Jul 072017
 

I want to share an essay today, one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of those I’m proudest of. It’s about how I sold my first novel.

I’ve been stunned since I learned Too Like the Lightning is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo. This really is the highest honor I can imagine, my work being recognized as one of the most valuable contributions to the community of conversation which drives us forward through speculation about other worlds to touching and creating them, both here on Earth and out among the stars. The community where the Great Conversation thrives. While I always intended to contribute to that conversation, I never expected this kind of reception for a very difficult and intentionally uncomfortable book, one which I had imagined as finding an excited but niche audience, never a large one.  I haven’t known what to say other than “Thank you!” but a common “Thank you!” feels mismatched, like paying the same 50¢ at a rock shop for a shiny hematite one week and the Philosopher’s Stone the next.  And I’ve also been swamped with final exams, colliding deadlines, three European conferences, research travel, illness, editing book 3, preparing a new project on the History of Censorship (more on that later), all the usual time-eating co-conspirators that make it easy to put off anything difficult.  And it is difficult to figure out how to write a world-sized thank-you to match this world-sized joy.

But I think one appropriate thank-you is to share this essay.  I wrote it for Shannon Page for her brilliant collection The Usual Path to Publication (Book View Café, 2016), which contains 27 different authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. The volume’s variety succeeds in showing what it set out to, that there is no “usual path,” no consistent method, no one piece of advice that always helps on the path that no two people ever walk the same way. I suspect I’m not the only contributor to the collection who found that the story that came out, when I tried to tell it, was so personal, so saturated with the most intense emotion, that I was more than a little nervous sharing it at first. But I also think telling the story means even more now that it has a Hugo nomination at the end of it, and a Campbell nomination, and the Tiptree Honors List, and the Compton Crook Award.  Because I grew up in Maryland, so I’ve seen the Compton Crook Award given out to a Best First Novel in the genre every year at since I was a little girl, every time thinking “Maybe someday it will be me?”  So this is how I got to Someday.

 

The Key to the Kingdom, or, How I Sold Too Like the Lightning.

by Ada Palmer, 2016

Some people say revenge is living well –
I’ve found it sometimes works to go away
And be more awesome. Let him sit alone,
To watch your wildfires leaping as you play.

-Jo Walton, “Advice to Loki” 2013.

The midpoint first, then the primordial darkness, then the ever after.

It was 2011 (remember, this is the creation myth of a book that won’t come out until 2016).  I was in Florence, sitting in the top of a 13th century tower between Dante’s house and my favorite gelato place (extra relevant in an un-air-conditioned August!), and talking to Jo Walton about whether or not I should start a blog.  It was the beginning of a year in Florence, a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s institute for Italian Renaissance studies.  Life as a Renaissance historian had granted me long stays in Florence twice before, once on a student Fulbright, and once taking a shift as I Tatti’s resident grad student mascot (#1 duty, be introduced to rich donors and look bright-eyed and promising).  During my earlier stays I had written a series of e-mails describing my Italian experiences, and sent them to a list of friends and family.  The list grew over time as the recipients recommended them to more distant cousins and acquaintances, until I had nearly a hundred people on my list.  In fact, those e-mails were how I knew Jo.  One of my then-roommates, Lila Garrott (a poet, author, book reviewer, and now editor at Strange Horizons) had posted a few of what, in neoclassical style, I called my “Ex Urbe” e-mails on LiveJournal, where Jo had enjoyed them.  In 2008 Jo had invited Lila and the rest of our eclectic household to visit her for Farthing Party in Montreal.  Jo was with me in Italy that August because the question “Do you want to come stay in my apartment in a 13th century tower in Florence?” has one correct answer.  “I wonder if it would be less work to just post them on a blog,” I said, overwhelmed by trying to assemble the new list of people who had asked to receive my e-mails.  Jo looked at me very seriously.  “If you make a blog, I’ll send the link to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.”

I did make a blog.  (This blog.)

In three months, it was in the sidebar of Making Light.

In six months, Patrick asked Jo if the author of this ExUrbe blog had written any fiction.

