One of the questions that people love to ask writers (and most writers hate to answer) is “Where do you get your ideas?” While some of us prefer the snappy smart-ass reply – “Why, I get mine at the Idea Store!” –– the truth is often so murky and roundabout that it’s almost impossible to give. But sometimes the answer is so clear and precise that it could come with a date stamp.
Such is the case with my next book, DUCHESS, to be released early in August. My first foray into fictionalized biography, DUCHESS is the story of Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough. Recently I received an email from my publicist at NAL, requesting that I answer several background questions about the book to help her generate publicity about it. The first question was, of course, a variation of the old favorite: When did you first become interested in Sarah Churchill?
And I knew at once: 1971. The very first BBC series shown in America as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre was a multi-part saga set in 17th century England called “The First Churchills”, staring Susan Hampshire and John Neville. I was in high school, and though I was already branded a history nerd, I’d never heard of any Churchill beyond Sir Winston, and all I knew of King Charles II and his bawdy Restoration court had come via a well-thumbed copy of “Forever Amber.” But with millions of other viewers, I was instantly drawn into the lives of the beautiful, ambitious Sarah and her dashing soldier John as they contrived to rise from penniless beginnings to the very highest places in the English court and army –– the most powerful and wealthiest couple of their time. For the majority of “First Churchills” fans, the series was a fascinating way to pass Sunday night. For me, it was the germ of a novel I wouldn’t realize I’d write for another thirty-four years.
I began to think of other movies or television shows that helped shape my impressions of the past that still influence me today. I don’t mean actual research, but more the romantic sweep of history that sank so deeply into my impressionable teen-aged bones that it remains with me now.
First and foremost, of course, would be Franco Zefferelli’s 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet.” The overture alone is enough to reduce a whole generation of long-grown women to shuddering sighs (and apparently remains popular enough that the DVD is #351 on Amazon, with nearly two hundred comments!) In those days of limited movie distribution, my friends and I skipped school and took the bus into Manhattan to the Paris movie theatre on 57th Street, the one place where it seemed always to be playing (and why, I ask you, do I still remember THAT?) and where we’d weep in the dark and savor the gorgeously romantic past of Zefferelli’s Renaissance. Leonard Whiting in dark blue velvet wasn’t so bad, either.
Victorian England had already hooked its marcasite claws into me through Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and “Far From the Madding Crowd” in 1967 carried me off to Wessex with Julie Christie and her perfect Mod-girl straight bangs and sulky mouth. As Bathsheba Everdene, she was wooed by three heroes –– Alan Bates, Terrence Stamp, and Peter Finch –– which, when you’re struggling to achieve the notice of churlish high school boys, struck me as glorious excess. I’ve never forgotten the wide, melancholy vistas of Hardy-country, Terrence Stamp’s flopping black hair and beautiful army uniform, and Julie’s skirts billowing in the wind.
The 1970 version of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love” was an eye-opener of another kind. Alan Bates again, plus Oliver Reed. Yes, Glenda Jackson won the Oscar, but all I remember was those two men eating figs in a lascivious way that simultaneously embarrassed and fascinated my adolescent self. This wasn’t “Romeo and Juliet” love; this was something else entirely from health class filmstrips, something dark and sensuous and very, very grown-up. Terence Stamp, Oliver Reed, Alan Bates –– are they the reasons that so many of the heroes I’ve written have been Englishmen with dark hair and blue eyes?
There were many more period movies that left their mark on me –– Tom Jones, Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, Barry Lyndon –– movies that remain much more vivid in my memory than any of their newer counterparts can ever be. I don’t seem to have the patience for movies now. I see too many historical inaccuracies, inconsistencies in characters, weaknesses in plot development, all the curse of habitual self-editing. Sadly, that innocence of blissful ignorance can’t be regained, any more than I could squeeze into a pair of Landlubber or Britannia jeans from the same vintage.
I don’t buy the DVD’s of my old favorites, either. Just as it’s better not to discover that the old boyfriend is now bald and belting his Dockers south of the equator, I’d rather leave Juliet and Bathsheba in the hazy, flattering glow of the their past, and mine.
And, like Sarah Churchill, I never know how or when they’ll rise up from my memory and into my writing.
Now it’s your turn: what movies influence you back in what was once called “the formative years”? When you write or read, who do you unconsciously cast as your characters? Is Clark Gable your phantom bad-boy, or Brad Pitt? Time to ‘fess up!