Category Archives: authors

Thoughts on “Medieval Imaginings”: Medieval History and Historical Fiction at Northwestern University

MedievalImaginings
The books have been signed, the taxis boarded for O’Hare, but before we all move on to the next adventure, I wanted to write about few of the things I learned and lessons I valued from yesterday’s conference, “Medieval Imaginings: A Celebration of Historical Fiction.” Organized by Barbara Newman as one of the last events sponsored by a Mellon grant that has brought so many exciting ways to think of the Middle Ages, not only to Northwestern University, but to all of us in the Chicago area, the day gathered together students and teachers, historians and literary scholars and writers, as well as a few people who were all of the above.

Cecelia Holland, last but not least, was my favourite part of the day. She read a few passages to us from her 1997 novel about the Templars, Jerusalem, and every time she stopped, I wanted to shout, “No! Keep reading! I have to know what happens next.” But even more than that, she talked about how, when you write about the past, the past must connect to the present. The past is gone; we are here, and it is for us that we are writing. Before she started reading, she spoke about the place she was in when she began the book, about teaching prisoners how to write, about how she loved them and how they were desperate and hardened, hopeless and full of longing, and how writing gave them the chance to be themselves again. We could see those prisoners in the Templars she described, Rannulf and Mouse the rest.

I learned other things too. From a thoughtful discussion of sources and the uses we make of them between Paul Strohm and Bruce Holsinger (whose Invention of Fire we eagerly await), I discovered that I am more fearful of the claims made by historical biography than historical fiction. I know this comes from reading Robertson Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone as an impressionable youth. Its twin story lines of biographer and subject force us to recognize all that the biographer can never know. I learned that my own initial stirrings of an idea to write a novel about the medieval pilgrimage to Compostela must have begun very close to my reading of Sharan Newman’s novel with the same theme, Strong as Death.

We spent a little too much time talking about Dan Brown. We don’t get upset when someone writes something wrong about the Middle Ages that sinks like a stone; we get upset when it sells a lot of copies and makes a lot of money. My own explanation, not voiced at the conference, for the popularity of The DaVinci Code (and 50 Shades, and Harry Potter) is that they are easy to read, their themes and claims are big, and they satisfy a longing we have for a shared text, now that the Bible no longer fills that space. One question that came up over and over again was whether we are doing the right thing, drawing on the past for the needs of the present, slicing it up and making stories out of it with beginnings, middles, and ends; with character arcs and conflict resolved. What if people read what we write and…believe us? And what if we’re wrong? As we are, as we all are because, remember what Cecelia Holland said: the past is gone. My serious answer to this question is that I would not put my name on any piece of writing I was not prepared to stand behind, with all of its longing, and failure, to hear and convey a voice that is not my own. This is as true of my historical as my fictional writing. My flippant answer (But felt no less strongly. Maybe felt more strongly.) is that, who cares if it is wrong and they believe it? The only problem would be if, “and they believe it,” meant, “and so they stopped telling stories of their own.” Of course it is wrong. I read a history and I tell a history, then you read it and out of that your own history emerges, and together a great chain of stories continues to grow, connecting us and allowing us to share in each other while becoming more thoroughly our selves. Long live stories, and the people with the courage to tell them, and believe them.

I think the writer at the conference may have been the best historian in the room.

Walking the Camino

MV5BMTU4ODIyNTc4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTg0ODM3MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_I saw this documentary, “Walking the Camino” last night at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I think what moved me more than anything, beyond the beautiful scenery which I am already familiar with for the most part, was the way the faces of the pilgrims were transformed as their journey progressed. They all radiated a kind of peace and clarity you hadn’t known they were missing when they left. It is the advantage of watching a documentary with real pilgrims, rather than a movie like “The Way.” You can’t perform that kind of internal change; it must come from within. The film is on for one more night in Chicago, so catch it before it leaves. It is also showing elsewhere in a number of Canadian and American cities.

I have been interested in the Camino since by chance I read Laurie Dennett’s A Hug for the Apostle back in the 80s. She did her walk before Paulo Coelho’s Pilgrimage and other popularizing accounts transformed it from an almost forgotten walk known to enthusiasts and Spaniards into the huge phenomenon it is today. I loved the book, read everything I could about the road, medieval and modern, and dreamed about doing the walk some day.

But I haven’t done it yet (this is the first question people ask me when they discover I have written a historical novel about the medieval Camino so I might as well get it off the table) and I don’t know if I will. It is not the physical challenge that scares me; that I welcome (though I may be deluding myself). There is the problem of fitting it into an academic schedule of course. Once, it was the fear of the frustration of missing some medieval gem a few kilometres off the road because I am tired and have to get to Pamplona or Ponferrada by nightfall. But I return often enough now, that should not be an issue. I have criss-crossed the road numerous times in different places on research trips to Spain, reading medieval manuscripts in towns where medieval pilgrims once walked and modern ones trace their footsteps. I was going to add “and as a tourist” but if I want to be honest, I am never just a tourist in Spain. Everywhere I go, I am thinking about the country’s past, learning its history from its geography. And that, I think, is the real problem. I fear I know the land too well, that I won’t be able to bring to the Camino the open heart I need, ready to learn all it has to teach. I’ll be the annoying one in the albergue, debunking the myths. I worry that to be a true pilgrim, I need to go to Japan or Mexico or somewhere less freighted for me.