In two years (almost to the day, August 2013) Patrick bought Too Like the Lightning.

My appetite to see my fiction in print had been overwhelming since elementary school, and I vividly remember the thrill of standing on tiptoe to watch my first typed story (a single paragraph, about blue-and-silver alien raccoons) crawl its way out of the astounding new dot matrix printer at Dad’s office.  I had begun a novel by fourth grade, three by tenth, and I devoured summer writing courses, of which the courses on essay writing (Johns Hopkins) and prose poetry (Interlochen) proved far more valuable than the fiction ones.  I remember once thinking to myself at fifteen, bored during a school convocation, that if I hadn’t published a novel by twenty-five then… the end is vague.  Then I should give up?  Then I was a failure?  Then I should curse the heavens?  It was my first serious college writing mentor Hal Holiday who helped me understand how absurd that was.  He made me cry in his office, with my first-ever B on a paper. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong.  “Writing is a long apprenticeship,” he said.  I hadn’t done anything wrong, but writing well—not well for your age group, but well in an absolute sense—was hard to achieve.  It took real time.  Spending every childhood summer and weekend writing, taking every summer writing course, those were good steps, they helped, but they were a beginning.  I finished my first novel draft that year, flipped back to page one, and started writing it all over again.

In 2002, at twenty-one and with Mom to stuff the envelopes, I sent my (totally-rewritten) first novel-length manuscript winging its optimistic way to slush piles at agencies and publishers.  I sometimes think, if we could harvest the emotional energy in all the fat manila query envelopes aspiring writers entrust to the post office every day, we could move planets.  I have a folder of rejection letters from that first volley, and, looking over them now, I can see the good signs in them, the peppering of personalized notes, praise and encouragement among the form letters.  I didn’t understand then how many queries editors, agents and interns read, how generous it was for them to sacrifice precious seconds to write these extra lines (thank you!), but it did a lot to keep me going.  And in the back of the folder I always kept a printout of Ursula Le Guin sharing a very grim rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, with her note “This is included to cheer up anybody who just got a rejection letter. Hang in there!”  Thank you.  After eight months of agonizing suspense, and the sporadic gut-punch of rejections, that first volley got me an agent.  She was not an F&SF specialist, but was game to try, and spent the next years doggedly marketing what neither of us realized was an unsaleably long fantasy novel.

I don’t remember where I received the wisdom that it’s better to go on and write Book 1 of a new series rather than write Book 2 of a series when you haven’t sold Book 1 yet.  Wherever I got it from, I obeyed it, and soon my plucky agent was shopping two series, then three.  Despite loving to sleep in, I followed the old advice and wrote in the morning, every day, an hour or two, giving my best hours to fiction and the rest of the day to the demands of grad school, and thereby wrote close to a million words of fiction over seven years.  Looking over those practice projects now, I can see my writing improve with each, the sentences, the pace, the plot.  Every paragraph was a step in that long apprenticeship.  The wait stretched on—three years, four—and it hurt—the growing, gnawing appetite.  Sometimes I would lie awake at night just from the pain of wanting something so much.  But I had an agent, and that gave me confidence, and comfort.

Meanwhile I was working on my Ph.D.  The single best thing that ever happened to my writing—looking at the novel I was working on at the time you can see the very chapter break where it happened, like lightning struck and *ZAP!* the prose was finally good—was in 2005, when I had to cut down my 20,000 word dissertation prospectus into a 7,000 word conference paper.  Without knowing it, I had stumbled on “Half and Half Again,” as it’s called by people I know in journalism, a training exercise in which you go through the agony of cutting an old work down to half length, then half of that, learning to spot the chaff and bloat in your own work, and how to make it tight and powerful.  Lightning.  I published other things—my first academic article, blog pieces for Tokyopop about manga & cosplay, a Random Superpower Generator for Maple Leaf Games, but none of them eased the wanting.  I also learned more about the world of genre publishing, from going to conventions and chatting with author friends made through Lila, and through my science fiction clubs, HRSFA (the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Society), and Double Star (at Bryn Mawr College).  F&SF specialist agent Donald Maass spoke to us at Vericon, a great little con HRSFA runs at Harvard every year, and I learned from his talk about the field, the extreme oversupply of submissions, the challenges of length and salability.  I had queried Donald Maass (unsuccessfully) way back in 2002, but in 2006, with my writing much improved, preparing to begin a new series which I felt in my gut was leap above the others (and eventually became the Terra Ignota series), I decided to break off my relationship with my first agent (with much gratitude and good will) and to try fresh to get a new agent at a major F&SF specialist agency.

