You never know what may be coming through the e.mail. “James Atlas,” this says. “Proposal.” Is it junk mail?
I was working on A Season with Verona at the time, trying to get my mind round the way the Italians live football. The central paradox seemed to be an intense local loyalty, the ancient campanilismo, coupled with an anxious awareness that only money and foreigners can ever bring success. Dear Mr Parks, says James Atlas. Over many years, skip skip skip… your work with interest… yes yes… American publisher … well, good … now launching a series of books by writers about money.
Hmm, books by writers! There’s an idea.
But why about money rather than for money?
…suggest with your knowledge of Italy … (at least he’s not offering penis enlargement) … you are the right person to write a book about the Medici bank in the 15th century.
No! I stared at this e.mail. He couldn’t be serious. Imagine: Italian lives in England for twenty years and automatically becomes the right person to write about the cavaliers and the roundheads. I don’t think so.
Being on line, I took time out to look at the fan site of our local team. Someone was criticizing the owner again. “Hellas Verona is a faith, not a cheque to stick in your pocket, Signor Pastorello.” Fascinating this constant distinction between money value and something morally, spiritually superior. I went back to the mail.
Dear Mr Atlas… very kind of you… I have no experience … unwise of me to tackle such a specialist subject… with best regards…
Always get decisions out of the way fast. It’s only polite and saves mental energy. Anyway I knew what I was going to write next: a novel about a white-water kayaking trip. Kayakers too were eager to see their sport as somehow sacred, eager to build a community round it. The analogies and contrasts with football would be interesting. Bye bye Mr Atlas.
The following day I bought a biography of the Medici family. This is how I behave. As soon as I’ve turned something down, I’m enthralled by how interesting it would have been to do it. Incredible, how poorly this book is written, I decided: the man pretends to tell me how Cosimo de’Medici felt the morning they arrested him and locked him up in the Palazzo Vecchio. How can anyone know how he felt? Bad. A narrative style aping the novel, the second-rate novel at that, and not even believable. Books by writers indeed…
Then I read how, having made all his money, Cosimo de’ Medici became obsessed with using it to purchase expiation for possible sins. He renovated churches, commissioned sacred paintings. “Money alone,” said Galeazzo Sforza when shown round the art treasures of the Medici palazzo years later, “would not be able to compete with what has been done here.” I stopped. This was my subject again, the same old issue, value you can count and value you can’t: paintings beyond money, but all bought with money. Dear Mr Atlas – don’t say I’ve cancelled his address! –Perhaps I was a little hasty…
How does one go about writing a history book? I have written plenty of novels. People don’t realise what hard work it is to imagine the lives of your characters, to create for each of them a past, a density of experience that makes sense and that drives them. I find that exhausting.
And I had written non-fiction, though always based on my own experiences. Memory was the key problem there and organisation and focus. You have to have a reason for telling each anecdote. It has to be geared to a central idea, or why should the reader stay on board?
And I had written any number of essays for the New York Review of Books. Dear Tim, here are seven biographies of Mussolini, can you give us ten pages by end of June. And each book is five hundred pages long! There is an exercise in synthesis. That should have prepared me for what I was about to do. But it didn’t. The Medici book was harder.
First, Mr Atlas wanted only 50,000 words. That’s about 160 pages. I agreed with him that almost all history books and all contemporary biographies are far too long. It’s easy to put everything in, difficult to give shape and momentum by deciding what to leave out. Even in a novel, one leaves out much of what one imagined. Or you should. But the Medici bank spanned a hundred years of intricate drama, brimming with the most far reaching consequences: the passage, no less, from the medieval to the modern world. Add to that that the Florentines of the 15th century were famous for keeping records of all their dealings and you see there are limits to brevity.
Then why did Mr Atlas want a ‘writer’ to write the book, meaning, I now understood, that he didn’t want a historian? He expected, he said, a ‘fresh take’ on the subject for “an intelligent general public.” I have no difficulty dealing with optimists, but over the years one learns to proceed with caution. So, you’re giving me complete freedom as far as style is concerned? Of course, he said. If there are two words I don’t trust they are ‘of’ followed by ‘course.’ Let’s write that in the contract, I told him.
I bought about a hundred books, over maybe six months. That was a chunk of the advance already gone. But I need to possess a book, to write all over it and argue with it. I find it difficult really to read if I can’t write over my author. I would be honoured if people approached my own work in the same way.
I read these books mainly on the train between Verona where I live and Milan where I teach. They could be divided into books written for the general public, which were disappointing in one way and books written for the academic world, which were disappointing in another.
