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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 94: Elizabeth Fremantle (Disobedient)

Charlie and Elizabeth Fremantle (Disobedient) discuss the formative life, and Elizabeth’s fictionalisation, of Artemisia Gentileschi, a woman painter from the 17th century.

Please note that there are many mentions of rape in this episode, and there is also a mention of animal death.

The previous episodes with Elizabeth are episode 7 and episode 70
The exhibition at The National Gallery
Judith Slaying Holofernes
Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes
Mary D Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi
Elizabeth’s Queen’s Gambit

Release details: recorded 24th October 2023; published 25th March 2024

Where to find Elizabeth online: Website || Twitter || Facebook || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

You can contact the show at

Go back to the list of episodes


01:18 Why Artemisia, and the general inspiration for the book
04:40 Elizabeth talks about Artemisia’s work in general, as well as her success in her lifetime
10:58 How much does your fictionalisation of Orazio Gentileschi align with what’s known?
15:14 Where Artemisia worked on her father’s paintings
16:47 The Stiatessi family and what we know about Artemisia’s husband
20:12 About Zita, real name Tuzia
22:49 The fragments of translations in the book – listen in for some interesting facts!
25:56 The use of laundry and light coming through the laundry lines
28:21 The Nightingale (Ovid’s Metamorphoses’ Philomel and Procne)
31:19 About Beatrice Cenci and Elizabeth’s next book
35:28 Asking Elizabeth about what Charlie feels is her defining element – her honing in to one or two specific elements – and how she may continue in this vein in future
40:42 Lola the dog, who is mentioned at the start of the novel
41:29 Release dates for Firebrand, the film of Queen’s Gambit


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 94. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Elizabeth Fremantle who is on the podcast for the third time, having already spoken about The Poison Bed in episode 7 and The Honey And The Sting in episode 70. I’m very happy she’s back, as you may have guessed by now, I think her books are pretty awesome. We’ll be talking today about Liz’s latest novel, Disobedient, which is about the 17th century Italian woman artist Artemisia Gentileschi and focuses on a formative year of her life when she was 17 years old; if you appreciate content warnings for your media, please do check them for this episode before proceeding. That said and done, hello Liz!

Elizabeth: Hello. You make me sound fantastic [both laugh].

Charlie: I think you are – your book’s fantastic, you’re fantastic, you know!

Elizabeth: That’s very kind of you [laughs].

Charlie: Okay, we’ll get into the book, this latest book, very exciting. Why Artemisia, and also the general inspiration for this book?

Elizabeth: Okay, well, Artemisia’s story – she’s been on my back burner for a long time. And because the novel is set in Rome, I had really only ever written novels set in England in a particular period of about 100 years between 1540 and 1630. Artemisia did come into that timeline, but it was a completely different, slightly off-piste idea for me, and I wasn’t really sure how my publishers would go for it. And it was the last book in my contract, and I was meant to be writing another book about an English woman, Aphra Ben – restoration playwright, incredible woman – and I just couldn’t find the story. Sometimes that happens and I kind of thought, Artemisia is sitting on my back burner. And we were just going into the first lockdown, so 2020, and there was going to be a big exhibition of Artemisia’s work in London. And it had been very much on my radar, I was really excited about it, and of course it was postponed because of Covid And there had been lots of articles; I kept hearing about her on the radio for publicity for this exhibition. And it was as if she started speaking to me, and I thought, okay, I can’t ignore this. This is a story I want to write. But for me, it’s a very, very personal story. Artemisia is a survivor of sexual abuse, and the story is quite close to my own personal story. So I’d slightly shied away from it because I wasn’t sure the extent to which I could cope with living with her story for the length of time it takes to write a novel. I mean, you really, really have to develop this incredibly close relationship to your characters. And I think that was one of the reasons why I’d not really considered it before. But she kept coming back to me, and I thought, okay, it’s obviously my unconscious telling me this is the moment to write this novel and this is yours for the taking. So [I] got in touch with my editor, who was keen, and it went from there; but she’d been around in my mind for a long time. I’d first seen her painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes and been completely struck dumb by its wild, furious, take on a biblical scene. It’s a really, really brutally violent depiction of a woman beheading, or two women beheading a man – it’s a biblical story, there’s a lot of violence in the Bible! But it was astonishing that it came from a female painter. And that was what initially intrigued me about her, yeah. So that’s sort of how I came to write about her.

