Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Talking Craft with Florence Byham Weinberg, Author of 'Dolet'

Florence Byham Weinberg, born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, lived on a ranch, on a farm, and traveled with her military family. After earning a PhD, she taught for 36 years in three universities. She published four scholarly books. Since retiring, she has written seven historical novels and one philosophical fantasy/thriller. She lives in San Antonio, loves cats, dogs and horses, and great-souled friends with good conversation. Visit her website and connect with her on Facebook.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Dolet. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: Etienne Dolet, 1509-1546, son of a cloth merchant, studied under the eminent humanist and Ciceronian Latinist, Nicolas Bérault, and later with Simon Villanovanus. He then studied Law at the University of Toulouse. In two public Latin orations, he denounced the city authorities for persecuting his fraternity and for burning a favorite professor at the stake. Imprisoned and then expelled from the city, he fled to Lyon. After apprenticing with the noted printer, Sebastien Gryphius, he became an independent printer, licensed by King François I. He married a printer’s daughter, Louise Giraud, and had a son, Claude. In a duel provoked by Henri Guillot, Dolet killed his opponent by lucky chance. Imprisoned for murder, he escaped and procured the king’s pardon. In the struggle of the workers in printing establishments for fair wages, Dolet took their part and won the enmity of many printers. They framed him by sending boxes of “heretical” books to Paris under his name. He was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake on his 37th birthday.
I wrote it in part because Etienne Dolet’s character reminded me of my husband Kurt Weinberg’s. Both men told the bald truth to friend and foe alike, also to authority figures, “the rich and powerful.” Such behavior, which I admired as being straightforward, truthful and just, got them in trouble more often than not and earned them enemies who harmed them as well as friends who stuck with them through thick and thin. The book, Dolet, is in a way a tribute to my deceased husband.
Q: What do you think makes a good nonfiction, historical novel? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: If it is to be a good historical novel, the first important element is accuracy. In order to achieve that, one must do research, if necessary, in musty old archives. This is often just as much fun as writing, and often entails travel to foreign countries and meeting new friends. At least I have found it so. It also brings unforeseen challenges, overcoming geographical or bureaucratic obstacles. It can lead to amazing adventures that enrich one’s life.
The second element is to write it as a novel, not a textbook. The characters must be true-to-life, emotional, thoughtful, active and real. Dialogue must ring true, not be stuffy and stiff or imitation dialect or “old Englishy, forsooth.”
The third element is invention. There are many gaps in the historical record. Fill them in with what you believe must have happened in between, should have happened. That way, you can exercise your creative freedom, even though you are writing a “nonfiction novel.”
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: In this case, I followed the historical record and thus had a ready-made plot laid out before me. My protagonist often filled in gaps and embroidered on known facts for me.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: I often felt as though I were interviewing my protagonist since, according to the historical record, he was similar to my husband, psychically, though not physically. Since there are no genuine portraits of Etienne Dolet, I was free to create his physical gestalt. I saw him much as my cover illustration shows him. Whereas contemporary or near-contemporary imaginary portraits show him as  a fiftyish, long-bearded fellow, rather gloomy looking, or as a long-bearded gargoyle to show what a monster the Church thought him to be, I thought he was tall, dark haired, and clean-shaven with a long face and nose—a true Frenchman. And young. After all, he was only 37 when he was executed. He did everything with earnest intensity, was a bit arrogant because he was truly brilliant. Since King Francis I favored him in many ways, rumor had it that Etienne was his illegitimate son. The portrait I chose to represent him does somewhat resemble the king. The painting reproduced on the cover is a “portrait of an unknown young man” painted in the 16th century. Perhaps it is Dolet…. No one knows.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: My favorite antagonist is Matthieu Orry, who became Grand Inquisitor of France before Etienne’s death. The description I give of him in the book is: “The Inquisitor General was a short man of huge girth, which his ecclesiastical robes emphasized further. His bulging, purple neck contrasted alarmingly with his white collar, giving Etienne the impression he was choking. The puffy cheeks, also purple, seemed to have slid partway off his face to form hanging dewlaps on either side of his chin, waggling when he shook his head, or trembling when he became angry.” I think my description could have come out of Dickens, but at the same time, it is realistic and says much about the man.