Author Interview with Robin Maxwell of Signora da Vinci

Passages to the Past is pleased to welcome the fabulous Robin Maxwell, author of the equally fabulous novel, Signora da Vinci! Robin was so kind to stop by and answer some questions about...well...a little bit of this and a little bit of that! I have to admit I was a little nervous because this is my first author interview, but she was super nice and put me at ease. So, I would like to thank Robin for this opportunity and I hope you all enjoy the interview!

While researching for Signora da Vinci is there anything you learned about Leonardo da Vinci that surprised you or that you didn't already know?

Just about everything. Like most people, I knew Leonardo was an amazing artist, anatomist and inventor (I'd been to one of the exhibits that display the inventions -- flying machines and hydraulic systems to name a few) -- that he'd created and that modern engineers executed. But I'd had no idea that he was a brilliant philosopher, an atheist who first and foremost worshipped nature; a vegetarian (at a time when such a thing was considered heretical); at different times in his life bisexual, homosexual and asexual; that he was publicly and excruciatingly tried for the crime of "sodomy"; and that he was probably a prime mover behind the Shroud of Turin hoax.

Do you travel to do research for your novels? What was the most fascinating trip you've taken?
I'm sorry to say I wasn't able to make it to France before writing MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, or Italy for SIGNORA DA VINCI, although I'm told by people who know those places well that I nailed the descriptions. I had dozens of research books, and one was about the city of Florence. It provided street maps from several different periods, one of them 1500. It showed the locations of all the important landmarks (palazzos, churches, bridges, hospitals) and the unbelievable art, so together with written descriptions of the city at that time, and a healthy dose of imagination, I was ready to rock.
I made three trips to England and Ireland, which made writing my six Tudor books much easier. My comedy screenwriting partner, Billie Morton, and I were in Ireland researching a romantic comedy set in Ireland when I was introduced to the character Grace O'Malley -- pirate, rival to Queen Elizabeth I, and "Mother of the Irish Rebellion," but it was six years before THE WILD IRISH was published. It was a coincidence (or synchronicity) that Billie and I were staying smack in the middle of "Grace O'Malley Country" -- the west coast of Ireland and the islands around Clew Bay). I had just signed on with my first agent (she's still my agent) and she had not even begun submitting the manuscript of SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN to publishers, but every Irishman and woman I mentioned having written a historical fiction novel to, felt compelled to regale me with the (fabulous) legend of Grace O'Malley.

Signora da Vinci will most definitely be on my favorite reads for 2009; what were some of the novels that made it into your best reads for 2008?
Though it makes me sad to say, I have a hard time reading for pleasure when I'm writing, as I have to spend so much of my time on reading for research. But Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a real keeper, and so was Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. C.W. Gortner's The Last Queen and Michelle Moran's Heretic Queen were two that I read to "blurb," but found they were extra special. I adored Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, and listened and laughed out loud to a book on tape of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. I'm nuts about books on tape for long rides. They just make time disappear.

Have you decided what your next project will be and can you share a little about it with us?
I'm well into O, ROMEO, a story of the star-crossed Italian lovers, seen through the eyes of Juliet, who is a secret poet. I've set it not in Verona, but in Florence where I already know my way around, a couple of decades before SIGNORA DA VINCI opens. I've wanted to write a love story for a long time, and you can't beat "Romeo and Juliet" for romance, passion and tragedy. I was interested to learn that Shakespeare was not the first writer to tell their story -- he was the fourth! But of course his version has withstood the test of time. I hope mine will do the subject justice.

What would you say is the most difficult obstacle to overcome when writing historical fiction? Do you have any tips for us aspiring historical fiction writers?
These days it's finding a character to write about that hasn't been done-to-death. Historical fiction publishers will give you a real hard time if you want your protagonist to be a man. They figure that 75% of HF readers are women, and that women's voices are all that they want to hear. I don't actually agree with that. I originally wanted my da VInci book to be about Leonardo, but I was "encouraged" to find a significant woman in his life from whose perspective to tell the story. On this one I'm delighted with the results, but I'm not going to allow myself to be pigeonholed forever. So far my only "guy book" is THE QUEEN'S BASTARD, where two out three of the main voices are male. It remains one of my favorite titles. Stay tuned for more guy books from me.

When writing HF, you're always struggling with what is factual and what is made up. Some readers don't mind novels where the "holes in history" are quite liberally filled. Others get annoyed, feeling there are enough facts to stick to, and that imagination should be used sparingly. I say, "let them try to write fiction about historical figures from 500 years ago!" One comment on a blog recently was from a woman who has read several of my books, and she said she enjoys the "afterward" or "conversation with the author" more than the book itself. That's where I discuss how I wrote the book, and what is fact and fiction. As long as solid research is done and carefully integrated into the story, I'm all for a few flights of fancy -- some "what ifs" -- as long as the fancy doesn't contradict fact.

