I’m so pleased to welcome Victoria Blake, author of Titian’s Boatman, to Linda’s Book Bag today to celebrate publication. Titian’s Boatman will be published in hardback by Black and White on 26th January 2017 and is available for purchase here and on Amazon.
It is 1576 and Venice is in chaos, ravaged by plague and overrun by crime.
In the midst of the anarchy we find those brave souls who have chosen not to flee the city. Titian, most celebrated of Venetian painters, his health failing badly. Sebastiano, a gondolier who is the eyes and ears of the corrupted and crumbling city. And Tullia, the most notorious courtesan of the age, who must fight to retain her status as well as her worldly possessions.
In the present day, the echoes of what happened centuries earlier still ripple as the lives of ordinary people as far distant as London and New York are touched by the legacy of old Venice…
An Interview with Victoria Blake
Hi Victoria. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and your latest book Titian’s Boatman in particular. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?
Hello and thank you so much for having me on your blog. I’m honoured! I’m the author of eight books. Four crime novels figuring PI Sam Falconer set partly in Oxford and partly in SW London. Two true crime books written for the National Archives and Far Away a Second World War novel which was short listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Award 2016. I’ve worked in law, publishing (Gerald Duckworth) and bookselling (The Silvermoon and Bookcase) and I live in London.
And, without spoiling the plot, please tell us a bit about Titian’s Boatman.
I might steal from Rory Clements here because he gave me a lovely quote: “From the squalid glamour of the 16th century Venice to modern-day London and New York, Titian’s Boatman demonstrates the power of art to bridge the years and transform lives.” Thank you Rory – a very good summing up!
Your father was the eminent historian Robert Blake. How has his interest in history impacted upon your own life and writing?
What a juicy question! The study of history runs through my family. My grandfather was a history teacher who taught my father and wrote history text books. My mother and my older sister both studied history at Oxford, as did I. Having an eminent parent is a strange business there were obvious privileges to it. My father was the Provost of Queen’s College in Oxford and I grew up in the college but there was also a certain degree of fighting to get out of his shadow. I actually wanted to study English at University but both my parents were very hostile to the idea. They viewed the teaching of English (in the early eighties) as having been taken over by Marxists like Terry Eagleton! I’m not sure that was altogether true but I didn’t have the confidence at that time to go my own way. I actually loathed writing academic History essays but found an enjoyment of history when I wrote two true crime books for The National Archives – one on Ruth Ellis and one on Florence Maybrick. I think it partly had to do with getting my hands on original documents, having more time to study them, and finding the subject matter compelling. After that I found that when I can combine historical research with my fiction writing imagination (making it up!) it’s a sort of perfect blend for me. Another influence from my father was the importance of readability. My father wrote a great deal of journalism in his life and I think he was very conscious of being both readable and entertaining not just when he wrote for newspapers but in his books as well. He was a distinguished academic but there is nothing dry about his books. His biography of Disraeli is a very long book but was so successful because it was engagingly written. When I write I am very conscious of the importance of entertaining the reader.
(I loved this answer – especially as I was one of those 1980’s English teachers influenced by Terry Eagleton!)
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
I came to that conclusion fairly late on. In my twenties I remember reading Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and there was something transcendent about that book for me. She had taken quite unsettling material and transmuted it into something magical and comical and she was very young when she wrote it. That book had tremendous chutzpah and style. And it’s also very tender. It was clearly not a ‘gay’ book in the sense that it would be only of interest to gay people; it was a book that had a universal appeal. Any human being could identify with it. It was about first love, a very potent theme. All writers are readers first and I think it is because they are touched deeply by other writers that they are drawn to writing in the first place. That’s how it was for me anyway. The hope is that you can go on and do that for other people. That’s the dream. Then you realise how very hard it is!
So, what are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I managed to write my first four books at home but then I went through a phase when I felt rather depressed and thought I really must get out more. I write most days other than weekends. Mornings are more productive than afternoons. I don’t obsess over word count and I’m better than I used to be at trusting the fits and starts of the writing process. I usually spend a certain number of days working away from the flat where I live. There are a few Caffè Neros near me which I use one or two times a week. I don’t often work in libraries because I find them disconcertingly noisy. Sit me in a cafe with children crawling round my ankles and music booming out while coffee beans are being ground and I’m fine. Sometimes I work at home but I try not to do that two days in a row because I start to fester slightly. The effect of going out is that my books take slightly longer to write but I’m happier while I write them.
(That sounds like great advice too as I know writing can be a lonely and isolating experience.)
You’ve worked in publishing and book selling. How much has this influenced your approach to writing?