Charlie: I struggled looking at a painting because you’re right, especially, I think, with the information that you include in your prose and also the translations you’ve got, which I’m going to ask you about soon. Yeah, goodness, I struggled with that painting. But can you give us a general overview of her work?

Elizabeth: Oh, sure. I mean, as a female – to be a painter at that time… I mean there were other women painters, very, very few. There were a couple of very accomplished portrait painters from that period, from slightly earlier, even, so it wasn’t as if she was the first female painter. But she was the first woman to tackle those kind of subjects. They were not portraits. They were these really visceral biblical subjects. In which she tended to always centre the female. And in a way, what she was doing was de-eroticising the female in art. All those women – naked women – in art. It was all, in a sense, for the male gaze. There was no sense of what those women were going through. This is what you see over and over again in Artemisia’s work. The female in society, in Roman society, of that period, so 1611 in Rome. These are the experiences she’s having. She’s got creepy men ogling her if she goes out in the street alone without a chaperone. She’s dealing with those experiences, and she’s using the biblical stories to tell, in a sense, the story of women and how women have to behave. And then by the time she comes to paint, later on in the same year – possibly a little bit later, but we’re not sure of the dates of some of her paintings, the exact dates – she painted two depictions of Judith Slaying Holofernes, and the man is completely emasculated and terrified. And no one had painted that. No one other than Caravaggio had tackled that aspect of that story. It’s such a bold and courageous choice for her as a painter, as a young female painter who wants to be taken seriously. And, of course, this is a supreme challenge. And the obstacles that come her way as a result of her desire to operate as a man in a man’s world – she set the bar really, really high for herself. And she does achieve her dream, which is to be judged alongside her male peers. She doesn’t want to be seen to be a good painter, a good woman painter. She wants to be seen as a good painter. And she achieves that, which is extraordinary, really.

Charlie: Well, you say that, you say about her achieving it. Do you mean in her lifetime as well? Was she successful during her life?

Elizabeth: She was extremely successful during her life. And though my novel covers just this year, it’s a year of extreme difficulty and obstacles that really, really challenge her. Most other women would be crushed by the experiences she went through just to achieve what she achieved. Then after the end of my novel, she moves to Florence, and she paints for the Medici family. They commissioned several works from her. So she really established herself as one of the great painters of her day. She was the first woman to be admitted to the Academy of Arts in Florence, which is a huge accolade for her. And, yes, she was very, very well respected in her time, very prolific. She travelled all over Europe. She came to England and painted for the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. There are a couple of pictures still in the collection. There’s a very, very, good self portrait, but it’s been in the news recently, another Susanna And The Elders, actually, that was discovered languishing in a basement at the Royal Collection, misattributed as simply French School. And it has been cleaned and re-attributed to Artemisia, which is amazing, mean, it’s amazing to see a piece of work re-emerge that’s hers. That was a really incredible moment, actually. So, yes, she came to England, she travelled to Naples, she travelled all over Italy, and she was a huge success. But I think what happened was baroque painting went out of fashion with the Enlightenment. And then when baroque painters, people who were revisiting them in the Victorian period, she was a female painter, no one was interested in even considering her work, so she wasn’t really rediscovered until probably the 1970s when a feminist art historian started to look at her work again and from there, I think in the late ’80s, early ’90s Mary Garrard, an art historian, wrote a very, very, good book which was biographical but it looked at her biography and all her work, alongside all her work, really. And since then there’s been a slow resurgence of female artists and Artemisia has been one of the primary figures in that movement. I wish she was a household name, I believe she’s as good a painter as Caravaggio and I believe people should all know her! Anyway, I hope my novel will help to give her the fame she deserves.

Charlie: Yeah, no, certainly, I think it will, yeah. I knew about the resurgence of interest in her work and her, but I didn’t realise it had taken until so late as the 1970s yeah, you’ve surprised me there.

Elizabeth: Yeah, well there were one or two people, I think, somebody wrote about her in the 1930s. She was, I think, considered a bit of a curiosity rather than a serious artist. Yeah.

Charlie: So can you tell us – her father, ‘Oraz-io’, I think it would be pronounced – I wasn’t sure what to make of him until later on and then you start to get an idea of who he is and what he’s about. Can you tell us how much your fictionalisation aligns with how Orazio treated her in general?

