I have a very special treat today! Loretta Goldberg has stopped by the blog to talk about her debut novel, The Reversible Mask. Loretta and I first met back in June of 2017 at the Historical Novel Society Conference. A call had gone out for mentors; I eagerly volunteered, and was fortunate to be paired with the very lovely Loretta. I got her first chapter a few months before the conference and was hooked immediately. I’m thrilled that this wonderful story will now be available for everyone to read! Congratulations, Loretta, on a wonderful achievement!
And now, on to the interview!
First, I want to say I love that your opening scene is Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Oxford in 1566. It’s an event close to my heart because it was during that visit, my beloved Sir Francis Knollys was created an MA. I must admit to giving a little giggle of excitement when I read that section last year after we were paired together as mentor/mentee for the Historical Novel Society Conference. I knew, right then, we were a good match!
Like Sir Francis, your protagonist, Edward Latham, is a man with deeply held religious beliefs. Unlike Sir Francis, Latham’s religious beliefs fall on the opposite side of the spectrum; he is Catholic. This world-view is not one we see often in Elizabethan novels, as the heroes are more often fiery protestants. What drew you to telling a story from the this perspective?
Before I get to your question, which is a subtle one, a big thank you, Adrienne, for being a steady and generous mentor. I wish other first-time writers could be as lucky. You know, when I was a child, my parents discouraged me from ever “making anything up.” My father was a distinguished accountant, so balance sheets were everything to him, while my mother equated fantasy with madness. So when I eventually un- creaked the gears of fiction I was tentative and there were lots of squeaks. But it’s the greatest fun I’ve ever had. I think I’m still sane!
Now to why I told my story from a Catholic perspective. Edward Latham is fictional, but he’s inspired by a Catholic expatriate spy of the time, Sir Anthony Standen. When I first read Standen’s letters, he was in a French prison in 1592. He’d left England in 1565 (not 1566 as Latham does), had worked for Mary, Queen of Scots, Philip II and the Duchess of Tuscany, and been a double agent for Elizabeth for a long time. No one is sure when he began informing for the English. Now, the French were charging him with spying for Spain against France, which he was; while Standen was begging Anthony Bacon, his English spymaster, to get Elizabeth to tell the French king, her ally Henry IV, that he was really her man. Which he was!
Here was a man, who, for twenty-seven years, had lived with his personal faith at odds with a self-defined code of fluctuating loyalty to his native land. This length of time hooked me. Elizabeth and her Protestant regime had lasted and lasted. A sincere Catholic and patriot couldn’t reconcile the two parts of her or his heart in the foreseeable future. That’s different from the heroic Protestants you mention. Elizabeth’s predecessors had very short reigns. I don’t know what Sir Francis Knollys and Catherine Carey anticipated when they fled Mary’s reign. But have you imagined their lives if living abroad had been forever? So it’s more the prolonged nature of Latham’s dilemma than one doctrine versus another. And there’s another aspect of the environment in which Standen made his choice that adds piquancy for a fiction writer. England was surging economically, fiscally and culturally by 1565. National pride was growing. In the earlier periods, had a sense of being “English” coalesced? Less, I think.
During the opening scene at Oxford, Latham is treated to a production of Palamon and Arcite, a play by Richard Edwards. The show is meant as a not-so-subtle message to Elizabeth that it was time to marry and produce an heir in order to secure the realm. This tradition of using art to make political statements has continued into the modern world, but there are few better at making covertly political statements than playwright William Shakespeare. If you were to plan the entertainments for our world leaders going on a grand Elizabethan procession, which play would you stage?
We live in a representative republic, not a monarchy, so the “not-so-subtle message” I’d want to send would be to the electorate rather than the leader. Instead of Shakespeare, I’d stage Jean Genet’s The Blacks. I don’t want to date myself, but I saw it when I was very very young. The audience was almost equal blacks and whites. The cast would only perform for a mixed audience. The action in the theatre in the round took place on two levels of the stage, and pulled in audience members. Black actors wore white masks and vice versa, and yelled at each other every epithet and threat know to the dark side of the “colonial” soul. Its purpose was to make the audience really uncomfortable. It did. People walked out shell-shocked and mute. The play was popular during the fight for civil rights here. It’s time to bring it back to our frayed democracies.
