked on the phone, and I think we talked a couple of times before she formally offered to represent me. It was the same with my editor at NAL. We talked on the phone—again, just talking about the book and what else I might have planned—before there was any actual call about an offer. So there wasn’t one particular call, but several calls—although of course I was thrilled after every one.
14. To give some insight into the journey to publication, you and your agent, Diana Fox of Fox Literary, have very generously made available on the Fox Literary blog your query letter to Diana, Diana’s subsequent submission letter to editors, and the final copy for the book (go forth, here, and read this, people. So very instructive!) “Road to publication” stories are devoured around here (especially the successful ones!) - what were the highlights, and any lowlights, of yours?
Well, let’s see. I sent my first query on April 14, 2008, and got a pass back the same day. I was crushed. But I persevered. I didn’t send out lots of queries at once—I doled them out two or three at a time, and revised my query letter little by little as I went along. My query to Diana was about the middle of the process, on August 11, 2008. In total I sent nineteen queries. Of those I had four requests for the full manuscript, one request for a partial that never went anywhere, eight passes, and six non-responders.
Diana asked me to do revisions before she offered to sign me, and I liked her suggestions so I did them willingly. (I think she also wrote a long post about the whole revisions-before-signing issue on her blog.) After that things moved pretty quickly. I signed with Fox Literary, did more revisions, the book went out on submission around the beginning of May, and we got the offer from NAL in the middle of July.
ATWOP - Wonderful story! It goes to show that there usually is a home for most well-written books. And yes, Elizabeth is right, Diana did do such a post - here.
15. You have a new book due for release in April 2012, THE FLOWER READER. Can you tell us a little about this story, and any other projects waiting in the wings?
Here’s a sneak peek at some of the back-cover copy of THE FLOWER READER:
“With her dying breath, the queen regent of Scotland entrusts a silver casket to seventeen-year-old Rinette Leslie of Granmuir, half-Scots, half-French, with the ancient gift of divining the future in flowers. Inside the casket, and meant for the young Mary Queen of Scots alone, are the darkest secrets of every Scottish lord, and explosive private prophecies prepared by Nostradamus himself. Rinette risks her life to keep the casket safe, but she makes one fatal mistake: she shows it to her beloved young husband. On the very day the young queen comes home, Rinette’s husband is brutally assassinated. Devastated, Rinette demands justice from the queen before she will surrender the casket...”
After that, I have half a dozen different projects on my desktop.
ATWOP - oh, I seriously cannot wait for this book! Mark April 2012 in your diaries, people.
And the less writerly questions
16. I see from your blog pictures that you are owned by two beagles. J I suspect they were the inspiration for the scene in THE SECOND DUCHESS in which Barbara and Alfonso are presented with two such puppies as wedding gifts from Elizabeth I. Are your beagles your faithful writing buddies? Or are they gorgeous distractions? And will they feature in any more of your books?
My beagles are both writing buddies and distractions. Mostly they just sleep under my desk or on their doggie beds behind me. (See writing room above.) They are also my personal trainers, in that they take me for a good brisk walk every day. Now Queen Elizabeth’s beagles—there’s another thing I have a lot of research on that never made it into the book!
I suspect there will be at least one hound in every book I write. In THE FLOWER READER, Rinette rescues a terrified hound puppy from a group of witches and names it Seilie, “lucky” in Scottish. Seilie is her faithful companion through the rest of the story.
17. Apart from all the other hats you wear, you also describe yourself as a star gazer. What is your favourite constellation? And what astronomical events should we be marking in our diaries (and setting our alarm clocks for – oi!) to view next?
I can’t possible pick a favorite constellation—I love them all. I love the mythology behind them. Events—well, through the month of May, if you want to get up early, you’ll be able to see four planets—Jupiter, Venus, Mars and Mercury—clustered low in the east just before dawn. This is quite unusual!
18. Given the chance – and a time machine! - which historical figures would you invite to dinner? And why?
I think I would want someone from the ancient world, just because it would have been so different from our world today and I would want to know more about it. A Babylonian or Sumerian queen—perhaps the one who wore this crown!
Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic. One of my favorite writers.
Barbara of Austria, Duchess of Ferrara, of course.
Mary Queen of Scots—and I would ply her with wine until she told me just what did happen to Lord Darnley.
Amelia Earhart, so I could find out what really happened.
ATWOP - that crown is beautiful. And mind if I crash this dinner party, too? :-P
19. Who is your best-loved hero or heroine of fiction?
Again, so hard to choose.
Francis Crawford of Lymond from Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, of course. Froniga Haslewood from Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. Emmeline Lucas of E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels.
20. And finally … what do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m not sure it’s exactly an achievement, but what I value most in the world is my family and our loving relationships.
Thank you, Elizabeth! It was a pleasure to have you on our blog, and we wish you every success, now, and in the future. :-)
And one lucky reader will win a copy of THE SECOND DUCHESS courtesy of All The World’s Our Page! Just leave a comment on this post, and we’ll draw the random winner Wednesday, next week. Go get commenting!