Elizabeth: Well, I think what we do know about Orazio was he was a painter and he wasn’t quite as good a painter as his daughter. So for me that was the first kernel of characterisation of him – it’s okay… Artemisia’s mother died when she was twelve, I think… so he had four children, Artemisia, the eldest and there were three brothers, and so he had to raise four children, alone, and artists were not rich people they were jobbing, it was work, it would come and go, feast and famine, and I tried to think about that, that he taught her to paint, so he would have been incredibly proud of the painter she became and the talent she was obviously showing at such a young age, but on the other hand I thought how would he feel about that as a painter himself? And I thought he’s going to be jealous. There’s got to be a level of envy. And then I also thought about this idea that she’s a woman and women didn’t become painters, not that kind of painter, and I wanted him to have all these mixed feelings about her that his sons didn’t have the talent, why did God give all the talent to his daughter? It’s as if he felt God was mocking him in some ways. And so he is a complex character. But obviously much of his characterisation is generated from these few small facts we have about him, and that we can see his art, but he doesn’t convey the kind of visceral emotion that she does in her work. It’s very beautifully done, his work, but it doesn’t make you feel that much, it just makes you think that’s a beautiful picture. That was really my starting point for his character. I mean, no spoiler, but there’s a big court case, after the rape, and for one reason or another, the father would expect to restore the family honour, the honour of the Gentileshis. This man, Tassi, has deflowered his daughter; he wants reparation, and the reparation is she has to marry her rapist. That was quite normal practice at the time. And we know that Orazio pushed for that. And then for one reason or another – I don’t want to give away the plot – it comes to a court case and in order to restore the family honour, Orazio is prepared to see his daughter go through the most appalling circumstances of this court case. Not only have her name absolutely dragged through the mud, I mean, really, really, she was really vilified. But also undergo some really appalling things during the trial. And he still insisted upon that, the reparation of the family honour, that was his primary desire rather than the well being of his daughter. So that also told me a lot about him as a character. But we know so little about him. What we do have is all the testimony from the trial. So all the witnesses and their witness statements, which are all slightly different. And particularly on Tassi’s side, they all completely different, he was manifestly making up his stories about what did and didn’t happen. But we get a sense of Orazio through that, but not that much, he’s a little bit of a shadowy figure in her story. And that’s the job of the novelist, to put meat on the bones of what we know, which is so little.

Charlie: You have Artemisia doing little details for her father’s paintings, and I think we can say objectively, I dare say we can say objectively, that, yeah, his paintings aren’t as detailed as Artemisia’s, there’s definitely a level of talent that he hasn’t got that she has. Do we know of sections of his paintings that were done by other people or her? Is that something that we know?

Elizabeth: Well, we know that painting was a family business. So all the brothers would have been mixing pigments, helping out, they’d have all been working in the studio for their father, and that artist’s paintings at that time were collaborative. So there’d be parts of paintings that would be given to the assistants to paint who were learning their craft. And Artemisia was learning her craft under her father. So we can safely say she was working on some of those. And some of his paintings have been re-attributed more recently to her.

Charlie: The whole thing?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I think there are one or two that have. So we can safely say that there were collaborative projects because that was how art in that period in Rome, how artists worked. The artists would come in and do the hands and face, and then he’d hand over all the other bits to assistants and people. So we can pretty safely say that some of his works will have been painted by her. Her bits of them.
Charlie: Fair enough. So I’m going to try this [slowly pronounces] Stia-tessi family, the family that Artemisia marries into, and it seems that you have got one of their members as Artemisia’s friend. Can you tell us about this family, and also what’s known about Artemisia’s husband?

Elizabeth: Okay, well, not an awful lot is the truth of that. But the Stiatessi family were great friends of the Gentileshis. And there was a husband and wife, Portia and… I can’t remember his name now.

Charlie: I can’t either – it doesn’t matter [both laugh], it’s in the book!