During your research, you located a previously unpublished primary document. What a great find! Can you tell us a bit about the document and how you found it?
An unfinished adventure. I’d seen references to an account by Anthony Standen of a Turkish voyage in articles by three scholars: Kathleen Lea, Leo Hicks and Geoffrey Ashe. They didn’t quote it; it lived mostly in tantalizing footnotes. These articles were in the Butler Library at Columbia University. There was a note that Standen’s travel diary, Relation of Sir Anthony Standen. Memories of a Turkish Voyage, collected in Constantinople in the year of our Lord God 1578, was in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, New Haven.
At this point I was just playing around. So I put that note in my file and forgot about it. It wasn’t until Edward Latham was back from Constantinople and I had publisher interest, that I decided I must read the Relation. Having forgotten my file, I started with the National Archives. I followed useless leads until Dr. Paul Hammer directed me back to the Beinecke! It was still there. Thirty-one pages long, the library only provided a short abstract, headed: “attributed by another hand to an unrecorded Sir Anthony Standen.” In the intervening years they hadn’t transcribed it.
Some content in the abstract was juicy. “…I will set down (how) the Turks do hold all other potentates about them that are not their subjects…and to allure and draw with pleasant morsels the people to the liking of his merchandise, he slaked the reins of the bridle to all kinds of carnal concupiscence and fleshly appetite…”
Given Standen’s patronage of Edinburgh prostitutes with Darnley, this seemed a tad hypocritical, and it didn’t match the tone of his letters to Walsingham and Bacon. Still, three scholars had taken the Relation at face value and asserted that Standen was in Constantinople, purpose unknown, in 1578. I was delirious at the prospect of hearing his voice across the centuries. Jacqueline Ly, a doctoral student of history at Yale, completed the transcription. I had experienced beginners’ luck in my prior careers; perhaps this was my writer’s beginner’s luck!
The content is riveting, worth lots of discussion for the information it selects and its point of view. But it’s probably not originally by Anthony Standen. Here’s one bit:
“themselves do know and confess that although their Empire be great, and of so many Kingdoms, a great part thereof be weak, disinhibited and ruined, being among the Turks an ordinary proverb that in what soil soever the Ottomans’ horse do feed, never after there growth any grass,…they also well know that their ancient valour and discipline is much decayed.:”
This sounds like a late nineteenth-century colonial thumbs-down on the “sick old man of Europe.” Three hundred years earlier! Other parts refer to conditions beyond 1580, which make the 1578 dating curious, while its recommendation to Christian princes to support the Turks’ Sufi Persian enemy foreshadow today’s Sunni-Shia proxy wars. A fourth scholar, S.A. Skilliter, suggests that Standen translated a document by a Venetian envoy to Constantinople, Marcantonio Barbaro, who returned home in 1574. Skilliter also suggests that Standen might, or might not, have been in Constantinople.
This is now my working hypothesis. There are lots of loose ends to tie up, such as comparing the published translations of Barbaro’s text with this one attached to Standen. Follow my blog for updates. I hope to write more about this, because how spies and diplomats of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation interpreted the Ottomans is fascinating. It certainly ties in with Latham’s experience there.
In that same vein, are there any particular primary documents you’ve found most helpful in your research? Do you have a favorite?
I love the different drafts of Elizabeth’s speeches in 1586 and the versions that were published. Elizabeth usually worked in her head then spoke, and listeners wrote her words down. But during crises she occasionally made drafts. With the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, she even made changes after giving her speeches, before publication. Her changes offer a rare glimpse into an astute political mind that seemed to see things in a multi-layered way. I’m a former musician; Elizabeth was an excellent musician. I’ve always felt that she thought polyphonically, in at least three lines. Most politicians think linearly. I tried to capture that quality in The Reversible Mask, because it was a formidable strength of hers.
In the Reversible Mask, Edward Latham travels all over Europe. From Oxford to Edinburgh, France and beyond, Latham seems to have been everywhere! If you could visit just one of all the places he’s been, where would you go and why?
