The Shorty Q&A With Robin Maxwell

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Female pirates, Leonardo DaVinci’s mother and cross-dressing, the sex lives of kings. Robin Maxwell writes about the parts of history that don’t air on PBS specials. In each of her novels Maxwell injects her comprehensive knowledge of fifteenth and sixteenth century to reveal the mysteries of the eras and their fledgling feminists. Her writing has tackled figures like Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, and Catherine Parr, while her blog contributions toHuffPo have drawn parallels between Anne Boleyn and Hillary Clinton. Another post of hers revealed how “Swiftboating ” political tactics can be traced back to how the English queen’s reputation was handled in the sixteenth century media. The Rumpus asked what this narrator of the past has going on in her present.

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The Rumpus: Are you really a Jersey girl? What was it like growing up in the Garden State?

Robin Maxwell: Indeed, I grew up in the land of Tony Soprano — a suburb, very much like his. But my upbringing was quite uneventful — the requisite football games, girlfriend dramas, getting caught by a policeman humping my boyfriend in the park. I suppose the high spot of high school was starring as the world’s most famous Jewish girl in my Senior Play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which might have influenced my move to literature later in life, and perhaps the title of my first novel, “The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.”

TR: I’ve read in your official bio that you used to tame parrots in Hollywood. What does that entail? Can you train them to fetch coffee?
RM: As for fetching coffee, I never did figure out how to get my birds to do that, but they are such messy creatures (poop, chewing woodwork and book spines, and flinging seed everywhere) I always had a mental imagine of them in little maids’ costumes, picking up after themselves.

The parrot-taming experience was actually quite a dreadful one. In those days before the importation of exotic birds was curtailed with CITES, they were violently “birdnapped” from all over the world, put into avian Abu Ghraib-like prisons for a month-long quarantine, pumped through with antibiotics, and then sent on to vast wholesale warehouses. That’s where the so-called tamers came into the picture. I say so-called, as none of us had any true qualifications for the job, except for perhaps owning a bird ourselves.

One of the crew in this Southern California establishment was a sadistic young man whose idea of taming was to smack the birds (who were living in pure terror from their capture and quarantine) every time they bit him. So it was bite-smack, bite-smack, bite-smack, until the parrot was numb and dazed. As we were paid “per bird,” he’d show the owners the poor creature when it was thus dopey, it was deemed “tamed” and ready to be shipped to the retailer, and he’d get his money…and start on his next victim. I went to the owners and turned the guy in, but when they refused to fire him, I quit.

TR: When I was reading Mademoiselle Boleyn I was struck at the sexual imagery and the lascivious lives of these women who were basically teenage girls.
RM: There was no kinkier time and place than the French court of Francois I. I write about lesbian orgies, shared royal mistresses, and detailed recitations by courtiers to the king of their sexual exploits. But I have to admit I was caught off guard when, at the opening of an episode of “The Tudors” Henry VIII is masterbating into a bowl held by his manservant. I knew that all his bodily fluids were collected and inspected by his physicians, but I didn’t know ejaculate was one of them.

TR: You wrote for “Passions,” that’s a soap opera, isn’t it? Do you regularly follow any soap operas?

RM: The only soap I ever followed was “Dallas,” and I was hooked on it. “Passions” was actually a CBS Movie of the Week, starring Joanne Woodward, Lindsay Wagner and Richard Crenna. It was based on the Bloomingdale scandal of the `80s, wherein the multi-millionaire department store magnate, after he died, was found to have been leading a double life. Besides his socialite wife and children, he was keeping a mistress and a child. When it was found that he’d left them money in his will all hell broke loose and the term “palimony” was invented.

TR: Writing historical fiction strikes me as being very difficult. How do you process fact and spin it into narrative?

RM: I generally start with a fascinating historical figure, and then look for a mystery that surrounds that person.

In Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, I asked myself “Why did Elizabeth the First never marry, and why after 25 years of believing the negative spin about her mother, Anne, did she suddenly began respecting her. In The Queen’s Bastard I delved into the rumors that Elizabeth and her lover Robin Dudley had an illegitimate son. In all the books I searched there were only about five pages of history about this young man, Arthur Dudley, who was an English spy in the years leading up to the Spanish Armada. In the case of Leonardo’s mother, Caterina, I was working with exactly two facts.

