Today, I'm so pleased to welcome author Loretta Goldberg, whose exciting debut, The Reversible Mask is set in Elizabethan England. Loretta shares her history and insights into the new novel.
Loretta, thanks so much for being a guest!
What drew you to the Elizabethan period of history?
First, Lisa, I really appreciate your welcoming me into your blog, which I’ve admired for a long time. So thank you. Let me explain my affinity for English history. I grew up in Melbourne Australia, a commonwealth country, like Barbados. English history and culture was in our skin cells, hair and stomachs. Especially our stomachs. Plum pudding, for example. I don’t know about you, but in the sweltering heat of down-under summers, Christmas meant steaming plum puddings, hung in cellars for months infused with alcohol, served with hot brandy sauce, with three pence and sixpence coins inside for lucky kids who sucked and nibbled rabbit-like, before swallowing. Woe if you swallowed your wealth! That was a cultural imprint. Then there were postage stamps. Each set from a Commonwealth nation was a lesson in geography and history. So although my biological tribe is Ashkenazi Jew, my consciousness was of the colonies.
Coming to the Elizabethan period, in particular, any place or time can yield riveting tales of intrigue, love, greed, courage, great virtue, and betrayal. It was Elizabethan language that entranced me. I did my first degree in English Literature, Musicology and History at the University of Melbourne, and taught in the English Department before coming to the USA on a music scholarship. The language was at peak creativity, with influences from other languages freely incorporated. It was as much of a golden age for clerks, lawyers, and diplomats as it was for poets and playwrights. Lower class folks too. If you read law trials of murderers, thieves, pirates, or women healers recounting dreams, they had earthy metaphors, inventive curses and a gift for description. Shakespeare only had to walk down the street to get his “low life” scenes. Then, at the government level, Elizabeth appointed councillors as strong-willed as herself. Tussles over policy were copiously documented. Whether the issue was marriage and the royal succession, war, diplomacy, trade, taxation, the myriad shades of religion, you find interpersonal dramas. These Tudor imbroglios fascinated me as much as Greek and Roman writings hooked the Elizabethans.
Other aspects of the period also drew me, a shaking up of things that resonated for me with contemporary life. The invention of the printing press late in the fifteenth century spawned uncontrollable outpourings of information, dissent, and wicked satire. Institutions reeled, their leaders often responding with appalling cruelty. There was a siren call for religious martyrdom. Traditional alliances were upended, there was a heady excitement at new learning and an expanding geographical world. Militarily, no side could annihilate the other, so violence was intermittent but never-ending. However, the era also brought the notion of companionate marriage, secular social welfare programs, and more education. Social change hovers over everyone in the novel, an unloved guest no one can ignore
My fictionalized anti-hero, spy and adventurer, lover and betrayer, steps into this messy world. He’s a Catholic Englishman miserable at living under a Protestant regime. Trying to reconcile the conflict in his heart between faith and patriotism, he inserts himself into the religious wars, striving to moderate English and Spanish policy. The Reversible Mask is a quest novel.
Did anything unexpected or unusual come to light during your research?
A location. The first alpine tunnel –nearly three miles long--was hewed through Monte Viso 1480-1490 and used until1582. King Louis XI of France and Ludovico II Del Vasto, Marquis of Saluzzo, built it so their traders could evade Tuscan taxes. The former financial advisor in me was tickled by this. I send my main character, Edward Latham, and his sworn oath brother, Don Cristobal, through the tunnel when they were still serving the Catholic side. A workable alpine tunnel in the fifteenth century seemed like a miracle to me. A friend scoffed at that, saying it couldn’t compare with the Egyptian pyramids. True, but think about the different incentives. The ancient Egyptians were stretching to transcendence, starting from sand, while these trading monarchs started near the mountaintop and burrowed, wedged and fired for the base worship of Mammon. It reminded me of some of the generation-skipping trusts and other financial devices I studied as an insurance agent.
If you could experience any other time in history, what would it be?
A time when women had more equality. Pre-agrarian. Anthropologists say hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian, had more leisure and even better health than property-governed societies.
Where would you live, and what would your profession be?
The ancient fertile crescent. I’d be a healer, expert in herbal medicine, passed on orally by generations of ancestor healers. The social organization would be like some Australian aboriginal tribes, where fifty people can breed legally among fifty, a defined group. I’d have four children, two apprenticing to me, and child-rearing would be a collective activity.
