THE WRITING LIFE ... Mary NOVIK
ERIC FORBES caught up with Canadian novelist MARY NOVIK to talk about her life as a writer and her first novel, where the characters who people her fictional landscape are based on people who once lived
MARY NOVIK is a Canadian novelist who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her début novel, Conceit (Doubleday Canada, 2007), is about Pegge Donne, the daughter of the Metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne, and is set in 17-century London. Other fictional characters based on historical personages are Donne’s wife Ann More, the diarist Samuel Pepys and Izaak Walton. Conceit is the winner of the 2008 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her second novel, Muse, will be published by Doubleday Canada in 2012.
Interview by Eric FORBES
Photographs by Janet BAXTER and Nicholas SEIFLOW
Mary, where were you born and raised? What was it like growing up in that slice of the world?
I was born and spent the first ten years of my life in Victoria, British Columbia, where my English grandparents shared their love of reading with me. I grew up in a family of six energetic children. Parents didn’t watch over kids in those days, so I was allowed to roam freely as long as I showed up for dinner. When I attended the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, there was no such thing as political correctness. The first text I was assigned was D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. All that sublimated sex and mother-love. That decided it—I was going to read a lot more literature!
Was it difficult getting your first novel published? Did you experience much difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher? What about your second novel, Muse?
I was fortunate that an editor at Doubleday Canada liked the first chapter of Conceit very early on and asked to see more. That led, several years later, to Doubleday publishing Conceit and later accepting Muse, which I am completing now. Doubleday believes in mentoring their writers and editing their books carefully. I’ve had wonderful support from everyone there.
Can you tell me a bit about Conceit? How long did it take you to complete the writing of it?
Conceit took seven years to write. Again I was fortunate because when Conceit was in its infancy, I met two other novelists here in Vancouver who were starting out as well, Jen Sookfong Lee and June Hutton. We were highly motivated to finish our books, so formed a writing group (www.spinwrites.com) and met monthly in each other’s homes to cheer one another on. It took five years, but at last our books were published (my Conceit, Jen’s The End of East, and June’s Underground) and we embarked on second novels.
What was the genesis of the novel?
Conceit began with my fascination with John Donne’s poetry. While browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge, England, I found a volume of his poems with some erotic elegies in it. Many of his love poems were written to Ann More, but surely not the one that borders on pornography? That gave me the idea of writing a novel about Donne, but I had no idea how to start it. I knew they’d eloped with disastrous consequences for his career and that he supposedly complained, “John Donne. Ann Donne. Undone.” When Ann died in her twelfth childbirth, Donne swore he’d never remarry. He was the single parent of seven surviving children and later became the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
On the same trip to England, I went into St. Paul’s to stare at the odd smile on Donne’s effigy and was startled to learn that it was the only monument that survived the Great Fire of 1666. One of the macabre details we know about the historical Donne is that, when he was dying, he dressed in a shroud to get sketched for that effigy. Everything was swilling in my head—the erotic poetry, the clandestine marriage, the seven children, the smugly grinning Dean—and that night I had a spectacular dream in which his daughter Pegge rescued his effigy from the holocaust inside the cathedral. That gave me the opening scene for Conceit and the question the novel needed to answer: why would she do such a thing?
How did you go about creating protagonists like the poet and preacher John Donne and his daughter Pegge Donne?
Readers often ask me whether I had difficulty sympathizing with Donne. They expect me to say “yes,” but I say “no.” I so immersed myself in his poetry and prose that he pretty much wrote himself. I went around thinking like Donne for the better part of a year. (I went through a similar process with all the characters, which may be why it took me so long to write Conceit!) Finding an idiom for the story was crucial. Donne’s brilliance emerges in his writing, so I embraced the baroque language, the muscularity, the farfetched conceits, and the metaphysical themes—what we’d call magical realism today.
I obsessed about Donne’s love for Ann More. I read and reread his love poems, trying to piece together a narrative from them, even though we don’t know when most of the poems were written, or to whom. Since I came from a large family, I wondered what his seven children thought about their father’s erotic poetry.
Early on, I stumbled across a letter Donne wrote that announces, “Pegge has the pox.” I couldn’t shake this phrase. In the 17th century, people died or, at the very least, were scarred by smallpox. Margaret was fifteen and disfigurement might have destroyed her chance of marriage. The nickname Pegge was almost playful. I began to imagine that she was her father’s favourite because they were so alike. I dove into her childhood to explore that closeness with her father. Donne only mentions her in one other letter, so we know little beyond the dates that bracket her life: her baptism, marriage, children’s births, and her death, as recorded in church registers. So my Pegge is mostly fiction (as is her mother Ann). She stuck in my head and I was free to imagine her as I wished. To what lengths would Pegge go to find extraordinary love such as her parents had experienced? When Pegge began to obsess about her father’s love life as I was doing, I knew she had become my central character.
