Your latest novel, “The Enchantress of Florence,” hits on the familiar theme of East meets West, but delves into the history of 16th-century Florence as well as India. What pushed you in that direction?
I just thought, in a way, this is a period at which the encounter between East and West was really beginning. It was just the moment at which India during the great Mogul Empire and Europe at the height of the Renaissance were becoming aware of each other. I thought if one wants to explore this very rich and at times of course problematic engagement between these two worlds it would be interesting to go back to the beginning of the story.
In terms of going back to the beginning of the story, I’m sure you were struck by plenty of modern parallels, were you not?
It’s really easy to find the parallels because then, as now, was a time of war. Then, as now, was a time of both, sort of, mutual excitement by the encounter but also mutual suspicion and distrust and hostility. We’ve been doing this to each other for hundreds of years.
So much of your writing, including the new novel, examines the power of myth and story and legend, especially in terms of how those things can overwhelm whatever facts may exist. How do you reconcile your own experience with that phenomenon, the idea that your death sentence or your recent divorce from a supermodel can and often do overwhelm or compete with your writing life?
Well, I don’t pay much attention to it to tell you the truth. I mean I just try and do my work. But I think one of the things that was interesting about the period I was writing about was to write about a world in which story was so important as a way of communicating between people and also a time in which the borderline between, if you like, the fantastic and the naturalistic didn’t exist. It was a world where people profoundly believed in the intrusion of the magical into everyday life. And of course for a writer that was a great liberation, to be able to write in that way, to write in a way which didn’t differentiate the supernatural from the natural.
I’m sure I’m just one of many reviewers who will note the recurring theme in your new book of men literally being struck dumb by beautiful women. You’ve made it clear that this is not a novel inspired by your personal life, but what made you eager to explore that theme as well?
Partly because the Renaissance looks back at classical Greece and Rome, people in that time were very inspired by such myths as the myth of Pygmalion creating a sculpture, which comes to life which he falls in love with. Also the myth of various witches like Circe, the beautiful enchantress who entraps Ulysses in the Odyssey, and they become, in the Renaissance, very fascinated with this idea that beauty, female beauty, is in some way related to occult power and I wanted to explore that very strange conjunction of the erotic power of women and the occult power of women, which is an idea which can be very dangerous for the woman concerned because to be accused of being a witch can, on the one hand, make people adore you for your miracles, but the same crowd which worships you one day can come round to lynch you the next day and that’s kind of the knife edge that the character in the novel has to walk.