Elizabeth: Just Stiatessi! Oh, dear, that’s terrible, forget the names of my characters… and they are old friends. And we know that they had connections because they testify in the court case – we see the relationship that the Stiatessi family have with the Gentileschi family through the testimonies in the court case. And then Piero – I call him Piero, he’s Piero Antonio Stiatessi – who was either the brother or the nephew – nobody really knows – of the Stiatessis, who lived in Florence. He is the man she eventually marries. And we know almost nothing about him, but I thought it was very important to create him as a presence and a character in the novel because she marries him eventually. So I felt it was important to build up his character so he becomes a real presence, otherwise she’s going to a very unknown future, and I wanted her to go to a future that was positive, really, because of what she goes through. And I felt like looking at what happened later on in their marriage, there are lots of letters that were discovered, but not that long ago, and they really chart her later life and her contracts for paintings and things and making sure everybody’s getting paid properly. And he’s part of her world in that time, but they seem to live this interestingly open marriage. I mean, she lived almost the life of a libertine; she had a very unconventional way of living. She had a lover who she corresponded with who was her lover for about 13 years, Maringhi, and he was also corresponding with her husband – they were friends. So that led me to wonder about the nature of their marriage. And so I made Piero a homosexual, yet they’re soulmates, and so it’s a really deep friendship that’s beneficial for both of them. And in a way, by being able to marry one another, they both get the veil of respectability that marriage gives them both. But they get to live the kind of life they want. So that’s how he emerged as a character.

Charlie: That’s really, really fascinating to hear about that. And I’ve read the Wikipedia page. I’ve read other things about Artemisia and yeah, there’s just nothing I could find. The lady that you call Zita, she has another name, can you tell us about her I suppose in the context of your book and also in history because it looks like there’s not so much known about her?

Elizabeth: No, there’s not an awful lot known about her. But she does play a really pivotal part in Artemisia’s story. She’s called Tuzia, but I changed her name to Zita, really because I always want to make the reading experience very smooth for readers so they don’t have to kind of think, who is that character? And I already have Tassi as a name, T-A-S-S-I – it’s short, t begins with ‘t’. And Tuzia was short beginning with ‘t’. I just didn’t want any confusion between those, so I gave her a nickname, Zita. And we know she lived with the Gentileschi family as a sort of chaperone figure. Artemisia had reached this age – or perhaps Orazio felt that he needed a woman around the house because he needed someone to keep an eye on his daughter as she was reaching an age where she might become an object of interest to men and not necessarily in a good way. So Zita was part of the household and she stayed in the household. And she was also arrested in the run up to the trial. So these are all things that I’ve put into the novel. She was accused of basically procuring Artemisia for men and basically running a kind of mini brothel. That’s why she was arrested. And she’s a completely different kind of woman from Artemisia. Artemisia comes over as very androgynous, very independent, she doesn’t care about her appearance. Whereas Zita is an artist’s model, she’s really staggeringly beautiful. And she has always been regarded in the terms of her own beauty – she doesn’t really have a life outside of that. She’s very religious when it suits her, and she’s not the brightest button in the box. She’s sweet and means well but she does terrible things without realising. And so, yeah, I wanted to have that contrast between the two women and, so that’s why I characterised her, because we don’t really know what she was like; we have those few facts about her that put her in the household for that period of time. That’s all really.

Charlie: Okay. All right. Yeah. So I’ll ask a different question – yeah, I think you’ve definitely answered that one fully. The fragments of the book, then, that you use – these translations. They seem to me from the Bible. I looked up the exact translations because I didn’t know if you’d created it or if they were real. Can you tell us about these and your use of them? And are they real?

Elizabeth: Okay, the fragments. They are not real. I wrote them. I made them up entirely. And actually E F Lamenter is an anagram of my name [laughs]. So it was a little joke. But I wanted to find a way to describe the biblical paintings. The story of Judith and Holofernes, – nobody really knows it nowadays, but I felt it was important for the reader to know the story. So that’s why I kind of thought, okay, I’m going to imagine up these fragments, these found fragments of medieval poems in which they describe. And then I have this person I invented called E F Lamenter who has translated them and who has also translated a song of the saints, a sort of roll call of the female saints. The female saints come into the story towards the end because it becomes all about sacrifice. So, yeah, I just thought they would add some texture and allow me to tell those stories in a way that was intriguing and wouldn’t take the reader too much out of the story itself.

Charlie: Fair enough. Yeah, I thought they were great, I thought they were [a] good inclusion. However, if I don’t understand anything from your next novels, I’m definitely going to do some checking out, see if there’s anagram or something that I’m missing, there, definitely [Elizabeth laughs]. Kind of feels so obvious now, I’m like, yeah, I probably should have seen that.

