Backstory for Muse

36 Hours in Arles and Avignon

The New York Times has just featured Arles and Avignon in its spectacular “36 Hours” series, which I have been following for several years. How exciting to see Avignon, the setting for my novel Muse, featured! “Just 20 minutes apart by train, the Roman-era town of Arles and the medieval walled city of Avignon enfold a dense mix of architectural beauty, world-class art, sun-soaked Provençal gastronomy and Unesco World Heritage sites.” . . . read more

Valentine’s Day Greeting Cards

Today is Valentine’s Day. How many men will lose their heads over women (and vice versa)? When we write gushy sentiments on Valentine’s cards about our beloved’s power over us, we owe a debt to the 14th century poet Francesco Petrarch, who wrote 366 love poems to the woman he adored. They were more about his own feelings than Laura, a married woman above him in station. This psychological focus made them the first “modern” love poems and they made Laura immortal, though nobody knows who she was . . . . read more

Getting Into the Mindset of Solange

Getting into the mind of a literary character is a gradual process, just as it is with real people. My biggest wow moment in my understanding of Solange Le Blanc in Muse came when I was on the secret tour of the popes’ palace in Avignon. I stared at the bare walls of a basement chamber trying to imagine the décor of the Pope’s bathing room as the guide was describing it. Then she led the way up a narrow corkscrew staircase—the only one that climbs six floors to the roof of the palace—and we emerged in the Pope’s bedchamber, with its decorated walls . . . read more

Solange & Role of Women

Late-medieval Avignon was a city of men. A vast number of clerics were employed by the Pope and cardinals, and foreign merchants, craftsmen, and artisans swelled the ranks of local people providing services to the church. The city was a cultural and economic magnet, an attractive place to set up shop. It was also notoriously corrupt . . . read more

Social Status & the Food People Ate

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 . . . read more

Secrets of the Avignon Popes

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 . . . read more

Muse and the Woman Hero’s Journey

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 . . . read more

The UNESCO World Heritage City of Avignon

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 . . . read more

Balancing Act Between Fact and Fiction in Muse

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 . . . read more

Where Do Ideas Come From? My Apprenticeship as a Novelist

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 . . . Were there any courtesans in papal Avignon, a city equal in splendour to Venice? . . . read more

The First Avignon Pope

At the beginning of the 14th century, the cardinals elected a French pope, Clement V, who chose to stay in France instead of going to Italy.  From Clement’s arrival in 1309 to Gregory XI’s departure in 1376, seven popes lived in Avignon, a period called the Babylonian captivity. The city of 5,000 people grew by a thousand people a year until it was hit by the Black Death in 1348 . . . read more