But it still calls to me. I still want to do it. And one day, maybe I will.

Cynthia Robinson, Tatiana’s Wedding

She’d earn her place on this earth for her contributions to the history and culture of medieval Spain alone, but Cynthia Robinson is also an author of compelling and engaging contemporary literary fiction. I read the first few chapters of this in draft, and I am really glad to see it has been published. So check out Tatiana’s Wedding if you are looking for a good read. Lovely cover too:
Tatiana'swedding

Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn

LadyandtheUnicorn

I am that strange person who did not like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, but loves the rest of Tracy Chevalier’s work. This goes true for her The Lady and the Unicorn, which I just finished tonight. To be honest, I started it tonight too. A story of the creation of the famous Unicorn tapestries, now housed at the Musee de Cluny, in Paris, it is that good.

If you read other reviews of this book, you will find that their authors can’t resist the chance to use “tapestry” metaphors when describing Chevalier’s skill. “A deftly woven tapestry,” “not a stitch is missing,” they write. However, this attention to the book as the fully-realized production of a single person, an “author,” seems to miss the exact point Chevalier is trying to make about artistic creation. Nicholas des Innocents, the painter who designed the tapestries, is at the heart of her book, and it is he whom a modern audience would credit with being their “author.” But the story is designed to show us how these wonderful examples of the fifteenth-century art of weaving are in fact the product of many, many hands and brains and sources of inspiration. Chevalier reveals to us, not only the contribution of the designer and the members of Brussels atelier that weaves the tapestries, but the the role of the patrons who debate over the design; the merchant who acts as go-between, hiring the designer and arranging for his work to be made a reality; the women who serve as muses; the servants who care for the house so the work can be done; the English wool workers who ship their cloth to Ostend; and even the unappealing Jacques Le Boeuf, smelly because of the urine used to fix the woad that gives the beautiful blues to the tapestries.

It is easy to suppose that Chevalier sees her own creation as an author in the same light. The fantasy is of an author who toils alone and creates a book as a pure, solitary act, the work of her brain transmitted through her hands onto the page. The reality is that Chevalier’s book had as many hands in it as the tapestries themselves: an agent and an editor and maybe other readers who suggested revisions and made comments at an early stage (Chevalier thanks a long list of people in her acknowledgements), and closer to publication, there was a copyeditor and proofreader. Someone designed the cover (actually, his name is Richard Hasselberger — it is on the back flap of the dust jacket — and it is a very nice cover indeed) and took the author photo (Jerry Brauer) and created the layout and chose the type face and given that this novel followed the huge success of Girl with the Pearl Earring there was probably a substantial group in charge of publicity and promotion. And we can add to this list the booksellers who hand-sold it, the librarians who recommended it, and all the people who reviewed it. All of these were needed to make The Lady and the Unicorn what it is. And none of this takes away from Chevalier’s work.

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.

  1. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
  2. Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
  3. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
  5. Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
  6. Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
  7. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
  8. Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
  9. Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
  10. Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?

The Man Booker Prize

My friend Nicole posted this article by Michelle Dean onto her Facebook page:

Why the Man Booker Prize Should Keep Americans Out to Keep the Rest of the World In

I found myself identifying with every word in this article, by a fellow expat-in-the-US Canadian, to the degree that I began to wonder whether I had in fact developed some sort of second identity and had actually written it myself (Anne of Green Gables? Check. AS Byatt and Hilary Mantel? Check. Squishy feelings of treachery the day I got US citizenship? Check. Okay, that is me identifying with David Rakoff.) And I have similar personal reasons for wishing the Booker would remain closed to American writers. Frankly, I don’t find I connect much with American literary writing, past or present, and if I want literary fiction, I tend to turn to a Commonwealth author. It was very kind of the Booker over the last decades to make the best easy for me (and I think this is the place to subtly work in the fact that my cousin Alison Pick was longlisted for the Booker in 2011.)

But I can accept that the Man Booker people are not attending to my interests and desires. They are still making a mistake. The main reason the Man Booker people should not open their prize to Americans, is that it risks making the prize irrelevant. There are already several internationally prominent American prizes for best American book. The Booker risks becoming an also-ran, the Golden Globes of the book world. “We liked it too!” “Yeah, big deal.” Or maybe year after year, they will resolutely not give it to an American; maybe that is part of the point. And then we’ll be subjected to headlines “Americans shut out of Man Booker again,” “Franzen snubbed by Man Booker Committee,” before finally, “First American to win the Man Booker.” Spare me.

How do you feel?

