British novelist, broadcaster, and critic Sarah Dunant is well known on both sides of the pond for her bestselling series of mysteries featuring sleuth Hannah Wolfe. Other novels feature the challenging, often absurd, choices women face for love and identity.
Dunant's first two novels were actually co-authored with Peter Busby, thus creating their pseudonym, Peter Dunant. In Exterminating Angels (1983), whether they're called terrorists or modern-day Robin Hoods, the Exterminating Angels are out to set the record straight. For them, the ends always justify the means when righting the wrongs of the world. The political thriller Intensive Care (1986) describes a chance meeting at the site of an explosion in London.
The first book to be released under her own name was Snow Storms in a Hot Climate (1987), and features Marla Masterson. Marla, a young British professor of Anglo Saxon Literature goes to New York City to rescue a friend from her drug-addled, abusive boyfriend, but not before a murder mystery ensnares them all.
Three years later, Dunant introduced readers to Hannah Wolfe, a tough and witty Private Investigator. In Birth Marks (1990), Wolfe is hired to find a missing ballerina. Unfortunately, the dancer is found by the police -- eight months pregnant and at the bottom of the Thames. When everyone but Wolfe writes off the young single woman's death as a suicide, Wolfe pushes her investigation into London's dance companies and powerful Parisian families, searching for the father. Wolfe's reputation is put on the chopping block in Fatlands (1993). Wolfe finds herself on the trail of a violent animal rights activist group after they kill the daughter of a wealthy scientist for using animals in his experiments. The novel won Dunant a Silver Dagger award for Crime Fiction. Disguised as a customer, Wolfe investigates a string of sabotage at the Castle Dean health spa in Under My Skin (1995) and soon learns that, to some, beauty is something to die -- or kill -- for.
Breaking from her Hannah Wolfe series, Dunant's next release explores the line between victim and victor. In Transgressions (1997), translator Lizzie Skvorecky is making a living translating cheap Czech thrillers into English. When the strange events of the novels seem to occur in her real life, Lizzie realizes that someone -- or something -- is tampering with her reality, and accepts the violent challenge to her sanity. Kirkus reviews describes the novel as "an unsettling, often chilling, portrait of a compulsive predator and the woman who refuses to be his prey."
Mapping the Edge (1999) also portrays a woman's unusual challenges. When Anna, a single mother, takes a short vacation to Italy, leaving her six-year-old daughter with trusted friends, no one thinks twice. Until she doesn't return when scheduled. Anna's friends and her daughter endure the painful waiting while Dunant offers two explanations of Anna's disappearance. What if Anna abandoned the responsibility of motherhood to follow a hot love affair? Or perhaps Anna's life is in the hands of a sadistic killer.
Along with writing fiction, Dunant has also edited two works of non-fiction. War of the Words: The Politically Correct Debate (1994) debates the ever-changing idea of what is "acceptable" and the effect political correctness has on Liberalism. In The Age of Anxiety (1999), ten essayists discuss their anxiety -- or optimism -- for issues such as technology, family, and the end of the millennium.
Dunant's 2004 release marks her foray into historical fiction. The Birth of Venus captures the passion and the politics of deMedici Florence in the grips of a fundamentalist religious overhaul. As the city starts to purge itself of "the low and vulgar arts," the novel's heroine, Alessandra, falls in love with a young, suffering painter. Although her family marries her to a much older man, it is mostly a dismal marriage of convenience and she has a surprisingly large amount of time to spend at the side of her true love. Intelligent and daring, Duanant has combined a love story, a thriller and a historical novel in telling Alessandra's quest to find and protect her passions.
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In our interview, Dunant shared some fun and fascinating facts about herself with us:
"I once worked as a hostess in a Japanese nightclub."
"My left foot is bigger than my right."
"I cannot whistle (no Humphrey Bogart for me, then)."
"Alas I don't have time to relax, although I am trying. The most important things in my life are my work, my children, my friends, and the possibility of a plane ticket to somewhere I have not yet been. When my kids grow up I want to have enough energy to get out a rucksack and take a long trip without a due-back-by date and the wonder to be changed by what I discover en route. Though right at this moment what I would like most is to remember where I put the car keys."
