Anna Lanyon: Author of historical books

image-annalanyon200Anna Lanyon is an author and academic, with a long interest in Spanish and Portuguese language and history. She writes historical books and her third, Fire and Song, has just been released.

Fire and Song is the story of the Jewish martyr Luis de Carvajal, and his sister, Leonor.  In the late 1500s the Spanish Inquisition reached Mexico, and Luis de Carvajal and his family were forced to defend their Jewish faith. Fire and Song explores the power of faith and spirituality and is a sobering look at a period in history when religious tolerance was as foreign a concept as the New World.

Anna teaches and translates Spanish. Her earlier novels were Malinche’s Conquest (2000), which has been translated into five languages and was awarded the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for history. Her second book, The New World of Martin Cortes, was released in 2003.

Click play to listen. Running time: 29.32

Fire and Song

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Anna, thanks for joining us today.

Anna
Thank you for inviting me.

Valerie
Now, your first love is obviously history, as well as Spanish. When did you decide to become a writer as well?

Anna
Oh, well, I suppose it sort of happened in the early 90s when I had been, actually trying to find a book about Malinche. I found lots of bits and pieces about her in other books, but I didn’t come across one book devoted particularly to her, but I acquired little bits and pieces along the way, as you do. At some point I thought that maybe I should try and do something about her life, but also about the mythologies surrounding her story. I suppose a kind of two pronged exploration.

Valerie
When your writing about something like that you have to be so careful that you’re not re-writing history, that you’re representing things in the right way. What do you think are some of the key elements that you need to remember when you’re telling this kind of story?

Anna
I try to, on the research side of my work, I try very hard to verify whatever data is available. In the case of Malinche there’s not really a lot of conventional historic sources available, but there are other sources and signs, such as the fact that so much of the topography of Mexico is called after her. It means something.

What I do, I suppose I work a little bit like a detective in that I try to verify the various stories. Let’s say there is a story about her saying this or a story about her saying that. I want to find out who told that story. And when they told it, because when they told it may effect its voracity, the question of whether or not we can trust it. It’s a double checking, triple checking, and where possible I do try and go back to the original, if there are original documents, go back and look at them.

It’s fascinating what you find when you do that. You often find that the history, if you like, we’ll call it history that’s been floating around out there in the ether, is not really based on anything tangible at all. It’s just- well, as my friend Heidi Zogbaum says, she says something like, “Say it three times, and it’s history.” I do try and go back too, as far back as possible, to see if I can verify that particular story.

Valerie
Anna lot of these things in all of your books have happened such a long time ago. Can you tell us some of the actual documents or primary materials that you have used and seen to verify this kind of stuff?

Anna
Yes, as I said, a lot of Malinche’s story is not reported in traditional, conventional European style documents. It is though, supported in the painted histories, indigenous histories that were written not very long after the conquest of Mexico. They were painted in this time, right around the 1560’s or maybe a little bit earlier. The fact that she appears as such a central character in these, I think, tells us possibly more than words can tell us.

In talking about Malinche’s story, however, after she was dead her daughter who had married the viceroy’s nephew, brought a lawsuit against her father, who was actually Malinche’s husband. So there I had a family legal dispute, just like you would read about in the paper here. Here’s a family fighting over inheritance. That’s exactly what happened with Malinche’s daughter after Malinche’s death.

I was actually able to read those extraordinary documents which are directly kept in Seville, in the archives of the Indies in Seville. It was so strange to hear her referred to by her son as my mother in law, doña Marina, because that’s her Spanish name, doña Marina. Malinche is such an almost mystical kind of supernatural figure who hovers over Mexico, that the idea of her being someone’s mother in law was quite extraordinary; so mundane, you know?

In the case of her son, Malinche’s son, Mártin Cortés, once again, there is more documentation, and once again it’s all legal. There was a lawsuit that he brought against his half brother, who was also called Mártin Cortés, the legitimate Mártin, if you like, as opposed to the illegitimate.  I was able to read those documents, and they’re kept in Mexico City.

And then there was also, sadly, for some years later, when both those sons of Cortés, Mártin and Mártin, were caught up in a great conspiracy against the viceroy, or against the Spanish Crown in Mexico. Once again, I was able to read through those documents.

Valerie
Wow.

Anna
Then with this one, I absolutely almost drown in documents. When I say ‘this one’ I mean my latest book Fire and Song. I almost drowned in inquisitorial documents, because there are so many.

Valerie
Tell us more about Fire and Song. What’s it about and what made you want to write about it?