I like the details you put into Conceit. I believe lots of research went into the writing of the novel. What kind of research did you do?
I love to woolgather, to follow ideas haphazardly. I read a lot of 17th-century writing for pleasure, particularly John Donne, Izaak Walton, Samuel Pepys, Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, Anne Clifford, Robert Burton, John Evelyn, Margaret Cavendish and John Aubrey. For instance, the opening scene about the Great Fire draws on eyewitnesses like Pepys and Evelyn, and continues the mythologizing process begun by Walton in his Life of Donne. But the real source of that scene, as mentioned above, is the dream I had about Pegge stealing her father’s effigy from Old St. Paul’s. The subliminal energy comes from Pegge’s own frustration and her twisted love for her father.
Other things played into the process as well. I explored London on foot, trying to visualize what it was like before the Great Fire. My father was a surveyor, so I’ve always loved maps. I lie on my belly on the floor to study them through a magnifying glass. Wenceslaus Hollar’s drawings of London are like our photographs. Donne was fond of having his portrait done throughout his life—the last and most curious is that effigy in St. Paul’s.
What are some of the challenges of taking real characters from history and fictionalising them?
The biggest challenge is to wear the research lightly and not get sidetracked into slavish historical accuracy. I love peculiar facts, triggering images, but I’m not wedded to truth. As Michael Ondaatje says, “Facts breed, and what they produce is fiction.”
In Conceit, Pegge runs along Fleet Street past the Cock and Key, the Boar’s Head, the Star and Ram, and the Queen’s Head. All those taverns were on that street at that time. I didn’t want to kick readers out of the story by putting an alehouse on the wrong corner. Plausibility is needed to draw readers into the narrative. However, we aren’t on a tour of London. We only see the street Pegge’s on, how fast she’s moving, where she’s going. The lighter the research, the more fleet-footed the story.
Ivanhoe is an important historical novel, but it’s full of anachronism. You’d be foolish to read it as history. On the other hand, it’s dangerous for a writer to ignore the fact, especially if you’re in a dark stairwell, that some readers demand historical truth. In readings, there is often a moment—humorous if you’re in a plush seat, but awkward if you’re on stage—when a member of the audience takes a fictional event as the literal truth. Most writers waffle around trying to respond politely, but forthright writers insult the questioner by stating bluntly, “A novel is fiction. Not history. Not nonfiction. Not biography.” I suspect this is why publishers now put “a novel” under the title. It’s best to clear the air right from the start. It’s another way of warning readers, “anything goes.”
In my acknowledgements I say, “I have consulted the usual scholars and biographers but, after all is said and done, this is my 17th century and I have invented joyfully and freely. The characters entered fully into the spirit of it, contributing in surprising ways to their own fictionalization, John Donne most liberally of all. Perhaps this is fitting, for he confided to a friend, long after becoming a priest, ‘I did best when I had least truth for my subjects.’ ”
Did you know where you were going with Conceit as you were writing it or did it evolve on its own?
Very early on, I knew what happens when Pegge nurses her father on his deathbed, but even that changed as the book matured. Once characters spring to life, once they start talking to one another, you’re along for the ride. An example is Izaak Walton. Why did he make so many mistakes in his biography of Donne? He couldn’t really have known the family. His Compleat Angler has preposterous notions about how fish propagate. Was he naive? Quixotic? He lurked in the back of my mind causing mischief. He skulked in the nave of Paul’s, picking up crumbs for his biography and spying on Constance, Donne’s eldest daughter. Jealous of her sister, Pegge became desperate to win Walton’s love. And on it went, deeper into fiction. Conceit evolved organically in this way over the seven years it took to write. If you put my novel beside an authoritative life of Donne, they won’t contradict one another, but Conceit ventures into bedrooms, embraces intimacies forbidden to biographers.
What’s your writing process like, Mary? What part of it do you enjoy most as a writer?
The most exciting stage is getting the first draft on paper, the free flow of images, phrases, dialogue. It’s a feckless, hallucinogenic, adrenalin-charged trip. There’s a fear of losing even a single idea. Any piece of paper will do. Just hand it over before I have a tantrum. How many great poems began on napkins in restaurants? Ideas arrive in odd ways (the odder the better): when driving a car, submerged in a bathtub, or trying to avoid useful work.