"And when it comes to writing, I just want to say that the novel is not the author. Just as the life is not the work or the work the life;instead literature is a kind of alchemy: turning lead into gold. Or at least that's the ambition."
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In the winter of 2004, Sarah Dunant took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Oh, this is an utterly impossible question!!! Anyone who can come up with only one book must be lying. I can think of literally dozens at different stages of my life. Every one of them was awesome at and of the moment. So, I read every Thomas Hardy novel when I was 15 and wept buckets over how cruel fate was, but was secretly entranced by the nihilism -- as only 15-year-olds can be.
Spartacus by Howard Fast, which I discovered having seen the Stanley Kubrick film, made me mad for Roman history for a whole two years, Edith Sitwell's biography of Elizabeth I made me decide to be a historian, Iris Murdoch's The Bell made me want to become a philosopher and a writer. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina made me wish to be married just so I could be unfaithful.
Thérèse Raquin made me think of crime. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley convinced me I might get away with it and got me writing mysteries. Toni Morrison's Beloved made me understand African-American history in a way I never had before, and E. M. Forster's visions of Italy in A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread had me dreaming of Florence long before I ever thought of writing about it.
I could go on and on. Writers are readers. That is how the love affair starts. I think it is like a river that flows in two directions at once. The worlds you enter and the worlds you create are both part of the intoxication of stories. On a desert island, if I had to choose one book I'd shoot myself.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje -- Because it shows a moment when the world stops still at the end of the war. It is soaked in atmosphere and beauty. And because he writes like a siren. The style is as compulsive as the story
The Jewel in the Crown quartet by Paul Scott -- This portrait of British India on the cusp of independence is rich, acute, and poignant. The kind of book that, as you reach the end, you have to slow down because you realize that soon these characters will be gone form your life and you cannot bear to imagine living without them.
The Go Between by L. P. Hartley -- Again for its atmosphere. Set at the height of an English summer -- nothing like it because it is so delicate and so short -- it is the story of a young boy on the cusp of puberty drawn into an adult love affair while not yet understanding adult emotions. Passion, betrayal, longing, and loss -- what else is there in life?
Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow -- Postmodern before we really used the term, it weaves characters and story lines in and out of a huge tapestry, whose story is New York at the beginning of the century. Its energy, its color, its eccentricity, and its love of life are all homage to one of the world's great cities at one of its most exuberant and painful moments.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco -- The classiest whodunit I ever read. Erudition, theology, and scholarship are all words you don't expect to use when describing a crime thriller. But this one breaks the glass ceiling of the genre. It pulsates with atmosphere and a sense of the past. When those blackened tongues and secret staircases lead to the final answer, with the smell of the Inquisition at the door, for once one is not disappointed. I would die happy to have written this.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier -- Another near-perfect thriller. Du Maurier had an instinct for tension. It was in her blood. This portrait of a second wife trying to live under the spell of her predecessor is masterly. Nothing is what it seems. With its echoes of Jane Eyre and undertones of father-daughter obsession, it satisfies both your head and your heart. Still working after all these years.
Beloved by Toni Morrison -- She is quite simply one of the best writers of her age. Her contribution to the cultural history of America is immense. Her style is mesmerizing, her compassion is profound, and her vision is flawless. And this book is one that convinced me. It has soul, courage, and a terrible moral honesty.
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake -- The imagination is a wonderful thing, and Peake's imagination is more wonderful than most. It's impossible to describe -- you just have to read it. A clue: Eat your heart out, Tolkien.
Wislawa Szymborska's Collected Poems -- I am not the world's greatest poetry fan, but all I can say is this Nobel-winning Polish poet has God in her fingertips. Her poem on 4:00 a.m. has saved my life during some dark times, and her vision of the tenderness and fragility of the world takes your breath away.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
We don't have the space for this -- live for movies. They are like books -- indispensable to life. I can barely imagine what it must have been like in a world where there weren't any.
So, here are a few:
Spartacus -- I believed every word, and its portrait of injustice and heroism made me weep. I had just discovered romanticism -- I was 13 years old. Looking back, anything written by Dalton Trumbo, directed by Kubrick, and starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Laurence Oliver, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton was bound to be good, really.
