Today, it is my pleasure to welcome my friend Tinney Sue Heath, author of Lady of the Seven Suns. This is a fabulous story about Francesco (St. Francis) and Giacoma, a Roman noblewoman who was one of his most devoted supporters (read my review on Goodreads). Here, Tinney discusses how she chose to portray Francesco as both a holy man and a real human being.—Kim
By Tinney Sue Heath
I still can’t quite believe I wrote a book with Saint Francis of Assisi as a major character.
It’s downright frightening to write about saints, especially when it’s fiction, and historical fiction rather than religious fiction. Saint Francis, or “Brother Francesco” in my book, is beloved by so many people of all faiths and no faith, all across the world, and each one of them has a unique idea of what he must have been like, and what he taught and believed.
Some see the happy little friar covered with twittering birds and surrounded by Disney-like animals. Some see the radical revolutionary who challenged the wealth and complacency of the church by his example. And some see the man who suffered as he tried to imitate Christ, even to bearing the stigmata on his own body.
My main character, Giacoma, is a historical woman who seems an unlikely friend, follower, and supporter of the saint. She was a wealthy and powerful Roman noblewoman, and he was a barefoot friar who steadfastly refused to own anything. Yet the two of them formed a deep and lasting bond of friendship. Francesco even summoned “Brother Giacoma,” as he called her, to be present at his death. It was this apparent mismatch along with their profound mutual loyalty that intrigued me and inspired me to write the book.
One thing I learned is that saints tend to congregate. In Lady of the Seven Suns you will meet not only Saint Francis (Francesco), but also Saint Clare (Chiara), and there is a brief appearance by Saint Agnes (born Caterina, and Chiara’s younger sister). In addition to these religious luminaries, another character, Brother Egidio, was beatified.
Giacoma herself may have been beatified, or canonized. I’ve found claims for both possibilities, though some say no official ceremony ever took place. I cannot locate evidence for either one, but Franciscan communities celebrate her feast day on February 8.
So this writer found herself in exalted company, trying to write about these deeply religious people from a historical and secular point of view. But even saints have a human side and a worldly history, and sainthood is not conferred upon them until after they have lived out that history. So I took a deep breath and dug in, trying to understand the world they lived in and the loyalties, beliefs, and experiences that helped shaped them into the extraordinary people they were.
The reader’s first glimpse of Francesco in Lady shows him before his religious awakening, a confused young man trying to decide what to do with his life. This view of him is documented in the early biographies and hagiographies—a rich source of stories, like the one about the brothers presenting Giacoma with a lamb. While I appreciated the symbolism, being the secular novelist that I am I couldn’t resist imagining what it would be like to share your Roman palazzo with a sheep, so I played with that idea. Many other scenes and incidents in Lady originated in those early writings.
I came away from my writing experience with a new appreciation for what Francesco faced as he blazed his own trail and brought something genuinely original into his medieval world, and what Giacoma faced as she went against all the expectations for someone of her sex and her social caste. I don’t claim to be in any position to interpret the religious beliefs of these remarkable people, but I hope I have at least managed to show them as they might have appeared to their contemporaries.
To learn more about Tinney, visit her website, tinneyheath.com. There, you can sign up to receive her monthly newsletter and get your free copy of Cantilena for Seven Voices: Dante’s Women Speak. You can also follow her on Facebook.
All images, with the exception of the author photo and book cover, are public domain via Wikimedia Commons.