Elizabeth: Nobody’s noticed, nobody, apart from my brother. He’s like a crossword whizz, so he’s really good at anagrams. So at my book launch, he was flicking through the book, and he just texted me – I was on the other side of the place to him – and he texted me, ‘E F Lamenter, ha ha ha’ [Charlie laughs] and he’s the only person that’s noticed that so far. And you’re the only person that’s asked me about those fragments, actually.
Charlie: Are you okay with potentially loads of people knowing now? Because we’re talking about it?
Elizabeth: Yeah, of course, no, absolutely. And I like that because it’s sort of like a little puzzle in the book, which is kind of fun for people.
Charlie: Yeah, it’s very interesting. And I think it’s quite good, then, that you’ve got these bits where it says… what is it?…
Elizabeth: ‘Some text illegible’.

Charlie: That’s it. Yes [both laugh].

Elizabeth: Yeah, because I wanted to give it an authentic feel. It’s a pastiche of medieval fragments. Really.

Charlie: Yeah. Well, you fooled me. Well done [both laugh]. Okay, I’ll ask a couple more questions that are kind of potentially more, light, I suppose. And there’s no pun intended in that phrase I’ve just used, considering what I’m about to say. There’s a lot about laundry lines and the light it stops coming through the window. The whiteness of it. Women washing in the riverbank, etcetera. This seemed like an important element to me. Was it?

Elizabeth: Well, I think laundry is associated with women always.

Charlie: Yeah.

Elizabeth: So there was that. Initially, the image came to me – I wanted to convey the Via de la Croce, where they moved to – there’s the Via Margutta, which is where they are at the beginning, and they have to move from there because they can’t afford to live there any more. And Via Margutta is a really, really beautiful street. And the Via de la Croce is busier, narrower, and it’s not quite so nice. And it’s quite narrow, and I envisaged these strings of laundry suspended across the street that you do see. I think I’d seen them somewhere, like in the past, it’s one of the things I’ve got in my stored image bank. Or my impressions bank; in somewhere like Sienna, I think I’d seen that. And I thought, ‘oh, that’s amazing’. And so that kind of came back to me. I thought they moved to this place and I think it became a bone of contention between Orazio and Artemisia, this idea. Because Artemisia wanted to paint in the way Caravaggio painted, which is all to do with a limited light source and things emerging from the darkness and that was his calling card, if you will. And she very much paints in that way. And certainly her Judith Slaying Holofernes is very much of that ilk. And so for her, this filtered light that comes in, filtered through the laundry, it suits her and it suits the way she wants to paint. But Orazio is really frustrated. He hates it. Because for him it just symbolizes a place that’s a less salubrious place for them to live, and he can’t see properly to paint. And it’s a frustration for him. Whereas for her it’s something that strikes up her imagination, whereas it tampers down his imagination. And so that is essentially the movement of the plot – his career is on the wane and hers is just emerging and growing.

Charlie: The nightingale.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Charlie: What’s up with that?

Elizabeth: Okay, so the nightingale is a little symbol that runs all the way through. And actually there was much more of it. One of my source materials is Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The story of Philomel and Procne. And it’s a really, really, brutal story. Philomel and Procne are princesses in ancient Greece – I don’t know, in the ancient world. And Tereus arrives to marry Procne, and he takes her off to his kingdom. But Philomel desperately misses her sister, and when Tereus comes back to visit, she begs to be taken back to visit her sister with him. But instead of taking her back, he rapes her. Locks her up in a place in the woods. And when she says she’s going to shout from the rooftops what’s happened, he cuts her tongue out. And actually it’s a story I return to quite a lot in my work because I feel like it really articulates so much of the situation of women, the way women are silenced. And so that mythological story, I felt like there’s an attempt to silence Artemisia through rape and marriage. And so I had much, much more of this Ovid story running through as a thread but actually it didn’t really make it into the final draft. It was too tricksy, it didn’t really need to be there. But what stayed is the nightingale – and the story of Philomel is turned into a nightingale, and she sings in the woods. So she gets her voice back, in a way. It’s a brutal story of triumph, as is Artemisia’s. A brutal story of a great triumph. So she’s there, Philomel is there in the nightingale, and she sort of reappears right at the end, the little bird. So it’s just a little symbol that’s again a kind of personal one for me, really.

Charlie: I’m seeing lots of extra layers in there as well that you’ve got in there, that is in the subtext of what you’ve just said there, actually. I’m trying to think if it was in your book or someone else’s – is Ovid a favourite author of Artemisia’s in your book?

Elizabeth: No, but it’s Piero who talks about Ovid. She can’t read or write, which is a pivotal plot point as well. And we know that she couldn’t read or write, and she taught herself, or she will have been taught later on in life because she became a prolific letter writer. But at the time of the trial, she couldn’t write or read. But she’s really fascinated, she wants to see everything, she wants to learn everything and know everything so she can paint the whole world, and yet she feels she’s not allowed to see most of it. And so, yeah, that’s why I’ve brought Ovid in.

