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Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Spain? with Lisa Yarde



I'm always taken aback when anyone asks why I write about Spain. It seems so inevitable to me that my reaction would include "Why don't you?" if I were a bit less civilized. I sometimes despair at the lack of historical novels in English about Spain. So I asked the wonderful Lisa Yarde the same question. This is what she had to say.

Why Spain?

The question has occurred often and my natural response is to answer, “Why not?” Spain is the predominant setting for half of the books I have written. Inspiration derives from the richness of its history and culture, and the influence of different religions on the architecture and food. Spain is a beautiful country of ice-capped mountains in the north, and sage green grass and red ochre soil in the central tableland. The heat stifles most residents of the south in the months of July and August. Spaniards today inherited a rich legacy from the Celts, Romans and Goths, and Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Toledo surrounded by the Tagus
For more than twenty years, I have explored Spain’s medieval past with a focus on the period of Muslim influence. It began with the North African invasion in 711 and ended in 1492, through the union of the Catholic monarchs of Castile and Aragon. During 800 years of rule, the Muslims ushered in changes and left a permanent mark on the character of Spain. New architectural styles, foods and music, as well as the Arabic language and the religion of Islam altered the peninsula. Almost from the moment of invasion, the Christians pushed back with the determination to recover their country. The boundaries extended at a gradual pace, while daily life required cooperative interactions between Muslims, Christians and their Jewish counterparts. Spain’s medieval period was often turbulent and filled with contradictions, a time of scientific development and superstition, coupled with spiritual fervor and terrible actions done in the name of religion.

With such a diverse heritage, Spain seems to be the perfect location for an adventurous story, but the setting remains rare in mainstream historical. I asked other authors who have also based their stories in Spain to comment on the choice. Jeanne Kalogridis is an award-winning, best-selling author. Her latest, The Inquisitor’s Wife is set in late fifteenth century Spain. On the choice of Spain, Jeanne’s research uncovered irresistible details about the historical figures, which she had to share with readers.

“…I didn't know much about Spanish history but was extremely curious about Queen Isabel and the Inquisition. I knew Isabel had always been portrayed as a saintly person who ordered the Inquisition because of her religious convictions. The more I researched, the more surprised and fascinated I became. For one thing, she wasn't dark-haired, as some out-of-date biographies state, nor was she a small person. She had auburn hair and was taller than her husband Fernando. The other reason I chose Spain was because of its rich history and mingling of Iberian and Arabian cultures; I find it romantic. My novel, THE INQUISITOR'S WIFE, is set in the city of Seville, which for centuries had a vibrant population of Jews, Moslems and Visigoths. It was also the birthplace of the Inquisition.”

Kathryn Kopple has also written about Isabel in her well-received novel, Little Velásquez. Kathryn’s influence for choosing to write about Spain’s history stems from personal experience, and admiration of the traditions.

“I spent so much of my life absorbing Latin American and Spanish culture--first as a scholar and then as a translator--that is seemed natural to me to set my writing in Iberia. I had also lived there--and so I could visualize the places I was writing about--and yet it's a whole other ball of wax when you are trying to reconstruct the historical setting for a novel. I was particularly interested in writing about the 13 years that led to the fall of Granada to the Catholic kings, as 1492 changed the world:  800 years of Moorish rule ended in Andalusia; Columbus set out on his voyage; and the Catholic Kings issued the Alhambra Decree expelling the Jews. The expulsion of the Moors came later. So much was happening--and very quickly. Much of it tragic--and the consequences of that year (which in Spanish hagiography is known as the Year of Miracles, 1492) are still felt today.”

Jeanne shares my puzzlement as to why more novels are not set in Spain. She rightly says, Spain is an exotic, romantic locale, just as interesting as any other.”

The Alhambra in Granada seen from the Generalife gardens
Part of the difficulty is access to the historical record. Chronicles written in Spanish, Latin and Arabic still require translation, which makes research difficult for non-native speakers. While stories of Spain’s past are less common, the history of the country remains intriguing and influences the character of its people today. Their ancestors turned back the tide of Moorish conquests and forged a strongly Catholic identity, which dominates the country. Spaniards are also appreciative of myriad aspects of their history, and celebrate multiple influences that make Spain unique. It is my hope the novels of Jeanne, Kathryn and others like myself have written will broaden interest in an often-neglected area.