I finished the first draft of Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota) in 2008, my penultimate year of graduate school.  Between 2002 and 2008, plump manila envelopes had evolved into instantaneous e-queries, and my generic cover letters had acquired the varnish of name-dropping.  I had recommendations from random people in the publishing world (Walter Isaacson, Priscilla Painton) whom I had met through Harvard.  And, while my first 2002 volley had showered queries on dozens of doorsteps (many quite inappropriate), I sent Too Like the Lightning to only one press in 2008, my great hope: Tor.  The more I learned about the world of genre publishing, the clearer it became that Tor was one of the only (if not the only) press that had the stability and resources to gamble on a big, fat science fiction series (four long books!) by a first time author, books which were dense and highbrow, and totally not similar to anything—trends are a safe investment; oddities are a gamble.  Plus, I had an ‘in’.  There were people at Tor who were friends of friends, alumni and associates of both Bryn Mawr and Harvard, some of whom knew my Double Star and HRSFA connections.  (Yes, I tried nepotism for all it was worth, anyone would—I still lay awake at nights, just wanting.)

After another year of lying awake and wanting (and finishing my Ph.D., and facing the academic job market, which in 2009 had just entered its sudden death spiral), a Tor contact told me (I think at Readercon?) that the book had advanced from the “slush” pile to the “shows promise” pile.  This was good news, but an un-agented manuscript, which the editor knows has been sent to no other press, can stew in that pile forever.  That November I queried Donald Maass, hoping a kind word from Tor would help me get an agent, and that a good agent might prod along the literary glacier.  I even got a Harvard-made mainstream publishing contact to e-mail Donald Maass with his endorsement to accompany my query.  (Roll for nepotism!  Did it achieve anything?  Not really!)  On December 31st, I received an e-mail from Donald apologizing for losing my query and getting back to me so late (apologizing for a delay of only 2 months!  Such professionalism!  Such sanity!) and saying he loved the beginning of the book, and was eager to read the whole thing.  I sent it right away.  I waited.  I shopped other, older projects with a YA agent recommended by a friend (no luck).  I published other things—more academic articles, critical essays, introductions to manga and anime releases.  I stayed up nights.  Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t go into a bookstore without feeling sick to my stomach.  In November 2010 (a full year after Donald had asked for the book) Amy Boggs, then a fairly new member of the Donald Maass Agency, wrote to say that Donald—swamped by unspecified and mysterious stuff—had passed the book on to her, and she loved it.  We finalized the contract by early December, and Amy started shopping the book around in the beginning of 2011.

That spring I received my I Tatti Fellowship, and that summer I sat in a tower in Florence with Jo Walton, contemplating a blog.  Jo had talked to me about Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though I also knew of him from other sources; legends of such titans echo far through our little magic kingdom.