Charlie: Fair enough. You also bring in – I’m going to try and say this name – [pronounces it wrong] Beatrice Cenci?

Elizabeth: Oh, ‘be-a-chi-chay chen-chi’ – that’s the Italian pronunciation. But yes, it’s spelt same as ‘Beatrice’, we’d pronounce it here, and Cenci, yep.

Charlie: Yeah, I suppose if we talk about her more in this case, why was it important to bring her in?

Elizabeth: Okay, well, spoiler alert: I am right now, presently writing a novel about Beatrice Cenci [Charlie: ooh, okay] that she’s the subject of my new novel. Beatrice Cenci is a woman who’s executed for murder. And I found in this book about Rome and the history of Rome, that Caravaggio attended the execution. Executions in those days were public entertainment, and actually Beatrice had become a kind of public cause. Everybody thought she should be pardoned because her circumstances were extenuating. That’s another story; I’m sure we’ll have a chance to talk about that in the future, at some future point! I mean, it’s anecdotal, but it’s said that Caravaggio and Orazio went together, and they took Artemisia to see this execution. And she was aged six. And I had had a different beginning to the story, I had had a beginning that was really focused on Orazio and his big confessions, and his guilt about his envy and everything. And I sort of thought, ‘hang on a minute. This is a story about Artemisia, and I’m all focused on Orazio here’. It wasn’t well balanced in a way. But I thought, what do I want? I want a beginning that really demonstrates the jeopardy of women’s lives. And what better way than to give her this experience of seeing this woman who has transgressed the social boundaries in some way or other and she’s paying the ultimate price. So that was why I put that scene [in]; I thought it also allowed me to bring in the family relationship between the Gentileschis and Caravaggio, who was someone who was a household friend and contemporary of Orazio’s. So I wanted a way to bring that in that wasn’t too heavy handed or through too many flashbacks – I had a lot of flashbacks bringing him in, and it slowed the story down – so I thought, ‘okay, I’m going to have this scene at the beginning and it helps us see her at the moment before her mother’s died. She’s living in this warm family with the love of a mother. And this man, this extraordinary man, is having also a pivotal moment’. Because it’s said that his depiction of Judith Slaying Holofernes was inspired by seeing Beatrice Cenci executed. So I just thought there was something really neat about that, and how well, it introduced her story in terms of the history of that painting, in a way. Then she sees Caravaggio’s painting. And she has a lot to say about it, actually!

Charlie: I know, obviously you can’t be too detailed, as we are being more so with Disobedient, but what can you tell us about this book?

Elizabeth: Okay, well, I’m not going to tell very much because it’s not written yet [laughs]. But thematically, I’m coming back to my familiar themes: a woman pushing against the patriarchy. She’s a noble woman. And so she has a different kind of life to Artemisia. But her father is very tyrannical, and so again, we have this struggle between a father and daughter but it’s in a very different way. And actually, it’s a love story. But it’s a very dark and tragic love story.

Charlie: Sure. I’m going to look forward to seeing what you do with this story there. So I think this is the fourth time overall I’ve spoken to you, and I know I’ve spoken about this before – the way that you hone in on things. I’m finally starting to be able to put into words, I think, the defining element of your writing that I’m seeing here – you’re honing in on one or two things at the exclusion of all else. And yet somehow – I don’t know how you do it, you are the master at it – yet creating a fully vibrant world, basically, regardless of honing in, which is amazing. But I suppose I want to ask, do you think you’ll continue to write in this way or might you pull back, I suppose, at some point to look at wider angles?

Elizabeth: Oh, gosh, that’s really interesting… I mean, I think my novels become increasingly intensely focused.

Charlie: Yes, I would agree.

