Interview with author Loretta Goldberg
Hi Loretta, welcome to my blog!
We recently shared a lovely evening at the book launch event at BGSQD Bookstore in Manhattan entitled “Open Enchanting Historical Closets” along with Christina Britton Conroy. Our event was centered around queer characters in historical fiction and you gave a fascinating talk on the context of your story.
Thank you, Joshua. It’s exciting to reach out to your friends and readers. Maybe, in this time of homebound stress, a thick historical tale of war, love gone wrong, betrayal and courage can give you a fun diversion.
The Reversible Mask, an Elizabethan Spy Novel, recounts the exploits of a dashing adventurer, Edward Latham. Although the tale’s focus is on the cauldron of intrigue, adventure and religious conflicts of the times, Edward is a complex character in his personal and interior life. And this is where the “queer” dimension comes in.
Edward is loosely drawn from a double agent of the time, Sir Anthony Standen. Standen was an English Catholic courtier who left Protestant Elizabeth’s court in the 1560s over religion, and spied for Catholic Spain against European Protestant rebels. Yet, in the 1580s he spied brilliantly for Elizabeth. His reasons seemed to have gone beyond money.
I was hooked by his letters to his English handlers, Anthony and Sir Francis Bacon, both of whom historians think were “queer.” Standen’s letters evoked for me a man pulled one way by patriotism and the opposite way by faith, yearning for moderation. His conflict was intractable, because the politics of the day allowed no reconciliation. His solution was to compartmentalize, as he roamed from Paris to Constantinople and back, on dangerous spy missions that affected major events.
I felt that his conflicts epitomized, in the purest form, dilemmas we live with today, and compartmentalize in a muted fashion. For instance, a tobacco executive pays his or her children’s college bills with profits from cigarettes that everyone knows are poison. There are myriad examples. Standen’s conflict was starker. What was that like? I wanted to wander in his world.
The man in the Bacon papers had gaps in his record; he was unknowable. So I created Edward Latham. I had to decide on his sexuality. Hints in Standen’s dispatches set off my gaydar, to use an obsolete term. He never married, nor were there mentions of any “natural” children. Reputedly physically gorgeous, he had an inexplicable ability to get incredible intelligence from men who were more highly placed than a man of Standen’s minor rank would normally meet. One of these sources he referred to as “my very great friend, the cavalier.” He moved to Florence to be close to this cavalier for several years.
One of his comments intrigued me. Back in England when he was about 60, he bumped into Elizabeth by chance at court. Elizabeth was 65: scrawny, her face ruined by lead make up, lisping through black gappy teeth. Standen wrote that to his old eyes she was beautiful. This struck me as ironic, self-reflective, delicate. It was certainly not how straight Elizabethan men responded to old women (Her mind is as cankered as her body, was the Earl of Essex’s put down of Elizabeth).
Nevertheless, young Standen is believed to have had an episode with female prostitutes when he was in service to Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband). Darnley himself was a notorious bisexual, and it is interesting that Standen left England to be Darnley’s Master of the Horse. He also was reputedly “over-close” with a powerful, famous older German woman. What did this add up to? Nothing certain, but I have made beautiful Edward Latham predominantly gay, but susceptible to certain brilliant older women.
The Tudors and Elizabethans were very vague when it came to recording much about what we now call “queer experience.” Could you say something about that?
Great point. Firstly, historians haven’t yet found clues to lesbian relationships during Elizabethan times. There must have been some— Elizabethans were very busy at sex, rather like us-- but the language didn’t exist for woman to woman love. The word homosexual wasn’t a concept in use, either. Sodomy was. Sodomy was a crime. But three elements were required for an indictment: violence, penetration then ejaculation. It was a high bar and prosecutions were rare. Things could be much tougher in parts of Europe, where repeat sodomites could be burned at the stake.
Men who were oriented near-exclusively toward men were described as not apt for marriage. If a man bedded both sexes, like Darnley, he could be deemed a generally lusty fellow. With royal marriages, the ability to procreate was all that counted. Darnley did procreate, and you can trace the present English royal Windsors all the way back to Darnley’s dutiful begetting! But in general, married sex for procreation was the highest moral value. A man who had adulterous liaisons with men or women was called a fop. Fops were considered a danger to society because seed spilled was wasted out-of-wedlock. There seemed to be an implied notion that seed was finite. Yet adultery occurred and society trundled on.