There is a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, which shows St. Peter, in a beautiful neoclassical square, receiving the Keys to Heaven from Christ, with a group of apostles and others gathered around to watch.  It’s a deeply tender moment, Peter’s awe at the sight of the divinity which is also the friend he loves so much.  But I can never see it without imagining the next panel of the comic book, where Christ has gone back to Heaven, and Peter is left in the square holding these enormous gold and silver keys, and everyone is standing around awkwardly, trying not to stare, and someone sidles up saying, “So… can I get you a cup of coffee?”  You can’t put them down, that’s the thing, once you have the keys to Heaven, no one on Earth can forget it, not for an instant.  And that’s very much what it’s like being an acquiring editor (I’ve described this to Patrick, he agrees), because you have the Keys to the Kingdom, and people around you—at conventions, at talks, online—want it so much.  So much they lie awake at night.  There are infinite horror stories about editors being harassed and chased at cons, having manuscripts shoved under bathroom stall doors, repeated e-mails which get weirder and more desperate.  So, from childhood (picture me scrawny and eleven, following Dad and Uncle Bill to a Doctor Who convention, with my boy-short bright blonde hair, dressed as the Peter Davison Doctor) I had it drilled into me that you should never approach and bother an editor (or published author) about your manuscript.  Q&A when they were on panels was OK, but outside that sphere verboten!  In fact, I had met Patrick at Farthing Party back in 2008, but, knowing who he was, I was an emotional wreck just being near him, racked between the Scylla of my desire and the Charybdis of the taboo, so I spent much of the weekend actively hiding around corners and behind pillars to avoid looking at him.  But Jo knew I had a manuscript, and passed it on to Patrick for me in spring of 2012 when he asked her if the author of ExUrbe had written any fiction.

And I waited.  And I lay awake at night.  On a trip to New Orleans, an editor friend of Jo’s told a story about a query which had taken twelve years to be accepted, which actually made me throw up.  I tried to start another novel series, but I couldn’t.  Terra Ignota meant too much to me, so I broke my own law and wrote Book 2.  And Book 3.  So many heartfelt eggs in that basket.  Amy had occasional non-news for me, and I was overseeing the publication of my first nonfiction book, the academic history Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which will hopefully (knock all the wood you can!) get me tenure here at the magnificent I-dare-you-to-prove-it’s-not-Hogwarts University of Chicago.  (Where I teach history of magic. Really.)  I had submitted the monograph proposal to Harvard University Press way back in 2009.  Given the infamous snail’s pace of academic publishing, I often thought of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and Too Like the Lightning as twins fighting to see which would be the first to make it out.  But Tor, wonderful, infuriating, experimental, ambitious, field-shaping Tor, is slower.

In March 2013, Jo reported to me that Patrick had said positive things to her about the first page of Too Like the Lightning.  One page down, 333 to go.  That spring and summer were the madness of producing and recording my two hour close harmony a cappella Viking stage musical Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and its demands were exhaustion enough to let me mostly sleep.  As August came along, Patrick told Jo to tell me (in our surrealist game of telephone) that he and Teresa wanted to have dinner with me at Worldcon in San Antonio, and I should have my answer then.  This was more than a year after Patrick had asked for the manuscript, and five years after I had first submitted it to Tor.

I was working a booth at that Worldcon, an outreach display for the Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which has one of the world’s great science fiction collections, an impregnable treasure vault full of rare pulps, fanzines, first editions, and the archived papers of authors from Star Trek scriptwriters, to George R.R. Martin, to (now) me.  (Are you a writer? Do you have random papers and notes from old projects cluttering your house?  Cushing’s awesome librarians totally want to take your clutter, index it, and preserve it for posterity!  Win-win!).  The first morning of Worldcon, I was walking through the dealer’s room on my way to our booth, when Jo Walton gestured me over to the table where she was doing a signing.  I gestured back that I didn’t want to interrupt the people who were waiting patiently in line, but she flailed emphatically, so I came.  She told me that Patrick told her to tell me “Yes.”  I remember hugging, and crying, and intense crying, and gasping out a vague apology to the guy who was in the front of the line, but he said “It’s OK, it’s clearly important.”  Jo smiled at him and said, “She’s just sold her first novel!”  A keen, satisfied, brightness entered his face, like when you taste an unexpectedly excellent sour candy, and he said, “So, it does happen.”

