Welcome my special guest, Florence Byham Weinberg. Born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Weinberg 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. She’s here today to talk about her latest book, a nonfiction historical novel titled, Dolet.
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.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?
My doctoral dissertation was on François Rabelais, a sixteenth-century comedic and satirical writer. In the process, I became familiar with the dominant French literary and political figures of the century, their folkways and thought processes. I have written three historical novels set in the French Renaissance, including the current novel, Dolet. The other branch of historical writing is set in my beloved Southwest. I understand the people, know the landscape, its plants and animals, and the importance of its harsh climate. I’ve written about the founding of the five old Franciscan missions located in and around San Antonio (Apache Lance, Franciscan Cross), about the second expedition up the Rio Grande from Mexico (New Spain) in 1581 (Seven Cities of Mud), four mysteries starring an 18th-century Jesuit missionary as detective (a historical person named Ignaz Pfefferkorn, S.J.). Two of those mysteries are set in the Sonora Desert, one in Spain and one in Germany. The outlier, Anselm, a Metamorphosis, a fantasy set in upstate New York where I lived and taught for 28 years, is set in the Vietnam War era. With Dolet, I return to the Renaissance and attempt to vindicate Etienne Dolet as one of the great thinkers and writers of the 16th century in France.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
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.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
I never outline; I find it too restrictive. However, I always have a plot in mind before I begin to write, but loose enough that the characters can “tell” me what they want to do next, how they are feeling about whatever is going on. When this happens, it is the “stream of consciousness” that leads me to compose a particular movement in the book. Some of my best writing happens that way.
Did your book require a lot of research?
The historical novels all require research, since I want the background information to be as accurate as possible. This can lead me to travel to the country where the novel is set and to work in archives there. In the case of this novel, I purchased a reproduction of a 16th-century map that consisted of unbound sheets of paper 18” x 18”, which reproduced the city of Lyon in miniature. Every detail appears on those sheets: streets, alleyways, paths, the rivers, bridges, people on the bridges, boats, trees—everything. I laid the sheets out on the living room floor, and the map took up the entire room. But thanks to it, I could locate exactly where my protagonists lived, where the print-shops were, the prison, and so forth. I traveled to Lyon and visited several houses built in the 16th century and earlier, so I know the typical interior layout. Of course, I read what is available in the way of information about my protagonist, about the Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation and Counter Reformation. I also sent the rough draft of the novel to Professor Kenneth Lloyd-Jones, who taught at Trinity College in Hartford, CT until his death of Parkinson’s disease six years ago. He was an authority on Etienne Dolet and gave me excellent pointers. Yes, this book is built on solid research.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
A lot about the 16th century in France, for instance, what was happening in religion: the Reformation at a time before Calvin became known but when Martin Luther had already posted his 95 theses and split off from the Roman Catholic Church. What the Church in France was doing about that: the French Inquisition was particularly harsh, burning people at the stake and in the case of a whole group of Christians called the Vaudois, exterminating them down to the last baby because they based their belief on the Scriptures and not on the Pope. Also, the reader learns about the history of printing roughly 100 years after Gutenberg, what sort of books were being produced and how it was done. The university systems in Italy and Toulouse are also portrayed, along with student fraternities and student-faculty relations. French politics in the first half of the century are there for the reader also, with glimpses into the royal family and its interaction with Church authorities. The French penal system is presented in all its grimness. The reader will discover that any person condemned to death was routinely tortured first.
There’s more, such as what people ate and drank at the time….
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
I get my best ideas when I’m power walking or swimming 20 laps. There’s something about vigorous but monotonous physical activity that stimulates the brain cells—in my case, at least.
Describe your working environment.
I am lucky. I live alone except for two cats. One of the three bedrooms in my house has been transformed into my study. It is lined with reference books of all kinds and filing cabinets, has a large desk under a picture window, and the computer on its special desk against the opposite wall. It is light, airy, and looks out on a “mott” of live oak trees. I have no family (other than the cats) to disturb me, since, sadly, my husband died in 1996.
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I begin my morning session of writing (starting after breakfast to noon, if possible) by editing what I had written the day before. This gives me a springboard into continued creation with everything fresh in my mind. A rough draft therefore already has had a preliminary editing. In addition, I belong to Daedalus, a writers’ critique group that will have read and critiqued my prose. I evaluate the changes the members suggest and edit accordingly.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
A negative review makes me unhappy, but if it is well founded, I learn from it. If the review shows plainly that the reviewer did not read the book but attacked it anyway, I get angry but dismiss the attack as not worth thinking about. Belonging to a critique group teaches a writer not to have an “immensely fragile ego,” since there is plenty of negative criticism forthcoming. You roll with the punches and learn more and more about the craft of writing.