Mary Anne: Congratulations on the release of your new novel, Porphyry and Bones (The Porphyry Novels Book 3). What was it about this era of history that inspired you to write about it?
Peter: The three-book series covers an eventful decade from the very end of the Eastern Roman Empire, when Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, to the little-known failed attempt by Pope Pius II to launch a crusade and retake the city in 1464. It really is a fascinating estuary of history where the middle-ages merges into the early modern. Cannons and firearms saw a rapid increase of use in armies, the printing press emerged just as refugees from Constantinople brought a raft of ancient Greek texts to western Europe. A generation of famous Renaissance artists, thinkers and New World explorers were around and yet there was still a Roman emperor and knights jousting and fighting in plate armour.
The geopolitics of this decade was ripe for intrigue. Something of a cold war developed between two young empires, Venice and the Ottomans, contesting influence and possession over the bones of the old Roman empire – not just Constantinople and Greece but nascent nations in former Byzantine provinces such as Wallachia, Serbia and along the Dalmatian coast. You have loyalties pulled in several directions and incidents of treason and espionage that would not feel out of place in a Le Carré novel. For example, at the heart of Porphyry and Bones is the story of an Ottoman traitor with the codename of Maut Bassa who contacted Venice and offered to hand over a strategic port and the Ottoman fleet. I did not have to invent that; it is all recorded in the Venetian state records.
The enormous upheaval triggered by the Ottoman wars in the eastern Mediterranean and the reintroduction of Platonic philosophy had a profound influence on Renaissance thought. The decade was also part of an era of fascinating social change in which the wealth of a merchant class began to overtake much of the aristocracy. When Constantinople fell, the richest family in the city were probably not the Palaiologos imperial family but the merchant family of Loukas Notaras.
Mary Anne: Anna Notaras, the protagonist in your series, is not someone who many people are familiar with. Could you tell us a little about who she was and why you felt inspired to tell her story?
Peter: I felt Anna’s life personified much of that era of upheaval. She was born at the court of the last Roman emperor and lived to see Columbus’s voyage of discovery. She survived the fall of Constantinople and became the leading figure of the large Byzantine refugee community in Venice. Not only did she finance the first printing press dedicated to printing in Greek, helping to preserve many classical texts, but she was also instrumental in getting a Greek church built in Venice. The ikons she donated to it remain there to this day.
Of course, it was unusual for a woman – particularly a non-royal – to have the independence and influence that Anna enjoyed. Ironically that lifestyle stemmed directly from the destruction of her city and the death of her family. The Anna of Porphyry and Bones is fully aware of that and indeed struggles with a form of survivor’s guilt.
The Notaras family were merchants who had built an enormous fortune during the Byzantine civil war and had the foresight to stash most of it at the Bank of St George in Genoa. Unlike her fellow refugees, Anna arrived in Italy a rich woman with citizenship of both Genoa and Venice. She therefore had no material need to marry and no living elder male relative to answer to. If Constantinople had not fallen, Anna would have been married off to her father’s choice of suitor and become an anonymous matron. In contrast to the surviving members of the imperial family - who took a pension from the Pope and eventually sold the rights to the Byzantine crown to France - Anna appears to have felt a duty to use her wealth and position to help her fellow citizens and preserve her culture and religion. I think modern Greeks owe her an enormous debt in that regard.
Mary Anne: What were the challenges you faced in researching this period of history and were there any unexpected surprises?
Peter: Well, we are fortunate that plenty of detail about Anna’s life has survived thanks to her legal troubles. As I said, she inherited a large family fortune, but it was far from straightforward to convince the bank of her entitlement in the first place and then subsequently her brother escaped Turkish captivity and came to Italy to challenge her right to it. Later, as well as petitioning various Italian governments, she was involved in fractious property disputes with her sister-in-law. All this was captured in Venetian court records but getting access to those records and understanding what they say posed a challenge.
I was lucky that the groundwork had been done for me a few years ago by a French scholar, Thierry Ganchou, of the Centre d'Histoire et de Civilisation de Byzance. Thanks to Academia.org his PhD thesis on Anna was publicly available so, I just had to translate it from French to English and then pull out the details. Other sources were not so easy. There is an incredible biography of Mahmud Angelovic, the Ottoman Grand Vizier of this period, but it retails for hundreds of pounds. Thankfully, there is also a thriving Facebook group for students of Byzantine studies, and I was able to obtain a pdf of the relevant chapters from a very kind person.
As for unexpected surprises, well Anna was not the only individual whose life did not fit the pattern we associate with women of that era. Another character in the book is Katerina Brankovic, who was the Contessa of Celje in Hungary. When her husband died, she sold off his family estate and used the money to travel in style around Italy and the Adriatic. A sort of early tourist.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Peter: Balancing the historical and fictional elements. Firstly, it is important to remember that your readers are reading for entertainment. Historical detail should be authentic, but you must ask yourself if you are including three paragraphs on how a Hungarian arquebus operates because it is integral to the plot or just because you read six books researching the subject.
Pope Pius II arrives in Ancona”, 1502-08
|Fresco, Piccolomini Library, Duomo, Siena|
On the other hand, it is also important to create characters who reflect their time. Their worldview is going to be somewhat alien to our own. That poses a great challenge because you need the reader to empathise with (and probably like) your protagonist. I think the best way to do that is to recognise that some aspects of the human experience are universal and some particular. For example, virtues of humility, patience, and kindness will always endear a reader to a character and are never anachronistic. Equally, there will be political issues that gripped the specific society you write about. For my period, there was plenty of moral debate around whether Platonic philosophy was compatible with Christian values. At the same time there was the political issue of Church union. The great schism had split the Greek and Latin churches for four hundred years. A stipulation from popes for assistance against the Turks was church reunion which amounted to a capitulation of the Greek church into the Latin. Even after the empire fell, surviving Byzantines were faced with a choice – live under infidel (Turkish) rule but maintain their religion or support a crusade that might restore an Emperor but under a unified (Latinised) church. Anna’s father Loukas Notaras is famous for his political slogan which summed up the anti-union view: “Better the Turkish turban than the Latin mitre.” By focusing the arc of my characters around these political and philosophical points I hope to add authenticity, while using more universal virtues and vices to play with reader’s affections towards them.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
Peter: Study authors you enjoy and admire and really try and puzzle out how they put their books together. My literary heroine is Dorothy Dunnett and as much as I have enjoyed reading her novels, I also pour over them trying to glean any insight I can into her techniques. For example, her background in painting gave her an incredible eye for light and she uses light to draw the scenery almost like a paintbrush. Another of her quotes I took to heart was “Facts are the soil from which the story grows. Imagination is a last resort.” I take that to mean that if you look hard enough there are many colourful characters and events in the historical record to draw upon and I have certainly found that to be the case.
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Peter Sandham was born in the west of England and spent his childhood re-fighting the Trojan war in his back garden. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and Bristol University and emerged with a joint-honours degree in Politics and Philosophy and an unhealthy admiration for Machiavelli. He currently lives in Malaysia with his wife and three children. His three book Porphyry series charts the decade from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the end of any real prospect for its swift recovery and explores what happens to those cursed with outliving their empire.
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