‘Intrigue, mystery and excellent history’ – what more could you want out of a historical thriller?! With Treachery, the fourth stunning novel featuring Giordano Bruno publishing tomorrow, we caught up with S.J. Parris to find out a little more about her writing, her inspiration, and what she has planned next for Bruno…
Treachery is your fourth historical crime novel featuring Giordano Bruno. What drew you to Bruno as a lead character?
Bruno caught my imagination from the first time I read about him, when I was an English Literature student researching the ideas of the Renaissance. His life was so full of drama – fleeing from the Inquisition, travelling all over Europe, living on his wits, becoming the friend of kings and nobles but also making enemies wherever he went – that I thought he was a gift to a fiction writer. But it was years later when I discovered the theory that Bruno had worked as a spy while he was living in England for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, that the idea for the series began to germinate.
Do you feel that it is more difficult to write in the past than the present? Do you feel a need to be historically accurate to the reader or does this come secondary to the plot?
Actually I feel that it’s probably easier to write crime fiction set in the past, simply because the research is easier. I love contemporary crime novels and drama but it’s so technical now – you can’t solve a murder without forensics, surveillance etc – so it’s much harder to write a character who’s an amateur detective. Historical research is easier in some ways as much of it can be done from books and museums. I try to be accurate in terms of dates and structural detail, though I do rely on instinct a lot – the books are fiction, after all, and I feel now that my version of Bruno is a fictional character based on the real historical figure, who has taken on a life of his own. So I’m not too rigid about occasionally tweaking a detail or two if it serves the story better. I’ve taken one enormous liberty in Treachery, as I explain below.
Your research for Treachery took you to Plymouth. What fascinated you most about Sir Francis Drake’s expedition in the summer of 1585?
This story began very clearly with Sir Philip Sidney. I’d enjoyed writing the interaction between Bruno and Sidney at the end of Sacrilege and I wanted to give them one more adventure together before they had to part company. Sidney really did go to Plymouth in August 1585 with the intention of running away with Drake’s expedition, because he had fallen out with Queen Elizabeth. We know a fair bit about this trip because he actually travelled with a courtier friend, Sir Fulke Greville, who wrote an account of what happened. I began to wonder about making Sidney travel with Bruno instead – I liked the idea of them having a kind of road trip together to watch that relationship develop, putting them into an unfamiliar world where they are at a disadvantage, with the added tension of Sidney trying to persuade Bruno to join them on the long voyage. Once I began researching Drake’s expedition, all the other themes of exploration, espionage and secrecy began to emerge and slot into place, with a fictional murder at the heart of it. It’s quite an audacious piece of invention, to insert Bruno into a journey he certainly didn’t make, and I apologise to purists, but I hope readers will feel it works as a story.
Do you have a storyline mapped out for the whole Giordano Bruno series or do you see where each novel takes you?
The storyline is ultimately determined by Bruno’s travels, and we do know quite a bit about where he was during the 1580s. So with each book I begin with the context, see who he associated with in each place and what was going on around him, and try to work out how a fictional murder could fit into that scenario. I know the end that I’m working towards, but I’m not sure yet how many books will happen in between!
Which author has influenced you the most and why?
Hard to choose just one! I’m a bit of a magpie with reading, I pick up bits from everywhere and it all feeds in. I do read a lot of crime fiction – for example Jo Nesbo, Tana French, Gillian Flynn – because I think those authors are absolutely brilliant at plotting, which is always the part I find hardest. I also watch a lot of long-form crime drama for the same reason, especially the Scandinavian ones.
In terms of historical fiction, Hilary Mantel is my idol – I love the Cromwell books, but I also think A Place of Greater Safety is an underrated masterpiece, I’ve read it more times than most people would ever want to (given that it’s 900 pages). She has such a gift for writing characters who belong entirely to their time and yet are entirely recognisable to us. Andrew Miller, Sarah Dunant, Iain Pears and Arturo Perez Reverte also write wonderful historical novels, I’m always waiting greedily for their next ones. But the book I always come back to, the absolute gold standard of historical crime (in my view), is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. I could probably re-read that every couple of years for the rest of my life and not get bored.
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
The next one will be set in Paris in the autumn/winter of 1585. Bruno is forced to return to the French court, which is torn by religious conflict that threatens civil war, and Bruno’s presence immediately antagonises the hardline Catholics. He will catch up with some of the characters from Prophecy, make a new enemy and continue to pursue his nemesis, Sophia.
I’m also experimenting with a series of novellas, to be released as ebooks, that will return to Bruno’s youth in Naples and fill in some backstory. The first, The Secret Dead, will be out in June this year.
TREACHERY is out on Thursday – pre-order your copy today!