I think it’s made me very conscious of the immense privilege of being published and filled me with a strong sense of gratitude towards both my publisher and booksellers. For a brief disastrous period I contemplated being a lawyer and it was while I was an articled clerk I remember, in my lunch hour, going into a Books etc and leaning against the books and pining with every cell in my body to have a job that involved books. I think I knew the world of books was my natural home and that I had strayed a very long way from it. It wasn’t that long after that I started working for the publisher Gerald Duckworth in their warehouse. It was quite funny because when I left the law everyone asked me what I was going to do and the truth was I didn’t have a clue. However, I was clear about one thing, that whatever the job was I’d be able to wear Doc Martens. They became a symbol of freedom and self-expression and DMs were very useful footwear when it came to the warehouse! For a time I had some red patent leather ones and I would look down at them and think these shoes are leading me where I want to go and it is far, far away from a City law firm!
You’ve written non-fiction in the past as well as your current fiction. Which do you find most challenging or rewarding to write and why?
Writing non-fiction is much easier for me – you research, marshal your facts, think about your structure and get on with it. Obviously you have to write entertainingly but if you’re interested in your material that should come naturally. Fiction is both a torment and a delight. When it’s working and you’ve got momentum there’s nothing quite like it but there are times when you’re just staring into the abyss thinking what on earth made me think I could ever do it. The level of self-doubt I experience in writing fiction is much greater than in non-fiction. It’s because you are creating it from the ground up, every breath of it is you. In non-fiction you’ve got the facts to lean on; it’s more intellectual. With fiction you’re leaning on air! And the whole thing can feel like a pack of cards that is just on the verge of tumbling down. Despite the torments, my heart really lies in fiction because there is this immense creative freedom which is both exhilarating and terrifying.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
A quick glance behind me presents me with: The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hind, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Now is the Time by Melvyn Bragg. On my desk is a 1930 pocketbook version of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and on a side table is a copy of a Simenon in French, L’assassin – a wildly optimistic purchase to try and revive my extremely dormant French skills. This last year I’ve been reading more books in translation influenced by bloggers I follow like Stu at Winston’s Dad and Tony at Tony’s Reading List. I suppose the simple answer is that I like to read pretty much everything apart from Sci Fi, Fantasy and Romance.
Titian’s Boatman is a departure from your Sam Falconer crime books. How did that come about?
I had very much enjoyed writing crime but I wanted to spread my wings a bit and try something different and to be perfectly frank, much as I had enjoyed writing them, no one was queuing up to ask me for another Sam Falconer book! There’s a much stronger tradition of crime books featuring private investigators in the US than in the UK. But I’m glad because Titian’s Boatman used different writing muscles and extended me in an entirely different way creatively.
What made you choose Titian and his painting The Man With The Blue Sleeve for the basis of your novel as opposed to any other artist and painting?
I just love the painting. I was between books (always a tricky time because I get a bit antsy when I’m not writing) and went for a wander in The National Gallery in London and there he was and I realised that I always ended up in front of him when I was in a certain kind of directionless, fretful mood and then I noticed when he was painted and how young Titian was when he painted him – 20. That was the trigger for the book. I think there’s something really compelling about him. He’s such a sexy, sardonic, arrogant looking man. What’s not to like about that spectacular sleeve combined with those very neatly plucked eyebrows! And once I started writing about him and was telling people, an enormous number ended up saying things like ‘Oh yes, isn’t he lovely?’ At first I was rather miffed since I had viewed him as a sort of private obsession but then I thought well maybe there’s a sort of secret cult of The Man with the Blue Sleeve (fingers crossed) and they’ll all buy my book.
(Let’s hope so!)
How did you go about researching C16th Venice for Titian’s Boatman?
I sort of followed my nose. A very important source for me was Pietro Aretino’s letters. He was Renaissance Venice’s gossip columnist, trend setter and political diarist and also wrote pornography. He was a great friend and supporter of Titian. He wrote enormous numbers of letters, to a wide range of different people: Kings, Dukes, Doges but also to courtesans and his own gondolier (advising him not to marry.) He even wrote letters thanking friends for sending him salad! He’s incredibly readable, vivid, warm and playful. I read histories of Venice. Peter Ackroyd doesn’t know how to write a dull sentence. I also read up about the courtesan Veronica Franco and I based my character Tullia loosely on her. Franco was encouraged by her patron to write poetry which he then published. I found Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities useful. That is such a weird and wonderful book about imaginary cities, it sort of set my imagination free to engage with Venice in a more fluid and lyrical way. Oh, and I mustn’t forget Sheila Hale’s magisterial biography of Titian.
(Ooo. Invisible Cities takes me back to my own university days!)
How easy or difficult was it to balance the two time frames in Titian’s Boatman?
I think I would have to say that there was nothing about this book that I found very easy to write and that would include handling the time-frames. You try to make the narratives and characters compelling in different ways so that the reader isn’t jarred by the transitions but you also know the nature of the beast is that readers will prefer certain parts of the book to others and may well go, ‘Oh no’, when you move between them. That’s how it is for me as a reader. As a writer I’m never satisfied with my books. If I read through Titian’s Boatman today I would probably start changing it as I read it but you have to draw a line sometime or you’d drive yourself mad.
