Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Interview with Mary Sharratt

I recently read, and luuuuurved, Mary Sharratt's historical The Dark Lady's Mask, a biographical novel about Elizabethan poet Aemlia Lanier. I'm thrilled to share this interview with Ms. Sharratt. She talks about this book as well as her past books, and introduces me to the word "powerfrau" (!). Read on to learn more!

Photo of Mary Sharratt, author
Author Mary Sharratt
Was The Dark Lady's Mask the original title of your book?

Yes, although in the beginning, I was debating whether to call it THE DARK LADY’S MASK or THE DARK LADY’S MASQUE after the court masques that were the only venues in England at that time in which women could act upon the stage—because they were wearing masks! I opted for THE DARK LADY’S MASK. Concealment and revelation form a major theme in the book.

As you were writing The Dark Lady's Mask, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Aemilia’s husband, Alfonse Lanier, surprised me.

This was not a match made in heaven. When Aemilia discovered herself pregnant with the Lord Chamberlain’s child, her lover unceremoniously pensioned her off at £40 a year and married her off to Alfonse Lanier, an Anglo French court musician. This young man, some years younger than Aemilia, presumably married her for her money. The historical Aemilia complained bitterly about her husband to Simon Forman, her astrologer. She lamented that he wasted her money and treated her harshly.

In my novel, I struggled to find the right fictional treatment for Alfonse. I wanted to respect the historical record in portraying Aemilia’s despair and anger about her ill-starred marriage and yet reveal Alfonse as human and not a just a horrible husband. Nor did I want to depict Aemilia as an abused wife. So I gave her the upper hand with a “shrew’s” sharp tongue and witty repartee to keep her husband from getting the better of her. And then I found a way into Alfonse’s vulnerability that made him come alive for me.

Despite the unpromising beginning of their marriage, the historical Alfonso Lanier became his wife’s great champion. One of the few surviving copies of her book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was her husband’s gift to the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin. So Alfonso was actively publicizing and promoting his wife’s book, as though he took the greatest pride and delight in her literary accomplishment.

Your novels cover so many different eras and locales; what do you do to ground yourself in the setting of whatever your current project is?

With a combination of deep, immersive research and a kind of imaginative time travel. L.P. Hartley said it best: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

When writing a historical novel, I do my utmost to truly inhabit that other “country,” to steep myself in its worldview.

When writing ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, I listened over and over again to Hildegard’s music. I also made a special research trip to visit all the sites associated with Hildegard around Bingen on the Rhine.

With DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, it was a bit easier, because the searing story of the Pendle Witches took place almost literally in my backyard. I inhabit the same landscape as these women did. The ancestral memory in the land still whispers back the words of Mother Demdike, the cunning woman and healer accused of being the ringleader of the other so-called witches. I realized I had to write her story first person, in the local Lancashire dialect, something I found quite intimidating as an American expat. But once I surrendered the voice of the story to Mother Demdike, the pages just flowed and flowed. I felt I wasn’t making it up, just listening to her tell me her tale.

With my new novel in progress, ECSTASY: A NOVEL OF ALMA MAHLER, I made several research trips to Vienna, including an unforgettable visit to the Vienna Opera where Gustav Mahler once worked as director and chief conductor. In fact, I just returned yesterday from a tour of Alma and Gustav’s summer homes in Austria and South Tyrol in Northern Italy. Being physically present in their old haunts really helps me to feel their essence.

Research isn’t just about reading books to research the dry facts. It’s about visiting historic locations and soaking up the vibes. I find that if I keep immersing myself in my characters’ day-to-day experience, the voice of their story will rise by itself.

Do you have a favorite heroine from your published works?

That’s a tough one because I lived inside the skin of all my heroine’s, but Hildegard of Bingen was the ultimate powerfrau.

Her parents offered her up to monastic life as a child oblate. She was bricked inside an anchorite’s cell, condemned, as it were, to a life of silence and absolute submission. And yet she triumphed to become a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. She wrote the first known description of the female orgasm. And she extoled the virtues of beer drinking, saying it was most wholesome and pleasing to God. What’s not to love? I can’t imagine a stronger woman. Whenever I find myself in a quandary, I ask myself, “What would Hildegard do?”

Read any good books recently?

Elena Ferrante’s epic novel, The Story of a New Name, completely swept me away. It was so powerful. A truly searing coming of age story set in mid-twentieth century Naples, Italy.

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My thanks to Ms. Sharratt for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and connect with her on Facebook, GoodReads, and Twitter.

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