The Bacon brothers are an interesting example of Elizabethan nuance. Anthony Bacon was exclusively gay. The presence of women made him uncomfortable. He was accused in France of sodomy with a house hold boy and allowing sodomy between boys within his household. But he was valuable to the English Court. Elizabeth got him back to England without mishap. His brother, Francis, was rumored to have male lovers, but at age 59 he married a 14-year-old heiress to have a child. The marriage wasn’t happy, according to his complaining wife.
There’s a rich literature of male poets salivating over the beautiful, fresh boy. These works are stylized in foreign settings and modeled on Greek or Roman poetry, to disguise the obvious code. There seemed to have been boy prostitutes available beyond households and
theaters. In Sex in Elizabethan England (Sutton Publishing 1997), Alan Haynes mentions a possible male brothel on Hoxton owned by Lord Hundson (page 70) and a possible establishment for wealthy women unsatisfied with their husbands who wanted male variety. So, a variety of sexual outlets for our ancestors despite the terrors of syphilis and unwanted pregnancies.
You’re a celebrated pianist and have a vibrant career as a musician having released nine commercial recordings. You studied with greats like Claudio Arrau. How do you think your background in music has influenced your approach to writing and language?
Celebrated is going a bit too far, Josh, though it sounds lovely. I have been active, particularly in performing and recording new music, working with composers who wrote for me. Some of it was avant-garde, very exciting to bring new sounds to life.
I fell in love with Arrau’s playing when I was twelve—he came to Australia a lot—and wouldn’t rest until I could audition for him and be accepted as his student. So yes, music influences my writing. First, Edward Latham plays a mean lute. When he has to make major decisions he turns to music to find his best instincts, whether playing or listening. Second, I was a church and temple organist for years, experiencing every kind of denomination. This makes me comfortable with my characters’ religious feelings, the range of ways in which they act on their faith, despite my own personal secular Judaism. Third, many readers find my prose lyrical, which is lovely. Fourth, studying with Arrau and (later) Copland was a privilege that gave me a brushing feeling for the intensity of genius. It helped me round out Edward. He is brilliant but no genius; he has an outsize grandiosity that is partially, but not fully, justified. Elizabeth I I regard as a political genius, so I give her that extra level of insight and functioning.
Do you have any other projects upcoming? Will we be seeing any new writing soon? Tell us all about your upcoming plans!
I am an active blogger. I try to put interesting content on my marketing website www.lorettagoldberg.com. Please visit and let me know what you think. But Edward’s tale is not done. A sequel is in outline. I have also begun dabbling with a tale set in Papua New Guinea during World War II. Please wish me luck.
Finally, you clearly are knowledgeable in the Tudor period and I wondered if there was any other historical period you were interested in as far as writing or performing? Is there any era you would like to see a story about?
I was drawn to the sixteenth century because its turbulence, change and innovations are achingly resonant to out time. For the opposite reason I love the late Medieval period, where there was a cohesive world view, sophisticated laws and commerce, guild privileges and great beauty of art and clothes. I want to give a shout out to science fiction—future societies, environments, human relationships. To write that would be such a high.
Thank you so much, Loretta, for stopping by my blog and sharing your insight and knowledge. I am especially excited to hear about a sequel to The Reversible Mask! Best of luck with your WW2 tale as well – we’ll all be waiting to read that.
Readers, BEFORE YOU GO…..
Loretta is offering a free fantasy Edward Latham map giveaway to any verified purchase of a new paperback! It was commissioned especially from an Italian mapmaker.
In addition to Amazon, you can find The Reversible Mask at any good bookstore.
If you would like to support independent bookstores, especially during this current social lockdown which is threatening many of their livelihoods, please check out The Bookstore at the End of the World where you can find Loretta’s book, my recent novel, and many other great reads. 30% of the purchase price of any book you buy through the site goes to supporting local, independent bookstore.
Thank you all for stopping by!