Anna
Well, it’s the story of a family, the Carvajal family, but in particular about the son, Luis de Carvajal. This was a family of Spaniards of Jewish ancestry, whose ancestors had been forced to convert to Catholicism in 1492. They had, like all the Jews of Spain in 1492, they had a choice between leaving and going into exile, leaving their homeland, or converting to Catholicism and staying.

The Carvajal ancestors chose to stay, and they probably thought it was a solution to their troubles, but it was actually just the beginning of more trouble.

My book concentrates mostly on the final generation. They were almost the final generation in that most of them were executed by the Mexican Inquisition. My book is not about torture and death and so on, it really is about a resistance, resistance in the form of absolutely refusing to go along with what we would call, I guess, a totalitarian regime that insists there was only one way to live. This particular family could not make themselves do that.

So they risked everything to cling to their, I suppose we’d say their cultural identity. They would not have recognized that term, but we might say it. But they certainly risked it all to cling to their faith. That is something that they did recognize, because they talk about it and write about it all the time. Louis in particular, the son, wrote about it in his letters to his mother and his sisters, in the auto-biography he wrote, in a tiny little notebook, and also he talks about it during his two trials by the Mexican Inquisition.

Once again, I had many documents. Each of the members of the family had two trials. There is a mass of documentation.

When I first began, I had already read Louis’ trial transcript, which were written on parchment, of course, in scribal handwriting.  I thought I would really, probably just be concentrating just on his documents, but I found I couldn’t do that because his documents led to the other family’s. I couldn’t not listen to them as well.

Valerie
Where did this fascination for all things Spanish and Portuguese come from?

Anna
Well, I think it began in my early childhood, I was very interested in Mexico in particular.

Valerie
Really?

Anna
Oh yes, from my early childhood. I think that was probably because my parents were, not that they had ever been and never have been, there was never any money for travel in my family, but my parents were and still are very great readers. They love history, and they love archaeology. I think that that’s where my interest began.

But then as a young women, I set off and spent four years away from Australia traveling, and quite a bit of that time was in Mexico and in Latin America. I suppose that’s when I fell in love with the Latin American world. When I cam back to Australia in 1976, I think it was, or 1977, about a year later I enrolled at La Trobe University which had, I think at that time, certainly in Victoria had the only Spanish department, and I think in Australia the first ever Institute of Latin American Study. So, that’s when that began. And, I did history.

The Latin America studies course involved the languages of Latin America, or two of the major languages- Spanish and Portuguese. There are other important languages, indigenous languages, but they weren’t offered at that time. It also involved, of course, histories, various histories of the various Latin American countries.

Valerie
When you research these books, and also travel in order to research these books, it takes a lot of time.

Anna
It does.

Valerie
How long was the gestation period for something like Fire and Song?

Anna
It’s often hard, I think, for writers to exactly nominate when something began, because I think a germ of an idea sometimes pops into our head years before we even consciously think about writing. But, I do know for sure that I first came across the Carvajal story when I was researching Malinche’s Conquest. That was in the early 90s.

Valerie
Right.

Anna
I just was interested, but I didn’t really think of writing about it. It was just a question of making some notes and taking some photocopies in the archives in Mexico City, and that’s all at that time. I had two more books to write before I even got around to it.

But, I suppose we could say the gestation began twenty years before the book came out, back when I first heard about the Carvajal story.

Valerie
When you actually make the decision, “I’m going to write a book on this,” when was that? It must be so daunting to think about the amount of research that’s then to follow. How do you even structure that process? Or, do you just start and see what happens?

Anna
Yes, fools rush in where angels fear to tread. That’s me. I think I probably wouldn’t have started had I known what was waiting for me. But, I did start and I do know when I started formally, that would have been 2005. That’s when suddenly it popped into my head that this would be my next project. But, yes, to be honest I would not have started had I known, but I did.

I kept gathering more and more materials, microfilms of entire documents. Well, first of all the first thing was a big research trip back to Mexico, and also back to Spain, and to the USA, because some of the Carvajal family documents are kept at the Bancroft Library in Berkley, the University of California in Berkley. It was a big research trip, on which I took my son, who was then fifteen. That allowed me to look at the original documents and organize microfilms, organize copies.

Not just that. For me, a sense of place is very, very important. I’m not just interested in what’s written on parchment. I’m very interested in the streets, and the laneways, and the churches, and the villages. I really want to convey that to my readers. So, it was the archives of the street, as well as the traditional archives.

I know Mexico City very well. I know the old city of Mexico City very, very well. I still just sort of tracked down- because street names change. I still had to track down where particular people had lived, and where things had happened.

Then of course from there I went to Spain. In a way I was tracking the Carvajal family’s journey back to Spain and to Portugal. I visited the villages where they lived, where this part of their story began. I also went to the Torre do Tumbo archives in Lisbon to look at some inquisitorial documents pertaining to their ancestors, because this family had been getting themselves into trouble for quite a few generations.