Now that you’ve completed The Reversible Mask, what can readers expect next?
Initially, lots of blogging. I’m also writing about an intriguing primary document I located during my research: an “insider” European view of Ottoman politics in the 1570s. One culture’s verdict on another is always fascinating. My website is , so do please visit. Feedback and questions are welcome. The sequel to The Reversible Mask will centre on a conflict between the Hanseatic League and Elizabeth. Drake captures an entire merchant convoy of over 60 ships bringing war materials to Spain, based on Latham’s spying. New fictional characters I love, a Fleming Hansa merchant and his wife, play major roles. Stay tuned!
Sounds wonderful! Thanks so much again, Loretta, for sharing The Reversible Mask with readers.
Now's your chance to read an excerpt of this debut novel. And, want to know more about Loretta? Follow her on Facebook!
**AN EXCERPT FROM THE REVERSIBLE MASK**
CHAPTER 3: First Urgent Intelligence.
(Latham is now a spy for the Spanish Catholic side.)
Paris, July 1572
Rays of a late afternoon sun dissected the street’s stone buildings, painting them golden and brown. Albert Braak, Latham’s tousle-haired, bow-legged Huguenot quarry, glanced behind him as he turned into a side street, prompting Latham to slip into the shadows. They weren’t far from The Yellow Cock Spur tavern, where Latham had once met David Hicks.
The tavern wasn’t Braak’s destination. He turned a corner, and another, stopping outside a stone building with a wooden addition on one side. It looked like an old school that had been hastily expanded during Paris’s population surge in the 1520s. The addition leaned against its host, each decrepit construction propping the other up. The roof sported a sad-faced stone lion with half a mane. The windows were dark, but fresh horse dung in the street indicated life inside.
Braak peered at the side of a window frame, opened the door and went in. Latham walked to the same window. A freshly scratched spur was visible on the flaky shutter; easy to sand off. He grinned. A clandestine cockfight, as David Hicks had said. More men approached as Latham left.
He needed a drink before suborning Braak. Back at the Yellow Cocks Spur, every post had a horse tied to it, and inside, a crowd of men in livery drank companionably, there to collect their employers after the fight.
Latham squeezed onto the end of a bench and called for ale, thinking about his task. He had to confirm that Genlis had left Paris because he’d raised the troops he needed; that this force was going to attack the Spanish army at Mons; and what Genlis expected to gain by leaving his courier, Braak, behind.
He stared at the thick white froth in his tankard, trying to imagine the next hour. Hélène had said Braak was a gambling loser. Latham intended to cover his debts with coin, jewels and fur trim, and had dressed opulently. In addition, he’d sewn onto his doublet sleeve a little red rose with white inner petals nestling on green leaves. It was the Tudor emblem, meant to mislead Braak about his allegiance. Latham expected that if Braak faced debtor’s prison when his duty was to rush messages to Genlis, his gratitude would overcome caution, and he’d betray Genlis. But what if Braak won? What if Hélène was wrong about his haplessness? Latham had no alternative plan. He pushed this worry aside; he trusted Hélène’s assessments of men gone bad. On these subjects she was wise.
Getting what he needed from Braak would require better playacting than he’d done before. Up to now, in the guise of a trader, he’d mostly assembled pubic facts about commodity prices. It was the pattern that his Spanish spymaster sought: sudden sustained increases often implied military mobilization. Today is different, he mused, I must dig out of Braak a secret he’d never otherwise reveal, which means stripping him of agency. He conjured up a world of deception. Must I become a theologian of deception, like the old scholastics? Is there a hierarchy of deceit, a netherworld where lies whirl in serried ranks? How many lies can dance on the head of a pin?
“A turn and a half of the glass. One more flagon,” a servant called. An hour and a half left of the fight.
Latham had to go. Girding himself, he returned to the schoolhouse, crossed the empty lobby, and pushed aside heavy curtains. Vendors in the ante-room were hawking food and drink; a few customers were relaxing.
Opening the hall door, he was greeted by heat and noise. Resin wall torches and candles set on traverse ceiling beams lit the room. Looking up, Latham laughed. In a corner was the customary man-sized basket suspended by chains from a ceiling beam, used to string up a gambler who couldn’t cover his losses.