Most of the rest of the San Antonio Worldcon is lost in the mists of bliss amnesia.  I remember staggering back to the Cushing booth all puffy and red-faced, and struggling to communicate to my colleague Todd Samuelson that I was OK, just overhappy from yes! Yes! YES!  I remember I couldn’t find my phone to text my dear friend Carl Engle-Laird (a HRSFA alum, who was then a new editorial assistant Tor.com, and sharing my suspense) so I borrowed a phone from Lauren Schiller (my singing partner and roommate of 10+ years), only I couldn’t see through my tears, so the message came out all garbled and full of typos and r5and0m nuMB4rs.  I was on a panel right after that, with Lila Garrott (whose online connections had been so instrumental in all this), and I had no time to break the news before the panel, so I just typed it on my then-recovered cell phone and set it on the table in front of us: “Patrick said yes.”  Lila glowed.

After Jo’s signing, we found Patrick in the concessions area, and there ensued perhaps the most absurd conversation I shall ever have.  I was still paralyzed by the aftereffects of Scylla and Charybdis, so shy and overwhelmed that I could barely force myself to look directly at the legendary Patrick.  But Patrick is himself a naturally shy person, and skittish after so many years carrying the Keys to Heaven, so he couldn’t look at me either.  And there we were, both trying to hide behind Jo (who is a head shorter than both of us), unable to make eye contact while trying to talk about how we wanted to work together for the rest of our careers.  That was when I started to see the absurd flip side of it: all the while that I had been terrified of approaching this incredibly important editor who had power over everything I ever wanted, in his world I had been the intimidating one, this distant Harvard Ph.D., with all these impressive publications, this learned and authoritative tone on my blog, and I had everything he wanted, great science fiction that it would be a pleasure to publish.  In Settlers of Catan terms, I had bricks, he had wood, but we were so mutually overwhelmed neither of us could get the words out: “Shall we make this road?”  We had dinner with Jo and Teresa at one of those Brazilian Barbeque places, where they hunt the great beasts of the plains and serve them to you on spits carried by excessively statuesque young men—at least that’s what Jo says, because bliss amnesia has erased everything except a vague memory of asparagus and a beige tablecloth.  I remember Patrick said he and Teresa wanted to audition to edit and shape my career.  Audition?  I would have begged!

Patrick took me to the Tor party that weekend.  I know he introduced me to Tom Doherty and fifty other genre VIPs, but I genuinely don’t remember a thing except recognizing Liz Gorinsky from a distance by her hair.  Patrick forgot to give me his business card, so I almost left without the ability to contact him.  It took three weeks to stop feeling like a dream.  No, that’s not true—it still feels like a dream.  I signed the four book contract by crackling firelight, huddling over the hearthstone during the power outage caused by a New Year’s blizzard, which absolutely feels like a dream.  I have a release date now (that took two years), and cover art (same), and the Advanced Bound Manuscript in front of me (well, a defective ABM missing the last three chapters—oops!), and I have a fantastic recording of Patrick—the Patrick—playing guitar with me while I sing my ode to fandom’s support of space exploration “Somebody Will” (super ultra win condition!).  But I still feel prepared to wake up tomorrow, back in my old bedroom, and discover it was all a dream.  Maybe there will always be that edge of doubt, the scar of how intensely I worried that the door might never open.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But if it did open for me, it wasn’t because I kept pounding on the gate with the same desperate query.  And it wasn’t the favor-trading, or the Harvard connections, or my attempts at nepotism, or even (honestly) my agent (though she’s done so many great things for me then and since).  It was that I set forth to be more awesome.  I kept honing my craft, starting new projects better than the last, producing other works, articles, music, essays, research, the blog.  I made my fire burn bright in the dark.  People do see.

From The Usual Path to Publication, ed. Shannon Page, Book View Café, 2016.
Sep 172013
 
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Gratuitous photo of a most admirable hat that lived near me in Florence.

Two quick announcements, then something fun to share.

First, comments were disabled for a little while.  Now they are enabled again.  Apologies to everyone who wanted to discuss Beccaria – I hope you still want to discuss him, and now you can.