(Do you know, I’ve never thought of authors reading their own books as readers after publication before!)
Given the theme of art in Titian’s Boatman, does that mean you’re a painter too or was there another reason for choosing this subject?
That’s interesting. I don’t paint but when I was first exploring the idea of being a writer I did Julia Cameron’s creativity course, The Artist’s Way, with my friend the painter Francesca Howard. She wanted to be a painter and I wanted to be a writer. And I think some of her passion for colour and painting must have rubbed off on my creative process. I find looking at paintings very restful when I’ve overdone the writing. I suppose it’s because no words are involved but often there is a story there that I can receive visually.
If you could choose one painting from Titian to hang on your own wall, which would it be and why?
I think it would have to be The Man with the Blue Sleeve or there’d be hell to pay. He’d definitely haunt me. Mind you if he was on the wall he would probably haunt me as well!
I love the art canvas on the cover of Titian’s Boatman. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
Isn’t it wonderful? My editor asked me what sort of idea I had for the cover and all I could come up with was The Man with the Blue Sleeve and then B&W came up with the jacket and I loved it on sight. What was fantastic is that it was much cleverer than anything I could have thought of. I was at the HNS Conference in the autumn and people were talking there about how it was about time that the covers of historical novels got a re-think. I think we were trying to convey a mystery and that also the book wasn’t a straightforward historical narrative. It’s a bit more of a mixture than that. At the end of the day the aim of a cover is to entice someone into picking it up, it is to make the book stand out from the crowd and I think it’s a spectacularly successful piece of design and succeeds magnificently. Since James Daunt took over at Waterstone’s there’s been a big revival of the hardback as a beautiful object – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is a very good example of that. As an ex-bookseller and a compulsive book buyer this jacket of Titian’s Boatman would make me pick it up. I also love the frames round the chapter headings and that comes courtesy of Chris Kydd B&Ws production director.
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
I love theatre, cinema, sport and politics. My father taught politics and so there was always a lot of conversation at home about what was going on in the world. He’s no longer alive but over the last couple of years I have spent a great deal of time having conversations with him in my head about amongst other things the Scottish Referendum, Brexit and Trump. He was an expert on the British Constitution and would have been fascinated and probably appalled by what has happened! Sport I find compelling because there is an inbuilt drama – who will win and who will lose. Then there is the whole question of how people respond to winning and losing. People’s characters are exposed. Roger Federer glides through tennis matches barely sweating whereas Andy Murray looks like playing is akin to an act of self immolation. Both fantastic players but such different personalities displayed when they play. As a writer I’m more of a Murray than a Federer I can tell you! I also work one day a week in a charity second hand bookshop and that appeals to the magpie in me. Bookshops are an extremely good source of ideas.
If you could choose to be a character from Titian’s Boatman, who would you be and why?
I think it would have to be The Boatman, Sebastiano, his is the guiding voice of the novel and the voice I heard first and last. I think it would be fascinating to be a gondolier in Renaissance Venice. If not him then maybe the stone-throwing nun, Sister Maria – in her youth! That kind of wild rebelliousness is very appealing.
If Titian’s Boatman became a film, who would you like to play Sebastiano and Tullia and why would you choose them?
I love Romola Garai and still have not recovered from the TV series The Hour being axed by the BBC so I would have her as Tullia. She has the beauty, intelligence and the force of character to play her. As for Sebastiano I think maybe Benedict Cumberbatch. He can act a bit.
What can we expect next from Victoria Blake?
My next book is again historical fiction set in the 1930s and is about one of the first female war correspondents who goes to report on the Spanish Civil War. I have always found women war correspondents fascinating, the epitome of courage, integrity and glamour. How do you go into those dangerous situations, keep it together, and come away without being emotionally destroyed by all the things you have witnessed. It has been a great privilege to watch Kate Adie, Lindsey Hilsum, Orla Guerin and Lyse Doucet over the years. I think they are incredible women.
And finally, if you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Titian’s Boatman should be their next read, what would you say?
Stone throwing nuns are involved and Francesco da Mosto says it’s compelling. He never lies!
Thank you so much for your time, Victoria, in answering my questions with such vivid and entertaining responses.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
About Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake’s love of Italy and history was inspired by her father, the historian Robert Blake, famous for his pioneering biography of Benjamin Disraeli. She grew up in Queen’s College, Oxford where he was the Provost. After studying history at Lady Margaret Hall she subsequently worked in law, publishing and bookselling. She is the author of an Oxford-based crime series featuring the PI Sam Falconer and has written two true crime books for the National Archives, one on Ruth Ellis, and one on Florence Maybrick. Her historical novel Far Away was shortlisted for the Historical Society Novel Indie Award 2016.
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