Pauline Montagna was born into an Italian family in Melbourne, Australia. After obtaining a BA in French, Italian and History, she indulged her artistic interests through amateur theatre, while developing her accounting skills through a wide variety of workplaces culminating in the Australian film industry. In her mid-thirties, Pauline returned to university and qualified as a teacher of English as Second Language, a profession she pursued while completing a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing. She has now retired from teaching to concentrate on her writing. As well as The Slave, she has published a short story collection, Suburban Terrors.
Stephanie: Hello Pauline! Welcome to Layered Pages and thank you for chatting with me today. Please tell me a little about your book, ‘The Slave’?
Pauline: ‘The Slave’ is an historical romance set in fourteenth century Italy, the story of Aurelia, the sheltered daughter of Francesco Rubbini, a rising merchant with political ambitions. One day he returns from a buying trip to Venice with Batu, an Asian slave boy to whom Aurelia is inexorably drawn. In a bid to win a seat on the city council, Rubbini gains the patronage of the aristocratic de Graziano family by negotiating a lucrative marriage between Aurelia and their eldest son, Lorenzo, a man with a dangerous reputation. Batu insists on joining Aurelia in her new home for her protection, but his presence rouses violent passions in Lorenzo that Aurelia cannot understand, and which bind the three of them in an inescapable triangle of love and hate.
Stephanie: What made you choose fourteenth century Italy as your time period and place?
Pauline: If you had all the time in the world, think of all the stops you would love to make as you travel from Florence to Venice – Siena, Milan, Mantua, Bergamo, Verona, Padua, and so many more. These were once independent, democratic, mercantile city states which flourished from as early as the eleventh century. Unlike the political and economic basket case that Italy is today, back then it led the world and laid the foundations for the flowering of the Renaissance. I studied this period in university and it made me proud to be Italian.
However, this dynamism came at a price. Throughout this period, the city states themselves were volatile places. The towers of San Gimignano weren’t built for aesthetic reasons, but as defences against enemy families. Families fought against families, cities against cities. However, with their limited populations, the city states didn’t have the resources to support full-time armies so they hired mercenary armies. Before too long the mercenary leaders were fighting on their own account. By the fifteenth century, most of the city states had been taken over by one petty tyrant or another, but it was these petty tyrants who became the patrons of the Renaissance.
I chose to set my story in the fourteenth century in particular as it was a time of political and economic upheaval that saw the country ravaged by financial collapse, mercenary armies and the Black Death – all elements I needed to tell my story.
Stephanie: What was your inspiration for this story?
Pauline: I studied the Medieval Italian City States in my second year at university. However, I was actually majoring in French, and in our second year we attended lectures on French literature in French. The lectures were also being attended by a handsome Asian boy. Not actually enrolled in the subject, he sat at the back of the auditorium in regal isolation. I imagined he was an aristocratic refugee, forced out of Laos by the Communists, attending our lectures just to hear a familiar language. Though I certainly fancied him, I was much too shy to approach him, so instead he became fuel for my romantic fantasies where an Asian boy found himself a slave in Medieval Italy and in love with a nice Italian girl like me.
The story remained a fantasy to be revisited now and again over the years, but I couldn’t take it seriously as the basis of a novel until I discovered from a passing mention in Neal Ascherson’s book, ‘Black Sea’, that, in fact, though not as prevalent as it had been in Roman times, a slave trade still existed in this period under the auspices of the Venetian empire. Suddenly it had become plausible that an Asian boy could find himself a slave in Medieval Italy, and my adolescent fantasy could become a credible historical novel.
Stephanie: What are Aurelia strengths and weaknesses?
Pauline: With her sheltered upbringing in which she has been trained to be nothing more than a dutiful wife, Aurelia starts out as a naïve and timid girl. She feels intimidated by her ambitious father and neglected by her distant mother. Her only support is her nurse, Rosetta, who loves her as much as any mother could, but has no say in her fate. However, although she acquiesces to her father’s plans for her, even at an early age, Aurelia displays compassion and a quiet strength and courage. It is this strength and courage which maintains her when she is faced with situations that are frightening and incomprehensible to her in her innocence.