Unsympathetic Characters

I am reading a book now that got all the right reviews and caused a bit of a stir in the more literary corners of the book world when it came out in 2006. Its author is an extremely talented writer, and the book is very clever, but I don’t think I am going to finish it. I don’t like the characters enough to spend more time with them. I don’t like the main characters, and none of the secondary characters are compelling either. I don’t care if they show some sort of growth over the course of the book, or if they just remain in their mean little worlds. Even the cute little kid is whiney and I want him to shut up. There is a skill in making characters so believably irritating that readers want to avoid them…but it may not be the most useful skill.
I am trying to understand why I am reacting this way; why unsympathetic characters are such a turn-off (this isn’t the first book I have put down for this reason) because at the same time, there is nothing I like less than the overly-perfect hero, the kind whom the author demands we love before he has earned it from us by what he does on the page. For the second novel I wrote, I took the most unsympathetic character from the first and tried to figure out why she was so horrible. So it is not that I don’t like edge and ambiguity.
I think that maybe what I am missing from these books is a sense of humour, or, better, a sense of humility (which is the necessary prerequisite for humour). When I speak of a sense of humour, I am not talking about the ability to tell or laugh at jokes. I am speaking of an awareness of the absurdity of the world that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It is something like what Dean Priest says to Emily in Emily Climbs:

A woman who has a sense of humour possesses no refuge from the merciless truth about herself. She cannot think herself misunderstood. She cannot revel in self-pity. She cannot comfortably damn anyone who differs from her. No, Emily, the woman with a sense of humour isn’t to be envied.

Those who can take refuge from the merciless truth about themselves, who think themselves misunderstood, and wallow in self-pity are, frankly, kind of boring. And the characters in the book I am reading take themselves so, so very seriously.
I think, by contrast, of the sort of characters Arthur Phillips writes about. Most of them are fairly unsympathetic in the same way as the ones in my discarded books — they are selfish and self-centred, venal and shallow. But humour pervades the novels, gently poking and prodding the characters, the author, and the readers. The characters are nothing if not ridiculous, and that makes me care what happens to them.

Book Contract

I am feeling a little bit stunned.

Today, I received a book contract. Cuidono Press is going to be publishing my historical novel, Pilgrimage in 2014. No, it wasn’t unexpected — these things take a lot of lead-up time, I have discovered. A Lot. I finished this novel in 2007, just to give you a bit of an idea. I am so grateful to Martha Hoffman, who read it way back then and remembered it, and asked me if I would publish it with her new small press, and I am also so grateful to Stephanie Cabot, my agent, who has been with me through all those long years and never gave up.

Since it has been a long journey, and since I have a hunch that maybe everyone (or is it only every academic historian?) would secretly like to write a novel and get it published, and wants to know how such a thing can happen, I think over the next few days and weeks, I’ll tell the story of the path that I took to get here. Watch this space.

48th International Congress on Medieval Studies

…Or Kalamazoo for short. Just got back yesterday evening after missing it for the past two years. So of course I had to hit the book exhibits, hard. And I found some treasures, new and used. I got Bill Klingshirn’s edition of Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament and Letters — not a bit too soon because I am teaching that tomorrow. I also got a translation of Aldhelm’s Prose works, and the poetry is coming in the mail, as is Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. I found two books from my doctoral advisor, Jocelyn Hillgarth; one of his oldest, The Conversion of Western Europe 350-750, and his latest, The Visigoths in History and Legend. Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride, Susanna Elm’s Virgins of God (yes, you are detecting a research theme), Leah Shopkow,’s History and Community, another former teacher, Edouard Jeauneau’s Rethinking the School of Chartres, Matthew Bailey’s translation of Las Mocedades de Rodrigo — the Youthful Deeds of the Cid (because I am tired of taking it out of the library), and Bonnie Mak’s How the Page Matters — which has perhaps the best “medium is the message” cover ever — round out the total. But I am perhaps fondest of all of the tote bag I bought fro the University of Toronto Press. Look Ma, no horns!:

U of Toronto Press

U of Toronto Press

My Soul

I found this poem while I was in graduate school in Toronto in the 90s, in one of the New Yorkers lying around the PIMS Common Room from their subscription. I have returned to it over and over again since that time (sigh), and I am putting it on my blog so I can find it more easily, darn it.

“My Soul is a Light Housekeeper”
(Error in the printing of the line “My soul is a lighthouse keeper,”
by an unknown female poet.)

Bored with the high drama of watching,
I see myself bound always to your absence,
sending out my pure circle of light so you
will know where I am, and how close
you might come to disaster. Imagine, love,
the tedium of this watch. On almost every day
nothing happens. And isn’t it wrong to yearn
for a great storm just to feel important?
I’ll let you go, then. Why shouldn’t my house
be my own, and my soul its keeper?
This work I needn’t take so seriously
since I’ve learned what pleases me, the light
of late afternoon through that window,
the intricate cobwebs I won’t disturb.
I know you don’t want to think of me
not always thinking of you, brave and imperilled.
I’m sure you’ll write to say: How can you change
so completely? You’re not the woman
I thought I knew. And I’m not,
but understand, dear, it wasn’t such a great change.
Imagine you could have seen that side of me
at the beginning, when we walked
for hours along the shore, and you were so certain
I was yours just because you loved me.

—Lawrence Raab, from The Probable World (Penguin Books, 2000)