Thursday, August 30, 2012

September Preview—Behind Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune (Appearing Monday, Sept. 17, 7 pm)

The Malice of Fortune started, like many titles, as a book looking for love in all the wrong places. Michael Ennis had a storied career teaching art history, curating art exhibits, and developing museum programs for the Rockefeller Foundation. He also wrote two books The Duchess of Milan (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989) and Byzantium (Viking, 1992), both currently out of print. And since that last book, twenty years ago, he has apparently been working on a novel about the Italian Renaissance.

After the author found a believing agent in Dan Lazar, the manuscript went through two rounds of submissions, with the manuscript weighing in around 200,000 words (that’s probably over 600 pages). Finally an editor named Lara Hinchberger at the Canadian publisher McClelland and Stewart picked it up for publication and edited it to about 125,000 words. And then they set out to come up with a plan to send it out again.

According to Publishers Weekly, Lazar confessed his frustration at selling the book to the owner of Pudd’nhead Books outside St. Louis, who once worked for Lazar. As they noted in the story, it was like the Algonquin ad with booksellers, or as I see it, soliciting for quotes for the Indie Bound list, but before the book is even published.

I am particularly fascinated by Lazar’s tenacity in this endeavor. You heard of great success stories after much failure, but usually the the struggle is about getting an agent. That’s author tenacity. But one can only suppose that it is a rare thing for an agent to pick up a project and work on selling it for over two years. Like a bookseller who usually has to give up and move on to handselling another book that is stickier, it’s a rare thing to carry on in the face of so much rejection. Yow.

And that’s where we came into the story. Mr. Lazar and I had been corresponding about Julie Pandl’s memoir (that’s for another post) and he asked me about Conrad. He had been scanning the Indie Next recommendations for booksellers who liked a certain kind of historical fiction with a thriller element, and saw that Conrad was a fan of Umberto Eco. Would he be interested in reading a manuscript? And just for good measure, we were chatting about Italian history, an interest of Jason’s, and Lazar decided to send a copy to Jason as well.

And lo, they both read The Malice of Fortune and liked it enough to send Lazar a rec, and that was without prodding. And later I heard that of the 48 people asked to read the book, and more than half read the book and sent positive replies. That's an astoundingly large response percentage.

Here’s Jason:
"What Michael Ennis does in The Malice of Fortune is no less than complete genius—he transports the reader into an atmospheric world that I would call ‘Umberto Eco-esque’ and it works beautifully. Surrounded by intrigue and murder, Damiata has to go on an errand for the pope to help protect her son and to possibly find her father’s murderer. Along the way she has to help in the likes of da Vinci and Machiavelli--two of the most brilliant minds in Renaissance Italy, though she is a complete match to their wits. What most impressed me, though, was the attention to detail that Ennis gives to this time period. The historical accuracy that he imbues is astounding, from the political intrigue to that the individual city states had to the historical characters and their motivations. This is one novel not to be missed!"

And here’s Conrad:
"The Malice of Fortune is a tightly-crafted murder mystery set in the early sixteenth century Italian Renaissance of Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. It calls to mind nothing so much as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in comparison to which it holds up nicely. Who better than da Vinci to bring a nascent scientific mind to an otherwise bewildering set of clues…Who better than Machiavelli to navigate the convoluted intrigues of a corrupt political system that has everything to do with the mystery and its solution? And the two are united by the main character, a more or less retired high-class and well-educated courtesan (or ‘honest whore,’ as she styles herself) who happens to have been the lover of the pope’s murdered son and the mother of his (the pope’s) grandson. This will appeal to mystery buffs and fans of historical fiction alike. Please publish this so I can sell it."

And just for good measure, here are a few more.

“The Malice of Fortune suggests, with Machiavelli and Livy, that the ‘study of history is the best medicine for present ills’—and Ennis masterfully breathes life into that history.”
--Ed Conklin, Chaucer’s Bookstore, Santa Barbara, California

“The Malice of Fortune is historical fiction at its very best. History lovers will love the research and detail. Fiction lovers will love the twists, turns, and narrative…I look forward to handing this book to my customers who loved The Name of the Rose and The Shadow of the Wind.”
--Sally Brewster, Park Road Books, Charlotte, North Carolina

“There are a lot of moving parts to this book—it’s a serial killer murder mystery, a paintstakingly researched historical fiction, a peek behind the scenes of the writing of The Prince, a family story, and a love story—but it all comes together and packs one hell of a punch.”
--Jenn Northington, WORD, Brooklyn, New York

The Malice of Fortune was like a window into the past. As soon as I read the first page I found myself transported into the world of the Borgias, a world filled with powerful people and more powerful secrets.”
--Paul Fyke, Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi

And I could go on...for a long time. I was intrigued enough to read Malice of Fortune myself, not necessarily at the manuscript stage, but after we got a placement on Michael Ennis’s reading and appearance tour. I was intrigued by the idea of Ennis imagining the motivations for the events that likely led to Machiavelli later writing The Prince. The fictional character of Damiata is yes, a courtesan, but also someone who is both connected to the plot, and also everywoman enough to draw you into the story.

I asked Jason about the brutal killings in the book, knowing that he’s read a lot about this period of history. Is it a bit outlandish to think that such things would happen, and Jason replied, “There was a lot of crazy stuff going on at that time. It is absolutely not inconceivable.

You don’t think of me reading big fat historical novels with thriller elements but I’ve read a few, and I was reminded a bit of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth. I also think that folks who liked Elizabeth Kostova’s novels, particularly if they liked the first one for more than for its being a vampire novel.  Other booksellers mentioned David Liss, Alison Weir, Max Hastings, C.J. Sansom, Sharon Kay Penman, and Cara Black

Coincidentally, I worked at Warner Books when we published the paperback version of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and helped out with the publicity. Embarrassing confession of the day, I never finished reading the book, though I can state with pride that my mother and one of my sisters did, and I quoted them both liberally.

Michael Ennis will be appearing at Boswell to discuss and read from The Malice of Fortune on Monday, September 17, 7 pm.

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