Using extrapolation, psychology, detective work, my personal understanding of human nature, emotions and motivation I begin filling in the “holes in history.” When you’re dealing with a period 500 years in the past, there are lots of them. These sometimes gaping chasms are what I, as an author of historical fiction, live for.

With so little known about Caterina da Vinci, the sky was the limit. I had a rare opportunity to create something from little or nothing. I took the tiniest cluster of cells, no larger than a fetal blastula, examined the medium in which it developed (the Italian Renaissance), the world into which was she was born and grew, her ancestors, and associates, until she blossomed into a living, breathing, thinking, feeling human being. With da Vinci’s mother, I did have a wealth of information about the mental workings of her son, Leonardo, in the form of his work and his notebooks. One volume of just his writings is 1,080 pages long. From the child I extrapolated the mother.

TR: What’s your writing process like on a day-to-day level?

RM: As most writers will tell you, it’s incredibly unromantic. I consider it a good day that I never get out of my pyjamas. I work best in the morning, after my chores are finished. If I’m really on a tear the house looks post-Katrina, and my husband has to cook for himself. My mood shifts with what I’m writing. If it’s violence, I get moody. If the characters are being sexual, Max gets lucky a lot.

I work from a detailed outline that, paragraph by paragraph, takes me chapter to chapter from the beginning to the end of the story. If things are going well, the characters begin speaking to me, telling me what they want to say or do. Sometimes that’s different from what I’ve set out in the outline, and if I’m smart, I generally swerve away from what I’ve set down and go with them. I don’t understand this effect. Some people will call it “channeling,” but that’s a bit woo-woo for me. After doing so much research about these people, night and day-dreaming about them, I am somehow able to inhabit their minds, stand in their shoes, know how they’d react, feel their emotions, speak in their voices. It is the gift that the writer is given, and it’s very precious to me.

I sit in a big comfy chair in the birdroom, with my feet up, staring out at the high desert landscape and the jagged mountain range called the “Sawtooths.” Then I wait for the muse to speak to me, to give me the opening line for the day, and I’m off and running. I still write longhand on a yellow pad, filled with scratch-outs, arrows, margins jammed with tiny writing and doodles.

If I’m starting a new chapter I might begin the day perusing half a dozen research books, or finding something on the internet and printing it out (i.e. about a place I haven’t been — a city, a castle — or a piece of art I don’t have at hand) and either take copious notes or make notations in the margins of my outline. Lately, I’ve been doing a more detailed outline for the section I’m working on, pulling in research notes and adding bits of dialogue that occur to me. Then I start writing the first draft. I write for many hours at a time. If I’m on a roll I can work 10-12 hours. A good days is a dozen pages, though sometimes I can only eke out 3. At the end of the day I generally put it all into a word document, print it out, and collapse in front of the TV in time to watch “The Daily Show.”

TR: Are you frightened of seeing one of your novels turned into a film? What’s the experience of transforming it from one medium to another like?

RM: Not so far. Both of the novels I’ve adapted for the screen have been optioned, “The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn,” and “The Wild Irish.” The latter is looking very good to go into production in early 2010, with an A-list director attached, a huge budget, and fabulous stars. With this book, as it sprawled over the 60 year life of Grace O’Malley — pirate, rival to Queen Elizabeth the First, and “Mother of the Irish Rebellion,” I had to do some major restructuring to hone it into a feature length script. So far everybody likes it, and the Australian producer is trying hard to keep me on as sole writer, but I’m realistic. Other writers may very well come aboard, but I’m confident they will be true to my intent. I’m certain that if “The Wild Irish” — what I like to call “Bravetart”– gets made, it will sweep the Oscars.

TR: Tell me about your latest book, Signora da Vinci. Are you excited about it?

RM: Totally jazzed and very proud. I was utterly fascinated with the ridiculously fertile mind and staggering accomplishments of the original “Renaissance Man”- Leonardo da Vinci. But when I began studying his works they revealed only a fraction of the intimate, character-driven story I knew I wanted to tell in Signora da Vinci.