Elizabeth: Because when I think about Queen’s Gambit, which is my first novel that I had published, which is about Katherine Parr, and I have been doing a new edit of it fairly recently, so I’ve revisited it. I mean, it’s just a tidy edit, i’s not a completely different novel or anything because there’s a film coming out about it which will be called Firebrand because the title Queen’s Gambit got kind of pulled out from under us, really! So I returned to that novel and I was quite surprised, actually, at how much my focus has become more and more on one individual character and the building up of that character. Whereas with Katherine Parr, it was really, really about Katherine Parr but I have these other stories that have an importance of their own within it and it’s about the wider political situation. Whereas I think what’s happened is there’s been a kind of distillation of my core themes. It’s almost as if I go over those themes again and again through different women’s lives and they’ve become increasingly distilled. So with Artemisia, it’s distilled into one, this very short time span. The novel just covers one year. And that’s unusual for me. It’s as if almost everything’s becoming purer and purer in my mind. And in fact, the new novel – it doesn’t even have a name yet – but I’m writing it just from one single perspective. And that’s something I’ve never done before. So, yeah, I don’t know, maybe there comes a point where I think, okay, I cannot go any further in [both laugh]. I don’t know! I mean, I hone in on these characters and they lead me to the story and the way the story will be told. And it has to be very, very personal to me. So, I don’t know. I can’t really answer that question of yours, really. I mean, those themes, those preoccupations of mine, I sort of thought, ‘gosh, I wonder if I could write a war novel, for example, a novel set in the First or Second World War’. And certainly not at the moment, because I’m still right in with these women fighting against the patriarchy when the stakes were so high for them. I think that’s the thing that interests me about that period, is you step outside the boundaries and basically your life’s not worth living or you lose your life. So the jeopardy is very, very, high for those women. And there are still women in society who are punished in those ways for transgressing the rules of their particular societies. I’ve got another novel; I’m contracted with this Beatrice one and another one, which is also another early modern one, which is slightly different, it’s set around a famous Elizabethan murder, but more than that, I’m not really allowed to say. So I think that might be a little bit less intensely focused because it’s going to be more whodunnit-y. But I think I can only write in the way I write, and I sometimes will set out to do something and I think in my head it’s going to be like a whodunnit and it ends up being not like that at all and much, much, more intense and all about the female character [laughs] and the trials and tribulations.

Charlie: Well, I’m glad I’ve heard about this potential war novel because, yeah, you say that, I’m like ‘goodness, that’s very different’. I’m going to need to take some time to get my head around Elizabeth Fremantle writing a war novel. Yeah.

Elizabeth: Yeah, obviously it would be from the perspective of the women.

Charlie: Absolutely, yes.

Elizabeth: I don’t think I would ever write a novel with a male protagonist. I mean, I have written one. It was a failure. It was never published. So I don’t know, I mean, it might be an interesting exercise, but I can’t see myself doing that. It wouldn’t be in-the-trenches type novel if I were to write a war novel. But I think I’ve been very, very, deeply affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and reading testimonies of the suffering, of women and children, primarily, that’s ignited something in me. So that’s where that comes from.

Charlie: Okay. I want to ask you about your dog, Lola, who is mentioned at the start of your book, I believe. Would you mind telling us about her?

Elizabeth: Okay. Well, my little Lola, she died when I was writing the novel, so I put her in. I do put dogs in novels and my editor’s dog died when I was writing Sisters Of Treason and I put her dog in that novel. And so I put real dogs in my books because I’m a massive dog person! And so I put Lola in. She’s in towards the end, actually. She’s the Stiatessi’s dog, and she is a great comfort to Artemisia when she’s awaiting the trial. And, yeah, I just wanted to immortalise my little dog [laughs].

Charlie: That was really, really, lovely to see. Firebrand then. You have mentioned it, and I know I’ve been waiting for it for a long time as well. You told me about it several years ago, so I’ve been looking forward to it. Going to get you to tell us when it’s happening, because there is a date now.

Elizabeth: There is more or less a date. So it premiered at Cannes so that’s just one screening of it at the festival. And then because of the actors and writers strike, it’s kind of thrown everything up, so actually it’s delayed the release, the cinema release, which will happen 2024, it’s going to have its US premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, and it will be released in cinemas either just before that or just after that in the UK and the US.

Charlie: Very exciting. Can’t wait to see it. It’s going to be good. All right. So, Liz. Yeah, i’s been wonderful having you again. Really enjoy talking to you. Yes, thank you for being here and thank you for Disobedient.

Elizabeth: That’s my great pleasure. It’s always a pleasure to come and talk to you, Charlie.

[Recorded later] Charlie: I hope you enjoyed this episode. Do join me next time. And if you have a moment to spare, please do leave a rating and/or review of this podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Podcast Addict. Thank you! The Worm Hole Podcast episode 94 was recorded on the 24th October 2023 and published on the 25th March 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.

Photo credit: JP Masclet.


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