Leonardo’s Swans: Q & A

Leonardo’s Swans was used as a text in a humanities class at University of North Carolina on “Lives of Artists.” The following is an email interview with Karen from questions posed by the students:

1) The novel is full of specific details. How much research did you do for the writing of the novel?

I research obsessively. I research until there is nothing left to know, or at least nothing further to discover for the purposes of the book. My process is to do enough preliminary research to know that I can in fact deliver a book. Once I “discover” or “uncover” or structure the narrative arc, I begin the academic research in earnest. I study the history of the period by talking to scholars and making sure that I cover all the relevant scholarship on the era—the most highly regarded histories and biographies. I also read as many original or contemporary sources as possible, and this is invaluable because it tells us how the people of the era saw themselves. Letters, court documents, diaries, all these things are what truly reveal the subtleties of an era. After that, I study the culture—what did they read, how were they educated, what did they see at the theater, how did they dress, what did they eat, what did they believe in terms of religion, what were the gender dynamics and customs, and on and on, until I feel that I can plausibly construct a psychology and a daily life for these characters. When all of that is done, I travel to all of the locations I intend to use so that I can do more hands-on research and take in the atmosphere.

Are you getting the picture, students? This is not a vocation for anyone not madly in love with this particular process!

2) Through your novels you seem to display historical themes that portray renowned figures such as Leonardo, Kleopatra, and Athena; what inspires you to unveil the shocking, unfiltered, and unexpected aspects of their lives?

Why reveal the known, the oft-told, or the mundane? There would be no purpose in writing about the very same things that everyone else has already written about, not to mention, no publisher would want that. If you are going to take on a familiar story, you have to be certain that you are going to be bringing something utterly new and fresh and unknown to the party. I’m not retelling familiar stories just to make my life easy. On the contrary, I never take on anything unless I feel that I have a fresh and startling perspective from which to launch a narrative.

For example, the part of Leonardo’s experience that most captivated me, and which I think I was successful in revealing, was the fact that he lived the same experience as every artist past, present, and future—he struggled relentlessly with the dichotomy between art and commerce, and between delivering what his patrons demanded and serving his own creative vision. When I started to read his journals and letters, I thought, oh, he sounds like every writer, musician, and painter I know!

3) Can you give any detailed information about your screenwriting career, how did you begin? And can you talk about the screenplay that you wrote for Jennifer Lopez, or others, for example?

Before I started writing professionally, I was an executive in the film industry, developing screenplays and setting up projects. In that process, I read thousands of scripts, and thought, dear God, I can do this! I started writing at some point and realized that in fact, I could. I had been studying screenplay structure and working with writers to deliver a script for many years! So I wrote some sample scripts, which attracted an agent. I met a tv writer who loved my work and invited me to work on a few episodes of Northern Exposure with her, which launched everything. So I’ve written for film and tv on and off for about 16 years. It’s a very tough medium, both to break into and to conquer the form. Screenwriting is ALL ABOUT FORM. Not format, but form. If you can’t master the form, which so few people bother to do because it looks so easy, then you can’t really do it. Fools pour into Hollywood every day because they watched Friends or ER and thought, oh, that’s easy. They couldn’t be more wrong. To do it, and to do it well, requires utter devotion to craft. It’s a very disciplined sort of writing.

I must decline to discuss the specifics of screenplays for famous people. Sorry.

4) Did The Da Vinci Code influence the direction of Leonardo’s Swans, and if so, what parts of your process were affected by it?

The DVC didn’t influence the direction of Leonardo’s Swans at all, but I am sure that the presence of the DVC inspired me to pick the book I’d bought about Leonardo 25 years ago off the shelf and start perusing it again. I wasn’t looking to write about Leonardo. But people kept asking me about the DVC—what did I think of it, did I think the history was accurate, etc. I read enough of it to get the premise—that Leonardo was head of a secret society devoted to protecting the descendants of Jesus, and that he painted clues to this into The Last Supper. And I thought, oh, God, what a crock of shit! Did I actually miss something in Leonardo’s history? So I picked this aged and cracking book off my shelf and became intrigued with pictures of Beatrice and Isabella and the other women. I found myself thinking, wow, these women were all involved with the Duke of Milan in one way or another. Might there be a book in this? And that night—I SWEAR THAT THIS IS TRUE—an old friend of mine called and said that he and his brother were making a tour of Northern Italy in a few weeks, and did I want to come?

Obviously, I packed my bags and I went. The rest is history!

5) Which sister did you find most inspiring or more the embodiment of a muse?

Initially, seeing a portrait of Beatrice in the mural opposite The Last Supper in Milan inspired me to write the book, but ultimately, Isabella was more inspiring to me. She was a more active participant in her life. Of course, Beatrice eventually took control of her situation, but lost it again. But Isabella was a more powerful person. She lived longer, and in the end, had a more lasting influence on the era. She put together a spectacular collection of art by patronizing the geniuses of her day—Raphael, Titian, Cosimo Tura, and Andrea Mantegna, just to name a few. In fact, there is a movement by the current government of the city of Mantova (Mantua is the older, Latinate name) to reassemble Isabella’s collection and return it to Mantova.