Oh, not that they weren’t all fascinating too, not that I didn’t enjoy them. But the books for the general public just didn’t explain the nitty gritty. How can you write about a family whose fortune was built on banking at a time when the church banned the lending of money at an interest, without going right into the nitty gritty of those banking transactions, the routine cleverness of it all?
How can you write about the Medici’s subversion of Florence’s electoral system without understanding exactly how the system worked? Even with all the books that have been written, it’s extraordinary how difficult it is to find out these things: and in particular how difficult it is to find out anything about the female members of the family. No one was interested in the women. Completing no tax returns, denied public service, their lives were not documented. Or not beyond their dowries. I was astonished when I discovered, almost by accident, that Lorenzo il Magnifico was the first male child after three sisters. How could the biographer not appreciate how profoundly this must have influenced his youth?
The academic books had the information, but often hidden in a footnote on page 523. They spent an inordinate amount of time arguing with each other. Academics must do this. It is one way of establishing the fact that they are initiates in a community you are excluded from. And they were hyper specific. A learned article might explain how Florence had two separate currencies and no exchange rate between them, but not how this fitted in with all kinds of other peculiarities, the sumptuary laws, the usury ban, the church’s investment in a static social hierarchy.
I turned to the publications of the time. Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories, Guicciardini’s chronicles, Il Magnifico’s poetry, Ficino’s philosophy, Alberti, Poliziano, Bracciolini, Pico della Mirandola. Everything becomes more complex, much more interesting. You reach the point where you have a thousand pages of notes, your head is bursting, you have seen a million connections which you think are interesting, one or two may even be new. But now you have to get going.
I wrote down a dramatis personae, sketched a skeleton, started to write, and immediately understood that a new style would be required, something that could combine facts and ideas in great density, without boring the reader, something that was at once a breathlessly rapid narrative and an act of reflection: what is the relationship between money and other values, between banking and art and faith? How did the question unfold in these people’s lives?
It took almost a year. The writing itself was exhilarating. It was a new experience for me, in that I allowed myself complete freedom of form but absolutely no liberty on content. I would not say, ‘he felt, he imagined, he seems to have thought.’ I would not embellish or novelise or put down anything that wasn’t well-established as fact, which isn’t to say I wasn’t aware that in a way I was making up everything. Above all, there was a tension in the mind that becomes a physical pain at times: it has to do with trying to organize too many things in too small a space.
Dear Mr Atlas, You asked for 50,000 words, but the book has run out at 60. Do you want to see it as it is?
No, cut it first.
That was two weeks’ work. I sent it.
Dear Tim, the book is good but too dense, I think it needs to be a bit longer and to breathe in places.
Eventually I send Atlas the original version, plus, as punishment, an extra five thousand words. Now it’s 200 pages long.
That’s wonderful, Tim, except… Except, you keep changing tenses, sometimes you change twice in a sentence! And the style seems a little irreverent, sometimes, for this subject.
I have always believed that writers must listen to suggestions from their publishers. I had just read a hundred books almost all of which I believed could have done with better editing. Listen to what he’s telling you, Tim. But now I discover that Mr Atlas merely wants to return the whole book to the past tense – as if that were somehow more decorous – and remove many of the things that suggest a live voice rather than a recorded one.
I remind him that I’m writing about a family who always questioned the rules and subverted them, guys who installed sexy paintings in austere monasteries, men who understood that at the end of the day it is we who make the world what it is, not some pre-determined code of behaviour. And I pointed out that changing tense actually changes all kinds of other things in a sentence and that much of the book would need rewriting if I wanted to return it to standard history-speak.
We debated. I made token changes. But in the end it was the clause in the contract that saved me: complete control over style. If you insist, I told them, I’ll sell the book elsewhere. All that reading about 15th century banking had at least taught me the importance of the contract. Curiously, no sooner had I won the day than the style was no longer a problem. On the contrary, it was one of the book’s selling points. Shifting the rules of decorum, it seems, and this again I might have learned from the Medici, is largely a question of having the knife by the handle.
From every project that involves research – football, schizophrenia, Mussolini – you bring back a little knowledge about the thing itself and a great deal of knowledge about the way people write about it. There is no separating the two entirely, but you have to try. What surprised me in the literature on the Renaissance and Humanism in general and on the Medici in particular was the confidence, complacency sometimes, of the presentation. Regardless of debates about facts and content, what the style is telling you is that this story is understood and that the appropriate attitude to it (of admiration, even worship) is beyond discussion. It is actually less problematic for the publisher if you produce some unexpected or controversial material, than if you write your book a different way.
That said, at the end of the day, I have to thank James Atlas. He did concede liberty of style, a style I would never have devised if he hadn’t given me such a wonderful subject to write about and then demanded that I write as little as possible.