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: In the case of this novel, excitement comes from watching as doom creeps up on the protagonist. Whether or not the reader knows how the book will end, the trick in keeping pages turning is to remind the reader that another dangerous step has been taken. The protagonist does something he thinks is right by marching with the workers’ protest, but he has been seen. He blesses Christmas dinner and prepares to carve the goose when the assembled diners hear heavy blows against the front door. It is that sort of progression that, although they might be pages apart, keep the reader wondering and reading.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: In the case of this novel, I bought a map of Lyon reproduced precisely from one created in the 16th century. It was composed of pages, 18” x 18”, on which every house, street, alleyway, drainage ditch and tree was portrayed. I fitted the pages together laid out on the living room rug, and it took up the entire room. I was thus able to reconstruct exactly where people lived, moved had their businesses, what boats were on the Saône River, what state the St. Jean Cathedral was in, etc. This was an unusual case, but it illustrates my point, that you have to create a realistic setting. Go there. Take pictures. Take notes. Notice what plants grow there, the light, which is very different in Arizona than in England. The hills or lack thereof. A background of Swiss Alps. In some cases, an extreme setting can determine the action in your story, such as the Amazon rain forest or the Antarctic or many places in between. Give details so people feel they are there. Note the seasons. If it’s fall, have colored leaves falling from the trees and collecting on the path the protagonist is following. Touches here and there will create a mental picture for your reader.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: Yes, since the novel portrays the life of a historical person, I knew the theme of this book beforehand. However, the theme of the just man or woman being unjustly treated by his or her fellow humans or by blind chance is a recurrent theme in my books.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: I think the distinction between craft and art is artificial. If a book is well written, it is well crafted; beautifully and poetically written, it is artful. Editing well done enhances any writing. The self-editing that I do every morning when I begin my day’s work on a book acts not only to catch typos and syntactical infelicities but provides a springboard for further creation. It is the opposite of “destroying the initial creative thrust.” However, heavy-handed cutting by an editor at a press can damage the author’s creation. I once had such an editor delete my entire last chapter. (This was NOT my present publisher!) That mutilation changed the entire message of the book. To answer the second question, it depends on the editor.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Persistence in the face of all obstacles. A fertile imagination and the ability to translate mental images into word pictures. The ability to take criticism and turn it to one’s advantage.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I think that poor author’s Muse had deserted him or her. To persist in writing when it is an unending agony would be a foretaste of Hell. I write because it gives me joy every day I am actively writing. I prepare myself before beginning my book so I can have relevant research already done (for example, how does one dance the reel?), and I can add the action, color, surroundings, emotions and interactions. The latter is what makes writing fun, addictive, and a joy to read.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Read good literature in the field you have chosen to write in. Reading good books will broaden your vocabulary and show you how masters of the art create their characters, build tension, describe the surroundings. How-to books have rarely helped me, except for books telling me how to use the internet—technical stuff like that. Join a critique group if you have one in your neighborhood or start one if you don’t have one. Attend conferences in your field (mystery, romance, Women Writing the West). Network and hear what other writers are doing. I learn valuable stuff every time I’m with other authors.
Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: I’ve said it before. Set up a schedule and keep to it. Write every day. Have a special place set aside for you and you alone to write in and not be disturbed. Tell everyone in the family that your place is sacred. DO NO DISTURB! Make it stick and you’ll produce fine books.
About the Book
Title: Dolet
Genre: Nonfiction Novel; Historical Fiction
Author: Florence Byham Weinberg
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
About the Book:
Dolet depicts the life and times of Etienne Dolet. Etienne, who told the bald truth to friend and foe alike, angered the city authorities in sixteenth-century Toulouse, fled to Lyon, and became a publisher of innovative works on language, history, and theology. His foes framed him; he was persecuted, imprisoned, and ultimately executed by the Inquisition for daring to publish the Bible in French translation. 

What readers are saying:

"[Dolet]  ...I read it all with pleasure, and delighted to see names that I have known for some time coming alive as “characters,” albeit fictitious ones. I especially liked the way in which you brought out the sense of community, of being a band of brothers that so many of those amazing people shared.”
 ~ Kenneth Lloyd-Jones, Professor, Trinity College, Hartford, CT

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