Second, people have been reporting trouble subscribing by RSS.  I have investigated, and it seems that, while Firefox, Explorer etc. are fine, Chrome won’t do RSS (for this site or any site) unless you install a Chrome extension for RSS.  Googling “Chrome extension RSS” will supply a variety of equally viable methods.  However, for those who are struggling with RSS and can’t get it working, I have created a mailing list which you can register for in the right-hand sidebar.  Whenever I make a new post I will e-mail the list to alert people.  I recommend, however, that you use RSS instead of the mailing list if you can, because RSS will definitely alert you without, whereas the mailing list is hampered by my ability to remember to do it.

Meanwhile, I will take this opportunity to present another of my favorite objects in the Florentine Museum of the History of Science (aka. Museo Galileo): the Noon Cannon.  This is a strange variant on a sundial.  A tiny cannon, well under a foot long, is mounted outside, ideally in the gardens of a grand estate.  It is fixed in place on a stone slab, with a lens positioned above it.  At precisely noon each day, the lens focuses sunlight onto the canon, heating up the powder charge and making it go off.  If every morning you load the cannon with a little bit of gunpowder, then you will be reliably alerted to noon by the sound of a small explosion from your garden.  The effect is sort-of like a water clock except, instead of tranquil trickling and the tap of wood on stone, there is a ka-boom.

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I think the specimen in the museum is probably from the Eighteenth Century, possibly the Seventeenth, but I can’t remember off the top of my head.  Of course, no one in our era can see a Noon Cannon and not instantly think of its potential uses in an old-fashioned murder mystery.  Simply put shot in the Noon Cannon along with its daily charge, lure the victim to the garden at the specified time, and you can be miles away having an alibi while the Noon Cannon does the rest.  “The Colonel put real shot in the Noon Cannon?  How dastardly!”  The killer could even mess with the lens to make it fire at an unexpected time, then play around with other sources of a substitute noise, a hunting rifle or a champagne cork to simulate the 12 PM shot… it writes itself…

Jul 262013
 
BorgiaFrenchTVPoster

A French “Spot the Saint” themed poster for “Borgia: Faith and Fear” assigning Cesare the attributes: archbishop’s robes, scythe, dagger, bloody hands, blood.  The French caption reads “Don’t have faith in them.” I can’t argue.

There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante.  Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011.  Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix.  I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.

I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television.  It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green.  I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie.  But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment.  More on that later...

As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:

The Borgias (Showtime)                                   Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)

  • Bigger budget  (gorgeous!)                                     Smaller budget
  • Shorter series/seasons                                            Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
  • Bigger name actors                                                  Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
  • More glossing over details                                       More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
  • Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan                Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
  • Focus on Cesare as mature and grim                     Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
  • Lots of typical TV sex and violence                         More period-feeling sex and violence
  • Generally less historicity                                         Generally more historicity

What do I mean by “more historicity”?  While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period.  Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:

71jtW-4usiL._SL1120_Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1.  One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can.  Now here is Orsini alone with his wife.  [The audience knows what to expect.  He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.]  Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead.  He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up.   Yes.  That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible.  When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course.  That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.

The-Borgias-Season-1-POSTER-Promo3The Borgias, episode 1.  We are facing the papal election of 1492.  Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway.  It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes.  Our modern audience is shocked!  Shocked, I say!  That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes!  Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked!  Shocked!  This is no longer a matter of politics but principle!  He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter!  See, audience!  Now is the time to be shocked!  No.  This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance.  After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards.  Ooooh.  Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century.  In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere.  Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere!  You have a mistress!  And a daughter!  And a brothel!  And an elephant!  And take your elephant to your brothel!  And you’re stalking Michelangelo!  And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election!  And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony?  That is not historicity.  It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.

Be shocked!  Shocked I say!  See!  It's so shocking there's fire!

Be shocked! It’s so shocking there’s fire!

These are just two examples, but typify the two series.  The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were.  Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down?  I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like.  Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on.  Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes?  Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses?  Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it?  Wait, they all have goons?  Even the monks have goons?  It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.

My hopes for "Faith and Fear" were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia.

My hopes for “Faith and Fear” were raised when I noticed that the brilliant and fascinating Julia Farnese featured more prominently in their PR photos than the much-more-famous (and blonde) Lucrezia. Making her an intelligent, valued partner to Rodrigo’s labors instead of a scheming sex kitten makes the whole thing richer.  In their version she exerts real power, in a “separate spheres” way.

Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down.  A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part.  Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably.  Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock.  Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in.  Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us.  And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct.  I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero's cowardace, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of poitical allies.  Even Borgias.

Young Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici, exiled from Florence after Piero’s cowardice, now effectively head of the family, with infinite money and desperate need of political allies. Even Borgias.

Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias.  This means that it is much harder to follow.  There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching.  I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever.  There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families.  They all hate each other.  The most feared is the Borgias.”  They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired.  Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way.  The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary.  The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it.  The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.

Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date.  He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.

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Showtime’s “elder brother” Cesare taking care of Lucrezia.

The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating.  Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means.  B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.

Faith and Fear's "little brother" Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

BF&F’s “younger” Cesare receives encouragement from Mom.

Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too.  Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare.  Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.

There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese sitting with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan.  Not a safe seat.

From BF&F: Right to left, Alessandro Farnese with Cesare, Lucrezia and Giovanni/Juan. Not a safe seat.

Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.”  All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories.  I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

Brotherly resentment brewing in the Showtime version.

The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder.  Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t.  Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was.  Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress.  I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode.  The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.

But what about historical accuracy?

I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy.  Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better.  The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex.  The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient!  But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction).  For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.

I remember the turning point moment.  I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany.  “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily.  I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century.  But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.”  It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before.  For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will.  There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know.  There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries.  There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand.  No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.

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See this real Renaissance portrait of a wealthy lady?  She has a bunny, and it’s a class marker, showing she’s wealthy enough to have domesticated rabits.  And this is in the south, centuries later.

Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute.  Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws.  But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla.  So much we know.  But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread.  All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet.  All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.

In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand.  The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles.  Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.  We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one.  The makers of the TV series  Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids.  They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens.  Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.

he Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor.  Communication can be more important than accuracy

The Showtime version of Lucrezia Borgia, her childlike innocence successfully communicated by this lovely pink gown, which she never would have worn because weak dyes are for the poor. Communication can be more important than accuracy.

Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn.  Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine?  The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty.  Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress?  The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time.  I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide.  I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?”  Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate?  I choose A.

Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story.  The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome.  If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice.  If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice.  If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story.  Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes.  (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)

Showtime's Borgias being Dramatic!  This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they're going for.

Showtime’s Borgias being Dramatic! This Lucrezia dress is beyond what even I can really tolerate in terms of inacuracy, but it certainly gets across the sexy, and the incest vibe they’re going for.  I also notice that her hair is a darker shade of blonde when they have her being ‘bad’. Before you complain, the historical Lucrezia did bleach it: lemon juice & lye.

I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction.  I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right.  Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history.  I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.

This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”.  It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it.  But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do.  It is a bit alienating but much more powerful.  It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection.  Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.

Final evaluation:

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I like how the French packaging and “Do not have faith in them” subtitle highlight the Borgias’ wishful/self-deluding aspirations toward holiness, a major theme in in the series, which its American release motto “Before the Mafia, there was the Borgia” abandons.

In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that).  Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable.  The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made.  It de-romanticizes.  It feels period. It has guts.  It has things the audience is not comfortable with.  It has people being nasty to animals.  It has disfigurement.  It has male rape.  When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it  goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter's and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.  But ansewr me

Both series show off their renditions of Old St. Peter’s and the pre-Michelangelo Sistine Chapel, but Showtime has a much shinier budget.

Are they historically accurate?  Somewhat.  They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things.  The difference is what they change, and why.  If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes.  It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting.  But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one.  It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.

(I do get one nitpick.  When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English?  What was that supposed to communicate?  Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time?  Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else?  I am confused!)

If you have not already read it, see my Machiavelli Series for historical background on the Borgias.  For similar analysis of TV and history, I also highly recommend my essay on Tor.com about Shakespeare in the Age of Netflix (focusing on the BBC “The Hollow Crown” adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henriad).