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.
2) I would imagine the research involved in writing The Semper Sonnet was immense. Not only did you delve well into the royal Elizabethan world, but also in Shakespearean wordplay, microbiology, and history that spanned well beyond England. Can you walk me through your research process?
In researching the novel, I came across 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 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.
3) You’ve written other crime dramas and thrillers, but what was it about this historical period in particular that drew you to write an Elizabethan crime drama?
Tudor England has fascinated me since I read Mark Twain’s THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER as a child. That novel helped me imagine what it would have been like to live at the court of Henry VIII. Elizabeth always struck me as an enigma: so powerful and yet so vulnerable. And the fact that she never had a child was a source of frustration: how could the greatest ruler in English history not have left behind an heir? How could the Tudor dynasty have come to an end after a mere 118 years? That frustration was the genesis of my novel.
The biggest challenge was bringing a sense of plausibility to what I must confess is a rather fanciful and complex plot. The existence of a potentially lethal gas that could end life on earth! A long-lost Shakespeare sonnet with embedded clues to a long-buried secret! A life-and-death mystery surrounding one of the most admired (and well documented) figures in history! I worked hard to include just enough facts to make my leaps of fiction seem plausible.
5) There are many theories and controversies surrounding the idea that Queen Elizabeth I did, in fact, have children before she became queen. Your novel, of course, plays on this theory. Do you personally believe that such a theory is possible?
I believe her decision to stay unmarried and not bear a child was just that: a decision. I don’t think she wanted to share power with a husband. I also think she feared that she might die in childbirth, a realistic fear at the time, and put the country in peril. And for most of her life, dangling the prospect of marriage before the crowned heads of Europe, and some of her own nobility, was a very shrewd and effective power play.
6) I personally love that the Elizabethan-focused storylines in this novel were told through the eyes of Queen Elizabeth’s physician, Rufus Hatton. Seeing Elizabeth’s world through a physicians eyes is a unique perspective. Why did you choose to center the story on Dr. Hatton, in particular?
Another challenge I faced in writing THE SEMPER SONNET was 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.
7) Do you see yourself writing about this time period again in the future?
I’m contemplating a sequel of sorts, with Lee as the protagonist and once again solving a mystery dating from Elizabethan times.
8) Do you have any upcoming projects (that you can speak about)?
My next novel, PRESIDENTS’ DAY, will be published in February 2017. Like THE SEMPER SONNET, it’s a thriller, but this one takes place in the current day. It focuses on the scheming and intrigue in contemporary politics rather than the scheming and intrigue in the Elizabethan court. The two periods are remarkably similar in that respect!
Find out more about Seth Margolis and his work at www.sethmargolis.com.