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Cityread author SJ Parris on Giordano Bruno, meeting readers and a ‘dream’ TV adaptation

PUBLISHED: 12:15 10 April 2017 | UPDATED: 12:57 10 April 2017

Author SJ Parris is hosting a number of talks in the capital in celebration of her historical thriller Prophecy being this year's Cityread London title

Author SJ Parris is hosting a number of talks in the capital in celebration of her historical thriller Prophecy being this year's Cityread London title

Archant

Philosopher, magician, mathematician, cosmologist, poet. Italian maverick Giordano Bruno was a true Renaissance polymath, who caused quite a stir in the 16th century.

The statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome's Campo de' Fiori. Picture: Georges Jansoone (JoJan)/Wikimedia Commons The statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome's Campo de' Fiori. Picture: Georges Jansoone (JoJan)/Wikimedia Commons

Living in the highly-charged and volatile world which emerged out of the Lutheran Reformation, free-thinking Bruno courted danger with his radical views as he travelled across Europe, and rubbed shoulders with elites, including the courtiers of Henry III of France and Tudor Queen Elizabeth I.

His life makes for a thrilling historical read, but is also captivating woven into a fictional narrative, as fans of SJ Parris will know.

Author and journalist Stephanie Merritt has written six books about Bruno under the pen name, and her second in the series, Prophecy, will be read and discussed across the capital this month, as Cityread London’s chosen title for 2017.

“It’s so exciting,” said Merritt. “I was so pleased when they told me, Cityread is such a great organisation.

SJ Parris' Prophecy is the chosen title for this year's Cityread London. Picture: SJ Parris/HarperCollins SJ Parris' Prophecy is the chosen title for this year's Cityread London. Picture: SJ Parris/HarperCollins

“A lot of the idea is getting everyone in London talking about the same book and to encourage people to read for pleasure.

“It’s so nice doing the events, you spend so much time in a room when you’re writing, you forget the book then goes out. I do talks at literary festivals and a lot of the same people come to them, but with this I’m meeting readers from completely different walks of life.

“And it’s an opportunity to find some more interesting places around the city, you think there’s nothing left of Tudor London but there’s always some hidden gems.”

Prophecy is set in autumn 1583, a troubling time for England, with Mary, Queen of Scots’ supporters conspiring to take Elizabeth’s crown, and religious friction ever present.

Portrait of Giordano Bruno in 'Opere'
. Picture: Wellcome Library, London. Portrait of Giordano Bruno in 'Opere' . Picture: Wellcome Library, London.

The queen’s spymaster Francis Walsingham tasks Bruno with infiltrating the plotters’ circle and bringing them to justice, but darkness draws in as he moves closer to the truth, the murder of a young maid of honour pointing to more sinister designs.

Merritt’s fascination for the Tudor period, and Bruno, began during her undergraduate studies at Cambridge University. Research into writers and poets of the 16th century kept bringing up Bruno’s name, with his connections to all sorts of societal figures, and a decade ago she decided to embed him in a work of fiction, with her third novel – but first historical thriller – emerging in the form of Heresy.

“I always thought Bruno would be a good character for fiction,” she said. “I think I like the idea that he was a man who had been so completely ahead of his time.”

Bruno’s religious beliefs are difficult to pin down, but he certainly toyed with Protestant ideas and while a Dominican priest in his native Italy, came under suspicion, forcing him to leave.

Giordano Bruno and the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de' Fiori, Rome. Picture: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons Giordano Bruno and the Roman Inquisition. Bronze relief by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de' Fiori, Rome. Picture: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons

He also attracted controversy through dabbling in the occult, endorsing Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and proclaiming his belief that the universe was infinite.

Merritt, from Surrey, has signed on for a further three books about the enigmatic man, though she hopes there are even more to come, as much of his story is still to be explored. A television adaptation is in the works, “the dream really for a writer”.

The author has also penned a paranormal-themed novel for release next spring, and has some new historical protagonists in mind for when it’s time to say goodbye to Bruno.

“There’s a couple of characters I have in mind, but I’m keeping them up my sleeve for now,” she said.

But back to Bruno, what is it about him that’s so compelling?

“He was a man of great intellect and courage and was very brave about wanting to express his ideas and write his books knowing it could get him into serious trouble.

“I suppose you could say he was a refugee in one sense. He could never go home. He spent most of his life working in Europe, never quite finding a place to settle.”

Visit cityread.london to find events near you, including talks by the author.

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