Attractively situated on the southern Rhône in France, Avignon is a walled city with spectacular medieval sights. The historic centre has many charms to offer the tourist. Today Avignon is a UNESCO world heritage site, where tourists, not 14th-century clerics, throng the narrow, winding streets and visit the grand palace of the Avignon popes. The towers of the palais des papes are visible for miles as you approach on the fast train, the TGV from Paris. You must enter the wall through one of the twelve gates where medieval travellers were likely to be greeted by a traitor’s rotting torso or severed leg to warn against committing treason. Today, the main artery running north to the palace is as mercantile as during the time of the popes
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The inspiration behind my novel Muse is the amazing town of Avignon in France, where the popes resided in the 14th century. I visited it five times to explore the popes’ palace, the city wall, the rivers and canals, and the surviving medieval streets and buildings. I went there to soak up the atmosphere and walk in Solange’s shoes. The late middle ages are so far back in time that facts are scarce and history blurs into poetry and myth. This made the city even more attractive to me, because I could gather many story-strands into a single character, the fictional Solange Le Blanc. Early on, I decided to tell the story from Solange’s point of view. This was a blessing, because it would have been drudgery to wade through the piles of information about theAvignon popes. Acres of worm-eaten parchment sit in the Vaucluse archives, not to mention the Vatican archives in Rome.
As the author of two novels, Conceit (Doubleday 2007) and Muse(Doubleday 2013), I often get asked “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Actually, I waited for years for my first good idea to come along. Finally, when I was about fifty, I stumbled across the story of Veronica Franco, a poet and “intellectual courtesan” in 16th-century Venice. What if someone dug up a lost manuscript by Franco? That would make a great book, but unfortunately, it had been written. Were there any courtesans in papal Avignon, a city equal in splendour to Venice? I had visited Avignon and seen the pagan frescoes in the Pope’s bedchamber. What sort of antics had gone on there? Avignon was a city of men, but not just ordinary men—unmarried clerics. I read in Peter de Rosa’s scandalous book, Vicars of Christ, that 14th-century Avignon had “spectacular whores.” Eureka. Avignon would be better than Venice.
It’s been a busy and exciting time for my new novel Muse. First the copyedits. Then the proofs. And now I have a book cover that I can share. What do you think about it? The designer chose two lively paintings and put them together, with the woman standing in front of medieval Avignon. She’s lively and larger than life, upstaging the city, just as I imagined Solange. Avignon continues onto the back cover, so there’s a panorama of the city from Saint Bénezet’s bridge to the papal palace. Just looking at it brings back memories of visits to Avignon, a wonderful UNESCO world heritage site. I’m in the process of talking to the British web team, pedalo, that designed my Conceit website. They’re going to come up with a site that’s even more vibrant and fun for Muse at www.marynovik.com. It will take a few weeks to pull together, but you can be sure that I’ll be shouting it out when it’s ready to look at! In the meantime, if you’d like to know more about Muse, please e-mail me, or visit the Doubleday web page, http://www.randomhouse.ca/books/196651/muse-by-mary-novik
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.