Former 2000AD editor, author DV Bishop’s historical fiction debut, City Of Vengeance, set in Renaissance Florence in the 16th century, has just been published by Pan Macmillan and he just spoke to Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows about it…
TW: What was the genesis of City Of Vengeance ?
DVBISHOP: In the 1990s I was a comics editor in London, working on the Judge Dredd Megazine and 2000AD. Every Friday afternoon I would visit Gosh Comics when the shop was across the road from the British museum. Round the corner from both was a remaindered bookshop where I picked up an academic monograph about criminal justice system in Renaissance Florence. It opened at a page a sentence caught my eye, saying how the system back then was roughly comparable to a modern police force. This planted the seed, but it took me more than 20 years to write the novel which grew from that.
TW: How would you describe the book in a one line elevator pitch?
DVB: Florence, 1536: when court officer Cesare Aldo investigates the murder of a Jewish moneylender, he uncovers a plot to overthrow the city’s ruler, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici – can Aldo stop the conspiracy before his own secrets destroy him?
TW: How did your years as editor at 2000AD help you as a writer?
DVB:Working in comics, especially British comics, teaches you the importance of three things: concision, clarity and characters. You learn to cut away indulgences to focus on story. You learn to set aside linguistic flourishes and literary obtuseness to communicate your narrative. And you learn the importance of creating a complex, engaging character that draws readers in and makes them what to know what will happen next. Nail those three things and your writing is in good shape.
TW: You have also written a lot of licensed books in your career. How did this experience help you as a writer?
DVB: City of Vengeance is a historical thriller, based on events that happened in Florence during the winter of 1536. I choose to make history my timeline, to follow the established facts of these events in my novel. Effectively, history was my constraint. Licensed tie-ins require a similar discipline. You must be able to write an original satisfying work of fiction that respects the constraints, style and tone of the source material whether that is Doctor Who, Judge Dredd or A Nightmare on Elm Street (all of which I’ve done in the past). You get good at finding the gaps in a licensed property or in history where you can create new narratives.
TW: How different was it writing a book with originated characters rather than using those created by others?
DVB: I could kill anyone I created! Licensed tie-ins are like a rental sports car or an AirBNB property – you can have all the fun you want, so long as you follow certain rules and returns the IP in the condition you received it. But with original fiction any character I create can die at any time. I respect the history of real life individuals, they die as they did during the Renaissance. Everybody else is at risk from me.
TW: This book must have taken a lot of research before you felt confident enough to get started. How much did you conduct before you began writing it?
DVB: Twenty years, off and on. I have multiple bookshelves double-stacked with reference materials. I’ve taken several trips to Florence to research facts for my Cesare Aldo novels, but also to capture the sensory experience of the place. Happily a lot of early readers have responded to that aspect of the novel, which is very heartening.
TW: It’s easy to get stuck down a rabbit hole for research. How easy is it for you to stop researching?
DVB: You never stop researching, but eventually you have to start writing otherwise the book will not get published. I was discovering important facts during the 17 months I spent writing my first draft that often necessitated significant rewrites. For example, I learned that someone who had been planned as a minor character was actually sleeping in the room above a murder in the book that took place in history. That forced me to alter many of my plans for the second half of the novel, but certainly gave that character a far greater role in the narrative.
TW: Crime and thriller books still dominate the book charts. What is it about them that still engage with audiences?
DVB: Readers love to have their heads and hearts engaged at the same time. A great crime or thriller novel does both. It challenges you to figure out what’s going to happen next, to deduce whodunnit or see the ending before it comes – that’s the head engaged. But a great crime or thriller novel also makes you care about the characters, makes you fear for them – that’s the heart engaged. Do both and readers will want more.
TW: How much can you tell us about City of Vengeance?
DVB: I can tell you what David Baldacci – an American crime writer who has sold 150 million books around the world – said after reading it:
‘Bishop’s City of Vengeance is a first-class historical thriller with echoes of The Name of the Rose. Bishop’s spirited and richly detailed story, layered with issues of humanity that still bedevil society today, is a tour-de-force and clearly demonstrates the sixteenth century was as full of thrills and mysteries as the twenty-first, perhaps even a shade more.’
TW: With historical fiction, it is important to get facts correct. How hard was it to make sure that all of the details in the book were factually accurate?
DVB: See answers above! I’m sure some errors will have crept in, but I did my best.
TW: And on a connected question, research is important with a book like this but it also has to work as a piece of fiction. How hard was it for you to balance these two different facets?
DVB: Crafting fiction to fit around facts is the abiding challenge for writers of historical fiction. I choose the Hilary Mantel approach, resisting the urge to tidy up the inconsistencies for the convenience of my narrative. Happily, history is always incomplete or disputed, which leaves gaps and opportunities for writers like me. For example, historians cannot agree on which date a key event in my story happened. I compared all my reference texts and found 70% of them favoured one date, so went with the majority verdict.
History neglects or omits the stories of many people – those without power, those without access to reading or writing, those from minorities or suppressed groups. Fiction gives the chance to tell the stories of those people usually ignored by historical accounts – most women, people of minor faiths or sexualities. I deliberately created characters from those areas for City of Vengeance so I could tell the stories that history neglects or suppresses.
TW: How did the protagonist Cesare Aldo take shape?
DVB: I developed him over many years. One of my breakthroughs came while I was studying for a Masters in Screenwriting between 2005 and 2007. I had aspects of Cesare Aldo, but not a clear sense of who he was and what made him that way. We did an exercise in class called hot seating where you take the role of a character and other people ask you questions of that character. It’s surprising how much that unlocks.
The other moment was realising what was Cesare Aldo’s greatest flaw: an inability to trust others. Aldo enforces the law yet he is a gay man at a time and place where that sexuality makes him a criminal. Aldo struggles to trust others with that part of him.
TW: What is it about setting it in Renaissance Florence that appealed to you as a writer?
DVB: It’s a place of great beauty, incredible art and architecture – truly, the cradle of the Renaissance, helping bring the western world out of the dark ages. Yet Florence in this period was also an utterly cutthroat, transactional society. It is no coincidence that it gave us both Michelangelo and Machiavelli!
TW: How do you feel now that the book is out there in the wild?
DVB: It’s been a long time coming. I finished the first draft in November 2018, and signed a two-book deal with Pan Macmillan the following summer. Nearly two years later City of Vengeance is finally out in the world. Happily, readers seems to be enjoying it and taking Cesare Aldo to their hearts. Hopefully he will have many more cases to solve…
TW: Have you begun to plan any further adventures with Aldo?
DVB: I am editing the next Cesare Aldo novel right now. It is due for publication in Spring 2022 when bookshops will hopefully all be open again. Having your crime fiction debut come out in the midst of a global pandemic is far from ideal, but I have to hope the novels will find a readership, even if it takes a bit longer than planned. I certainly want to keep writing Cesare Aldo books for a good few years yet. If nothing else, they give me a great reason to go back to Florence. Research never ends…
City Of Vengeance is out now by DV Bishop from Pan Macmillan