Today Seth Margolis is visiting Ascroft, eh? to tell us a bit about his novel, The Semper Sonnet.
Welcome Seth. Let’s get started, shall we?
Tell us about your novel.
SM: In THE SEMPER SONNET, Lee Nicholson, a graduate student in English literature at Columbia University in New York, unearths a never-before published sonnet by William Shakespeare. When she reads a portion of the poem on the air, she triggers a series of events, including attacks on her, that convinces her that something in the language of the sonnet, in its allusions and wordplay, is highly threatening to her – and invaluable to others.
The sonnet contains secrets that have been hidden since Elizabethan times, shared by the queen and her doctor, by men who seek the crown and men who seek the world. If the riddles are solved, it could explode what the world knows of the monarchy. Or it could release a pandemic more deadly than the world has ever seen.
Lee’s quest keeps her one step ahead of an international hunt ― from the police who want her for murder, to a group of men who will stop at nothing to end her quest, to a madman who pursues the answers for destructive reasons of his own.
What prompted you to write about this historical era?
SM: I’ve always loved the Tudor period in English history. It’s one of those epochs, like late-18th century America, that seems preternaturally crowded with larger-than-life characters: Henry VIII, Elizabeth, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Thomas Cromwell … and many others. The intersection of history and personal drama was quite intense in 16th century England – catnip for a novelist. So I’d always wanted to write about the period, but through the lens of our own time, and in the context of a suspense novel.
How closely did you stick to the historical facts? If you used them loosely, how did you decide whether to deviate from them?
SM: The events in the novel are invented. But the historical details are based in fact. In deciding how far to deviate from actual facts, I always asked myself if a given plot twist would be plausible to a reader who was at least somewhat versed in Elizabethan history. THE SEMPER SONNET definitely requires the reader to “willingly suspend disbelief.” That famous phrase was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.” This is what I tried to do throughout THE SEMPER SONNET, infuse both “human interest” and a “semblance of truth” into an admittedly “fantastic tale.” I’ll let the reader decide if I succeeded.
What research did you do for this book?
SM: I began with a marvelous book, ELIZABETH’S LONDON by Liza Picard. It is so well researched and so energetically written, you can practically smell London in the 16th century. There’s also fascinating information about Elizabethan childbirth, which was very useful.
This book, along with a couple of biographies of Elizabeth and some strategic Googling, gave me the confidence to get started. But, pretty soon I realized that secondary research just didn’t provide what I needed to set scenes in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. I wanted readers to see, hear and even smell what it was like to live in Elizabeth’s England. So I booked a flight to London.
My first destination was Hatfield, Elizabeth’s childhood home. After a short train ride from London, I walked from the station up the hill to the palace, having made an appointment with Hatfield’s publicity manager. I was able to walk the same walk my current-day character would walk as she investigated the meaning hidden in the sonnet, which gave me invaluable perspective. I was given a private tour of the “old palace,” where Elizabeth was essentially imprisoned by her half-sister, “Bloody” Mary. This is where a pivotal – and invented – scene in my novel occurs, and standing in the great hall gave me the information I needed to write it with confidence.
My second research visit was to Westminster Abbey, specifically Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, considered the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture. More relevant to my novel, it’s where Elizabeth is entombed. In a great irony of history, her tomb was placed directly on top of her hated half-sister’s. I was planning to set a climactic scene in the Lady Chapel, so I spent several hours there as groups of tourists came and went. I took notes on the architecture, the various memorials lining the walls, the points of access where my characters could enter and leave.
Do you use a mixture of historic figures and invented characters in the novel? Which is more difficult to write? Which to you prefer to write and why?
SM: Elizabeth I figures prominently in the novel. Several figures in her court, including her loyal governess and friend, Kat Astley, are also depicted. The other characters, in particular the queen’s physician, Rufus Hatton, are invented. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it’s a lot easier and therefore more fun to write about an invented character – you can just make stuff up. Every time I created a bit of dialogue for the queen I worried that one of her legions of contemporary fans would find it implausible or off-tone, somehow. I keep waiting for the angry emails; to date, none have arrived.
In an historical novel you must vividly re-create a place and people in a bygone era. How did you bring the place and people you are writing about to life?
SM: For me, the biggest challenge in writing THE SEMPER SONNET was not so much recreating a bygone era as capturing the “voice” of the 16th Century. I solved it (I hope!) by telling the Tudor portions of the story through a series of letters written by an Elizabethan doctor, Rufus Hatton. Channeling the “good doctor’s” thoughts and words made it much easier to bring what I hope is an authentic tone to the novel.
There often seems to be more scope in historical novels for male characters rather than female characters. Do you prefer to write one sex or the other? And, if so, why?
SM: One of the things that drew me to Elizabethan England was the obvious fact that it was dominated by a woman! Part of the fascination about Elizabeth was her sex, and how she used it to gain and maintain control in a very complex and dangerous court. In THE SEMPER SONNET, I created a modern-day heroine, Lee Nicholson, whose life in most ways is much freer than that of Elizabeth. Though neither wealthy nor powerful, Lee is fully able to pursue a career of her choosing, marry whom she wants or remain single, say and do whatever comes to mind. Five centuries earlier, the most powerful woman on earth could do none of those things. I don’t prefer to write about one sex or the other, but in this case, writing about two women, similar in many ways but separated by 500 years, was irresistible.
About Seth Margolis: He is a writer whose most recent novel, THE SEMPER SONNET, was published on April 19. He is the author of six earlier novels, including LOSING ISAIAH, which was made into a film starring Halle Berry and Jessica Lange.
Seth lives with his wife, Carole, in New York City. They have two grown children, Maggie and Jack. Seth received a BA in English from the University of Rochester and an MBA in marketing from New York University’s Stern School of Business Administration. When not writing fiction, he is a branding consultant for a wide range of companies, primarily in the financial services, technology and pharmaceutical industries. He has written articles for the New York Times and other publications on travel and entertainment.