S.J. Parris writes about her inspiration and research for Heresy
I first encountered the character of Giordano Bruno when I was a student at the University of Cambridge writing a thesis about the influence of occult philosophy on Renaissance literature. I was immediately captivated by his multi-faceted career (philosopher, proto-scientist, magician and poet) and the drama of his life during years of exile on the run from the Inquisition around the courts of Europe. All the accounts I read of him suggested that he was extremely charismatic, the sort of person everyone wanted at their dinner parties, and that he possessed the ability to offend and charm in equal measurein the course of a few years he went from fugitive heretic to close friend and confidant of kings and courtiers. But he was also a man fiercely committed to his ideas, even when that meant deliberately provoking the received wisdom of the day and courting a death sentence from the Pope.
At the time I thought Bruno would make an intriguing character for a novel, but other ideas intervened and for a while I forgot about him. More than ten years later, I was reading about the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century and came across his name again in a book that suggested that Bruno had added the profession of spy to his already crowded resumé, providing intelligence to Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster, from inside the French embassy where Bruno lived during his time in England. At the time, the English court was rife with rumors of plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth with the blessing of the Pope and the backing of Europe's two great Catholic powers, France and Spain, in order to replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, thus bringing England back under the influence of Rome.
I'd always been fascinated by this complex period of history, where religious and personal allegiance was in a constant state of flux and no one, including the Queen and her Council, quite knew who to trust. When I discovered the theory that Bruno had been a spy, I knew I had the material for my story. I chose to begin the series with Bruno's real-life visit to Oxford in the spring of 1583; it was on this trip that he came into contact with many of the influential figures of the court including Philip Sidney. Bruno hated his time in Oxford and wrote very unfavorably of it; I tried to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have befallen him there to make him take against the university so vehemently.
Oxford (both the University and the town) provided a perfect setting for my novel. It was a significant hub for clandestine Catholic activity during the 1580s and 1590s, and an Oxford college is a closed community, the perfect setting for the classic murder mystery. I've loved detective fiction since I was a teenager and wanted to try my hand at writing one of my own. I spent a bit of time in Oxford, and I was shown around Lincoln College by the present Rector. Fortunately the late sixteenth century left behind a rich trove of documents and records, so there are a number of very thorough biographies and histories of the period available, which made it very easy to research.
I hope you enjoy reading Heresy as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.
Sincerely, S.J. Parris
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
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