Stephanie: What are some of Aurelia father’s political ambitions?
Pauline: As a self-made man from the peasant classes, Rubbini’s only pathway to prestige and power is by rising up through the ranks of the government of his small city state. However, despite their exclusion from office, the old aristocracy still has the power of influence and patronage, and it is this patronage that Rubbini needs if he is to succeed. Succeed he does, but he finds his duties almost too onerous to bear when the Black Death strikes and his colleagues are loath to do anything about it that might interfere with trade. (Doesn’t that scenario sound familiar?)
Stephanie: What was some of the research involved for your story?
Pauline: As I already had a good grasp of the period from my university studies, most of the research I had to undertake was for specific information as the need arose – such as the Black Death and the events surrounding it, marriage practices, dance, dress, food, hunting, sword fighting, and, of course, Mongolian warriors.
However, it was this research that forced me to kill one of my favourite babies. For some reason, I had named my Asian boy Fet and, of course, over the years I had become attached to the name. However, as I read up about Mongolia I slowly came to the realisation that there was no ‘f’ in their language. In the end, not only did I have to change his name, but while I was at it I decided to change the names of almost all the characters. It called for a very careful and meticulous use of ‘Find and Replace.’
Stephanie: Was there a particular scene you found a challenge to write?
Pauline: The sword fighting scene was quite challenging as I’m not an aficionado of ‘derring-do.’ I not only had to learn the basic principles of fighting with the broad sword, but also try to work out the moves in the fight and then how to describe them in a comprehensible way.
However, by far the hardest scene for me to write was the first sex scene. In my first draft I skirted around the details, but my workshop group wouldn’t let me get away with that. They had waited until Chapter 42 for some action and they wanted more, thank you very much. So they sent me home to do it all again. I remember prowling about the house all afternoon trying to get into the right frame of mind.
Stephanie: What inspires you to write historical fiction?
Pauline: I write historical fiction because I’m inspired by history. I always have been and I can’t really explain why. I could take a punt and say that it’s because I was born in Australia, which has very little history, but my cultural roots are in Italy, which has, perhaps, too much history. I love doing historical research. I love spending time in libraries and reading old books, the older the better. I get exciting by finding odd titbits that I’ve never come across before, or making connections no one else has ever made. And I guess I love it because history is about people, and people are endlessly fascinating.
Stephanie: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write in this genre?
Pauline: When it comes to historical fiction, I’m a stickler for accuracy and authenticity. There are enough gaps in the records on which we can exercise our imaginations without warping the known facts. But accuracy is more than getting the date of a battle correct or the name of a piece of clothing. It’s also about how people thought and behaved.
We cannot impose on the people of the past our own sexual mores because we think restraint is boring, just as we can’t impose our modern attitudes to gender roles because we don’t like the way women were treated back then. If that’s how you feel, stick to writing contemporary romance, or if you must clothe your sexually promiscuous and feisty women in long skirts, be honest and call it Fantasy.
So I would advise someone who wants to write historical fiction to do their research. Go back to the original sources, go to a library and read books. Don’t rely on the internet, and other historical fiction for your information. If you must read fiction, read what was written at the time to get a sense of what your characters actually valued and thought, and not what you wish they did.
Stephanie: Who are your influences?
Pauline: I would say my biggest influence is the historical fiction of Mary Renault. Not only is her writing beautiful in itself, but she enters so thoroughly into the mindsets of her characters that a world completely different to our own seems perfectly natural. I have long nurtured an ambition to write about the Etruscans as well as she writes about the Ancient Greeks. I also love Ursula Le Guin, again for the beauty of her writing and her ability to create in her fantasy and science fiction profoundly real people in a real world. If I could write as well as these two I would die happy.
Stephanie: What book project are you currently working on?
Pauline: At the moment I’m focussing on self-promotion so I haven’t been writing for a while. However, as soon as ‘The Slave’ is properly launched, I hope to get back my writing.
Stephanie: Is there a message you would like to give to your readers?
Pauline: Well, as you did ask, I do have a special offer out now. Join my mailing list by May 31 and get your own free complimentary ebook copy of ‘The Slave.’