Seven hundred years after the popes lived in Avignon, we can read reports about their banquets and gain insight into their luxurious life style. The type of food people ate depended on their rank. Although there was a vast difference between the diet of a pope and a peasant, the poor did not starve, because the Pope gave out 6,000 loaves of bread daily. The staples of a peasant’s diet were grains, legumes, onions, garlic, vegetables, coarse dark bread, eggs, and milk products, with a little fish, meat, or poultry . . . read more
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Muse is set in medieval Avignon during the period when the popes resided there, rather than in Rome. Writers such as Francesco Petrarch flocked to the city to seek patronage from the Pope and cardinals. The city was bursting with craftsmen, merchants, goldsmiths, and money lenders as well as the architects, master masons, and artists who worked on the Pope’s immense palace. Under Clement VI, who appears in Muse, the palais des papes became the most celebrated court in Europe, a salon for the artists, musicians, and intellectuals who were the avant-garde of the Renaissance. At the beginning of the 14th century, Avignon was a city of 5,000 people. It grew by a thousand a year as men came to the papal city to seek their fortune and curry favour with the Pope, who was centralizing religious power in himself. The Pope behaved more like a monarch than a spiritual leader. The main symbol of his opulence was the palace itself . . .
My novel Muse arrived, imaginatively speaking, when I was teaching a literature course in which we were exploring Joseph Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey. We were riffing on that, looking at ways of describing a woman hero’s journey, when a student told me about Veronica Franco, an “intellectual courtesan” of 16th-century Venice. This discovery was one of the triggering ideas for Muse. From the poet Veronica Franco, who had unfortunately been written about, I made the leap to the walled city of Avignon, which I had recently visited, guessing that courtesans, as well as popes, had lived there in the 14th century.
. . .continue reading at Mary Novik’s website
I’m happy to announce that Muse will be published August 13, 2013 by Doubleday Canada. A translation will be coming out in Italy, which is very gratifying, given that the poet Petrarch, who features in Muse, came from Florence. I should be seeing proofs soon and have had a glimpse of my lovely new cover, although I’m not allowed to share it yet. I promise to share as soon as I can. In the meantime, a description of Muse and ordering information can be found here. Since we lost some of our SPiN posts, I am going to re-post something I wrote about my novels.
When I began to write fiction, I was drawn towards stories set in the past because I had a love affair with literary history. Erotic poetry has a particularly strong pull for me, so it’s not surprising that my two novels explore the intimate lives of real poets who wrote magnetically-charged love poems. I guess you could call this literary grave-robbing.
My first novel Conceit (Doubleday 2007) arose from my fascination with the poet John Donne and his seven children, especially his enigmatic daughter Pegge. I read his poems and studied maps and drawings of seventeenth-century London. However, the story didn’t really spark until I dreamt that Pegge rescued her father’s effigy out of the holocaust in Saint Paul’s cathedral during the Great Fire of 1666. This was such an obsessive act of father-love, so bizarre and so provocative, that I was hooked on Pegge and set out to discover, not in history but in my fictional world, what drove her to it.
Muse is also set in an historical city heaving with life–Avignon in the fourteenth century when the popes lived there. When I visited the immense palace of the popes, I was stunned by the secular frescoes in Pope Clement VI’s bedchamber and found myself wondering what exactly went on there. It didn’t take much research to confirm that the Avignon popes were no saints. In fact, Clement had an unofficial hostess, the Countess of Turenne, whom he called his “niece”–quotation marks supplied by my fertile imagination.
Although the church has swept much of the dirt under the rushes, we can’t ignore the poet Francesco Petrarch, who wrote scorching letters about the pope’s vices. I’d always admired his sonnets about the noble, un-beddable Laura. Now I was finding out that, far from being chaste himself, he fathered two children out of wedlock. Who was this flesh-and-blood woman he never married? Was she a scholar, a nun, a courtesan–maybe even the Pope’s “niece”? The facts sparked off one another and ignited into fiction. I now had my main character, Solange, who began telling the story in her own voice. As she navigates the labyrinth of her life, her eyes and ears bring the dark corners and deep pleasures of old Avignon alive for us.