Things begin to take shape from an image or phrase (such as “fish make her think of love”) that I can’t shake, and then lead by association to something deeper. I follow a scent, hoping it’ll get stronger. I walked paths in our local watershed, musing on peculiar fish in Walton’s The Compleat Angler. That led to scouring old maps for streams buried beneath London, then to the two genetic rivers converging in Pegge, to her belated menarche, to her sexual jealousy, and so on.
All at once, something acts as a catalyst and the scene arrives in a rush. You scribble crazily and hurry to the keyboard for hours of white-hot writing. However, you need to come out—to eat, sleep, and spend time with family. The next morning, you suffer the pain of warming up, building a new head of steam, until you get back in the zone. Even in saying this, I am romanticizing a process that can be exhausting and depressing. Writing is bipolar. Sometimes you’re brilliant, inspired. Other times you’re a mere comma counter.
I’ve just read that you are working on a second novel, Muse. Could you tell me something about it?
Muse is set in 14th-century Avignon when the popes were there. When I visited Avignon, I was intrigued by the city wall and the Palais des Papes—a gigantic fortress. Avignon was the epicentre of Europe, its cultural heart, but it was also known for its corruption and its courtesans. When I discovered that Francesco Petrarch lived there, I knew I had a novel. I’ve now got maps of Avignon spread out on my floor and am reading everything by Petrarch I can get my hands on. If all goes well, Muse will be published by Doubleday Canada in 2011.
Does it really matter if a novel is contemporary or historical? I personally don’t think so. Fiction, whether set in the near or distant past or now, is still fiction. A good book is a good book. Period. What’s your opinion of this?
I agree that it’s an unnecessary bother to label novels as historical, especially because this label can be pejorative. Novels are either well written or badly written, as Oscar Wilde said. A bad novel is irritating and tiresome, full of Wilde’s distasteful ennui.
Good historical novels vary as widely as contemporary novels. My favourites are literary novels set in the past, for instance Michael Ondaatje’s works. People should read The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Coming Through Slaughter, as well as his better-known The English Patient. I also admire what Annabel Lyon does with Aristotle in The Golden Mean. It reads like a clever contemporary novel that just happens to be set in the past—my ideal read.
Readers often say how literary novels lack plots. Do you think literary novelists should put more emphasis on plot and less on stylistics? Why do you think there’s a perceived divide between popular and literary fiction?
I think authors need to write what they write best, whether it’s a novel of style, or character, or plot. Readers, in turn, should read what they like best. Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, or O. Henry? It’s a matter of taste, but also craving. Sometimes I crave Laurence Sterne, sometimes Thomas Hardy, sometimes Anosh Irani (The Cripple and His Talismans, The Song of Kahunsha, Dahanu Road). Literature is a wonderful continuum of exciting choices. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
For better or worse, we are now in the age of the e-book. Are your books going to be published as e-books? What are your thoughts on the future of books, particularly on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think the sale of e-books and e-book readers will have a repercussion on the sale of physical books in a bricks-and-mortar bookshop? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
To answer this question, I’d like to link you to an article in which Lynn Henry, who is publishing director at Doubleday Canada (my publisher), is quoted saying that the e-book revolution might be “a renaissance for writers and publishers as opposed to a doomsday scenario.” I hope she’s right. For sure she knows a lot more about it than I do. Conceit is available as an e-book already, so I presume Muse will be also.
Tell me something about your second novel, Muse.
Muse is set in 14th-century Avignon when the popes were there, a period called the Babylonian captivity. Visiting the old city, I was intrigued by the twisting streets, the city wall, and the Palais des Papes—a gigantic fortress. Avignon was the epicentre of Europe, its cultural heart, but it was renowned for its corruption and its courtesans. It was here, I learned, that Francesco Petrarch wrote love poems about his muse Laura, as well as letters excoriating the popes for their vices. Then I discovered that Petrarch had two illegitimate children himself! Although I dug around, I couldn’t even find their mother’s name. Living in a city overrun by male clerics, competing with Laura for Petrarch’s affection, this woman was invisible—and therefore irresistible to a novelist. Facts rubbed against one another, sparking fiction. Writing Muse from Solange’s point of view has been an extraordinary experience and I’m happy to say that Doubleday Canada will be publishing the novel in 2012.
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 21, 2010