Monday 27 June 2011

Dancing With Myself: LOUIS BAYARD interviews LOUIS BAYARD

You’re a very busy writer, and yet your hair and skin are lustrous. How do you manage it?

I sleep fourteen hours a day, and I bathe in the pulp of my remaindered books.

Other than the fact that dead people can’t sue you, is there an advantage to being a historical novelist?

You get an excuse to sit around reading. “Don’t bother me, I’m working on my verisimilitude.” Plus you can model characters on friends and family members without their knowing. The character of the evil missionary lady in “Mr. Timothy” is based entirely on a church-lady neighbor of mine. She loved the book.

So what was the School of Night?

A group of renowned Elizabethan intellectuals who were rumored to meet in the black of night to engage in heresy and dark arts. They included the likes of Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, and Henry Percy, the so-called Wizard Earl. Individually and (perhaps) collectively, they challenged the orthodoxy of their day, and they paid the price: arrest, imprisonment, untimely death.

The name, by the way, was not theirs. It’s drawn from “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which some scholars believe to be a satirical thrust at the School.

Was Shakespeare part of the School?

He was conspicuous by his absence – and by his ability to weather all the shifts in political momentum that ensnared the School’s members. I think it’s one of the main reasons Shakespeare’s work has endured: He endured. Otherwise, there might never have been an “Othello” or a “King Lear.”

Does Shakespeare appear in “The School of Night”?

A cameo appearance but a pivotal one.

Of all the great men who congregated at this School, why did you pick Thomas Harriot as your protagonist?

I’m always attracted to the people who haven’t had a hearing. Ralegh is a known quantity; so is Marlowe, to some degree. But with Harriot, we’re still figuring out what he knew and when he knew it because he was afraid to publish during his lifetime. We now know, for instance, that he was doing everything Galileo was doing while Galileo was doing it, that he discovered a key law of refraction decades before the man credited with it, that he was tracking Halley’s comet 75 years before Halley. He was also the first English scientist to explore and catalogue the New World. So I figured he would be the ideal linchpin for a U.S.-Anglo adventure yarn that spanned past and present.

Speaking of present, this is the first of your historical novels to have a 21st-century strand.

I thought that part would be a hell of lot easier to write than it was. I had to do nearly as much research as I did for the historical segments. It also took on a much more larkish tone than I anticipated. These modern-day scoundrels just refused to take themselves too seriously.

Do you hear from readers when you get historical details wrong?

Do I ever. I once made the mistake of referring to those readers as “old ladies with cats,” because so many of them seem to be. But, of course, I also hear from old gentlemen with cats. “There were no poinsettias in English drawing rooms in 1842….Mockingbirds hadn’t migrated as far north as the Hudson valley by 1830….” It’s good to know these things, but being a novelist, I try not to sweat it too much. The story comes first.

If your publisher could change you, what would you now be?

Dan Brown. Failing that, I would be an enthusiastic chronicler of sex. And I would write faster. It takes me two years to churn out one novel. I could probably cut that time in half if I wrote in a series.

So why don’t you write in a series?

That’s a good question because I love reading series. It’s boredom, mostly. I get antsy for new faces, locales. And a part of me thinks of books as commencement exercises. You raise your characters to legal age and then you send them out into the world. The only one I’ve been tempted to call back is Vidocq, the great roguish French detective who starred in “The Black Tower.”

You also do a lot of book reviewing on the side. Do you feel being a reviewer takes away from your fiction writing?

On the contrary, I think the two activities complement each other. My books tend to interpret other writers – particularly Dickens and Poe. And, of course, reviewing gives me yet another professional excuse to read. Otherwise, I’d have to clean the house, put up wallpaper, rejoin society. Reading has saved my life.
King James I has just assumed the throne and Thomas Harriot [he wasn't really known as that then, does it matter?], England's Galileo, ponders the universe from his modest home on his friend's estate. Measuring gravity almost 60 years before Newton, noting the pattern of a comet named, in the next century, by Halley, discovering the law of refraction. Harriot, the mathematician, astronomer, ethnographer and translator, is also a member of a group of five brilliant scholars who meet under the cloak of darkness to discuss God, politics and the black arts. When the estate provides him with a housekeeper, he has little idea how important she will become—in his studies and in his heart.

In modern day Washington, D. C., disgraced Elizabethan scholar Henry Cavendish has been hired by a ruthless antiquities collector name Bernard Styles. It's rumored that Styles will do anything to get his hands on what he wants, including murder. But Henry is desperate for money and Styles has offered him a large sum to recover a letter he claims was stolen by Henry's oldest and dearest friend, Alonzo Wax. Henry overcomes both his suspicion of Styles and his bereavement over Alonzo's recent suicide and sets out on the trail of the missing letter.

Joining Henry in his search is Clarissa Dale, a mysterious woman who suffers from visions that only Henry can understand. In short order, the pair find themselves stumbling through a secretive world of ancient perils, caught up in a deadly modern-day plot and ensnared in the tragic legacy of a forgotten genius and the woman he loved.

In The School of Night, Bayard folds his two narratives around one another—two different centuries sharing one shocking secret—and creates a gripping story of mysteries and intrigue and a spellbinding portrait of timeless love.

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