La Dolce Vita -- Because I had never ever seen anything like it. It was my first brush with Italy at its most powerfully cinematic moment. Later, as a young journalist, I sat at the feet of Federico Fellini (literally -- holding a microphone). What a director! What a country! No wonder I ended up partly living there.
The Maltese Falcon -- The plot is so tight you couldn't slip a credit card between the stitches. And there is cross upon double-cross. You can learn a lot about how to tell stories by well-plotted movies. And I did. Humphrey was divine, Mary Astor was superb -- justice is done in the sexiest way.
The Talented Mr. Ripley (French version) -- Because of the movies made of Ripley, it's the truest to Patricia Highsmith's wonderfully amoral imagination; and because Alain Delon is delicious.
Chinatown -- Because the marriage of screenplay ( Robert Towne), direction (Roman Polanski), and acting (Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston) make it like one long cinematic orgasm. And because it is brave enough not to have a happy ending.
Seven -- Because it scared the wits out of me and left me utterly mentally and emotionally wrung out.
Shrek -- Because it made me laugh, and that is so hard in movies.
Bertolucci's The Dreamers -- Because it understands that cinema is both fantasy and truth. Erotic, tender, and painful.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
With the exception of John Cage's four minutes of silence and whatever is currently topping the hit parade, there isn't a kind of music I can't listen to. I was young with rock' n' roll, grew into country, matured to the blues, and am growing older into classical. I will probably die to J. S. Bach.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Proust's À la recherche de temps perdu. In English! Because then I would have to read it -- I'll never do it otherwise.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Art books. Books you can sink into visually as well as verbally. I recently wrote a big article on Leonardo da Vinci and got two magnificent volumes that I could never have afforded to buy. I can barely manage to pick them up, they are so large, but I can sit in bed and get lost in them night after night after night. Like having your own exhibition of great art in your bedroom and your head.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I only wish I had. Some writers clean the house as distraction. When I get distracted, the house stays dirty.
Mostly I find terror helpful: the feeling that I will never write this book if I don't get up and type in some new words every morning. That gets me started and then -- however badly or well it's going -- I don't stop. Actually that's not strictly true. That's how I used to do it: continuing to bang my head against a brick wall when I had problems. Now I sometimes sleep. The more experienced I have gotten at this strange process called writing, the more I rely on the subconscious coming and sometimes you have to help it. So now I go to bed, and even if I don't sleep I just let my mind wander. Either way I end up in a strange state of half consciousness. It takes a while but this way most problems solve themselves -- or at the very least leave you with a clue. When the mind is at rest, sometimes the imagination is most alive.
However, it's not foolproof, so don't get too excited....
What are you working on now?
I just finished two film scripts adapted from two of my novels, Transgressions and Mapping the Edge. They are in that no-man's-land of development now, where many films die and only a few emerge. I am not counting my chickens. Instead I am jumping off the diving board in search of the next novel -- Venice in the 1530s. Hot stuff. That's all I can tell you for now.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I have been incredibly lucky -- I have been writing and published and solvent for over 20 years. On the other hand, I have also had two careers: writing and making radio and television programs. So when one was going badly, I could always take solace in the other. Self-esteem is a problem when life does not always give you the strokes you deserve or need, so two chances are better than one.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I'm not sure I would recommend being "discovered" -- the very word sends shivers down my spine. In my other life as critic and broadcaster, I have watched writers struggle with sudden fame, and many of them falter and lose their way under the spotlight. Real writers don't want to be celebrities. Or even rich. They want to have enough money to write and enough recognition not to feel humiliated. That's not the same as being "discovered" -- best to stay hidden.
What tips or advice do you have for writers?
I teach creative writing, and that means I see a lot of would-be writers. And though I'm not always right, I can usually tell those who are going to make it. The answer is its not just talent. Indeed, the fact that not all successful writers are wonderfully talented (and no, I'm not going to name names) and not all wonderfully talented writers are successful means you need more than the raw ability to write. You also need a clear sense of determination. Writing is hard, rejection is harder, and both are necessary. Those without the stamina for both might as well give up now. And even then, you still need luck.
Oh I do have one tip: All writing is rewriting. I know -- it sounds gnomic, but it's true.
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