The artists and courtiers of Isabella’s day—men all over Europe—considered her a muse. So who are we to think otherwise??

6) Out of all the artists’ work that you saw in Italy, what made you choose da Vinci?

See above #4. I didn’t choose Leonardo, but wanted to write about the women he painted. Leonardo was the structural glue that held the story together. I was not looking for an artist to write about when I chose to take on this story. What finalized my commitment to writing the novel was standing in front of the mural opposite The Last Supper and seeing the faded image of Beatrice kneeling in prayer, and realizing that she and Ludovico were the patrons who commissionedThe Last Supper, and that it was Leonardo who painted them into that mural, which was not even his work. I had the most chilling feeling come over me at that moment. I knew that a book was being born. After that, I ran around Milan like crazy finding out about the sisters. I banged on the door of the library at the Castello, which was closed for renovation, and made them let me in. Nobody spoke English. I found a lady who spoke French and begged her to show me anything she had on Beatrice. She was charmed by my enthusiasm and brought me beautiful miniatures of Beatrice and her sons. She copied articles for me that had important bibliographical information. I was sitting there waiting for her to make copies and I wrote in my notebook that I was going to write this book. The whole experience was like this—full of portents.

7) Even though the sisters both grow to be powerful, they both have very different personalities, can you identify yourself with one better than the other? And why?

I think that the answer above solves this mystery. I am much more attracted to heroines who create their own destiny rather than those who surrender to it. A lot of readers don’t like Isabella because she’s too conniving. But you have to look at the context of her experience. How was she going to survive all of that and grow to a ripe old age without being conniving?

8) How did you decide which historical information to put into the story, and which to make up?

Nothing at all is made up unless it could not be found, meaning thoughts, dialogue, the contents of one’s mind, etc. All of the art is real, the models for it are real, and the events and circumstances are real. The politics and political alliances are dead on. (I couldn’t make that up all that insanity and duplicity, could I??) I did not invent one character for the book; rather, I invented character for the characters, so to speak. The history is absolutely fact-based as is the art, and all of it has been vetted by Italy’s top scholars and art historians of the Renaissance.

I never, ever decide to invent something in lieu of using what was real. But sometimes, the reality is not available. That calls for invention. And my inventions are based on my research.

And yet you must understand that there is tremendous choice in the HOW of it all. Yes, the story is what it is, but story is not plot. This is an extremely important point, and if you don’t understand this, please get your professor to explicate! In this instance, your professor is a friend of mine, and we talk about the difference between plot and story all the time.

9) Why did you become interested in writing historical fiction vs. contemporary fiction?

Historical fiction found me. I never set out to do it, but wanted to tell the story of the real Kleopatra, which had nothing to do with the Elizabeth Taylor version, or with the Shakespeare version, or all the romance novels written about her. Once I published those books, it appeared that I was an historical novelist. It’s just lucky for me that it’s a popular genre of literature, and that I love doing it. My screenwriting is my outlet for contemporary themes.

10) What are you working on now? And can you talk about how you begin a novel, as well as how you work through it.

I have sent along Doubleday’s catalogue copy for my next novel, Stealing Athena,so that you can see what it’s all about.

I’ve already taken you through my research process. Your professor can attest that I had several false starts on this novel. I tried different voices and “creative” approaches to the story, finally settling on the simplest one. I went through the same process on Kleopatra, and also finally settled on the simplest one. I suppose that the moral of the story is that there is no need to complicate the way in which you tell a story. The process of writing a novel is a lot like building a skyscraper. You have to build it a bit at a time. How do I work through it? I work through it! I put my head down and write, sometimes obsessively, until the thing is done. By the time I finish my research process, the narrative arc is pretty clear, so I write and write and write until I write “the end.” There is always a rewrite or ten. But I was so stressed on my deadline for my new novel that I had a novelist friend do a close chapter by chapter reading of it as I was writing it, which kept me confident that I was indeed telling a compelling story and kept me on track. The most important thing is to sit down and do it until it’s done. On this novel, Doubleday had given me a plum pub date—June. Timing is everything in publishing, and I didn’t want to lose that slot. If you are late on your manuscript, they can hold it for years before they find another slot for publication. I didn’t want that to happen, so I worked extra hard to deliver it on time. Those are the realities of the publishing business. If you can’t deliver on time, you can’t maintain a readership, I’m afraid. Or, you can throw it to chance, but you’re really testing fate.

11) How do your other works compare to this novel? Did they influence how you developed the characters and perspectives in L/S?

I really don’t know how to answer this. After I wrote the two Kleopatra books, sold the screen rights, and delivered the script, I thought, okay, I am totally over as a writer. I have done my best work, and now I have to find something else to occupy the next 50 years. I futzed with several projects in a very frustrated state of mind, growing more certain with each passing month that I was indeed “over” as an author. Then, I got the idea to do Leonardo’s Swans. While the Kleopatrabooks took years, everything about LS came crashing in, so that I researched and wrote it in less than a year. It was a miracle, and let me tell you, it was a one-time miracle because #4 didn’t happen that way! So for whatever reason, I consider Leonardo’s Swans a little gift from the Powers That Be, perhaps for all my diligent work and perseverance on those Kleopatra books.