Florence Byham Weinberg was born in Alamogordo, New Mexico. She completed a Ph.D. in French literature and taught Spanish literature for four years at the U. of Rochester, then French and Spanish language and literature for 22 years, was Chair of Modern Languages and Classics and Director of International Studies at St. John Fisher College. She traveled with her husband in Canada, France, Spain, Germany, Holland and Switzerland, and wrote four scholarly books. She retired in 1999 and began writing historical fiction. To date, she has written ten novels, eight of them historical fiction, including mystery and romance, and one fantasy novel. She’s here today to talk about writing and her latest work, ‘Dolet.’
Mayra Calvani: Please tell us about your nonfiction novel ‘Dolet,’ and what compelled you to write it.
Florence Byham Weinberg: Etienne Dolet, 1509-1546, son of a cloth merchant, studied under the eminent humanist and Ciceronian Latinist, Nicolas Bérault, and later with Simon Villanovanus. He then studied Law at the University of Toulouse. In two public Latin orations, he denounced the city authorities for persecuting his fraternity and for burning a favorite professor at the stake. Imprisoned and then expelled from the city, he fled to Lyon. After apprenticing with the noted printer, Sebastien Gryphius, he became an independent printer, licensed by King François I. He married a printer’s daughter, Louise Giraud, and had a son, Claude. In a duel provoked by Henri Guillot, Dolet killed his opponent by lucky chance. Imprisoned for murder, he escaped and procured the king’s pardon. In the struggle of the workers in printing establishments for fair wages, Dolet took their part and won the enmity of many printers. They framed him by sending boxes of “heretical” books to Paris under his name. He was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake on his 37th birthday.
I wrote it in part because Etienne Dolet’s character reminded me of my husband Kurt Weinberg’s. Both men told the bald truth to friend and foe alike, also to authority figures, “the rich and powerful.” Such behavior, which I admired as being straightforward, truthful and just, got them in trouble more often than not and earned them enemies who harmed them as well as friends who stuck with them through thick and thin. The book, ‘Dolet,‘ is in a way a tribute to my deceased husband.
M.C.: What is your book about?
F.B.W.: My reply to the previous question answers most of this one. This book is not “Latino” except insofar as all speakers of Romance languages, since all descend from Latin, are “Latinos.” The French, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, and to some extent Romanians are, in that way, “Latino.” But more generally, the book is about the persecution and murder of a just man, who, had he lived, would probably be a name everyone would recognize as an innovator who introduced what we now consider “modern” methods of studying history and “modern” methods to be used in translation from one language to another. Etienne Dolet was just starting what would have been a great life’s work. He was executed on trumped-up charges at age 37, on his birthday. His “birthday present” was to be hanged briefly before being burned, still breathing, however.
M.C.: What themes do you explore in Dolet?
F.B.W.: A major theme is religious bigotry and intolerance. Another is the inhumanity of man to man. Another, the barbarity of prison systems in Europe until fairly recently. Much of our present practice (solitary confinement, capital punishment) still derives from that system. A fourth is the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the first half of the 16th century. A fifth is the history of printing. A sixth is the surprisingly limited power of the king of France at that period when faced with the power of the Church.
M.C.: Why do you write?
F.B.W.: Writing is in my blood. I wrote a poem (four lines) when I first learned to read (age four). Then, at six or seven, a “novel,” a story of a kingdom of cats, Ywain, King of All Cats, which I also illustrated. As a professor, I wrote many articles, reviews, and published four scholarly books. As soon as I could retire, I did so, in 1999, in order to write historical fiction. I have continued ever since. Writing is as necessary to me as breathing and without it, I would die of frustration and boredom.
M.C.: When do you feel the most creative?
F.B.W.: I set aside two periods: mornings after breakfast until noon (unless interrupted by an appointment for example) and evenings from 9:00 PM until I no longer feel sharp. Some of my best inspirations have come between midnight and 2:00 AM
M.C.: How picky are you with language?
F.B.W.: Very. After all, Spanish and French languages with a knowledge of German, some Latin and a little Greek dominated my professional life. Correct grammar and usage in those languages reflected back on my knowledge and use of English. I shudder when prominent news anchors say “His body laid on the pavement for hours.” Or when I hear US Senators and Congressmen say “My sources told Senator X and I…” These errors have become so dominant that I’m sure some readers will wonder what is wrong with those statements. In my books, all of them, I strive to be correct without being stiff, stuffy and unwieldy.
M.C.: When you write, do you sometimes feel as though you were being manipulated from afar?
F.B.W.: Yes. My characters often “tell” me what to write next, what their motivations are, how they feel about a certain event. These plot developments are frequently the best ideas in the book.
M.C.: What is your worst time as a writer?
F.B.W.: My worst time is when my Muse abandons me and I run out of fresh ideas. Then, continuing to write is a chore and a burden. When that happens, the best idea is to take the day off, go to a movie or take a day trip to someplace new and beautiful. Another way to refresh my inspiration is to take an hour-long power walk or a long swim. Often, new ideas pop into my head while I’m exerting myself physically.
M.C.: Your best?
F.B.W.: My best time is of course when my Muse is with me and words flow effortlessly from my fingertips. At such times, I feel powerful exultation; a joy that no other activity gives me. This is the pure elation emanating from the act of creation. It makes all the difference and makes all hardships seem trivial.
M.C.: Is there anything that would stop you from writing?
F.B.W.: If I stopped breathing.
M.C.: What’s the happiest moment you’ve lived as an author?
F.B.W.: I’ve had several “happiest moments”; they are described above. These happen during the composition of a novel. I am of course delighted when a book comes out, also when I get a review that demonstrates understanding and acceptance of what I was trying to do, but nothing beats the joy of writing itself.
M.C.: Is writing an obsession to you?
F.B.W.: If one defines “obsession” as being something as necessary as breathing. But to me, the word “obsession” contains a dark shade of negativity, whereas writing for me is something bright.
M.C.: Are the stories you create connected with you in some way?
F.B.W.: Naturally, every writer uses his or her own bodily and emotional reactions to life’s events in order to create characters that are true to life. My characters often embody virtues that I aspire to, but perhaps don’t yet possess. In every case, a writer’s characters are self-referential, else they can’t be human. I also use landscapes and folkways, both Anglo and Hispanic, that are familiar to me in my books about the Southwest, my native area. As far as I know, however, none of my characters are closely autobiographical.
M.C.: Ray Bradbury once said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” Do you agree?
F.B.W.: Hmmm. He’s right; reality can be, is, a grim place. Freud says that man invented God because reality is unbearable otherwise. Another way of saying it, “Sh—t happens, and then you die.” Yes, writing often enables the author to imagine happy endings, solutions to insoluble problems. Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, for example. He creates a modern, soul-killing dystopia and then founds a small society where humanity and learning are safeguarded—though threatened.
M.C.: Do you have a website or blog where readers can find out more about you and your work?
F.B.W.: My website offers glimpses into all my novels. It is not a good window into my personality, however. I need to work on that. If you’ve read through all these questions, you know more about me than you can glean from that website. But please do go there and browse among my books! Excerpts from all of them are supplied.