Sarah Dunant: Renaissance woman

She wrote, she went, she conquered America. Sarah Dunant - always a novelist, once the face of late-night culture, and now the new princess of period fiction - has seized the chances that her heroines never enjoyed. She talks to Peter Stanford

Sarah Dunant has managed to do what many British authors only dream about. She has conquered the world's largest English-speaking market - the United States - not once, but twice. Her new novel, In the Company of the Courtesan (Little, Brown, £12.99), went straight into the New York Times bestseller list at number five, following the chart-topping success on the other side of the Atlantic of The Birth of Venus in 2003.

From being a respected middle-list writer of contemporary thrillers, with a sideline in high-minded TV and radio presenting, Dunant is now, thanks to her switch to historical fiction, negotiating international film rights and undertaking US speaking tours. One newspaper report recently described her as being "well on her way to becoming a milionaire".

She laughs out loud at the suggestion. "Anyone with a house in north London," she says, "is well on their way to becoming a millionaire - if they haven't made it already." We're sitting in her electric-blue study on the middle floor of her large, lived-in family house.

She is equally dismissive of the sting in the tail of reports about her Stateside success: the suggestion she has somehow sold out by "resorting" to historical fiction, the realm of the likes of Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer. "Bluestocking author storms America with historical tale," as one account was headlined. Dunant isn't having any of it: not the bluestocking ("It makes me sound dried up and prurient"); not the reinvention narrative now being assigned to her ("We are obsessed with makeovers"); and certainly not the thinly veiled disdain for historical fiction.

"I know what they are getting at," she says. "As a child I used to read those sort of books, but now it's different. We can write different kinds of historical fiction because of the work of historians over the past 40 years. They have teased out stories of ambiguity, confusion, of ordinary people, from the ground up rather than concentrating on the great battles. So now we can be more confident that what we are describing is truth and, compared to the romanticism of those older writers, the truth is so much more interesting." Before I arrived Dunant was, she admits with a mischievous grin, busy writing a reply along these lines to a sniffy review of her new book by Erica Jong.

Such robustness is vintage Dunant. As she admits herself, she talks "fast and furiously and am very intense about things". In the US, she reports, they love her for it. "I was so ready for them to think me a bit of a harridan, but instead they just tell me I'm adorable." Her expectation of a negative response was shaped by her treatment at the hands of the British public, and that leads us back to a short chapter in her life that comes up in every cutting about her: her spell in the early 1990s as a presenter of BBC2's much-lampooned, but never-forgotten arts strand, The Late Show. "I'd be so pleased if you could knock it on the head once and for all," she pleads, "but I suppose to do that you have to mention it - again." Other Late Show veterans have managed to shake off its shadow. Michael Ignatieff, for instance, is now a rising politician in his native Canada. Kirsty Wark went on to Newsnight. But Dunant remains for some forever associated with the programme's intense, slightly humourless approach.

It does her a terrible injustice, not least because she is very funny and mischievious. Even her look back then, all brightly coloured specs and dark curls dancing, is set in aspic, though she's now blonder and straighter, and her reading glasses lie unused on a side table. "I was a novelist before The Late Show - that was why they wanted me," she points out. "And I have been a novelist in the many years since. Yet because of the way the culture reacts here to telly, I'm forever a telly person, even though I haven't done anything like that now for years."

It is a cue to switch the conversation from past to present and therefore to her bestselling novels. Her two American successes are set in Renaissance Italy, which is a million miles from her previous work as the creator of the sassy modern private eye, Hannah Wolfe, in award-winning books like Fatlands (1993). Why the radical change?

"Well, I spent many years writing crime thrillers because I wanted to," she recalls. "I saw them as a popular form of the novel that allowed you a way of discussing of something serious in the middle of a rip-roaring narrative. I thought that no one would notice if I did both things at the same time."

