This week, Rober­ta Rich, the author of The Mid­wife of Venice and a new book, The Harem Mid­wife, blogs for The Post­script on the the amaz­ing (true!) sto­ries that one can find in history…and her inspi­ra­tion for her lat­est book.

The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Rober­ta at your next book club meet­ing, request her through JBC Live Chat

I am a tru­ly inept plot­ter, not a good qual­i­ty in a writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. But some times his­to­ry smiles and throws me a bone. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, which I researched for my lat­est nov­el — many bones.

The Harem Mid­wife is set in Con­stan­tino­ple in the 16th cen­tu­ry. My hero­ine, Han­nah, is mid­wife to the harem of Murat III. His­to­ry tells us that Murat suf­fered from a rare and dan­ger­ous dis­or­der: although he was sur­round­ed by the most gor­geous girls of the Ottoman Empire, he was besot­ted with his wife, Safiye, and could per­form sex­u­al­ly only with her. It was wide­ly assumed she had bewitched him.

It was a dan­ger­ous state of affairs. Murat’s only son and heir to the throne of the largest empire the world had ever known was sick­ly. In those days of high infant mor­tal­i­ty, it was not enough to have one son, or even an heir and a spare’ as the British say. Dozens of son were required to ensure the con­tin­u­a­tion of the sultanate.

The Valide Nur­banu, the Sultan’s moth­er, pur­chased a slave, a young Cir­cass­ian girl. The Sul­tan had a glimpse of the girl, and she cap­tured his fan­cy. She was the great Cir­cass­ian hope for the Osman dynasty.

The ploy worked, unleash­ing the roy­al stud in Murad III who prompt­ly sired 20 sur­plus sons — all of whom had to be stran­gled after his death and one, so abrupt­ly, that the poor boy was not per­mit­ted to fin­ish his bowl of cherries.

Thus, was born the open­ing chap­ter for my nov­el. I didn’t have to make up a thing.

Imperial Sofa Topkapi March 2008pano2The Top­kapi Palace, home of the Sul­tan and his harem was a mag­i­cal place of eunuchs, menageries of exot­ic ani­mals, steams baths, remark­able beau­ty treat­ments, and love­ly, bored young girls. Too much leisure time and too much mon­ey is always a recipe for las­civ­i­ous, inter­est­ing behaviour.

I learned how eunuchs are made — a long and excru­ci­at­ing process. Appar­ent­ly only one boy out of every nine sur­vived the ordeal. Giv­en what was involved, it is a won­der any sur­vived. But in a soci­ety where men kept their wives, daugh­ters and sis­ters seclud­ed in a harem, eunuchs were vital as guards, con­fi­dants and occa­sion­al­ly lovers. As one eunuch famous­ly said of his conquests:

They yearn for my tree’ because it can­not bear fruit.”

His­to­ry even pro­vid­ed me with spe­cial effects. The Ottomans were fond, some would say exces­sive­ly fond, of the­atri­cal con­trivances. A hun­dred doves with orange poman­ders around their necks were released from a gold­en cage to scent the air of the Valide’s pri­vate apart­ments. An army of slow-mov­ing tor­tois­es with can­dles affixed to their shells moved about the palace gar­dens on moon­less nights.

At Prince Mehmet’s Cir­cum­ci­sion Parade — 53 days of rejoic­ing in the streets of Con­stan­tino­ple— the crowds were fed whole roast­ed oxen out of which raced, when they were cut open, live fox­es and wolves, no doubt caus­ing pan­ic among the crowd.

And then there is the sto­ry of Gen­tile Belli­ni, the famous Venet­ian painter, and Mehmet the Con­queror who didn’t like the way Belli­ni por­trayed the behead­ing of John the Bap­tist. To show him how it was done, Mehmet ordered a slave exe­cut­ed on the spot.

Could any nov­el­ist fab­ri­cate such won­der­ful details with­out being crit­i­cized for shame­less exag­ger­a­tion? Not I.

The Harem Mid­wife has become a favourite of book clubs, and I have appeared at many gath­er­ings both lit­er­al­ly munch­ing Turk­ish mezzes and pide, and drink­ing wine and vir­tu­al­ly on Skype or Face Time. Please see my JBC Live Chat pro­file to arrange an appear­ance. My web­site is: www​.rober​tarich​.com.

I have been: a divorce lawyer, stu­dent, wait­ress, nurs­es’ aide, hos­pi­tal admit­ting clerk, fac­to­ry assem­bly line work­er and child. I live in Van­cou­ver, B.C. and in Col­i­ma, Mex­i­co. I have one hus­band, one daugh­ter, three step-chil­dren, a Ger­man Shep­herd, trop­i­cal fish and many over sexed para­keets. When in Mex­i­co, I nur­ture my hus­band, and my vanil­la vines. When in Van­cou­ver I try to keep dry.