The Biographical Novel:
New Life for a Forgotten Genre
André Romijn Interviewed by translator Kate Ashton
1. Could say something about your own background?
I began my career in the Netherlands Royal Navy. After eleven years I made a career change to work in a publishing company, where I gained experience in the whole process, from editing to selling ads and marketing. After seven years I started my own publishing company, which is now focused on the veterinary market. More than a decade ago I decided to move to England, a decision I’ve never regretted.
2. When did you begin writing fiction? What inspired you at the start?
When I was about ten years old I started to write my first ‘fiction’, which has not survived. In my memory it was just a notebook, not many words, definitely too small for a novel, and I well remember my mother was not very enthusiastic about it. Nevertheless, stories were always in my head. I think it was an escape from the real world, which was for me in my youth not a pleasant one. I loved reading. As a child I devoured books. Novels, non-fiction, lots of different subjects, I couldn’t get enough of them. In the end it was history that emerged as favourite, and it is still my great passion. I like biography, but also the historical novel. My grandparents encouraged my love of books. Their house was full of them, and my greatest object of love was the enormous bookcase with stained-glass doors; when those opened with their characteristic creaking sound, I was lost. Reading non-fiction it is very easy for me to see and hear the characters; they come alive for me. Possessing some lucky gift of empathy, history too comes easily alive for me when I visit a historical site. I have met with so many characters, life stories that seem to scream out loud to be retold. The urge to write was always there, but it took a while to get started. The first serious attempt was about fifteen years ago. It took me ten years to write about 100,000 words, and the book has never been finished. If you want to write for publication, you have to structure your life around that ambition. When I found a subject in Vivaldi, I felt the moment to begin serious writing was long overdue and made a fresh start. Now I spend half of each day researching and writing.
3. You describe your genre as the 'biographical novel'. What do you mean by this?
My genre is and always will be focused on real persons. By doing the right research you arrive on the doorstep of serious biography. The fictional narrative has to fit around the character, the life and times of my chosen subject. This is my own favourite genre, and provides readers with very easy access to history. In some ways I should like to write serious biography, but then there is absolutely no room for fiction. With a biographical novel you have this leeway. The most important feedback I get from my readers is that this format allows dry facts and figures, but more importantly the characters themselves, to come to life.
4. What is the difference between a biographical and a historical novel?
A historical novel can be written around a historical figure, but will follow all the rules of ‘How to write a successful novel’. In my genre I have to respect the character and all the minor details of his or her life. The advantage is that I don’t have to invent a plot. It is already there. The disadvantage is that the 'story arc' may at some points be perceived as weak. It is not contrived for strength of plot. This is something I learned from my novel about Vivaldi. When Hidden Harmonies came out reviewers wanted to know where were the scandals, the juicy details concerning Vivaldi. His was a life that readily leant itself to such innuendo and rumour, both while he lived and since. It would be very easy to invent events and one would certainly enjoy soaring book sales if one wrote such a life with a ‘Sex and the City’ hat on.
Too many Hollywood movies have shown us that you can change history without upsetting the public. I find this very regrettable and will never take that path. The life of Marie Antoinette, which I am currently writing, will appeal to a broader readership than did Hidden Harmonies. Everyone has heard of the beauty queen who danced her life away amidst the splendour of Versailles and met a tragic end. Researching her life reveals a completely different story. Without the need to add spurious nonsense to spice up the narrative, there is more than enough material for a spellbinding novel, and one that puts Marie Antoinette, but also her husband Louis XVI, into an entirely new perspective.
5. How do you choose your central character?
You just meet them. With Antonio Vivaldi I was surprised to learn that his music was more or less buried and his name forgotten. The circumstances surrounding the rediscovery of his music about eighty years ago is so fascinating that you could write a book on that aspect alone. Nowadays everybody thinks they know Vivaldi, but researching his life shows us his vast repertoire and how successful he was in his heyday. More difficult was to gain some insight into his personal life. Very little evidence remains concerning this, and I was left intrigued to find out more about the man. So you are hooked, and start to research and write.
Marie Antoinette was definitely not my prime target. I came across a book about Princesse de Lamballe, one of Marie Antoinette’s best friends. This poor lady was brutally murdered during the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette had still to live on. More than four long years elapsed after the fall of the Bastille before Marie Antoinette was guillotined. The initial idea was to see Marie Antoinette’s life through Lamballe's eyes, but the life of the lesser princess loosened its hold on me and meanwhile I was learning so much rich and interesting detail concerning Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI that I shifted focus to them.
6. Reviewers have praised the thoroughness of the research underpinning your fiction. How important do you consider this preparatory work?
Research is the fundament of a good biographical novel. If the details are not correct your story fails to stand up. Doing the research is the biggest and best part of the whole process; it also takes a huge amount of time. The actual writing is a much faster process than people might imagine. Research starts with gathering together your sources. It is amazing how many conflicting facts are encountered, so you have to verify, verify and verify again in order to be sure you have the right fact in front of you.
