Interview: Florence Byham Weinberg, Author of ‘Dolet’
Welcome my special guest, Florence Byham Weinberg. Born in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Weinberg lived on a ranch, on a farm, and traveled with her military family. After earning a PhD, she taught for 36 years in three universities. She published four scholarly books. Since retiring, she has written seven historical novels and one philosophical fantasy/thriller. She lives in San Antonio, loves cats, dogs and horses, and great-souled friends with good conversation. She’s here today to talk about her latest book, a nonfiction historical novel titled, Dolet.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Dolet. When did you start writing and what got you into historical fiction?
If you count scholarly books, I began writing in 1967 and wrote four. My novel-writing began in 1999. I chose historical fiction because of my interest in history. I am a time-traveler by nature and it seemed only natural to choose subjects in time periods I had studied because they fascinated me. My first venture into historical fiction was a novel (well researched) about the founding of the five 18th-century Franciscan missions located in and around San Antonio, Texas. The Alamo is one of them. I have written three more books on the history of the Southwest since then and am working on yet another. Other books are set in 18th-century Europe and in the 16th century French Renaissance.
What is your book about?
Etienne Dolet, 1509-1546, son of a cloth merchant, studied under the eminent humanist and Ciceronian Latinist, Nicolas Bérault, and later with Simon Villanovanus. He then studied Law at the University of Toulouse. In two public Latin orations, he denounced the city authorities for persecuting his fraternity and for burning a favorite professor at the stake. Imprisoned and then expelled from the city, he fled to Lyon. After apprenticing with the noted printer, Sebastien Gryphius, he became an independent printer, licensed by King François I. He married a printer’s daughter, Louise Giraud, and had a son, Claude. In a duel provoked by Henri Guillot, Dolet killed his opponent by lucky chance. Imprisoned for murder, he escaped and procured the king’s pardon. In the struggle of the workers in printing establishments for fair wages, Dolet took their part and won the enmity of many printers. They framed him by sending boxes of “heretical” books to Paris under his name. He was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake on his 37th birthday.
What was your inspiration for it?
My dissertation, two further scholarly books and a number of articles are about literary figures in 16th-century France. I knew something about the Lyonese publisher, Etienne Dolet, from those studies. He was a man who told the truth to friend and foe alike, and who consequently made enemies. But he was an upright, erudite and just man, cut off before he reached what we now think of as middle age, at 37 years. For instance, he fought to raise the wages of the print-shop workers, but other printers colluded in destroying him by giving the Inquisition false reason to believe he was aiding and abetting the Protestant reform movement. I wanted to set the record about him straight, since, thanks to the inquisitorial record that has been handed down through the centuries and the false woodcut portraying him as a long-bearded, devil-faced gargoyle, he has generally been known as a disagreeable, degenerate character and as a heretic.
What do you hope readers will get from your book?
I hope the book will entertain them, gain sympathy for Etienne Dolet, and set the record straight, or at least lay before the reader the other side of the story. There is a lot of evidence that indicates that my view is correct. The book is no scholarly tract and therefore has no bibliography and footnotes, but there is a lot of research behind it.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
The story of Dolet’s life is exciting in itself. The times were “interesting” in the Chinese sense—unsettled, violent, with the French Gallican Church (of Rome) desperately trying to maintain the absolute authority it had gained during the late Middle Ages. Luther had posted his 95 theses on the cathedral door of Wittenberg in 1517 (Etienne Dolet was born in 1509) and the reform movement had spread like wildfire. Etienne, who was studying law at the University of Toulouse, saw one of his professors burned alive at the stake, accused of Lutheran heresy, and his revulsion set him on the path that would ultimately guarantee his destruction. Simply telling this story competently enough kept my narrative exciting.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
I do my best to write after breakfast for at least two hours, then after supper as long as I feel like. The writing session the following morning begins with editing what I wrote the previous day, which acts as a springboard for continuing my story. At night, if I am on a roll and my Muse is with me, I often write furiously until 2:00 AM, which, since I always get up latest at 8:00 AM (often by necessity earlier) makes it necessary for me to take a nap in the afternoon. Generally speaking, I have finished my research before I start writing, so I can write for long stretches at a time. This way, once I settle down to writing a book, I can finish it in a few months, say 3-6, depending on its difficulty. The preliminary work is what takes a long time: researching in libraries and archives here and abroad. Yes, I would say that I am disciplined.
Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about your work?
My website is www.florenceweinberg.com. I describe all my books there and print an excerpt of each, so anyone interested can see at once whether they want to read on. The book has a link to my publisher, Twilight Times Books, where the reader can quickly order the book, or they can go to www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com, or to any local indie bookstore to order my books, which are available both in e-book and trade paperback form. Twilight Times Books is a small but traditional publisher with very high standards, and has been written up twice in Publishers Weekly as an exemplary small press.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
As I said before, you need to be disciplined. You need to have a large vocabulary and use the English language correctly. So, read, read, read. Set up a time and a special place to write every day. Have at least a general idea of your plot before you begin, but don’t outline everything. If you do, your protagonists won’t have the freedom to lead you in unexpected directions. They will do that if you let them, and usually, they improve the book. Edit your own work, then pass it on to at least two friends who won’t be afraid to tell you what they think is wrong. Listen to their critiques. If possible, join a critique group. I belong to one and have profited enormously from the interaction. Go to writers’ conferences and network. Get to know other authors. If there are agents there, make appointments and talk to them. They may be your ticket to getting published. Most of all, write, write, write!
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Writing is an obsession, a compulsion without which you cannot live. So far, Orwell is right. But, unless your Muse deserts you, or if you have chosen to write about something that becomes loathsome to you, you should not suffer as he apparently did. After all, he was writing about horrible, depressing subjects. On the contrary, I find writing — when it goes well — to be the greatest joy I have experienced; an exultation. If I were never recognized, never published, never read, it would still be worth it. Even when the writing hits a hum-drum patch, it is still a pleasant occupation. I suppose one’s reaction to the writing life depends upon one’s character. I tend to be optimistic and happy even in bad times. So, my readers, my fellow writers, I wish you all happy dispositions and joy in your writing, and as I just said, the important thing is that you write, write, write!