The Monte Viso tunnel. The former financial advisor in me is tickled that a French king and Saluzzan Marquis spent vast money and ten years tunneling through an Alpine mountain to evade Tuscan custom duties! It was the first Alpine tunnel.
As writers, we often find that though we are the ones writing the words, it is often our characters creating the stories, and sometimes they make choices or go in directions that come as a surprise to us. Latham is a man torn by his loyalties. It seems like no matter which course he takes, someone or something he holds dear will be betrayed. If he were to come out of the story and ask you for advice, what would you tell him?
I’d rather ask what advice he’d give me. He’d tell me to stop trying to control the future and get a bit of sixteenth-century reverence for the infinite vagaries of nature, God’s will and Dame Fortune’s wicked sense of humour. He’d say we aren’t born with a right to be comfortable.
The Reversible Mask is the first in a series…what exciting events or characters can readers look forward to in the coming books?
The sequel will be shorter, centered on conflict between the Hanseatic League and Elizabeth. Drake captures an entire merchant convoy of over 60 ships bringing war materials to Spain, based on Latham’s spying. New fictional characters, a Fleming Hansa merchant and his wife, whom I love, play major roles. After that, a final ironic twist to Latham’s quest to reconcile faith and patriotism.
Latham’s story takes place in Elizabethan times, but are there any other eras you are interested it? Any particular stories you’d like to tell?
I love the eighteenth century, and the 1950s. The eighteenth century, because “enlightened” leaders were defining human rights, but kept slaves and made other awful moral compromises. Was this the first time full awareness of such a disconnect was possible? The 1950s, because I had a friend, a UN/EU interpreter, who was immersed in the commas and other linguistic tricks of crafting European common market documents. What a fantastic labour that came to fruition after centuries of war. As to stories, honestly, I’d love to tell the story of Picasso’s clown. He’s an entertainer whose face shows to me that he’s seen deep into human nature, yet spoke only through base comedy. What, oh what, did he think?
I’m always looking for books to add to my reading list…so what are you reading now? What’s on your list of must-reads for fans of history?
Thomas Keneally’s The Daughters of Mars. It’s about two sister nurses, provincial naïve girls from New South Wales, Australia, who enlist in World War I. Australia fought that was from day one to the end. He uses diaries from the archives to build his fictional characters, who serve in Egypt, Gallipoli and the Western Front. What’s astounding about it is that you experience everything only from the point of view of these nurses, and their friends and co-workers. You know nothing more than they learn day by day. There’s no editorializing, or filling in of context. It’s marvelous.
Finally, the question I ask everyone: If you could invite 5 people – living or dead – to a dinner party, who would you ask?
Certainly not Elizabeth. That would be a disaster! Franz Liszt, because of all the great composers he had the most personal generosity to other composers; Hogarth or Melissa McCarthy, because I want a satirist; Emma Gonzales from Parkland School; Louis Pasteur, because we wouldn’t be here without him; and Barack Obama because of his grace.
Thank you so much, Loretta for stopping by and sharing your book with us! The Reversible Mask comes out on December 3rd, and is now available for pre-order. You can find it HERE. You can follow Loretta at http://www.lorettagoldberg.com.
Australian-American Loretta Goldberg earned a BA in English Literature, Musicology and History at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She taught English Literature at the Department of English for a year, before coming to the USA on a Fulbright scholarship to study piano with Claudio Arrau. Her discography consists of nine commercial recordings, now in over seven hundred libraries. She premiered an unknown work by Franz Liszt on an EMI HMV (Australian Division) album, and her edition of the score for G. Schirmer is in its third edition. Concurrently, she built a financial services practice, which she sold to focus on writing. Her published non-fiction pieces consist of articles on financial planning, arts reviews and political satire. She earned an MA (music performance) from Hunter College, New York; and a Chartered Life Underwriter degree from the American College, Pennsylvania. Member of the Historical Novel Society, New York Chapter, she started and runs their published writer public reading series at the landmark Jefferson Market Library. Commuting between New York City and Clinton, Connecticut, she enjoys a community rich in extended family, colleagues and friends. She lives with her spouse and two charming cats.