It all started when I answered the phone
It was the early 1980s. “There’s somebody you must meet,” rumbled the voice on the phone. It was Barry Callaghan — poet, writer, and man of letters extraordinaire — deploying his best imperious growl. “Yes, Barry!” I said, snapping to attention.
So it was that, a few hours later in a back-alley hole-in-the-wall Roman restaurant, I met Jacqueline Park, the little Jewish woman who could.
Jackie was part of the remarkable Jewish diaspora that fanned out from Winnipeg in the 1940s and ’50s, and as we sat there forking up spaghetti and drinking Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, her life story unspooled. As a teenager, she danced and sang for the airmen who would soon be fighting, and dying, in the Second World War. Later, she was hired by the great John Grierson, founder of the Canadian National Film Board. “He was drunk at the time,” she recalled. “When I arrived at the office, he’d forgotten he’d hired me. ‘Who are you, girlie?’ ”
Never mind, she got the job — or, rather, kept it. Television arrived, and suddenly Jackie popped up on CBC panel shows. Meanwhile she married, had two daughters, and landed in New York, where she founded the dramatic screenwriting program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. There she taught generations of screenwriters, directors, and actors, people such as Oliver Stone. With her second husband, Ben Park, she set off to explore — in particular, Italy.
It was Italy that changed Jackie’s world. She read a letter in which the Marchesa Isabella d’Este, regent of Mantua, patroness of the greatest artists, and arguably the greatest woman of her time, implores a young Jewish woman to convert to Christianity so her soul will be saved and so she can marry the man she loves.
That was enough. In that young woman, Jackie must have seen a partial reflection of her own life, her own destiny. Those few lines in a letter unfolded and grew into an immense saga of Jewish and Renaissance life, centred on the figure Jackie reimagined as Grazia dei Rossi. The story ramified to include great events between the 1480s and the 1540s and encompassed a huge array of characters: artists, sculptors, bankers, courtesans, rabbis, doctors, aristocrats, pirates, charlatans, mystics, and the Ottoman sultan and his household.
A whole world was born — that of Grazia dei Rossi and of her son, Danilo del Medigo. The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was an international bestseller in 1998. But Jackie wasn’t done; she had a trilogy in mind. In 2014, she published The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi, about the extraordinary life of young Danilo at court in Istanbul and on campaign in Iraq, with the army of Suleiman the Magnificent.
But back in Rome, years before, when The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was still a dream: What did Jackie want from me? Access and information. She wanted to get inside the great noble palaces of Rome, inside the great shipbuilding centre of Venice. She wanted to walk around La Serenissima with somebody who knew it down to its paving stones and submerged foundations. My Italian partner at the Canadian Cultural Centre, Elena Solari, and I were able to help, and over the years we became part of Jackie’s research team.
Thirty-five years later, in 2017, Jackie was approaching ninety and found herself unable to complete volume 3 of her trilogy. She gave me the job, and with it carte blanche. “It’s all yours,” she said. “Do with it what you will. I trust you. I don’t even want to see it.” Not long after, in January 2018, Jackie died.
Jackie had sketched out what she wanted, she had written a few chapters, and she had created a cast of fascinating characters. But the main structure — the arc that would take us from the beginning to the end — was not there.
The starting point was this: In April 1536, twenty-year-old Danilo del Medigo, pursued by Ottoman assassins, has just arrived in Venice. He enters the Ghetto, meets beautiful Miriamne Hazan, and participates in a Seder. Later he is betrayed by Miriamne’s evil and jealous brother, Mordecai, and has to flee the city. He arrives in Mantua, and his life becomes deliciously complicated when he meets Isabella d’Este and a gorgeous actress, Angelica.
The action, I decided, would combine genres: An episodic, picaresque novel, full of adventure. A Bildungsroman, where Danilo discovers who he really is. A romance, with a girl-gets-boy, boy-gets-girl structure, strewn with perilous obstacles. And an epic — a wide-ranging portrait of that splendiferous age, the late Renaissance in all its creative flowering, with its frenetic sexual energies, with its giant personalities, with its huge religious and political conflicts.
I would superimpose various genre structures, weaving them together, to create this one tale. But how would I connect the various levels? How would I relate the various backstories — the big-picture history — to the front story, the adventures of Danilo?
The answer: the Republic of Venice would blackmail Danilo into becoming a spy.
As a spy, Danilo would go everywhere and see everything; as a spy, he and his fellow spy, stunning Angelica, would be in continual danger. And as a spy, Danilo would play a role in the two great enterprises that lay behind the foreground plot: the effort to protect the Republic of Venice from its many enemies and, above all, the effort to protect “New Christians,” or conversos, from the Catholic Inquisition and to protect Jews everywhere — from expropriation, torture, and death.
With the structural latticework pieced together, I had to decide on a style, a voice. Here I felt I could take liberties, because Jackie had given me her blessing and she herself had adopted different voices: first person in the first book; third person omniscient, and occasionally epistolary, in the second book.
For Son of Two Fathers, I wanted to complete Jackie’s work with the energy she would have put into it. I wanted the reader to be extremely close to the characters. I also wanted to have the freedom to move fluidly from one point of view to another, so I made extensive use of free indirect discourse:
On a signal from Veronica, Danilo emerged from his hiding place. Zarah did indeed look like an exquisite boy, with dark lustrous skin, marvelous, big dark eyes, and curly black hair cut short. She blinked at Danilo and reached out and took Veronica’s hand. The girl’s eyes, Danilo noticed, were red, the kohl smudged, as if she’d been crying.
Now that I’ve laid out my process for picking up the trilogy — the superposition of structures and the choice of voice, tone, and narrative technique — I must confess that it’s all false. What really happens, as all writers know, is you throw your characters into a situation, and then they take over, they hijack you, and they run away with the story.
That’s how I was kidnapped by Danilo del Medigo, by the beautiful Miriamne Hazan, by the suave courtesan Veronica Libero, and by all the other characters. They and Jackie cast a spell and took me on a magical voyage. I am still their captive.