Valerie
You talk about the sheer volume of research, and it really does sound like a lot. Do you have a method of storing that? Or, is there a system that you use? Really on a practical level how do you put it all into bits, do you know what I mean?

Anna
I know! Well, I carry a lot of it around in my head, but I also use notebooks. I’ve got a basket full of precious notebooks, in which I’ve captured just particular points I wanted to retain apart from in my head- in case something happened to my head, I suppose. So, I have that basket full of notebooks, which is so precious to me.

I also set about drawing up chronologies working across the documents, like I would sit at my big table with, say, four or five of the family trial transcripts beside me, tracking when one person said this, and when the other person said that. Because I’ve found that the chronology, the sequence of these things was very important in unraveling the story.

I also like to make up chronologies of when they appeared for their hearings before the inquisitors. When I came to sorting out the series of letters that Luis wrote to his sisters in prison, in 1595, I found it was very important to try to track exactly when he wrote that letter and what he said. There were some letters that his sister, Leonor, wrote back to him. Some of them had survived. So, once again I had to track hers.

It is obsessive, I know. But it also was very important for actually unraveling the story of what happened.

Valerie
You talk about these precious notebooks. Are you tracking all of this manually, electronically, or-?

Anna
The notebooks are handwritten. I love that. I love just writing- I love that. Also it means you can do it anywhere. You wake up a 6:00 in the morning, you can make a note; on the train. Because I don’t live in Melbourne, I live quite a long way from Melbourne. So, I’m often traveling between my home in the country and Melbourne. As long as I’ve got a notebook, it’s easy. Pull it out.

But, of course with the chronologies I actually did them on my computer, because that’s easier to change things, and move things around, and use colored fonts for different people. Isabelle is blue, Luis is red, Leonor is green.

The other thing I do when I get into a real mess, and I’ve learnt to do this over the years, is get a great, big sheet of paper, like a sheet of butcher’s paper. Get out the colored pens, and start drawing. Now here’s the trunk of the tree, if you like, the main narrative, and then with the colored pens tracking the various little branches coming off.

I get into the most terrible messes you could ever believe. I remember one time saying to my publisher in despair, when I was trying to write Malinche’s Conquest, “I think I might go down and hire the little church hall, the little hall, actually mechanic’s hall, where I was then living, “and stick all of these pages up. Then I can walk around-” I suppose it’s a bit like what screenwriters do. What do they call it?

Valerie
Storyboard.

Anna
Storyboard. “So, I can stick them all up and walk around and look at them,” because it is hard to hold it all in your head.

I don’t know how Tolstoy did it, you know?

Valerie
Yeah.

When you do all of this research, when do you know, “This is enough. I should start writing now”?

Anna
I know! It’s terrible. Well, I love research, you see? So, in a sense there was a particular point where I began to write this book, Fire and Song, I had enough to begin, but in fact I didn’t stop the research, because I couldn’t. Because things kept occurring to me. So, I would send for something else.

I’m fortunate to be an honorary research fellow at La Trobe University at the Institute of Latin American Studies. That gives me wonderful library rights. Because I don’t live in the city, I was able to send for secondary sources, some books to help me explore the broader context of my people’s story.

There was a point where there was another trial transcript I could have sent for, which I know where it is actually, this one. It’s at Berkley, at the Bancroft Library. It’s none of the family, but a friend of the family. I stopped myself, because I thought, “Here I’ll go. It will be another 400 parchments.” But, you know what? I’m still going to send for it now, and read it anyway, because I have to know!

Valerie
Oh my god.

Anna
I have to know.

There were other little searches that I had to abandon along the way, because I just came to dead ends.

Valerie
Right.

When you forced yourself to stop, then it’s time to start writing-

Anna
Well, I had already been writing when I first researched. So, first a lot of research- say two years of straight research and taking notes. Then I begin to write, but I still go on researching, but I guess I try to keep a balance.

Valerie
Right. So, when you were doing that, when you started writing, and possibly combining it with other research, do you have a routine? Do you have a certain discipline? A way to structure your day? A word count to achieve? How does that work for you?

Anna
I don’t have a word count. Maybe I should. I am very disciplined.

By the way, I work. Like most writers I’ve got two day jobs at the moment. It all has to work around work, the work that pays the bills.

Valerie
Yes.

Anna
Most of the time I work just part time in my day job, so that the days that I’m not working there I certainly try to be sitting down at 9 o’clock and work all day long, stop for breaks, work all day long, and work most of the weekend as well.