As for Marie Antoinette, there is an enormous amount of nonsense written about her. With the restoration of the French monarchy there came to light thousands of (fake) letters written by Marie Antoinette. As if this were not enough, there also emerged numerous ‘secret memoirs’ written by non-existent courtiers, printed and successfully sold. Up until today biographers have used such false documents as a primary source. This has resulted in factually inaccurate and bogus biographies. This year alone I’ve seen two new publications on this subject, both containing many serious errors. Yet well reviewed! Where are our critical faculties? Are they withering from lack of use?
It is very difficult for the ordinary reader to form an accurate picture of Marie Antoinette, or even of Louis XVI. The French king is generally described as a weak individual who was unable to avert the Revolution. In my opinion, nobody could have prevented the process leading up to and culminating in the first French Revolution, for this was already well underway before either Marie Antoinette or Louis XVI were born.
7. How do you go about conducting your research?
First of all I make a database with a timeline, filling it with all relevant information. Using this methodical system reveals parallel events in the lives of characters surrounding the main figure. From here you start to fill in the gaps, using secondary sources that focus not on the main character but on their era and background figures. Of course, there is a lot of information to digest, but I think this is the only way to collate a reliable picture.
Then you have to visit the places where your story took place. I have received very good review comment regarding my descriptions of eighteenth-century Venice. You can get a lot of information from written sources, but it will never be complete without actually going there. One needs to experience the smells, the pattern of light upon buildings and landscape, little details such as the colour of the water. It was amazing to see how small Antonio Vivaldi’s world was. Before he undertook his first travels and in spite of his mobility within the city of Venice itself, every spot he frequented is just around the corner from the last. Most of the houses where he lived and worked are still there, although the present owners are not always aware who once lived under their roof.
Observation is a very important element in novel writing. In preparation for Marie Antoinette, I have made a couple of visits to Versailles. The initial impact upon the visitor, and for most of the people their only lasting impression, is made by the gilded state-rooms. But behind the crowded tourist route lie hidden away the private apartments of the king and Marie Antoinette. My several private tours of these apartments were a fascinating experience. All the original furniture and curtains are long gone, although a great effort has been made to retrace original pieces and replace them where they belong. But most of the rooms are still as the royal family left them in a rush on a grim October day in 1789.
Other castles, like Fontainebleau and Rambouillet, are almost as fascinating. One of the best places to get a real sense of eighteenth-century aristocratic domestic life is Château de Breteuil, just south of Paris. Although Marie Antoinette never lived there, this castle survived the Revolution unscathed and, although it is not large, nothing can beat it for original atmosphere.
8. To what extent do you 'embroider' upon historical fact? And how is the reader to know what fact is and what fiction?
The frontier between fact and fiction is almost non-existent. If the facts are well researched and easy for the reader to check, they should find it difficult to recognise any fictional embellishment. The story hangs entirely upon factual character and event; fictional elements are introduced with subtlety, to animate the text. During the process of research and in anticipation of writing the novel you become very closely attached to your main characters. They are with you day and night as you search for the most apt words with which to write their story, to capture the reader's imagination. Of course, the fiction cannot be allowed to clash with fact or character. If as a writer you stay closely attuned to your subject, you will produce a smooth narrative, and a reader, having finish the story will conclude, ‘Yes, it could well have happened like this.’ When I hear that, it is the best compliment I can get.
9. Can fiction help us understand and reinterpret history?
Absolutely! History is not everybody’s cup of tea. But if you read the newspapers, everything has happened before and again before that. It would be great if more politicians read history. To elaborate, , a biographical novel uses fiction to arrive at a much better understanding of character and motive.. For example, ‘The Peace of Versailles’ is a fact. But what lies behind it? What were the thoughts in the minds behind that Treaty? In a biographical novel we learn about the formative experience in the personal lives of historical figures, of their character traits and thus their motivations. How many important events in history may be traced back to some apparently trivial occurrence in the life of a key player? The phrase ‘Lessons have to be learnt’ is often misused, as we seem not to learn anything at all. History repeats itself, and it can quite often be a very sad perception to recognise patterns in the behaviour of politicians and governments. We can certainly learn from the past, but I’m afraid that it is a law of nature that we make the same mistakes again and again.
10. What are your plans for future work?
I want to continue working in this genre, and am considering a number of people as next potential subject after completion of the Marie Antoinette Trilogy. Top of the list at the moment is Napoleon Bonaparte. Although there is so much written about this individual, I am very interested in how a foreigner became Emperor of France. From my current research I note that almost all the policies of Louis XVI were adopted by Napoleon, who was a great admirer of the former king. I should like to focus on Napoleon’s earlier years and the aftermath of the French Revolution, up until the moment he becomes first consul. How do the best-intentioned people become transmogrified into powerful leaders capable of creating chaos on a global scale?
Another interesting subject is William III. As a Dutchman it is very accessible for me and interesting to undertake research on this subject, as many of the primary and secondary sources are written in Dutch.
I’m afraid that even my shortlist of potential main characters will be too long to convert into biographical novels. There is a lot to do!