It was, she has come to see with the benefit of hindsight, all an apprenticeship for the kind of writing she does now. She graduated, as it were, with the completion of Mapping the Edge, her 1999 thriller about a woman who goes missing, leaving a child at home. Dunant told two parallel stories about what might be happening to her and then refused to tell readers at the end which one was true. And got it in the neck as result.

She was accused of not playing the thriller game. "And I just thought, I've had it with thrillers. I didn't want anymore to tell truths. I'd become more interested in what could be happening. And so I knew I was going to make a lousy thriller writer from then on if I continued."

So she stopped writing for 18 months. Not knowing what to do, she pitched up in Florence. "And there I had a very simple thought, namely that it must have been amazing here when the cultural revolution of the Renaissance was boiling over." It was the starting point of The Birth of Venus, the story of Alessandra, a young woman in Medici Florence who aspires to be a painter.

Dunant began by burying herself for months on end in research into the period. The same process has clearly been part of the making of In the Company of The Courtesan, for it ends with the sort of detailed bibliography you would expect at the end of a work of history. Which, essentially, it is; only delivered as a compelling human story, not a tract.

She has moved on 50 years from The Birth of Venus. The setting is 1530 and Venice is at the height of its economic and political power. There is not a hint of the romantic, melancholy, sinking and occasionally stinking tourist attraction it has now become. Fiammetta Bianchini is a courtesan - a high-class prostitute, serving the ruling class of the city. For those who know Dunant as a passionate feminist, there will be the temptation to see how she shapes such a character into a champion of women's rights. Although she changed tack to historical fiction, Alessandra in Birth of Venus was hailed as holding up a fairly dark mirror to contemporary working woman. But with the new book they will be disappointed.

"Courtesans like Fiammetta are not proto-feminists," Dunant insists. "They are really every woman for themselves. In order to survive they had this very limited window in their lives, when they could make money out of their beauty. There is no way at all in which they were thinking about the larger context of their femininity. They were vain, driven adventurers and rather self-absorbed."

The role of narrator she assigns to a man, Bucino, a dwarf and what we would now call Fiammetta's pimp. His disability and his trade puts this bawdy but astute figure on the margins of society and allows him the space to muse amusingly and unflinchingly on, among other things, the positive and negative in masculinity. High on the list of pluses is men's capacity, as demonstrated by Bucino himself, for profound friendship and loyalty to a woman without wanting to have sex with her - to this day a proposition that many would find hard to accept.

For all its underlying seriousness of purpose, In The Company of the Courtesan, like Birth of Venus before it, is also a terrific page-turner. It is, above all, this quality, so Dunant believes, that explains both books' phenomenal success in the US. "Because I've done my historical research, I'm saving readers having to do it for themselves. As they read they almost don't realise they are taking in the information but, by the end, they know a great deal more about the period than they did at the start. But they've enjoyed themselves so much that they want to say to others, 'Do you know what I know?'"

Like other British writers who have made it big in America, Dunant now faces the challenge of translating that acclaim to her domestic audience. How confident is she?

"Well, the Americans have no problem with success, but here we do. I don't know why. Perhaps it's the payback for having a sense of irony. Whatever it is I still feel as if I have to duck my head here slightly in embarrassment." It is hard to imagine her managing to keep cast down for very long.

Peter Stanford's 'Heaven: a traveller's guide' is published by HarperCollins

Biography

Sarah Dunant, 55, was an actress, reporter and radio producer before she started writing novels. London born and educated, she read history at Cambridge and went on to present The Late Show on BBC2 (above), Radio 4's Woman's Hour and Radio 3's Night Waves. She has published eight novels, starting with Snow Storms in a Hot Climate in 1988 and including Transgressions (1997), Mapping the Edge (1999) and The Birth of Venus (2003). Her private eye Hannah Wolfe featured in Birth Marks (1991), Fatlands (1993; Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger) and Under My Skin (1995). In the Company of the Courtesan is published by Little, Brown this week. Sarah Dunant is patron of the Orange Prize and has co-edited non-fiction including The Age of Anxiety. She lives in north London with her partner and teenage daughters.

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