I was really annoyed that Philippa Gregory took the most salacious rumors and trumped-up charges about my beloved heroine, Anne Boleyn (that she slept with five men, including her brother) and added in a complete fabrication (that Anne stole Mary Boleyn's and Henry VIII's son, and brought him up at court as her own child). This amounted to character assassination of a bold, courageous woman-ahead-of-her-time. That The Other Boleyn Girl was so wildly successful, insured that a whole generation of HF readers now believe Anne to be a true villainess. I like to say that if I were Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn was really the person that Ms. Gregory made her out to be, I'd have had her head chopped off too.

As for tips for aspiring HF writers, I say 1) find a strong female character who has some "recognition value" (not some obscure chambermaid from the 12th century), a person who has a riveting storyline (peruse Vicki Leon's wonderful Uppity Women of History series -- Uppity Women of Ancient Times, Middle Ages, Renaissance and New World); 2) do massive amounts of research (learn everything you can about the period and the characters you're writing about); 3) put yourself if the characters' shoes. A good example of this is Leonardo da Vinci's mother, about whom I had about three facts. But the facts told me volumes (at least one volume!) about her. Her name was Caterina, and the day after she gave birth to a son, out of wedlock, he was ripped out of her arms to be raised by his father's family -- a cold, social climbing group of petty bureaucrats. Nobody that I could imagine Leonardo's "genius genes" emanating from. Based on that, I fashioned a 15th century unwed mother who decides she's going to move heaven and earth to watch over and protect her special son. I believe that the basic emotions are the same now as they were then. You just have to be able to feel them as though you're looking out from behind your characters' eyes. 4) Have a complete manuscript when you're looking for an agent. Do your research to find which of the agents handle HF, and then write a smashing query letter -- one that will make them feel that they HAVE to read the first three chapters, and then the rest of the book. It's not easy out there right now, but publishers are still publishing books. Yours could be one of them. 5) Or like C.W. Gortner did, self-publish and self-promote, and then get NY publishers to buy your book.

I read that your book The Wild Irish is being made into a movie. How is that progressing?

Last year THE WILD IRISH was optioned by a smart, well-connected young Australian movie producer. With the screen adaptation I wrote from my own book, she is busy attaching an "A-list" director to the project (so far everybody's been loving the script). Once the director is nailed down, then she'll go after the stars. I have a great feeling about his project getting made, primarily because of the producer's passion for it.

Robin Maxwell's website.


  1. Amy, I can't believe this is your first author interview...It is fantastic! I got to learn so much about this author. Your interview led me to her web site and now I'm itching to get to reading all of her books! Signora Da Vinci sounds so avant-garde for the times. I definitely will get this book. Thanks- Great interview.

  2. Amy, you have found your calling. This is one of the absolute BEST interviews I've read! Robin is refreshingly honest and a absolute delight. It is interviews like these that make me go buy a certain author's books. I can guarantee I'll be reading Robin's books this year!

  3. Lovely post and really interesting interview!! I'm so glad you did it!

  4. Excellent excellent interview. I can't believe this was your first one. I liked hearing her point of view about Gregory's Boleyn book. I agree with Robin.
    Great job and good questions.

  5. girls are so sweet! I was so nervous, but I feel better now. This one was a lot of fun and I hope to do more...hopefully they are all as nice as Robin. She was great!

  6. Oh my gosh, what a great interview! And what an incredible author to interview! I can't wait to read this book! Your interview was absolutely fascinating.

  7. Great interview!!! I too love love The Queen's Bastard. One of my favorites! I totally don't agree with the idea that historical fiction novels should be predominantly about women. And I too don't like the way Gregory portrayed Boleyn. I'm excited to read Signora Da Vinci AND can't wait until O Romeo comes out. Thanks again for the interview!

  8. Awesome.. You nailed it!!

    I can't wait to read this book.

  9. Great interview!!! I too love love The Queen's Bastard. One of my favorites! I totally don't agree with the idea that historical fiction novels should be predominantly about women.
    You may want to check out this site where you can find top
    interview questions. Great site.

  10. Amy, what an excellent interview. You'll have authors queuing up! Well done!

  11. These sound like great books. I love Florence.

  12. What a fabulous interview with one of my favorite authors! Thanks so much, I was thrilled to read it. And a movie of The Wild Irish, how cool is that?


  13. Fantastic Interview! I agree with Robin as the minor details between the popular events in the past and not known too well and are sometimes tough to spot when reading stories based on events from 500 years plus. I also believe those are the true gaps of where one can provide and create twists in stories to add flare to the story line.

    As for the interview questions asked, they are quite excellent as they had captured a robust enough answer to say "fill in the gaps" in a way. I have found after analyzing different types of interview questions that the most helpful to me were from as they mention quite alot of different styles and types which I use as well when interviewing profesionals.

    Keep more interviews coming!


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