Who was this person? What was he like as a child? Most of all: where did he acquire his earth shattering genius? The more I dug, the clearer it became. There was simply no way that he’d inherited his gifts from his social-climbing, icy-hearted, petty bureaucrat of a father. They had to have come from his mother.

The problem, I discovered, was that next to nothing is known about Caterina da Vinci, save her name and these facts: Leonardo’s father refused to marry her, and the infant was snatched from Caterina’s arms the day after his birth. He was thereafter raised in the loveless home of his paternal grandfather.

Somehow, the dearth of information about “the most important woman we’ve never heard of,” sparked a fire in my mind. The city of Florence, at the very moment that Leonardo was sent there to learn his trade as an artist, was the center of the intellectual, cultural and political universe. The brightest stars of philosophy, science, art, architecture, music and international finance came together and out of the ashes of Medieval Europe, built the foundation of the Renaissance movement.

Bound and determined to take these intriguing puzzle pieces and create a compelling novel, I concocted a device that allowed Caterina to follow her young son into the city -and to my great delight – to insinuate herself into the innermost circles of Florentine society. I disguised her as a man.

TR: What are the best and worst parts about going on a book tour? That is, if you tour and speak and regularly do that whole rigmarole.

RM: Actually, the on-the-ground book tour has gone the way of the dodo. With my first book, back in 1997, I did a national author tour with close to a hundred book store events. Of course even then they varied. At some venues I was treated like a queen and drew large crowds. At one Barnes & Noble event, which I call “Bookstore of the Living Dead,” nobody showed, and I walked around the aisles begging people to come listen to me — it was free!

With Signora da Vinci, I’m just now launching my first “Virtual Book Tour,” blogging on about 20 literary blogs. I also had my website blinged-out so that now it looks like a Renaissance jewel box. And I sent out a flashy flier to 500 contacts, basically begging them to start some “electronic word of mouth” about the book. These days there’s little or no advertising or promotion for books, so authors are looking for ways to make sure they’re not overlooked when they’re published.

TR: Would you rather live in the present day or in the fifteenth or sixteenth century?

RM: I enjoy visiting the Renaissance in my imagination. But I’m eternally grateful that I was born a woman in the present, in the United States. Be female in those times and places (and still many places today) was a horror. They had no rights, were generally sold into sexual slavery (called marriage), could be legally beaten or even killed — even at the highest levels of society (Lady Jane Grey is an example). Hygiene and medicine were pretty unspeakable, and if you had a creative bone in your body, God help you. Religious extremism ruled the day, and it was a burnable offense to be anything other than whatever was the state religion of the moment. Though I bitch and moan about how fundamentalists still run the world, I know I can call myself an atheist without the fear of ending up tied to a stake (or impaled on one).

From a strictly aesthetic perspective, I’ll take the Renaissance over the 21st century any day. I love the architecture, textiles and art, and the passion with which the true thinkers pursued truth and enlightenment. Though I’ve become a slave to technology like everybody else, there’s a part of me that loathes it. That people feel they need to be hooked up via their cell phones and Blackberries and laptops every minute of the day makes me crazy. And the catastrophist in me imagines the chaos that will ensue when a solar blast takes down every satellite in the sky.

TR: Is there anything that you’re working on now?

RM: It’s called O’ ROMEO, the story of the “historical” star-crossed lovers, told through Juliet’s eyes. I’m only halfway through the first draft, but I’m enjoying the writing. This one’s a breeze after SIGNORA DA VINCI.

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See Also: Why I Write Fiction by Rabih Alameddine

– Ainsley Drew

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Ainsley Drew is a native New Yorker, freelance writer, and euphemism enthusiast. Her work has been featured in The New York Press, McSweeney’s, The Morning News, and Curve Magazine, among other totally sweet publications. An avid fan of all sports, but especially the NBA, when she's not stalking 6'10" centers she eats way too much Japanese food, plays word games, and hits on anything that moves. Aiming high, she hopes to one day be a notorious literary celebrity with her name in tabloids. She also has eleven fingers, so she can type faster than you. You can find her jerkethic.com and ainsleydrew. Be her Internet friend. More from this author →