In fact, one of the things that I’m really enjoying at the moment, because my book has just come out, and I haven’t begun the next one yet, although I’m thinking of it, but I haven’t begun. I’m so enjoying being able to accept invitations from my friends to do things. I really am. It had become an automatic response of, “No, I’d love to, but I can’t. I’m solid.” All of a sudden I can say, “Yes, I’m going to do that,” and it’s lovely.

Valerie
So, what’s next for you? Are you already on to your next project?

Anna
I’m not on to it in the sense that I’m not writing, because I really need a rest. I must admit, I’m terrified of starting again, because I don’t want to enter that tunnel again just yet.

Valerie
But you’ve got it in your head?

Anna
I have. I’ve got a few things in my head, because I have promised Allen and Unwin to write a travel book for my next one. I don’t mean a travel guide, but a book about places and people. In some cases it will be I think the story behind the story. In some cases it will be about places where I’ve been for the writing of my three books. But, being able to indulge a little bit in things I was not able to put into the books.

Valerie
Right.

Anna
Because I think if you’re a writer you’ll know that as you’re working you have to often discard things that you really like.

Valerie
That should be fun.

Anna
Yes. Well, I hope so. I do want to have a bit of fun. It won’t all be a laugh a minute stuff. I think there will be some funny stories in this.

Valerie
Do you think you’ll be able to resist the tendency of telling some of the historical stories that you’ve spent so much time researching, as opposed to your experience in those countries and cultures?

Anna
No, I think I will be able to resist. I might just refer to them. But, I think I just don’t want to go there again.

Valerie
Oh, really? OK.

Anna
I mean I want to go to the places. What I mean is I don’t want to retell those stories.

Valerie
No.

Anna
Although there might be some- like there is one that I would quite like to do as part of the travel book, which is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long while. All over Mexico, in almost every village, at some point in the year people dance Malinche dances. They’re all different. Every village has a different one.

I certainly would like to have a little bit closer look at the dances, as opposed to her and her life.

Valerie
Yeah.

Anna
How people prepare. They spend months preparing, making costumes. I would certainly like to explore that a little bit.

Valerie
Most of the stuff you’ve written has been really based in reality and a lot of research. Even the travel book that you’re going to write is going to be based on your real experiences. Have you written, or considered writing fiction?

Anna
I am beginning to consider it. I do have something in mind.

Valerie
Will it be set in that part of the world?

Anna
No, no, no, no. No, absolutely not. No. Just simple local, the world that I know. I’m not ready to do it yet. But, I think it might be germinating.

Valerie
Wow. OK.

Finally, what would your advice be to budding writers who have a story to tell? Perhaps there’s a little known part of history that they want to bring to life? What’s your advice to them on how to bring that to life in an engaging, but accurate way?

Anna
That’s kind of hard. I mean experiment. Read good writers who do it well. Find out first who those writers are. Read their works and see how they have done it, not necessarily copy them, but it ought to give people a chance to think how they might do it. Experiment.

I began to write Malinche’s Conquest in a fairly standard, conventional, as a very third person history book. I knew within a few months that it was dead on the page. I didn’t want that. That’s when I got the idea of writing it, in a sense, as a travel narrative, my journey and her journey. And, also because I knew I was writing initially for Australian audiences who many would not be familiar with Mexico, with strange names, and so on. So, it was a way of drawing them along. I think it has worked, from what people tell me.

But, that’s the best advice I think I can give. Experiment, and explore, and start working, and keep on going until you’re finished. There is no other way. Just perseverance.

Valerie
Yes.

Anna
No matter what happens, just keep on crawling on your hands and knees until you get to the end.

Valerie
Because you do get there in the end.

Anna
Yes. Some people do, many do not. I’m told that many do not. I’m told that by publishers and so on. Yes, many people begin their journey, not everyone ends.

Valerie
Finally, what’s your advice on how to sustain that to the end? How to sustain that interest in your work and commitment.

Anna
It is very, very hard. There are so many obstacles. I think I sort of tend to picture myself as the tortoise, not the hare- the tortoise. Plodding, plodding, plodding. Things go wrong, family gets sick- children or elderly parents. There are always going to be things that get in way. I think that’s for everybody. You just have to keep going.

Actually, a lot of the time it’s not enthusiasm. Most writers I know- we’re not so in love with our work on an everyday basis that love and passion sustains us. It is discipline. It is just sitting down and just returning to it. Then you hope, and if you’re lucky it usually happens with me, having made myself sit down and start, after a while it begins. You are picked up again by the curiosity, or my own curiosity, or the passion. I think it’s something you have to sort of turn on. I think for most of us it’s not there everyday. It has to be invoked.

Valerie
Great advice, realistic advice. On that note thank you very much for your time today, Anna.

Anna
Thank you, Valerie.


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