Author Interview by Doubleday Canada
Mary, what was it about the historical characters of John Donne and his family that inspired you to bring them to life in the pages of Conceit?
I’ve been fascinated by John Donne ever since I discovered his love poetry when I was seventeen. How could even a well-bred teenager like Ann More have withstood such a passionate assault? When I began to write Conceit, I tried to piece together the story of their courtship. It’s tempting to think that he wrote most of the poems for Ann, but many were probably written before they met, for women that he called his “mistresses.”
When their rash elopement ruined Donne’s career, he complained, “John Donne. Ann Donne. Undone.” Ann and her poet were exiled to a country cottage, where she bore a child a year. Unable to find a patron, Donne became frustrated and restless, until he had no option but to go into the church. When Donne became a priest, Ann’s feeling of betrayal must have been acute. However, history doesn’t tell us what she thought. Her voice doesn’t survive. The only record we have of her is in letters written by her father, brother, and husband.
Ann died in her twelfth childbirth, at the age of thirty-three. Donne vowed never to remarry, and raised their seven surviving children by himself. He rose to become Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Thinking of Donne as a single parent humanized him for me. I wanted to get inside that household, to learn what his children thought when they discovered their father’s erotic poetry. What would it have been like to be the motherless Pegge, a girl who (or so I imagined) had been educated like a boy and had an obsessive curiosity about her father’s love-life? I imagined her trying to order his poems to piece together her parents’ story, taking her mother’s part, as I had done.
Describe the research process for the book. What do you feel was the biggest challenge in transitioning characters from history into fiction?
My research for Conceit was a fascinating process of discovery. I immersed myself in maps, drawings, and first person writings from the seventeenth century. A good day might net me one minuscule thing, such as the fact that English caterpillars can have purple foreheads and red spots.
The biggest challenge was to liberate the people from the historical record, to say “this is my John Donne, my Izaak Walton.” I needed to let the characters talk to one another, to let the facts rub together and breed.
We know quite a bit about John Donne, much more than we do about his contemporary Shakespeare. We know that he wrote love poems like a priest and holy poems like a lover, and we know that he dressed up in his shroud to have himself sketched for his effigy, but we don’t know why he was smiling so oddly.
I was filling up journals with ideas about the Donne family, but I didn’t know where to start until, when visiting London, I had a dream about the Great Fire in which Pegge was trying to save her father’s grinning effigy from the flames. Why was she risking her life to save a marble statue? Was she rescuing or stealing it? Once the effigy was carted out of St. Paul’s Cathedral, I had to follow it. My first sighting of Pegge was as an eight-year-old running across the Fleet bridge in pursuit of Izaak Walton. Where did Walton come from? On it went, one question tumbling after another. New characters arrived and I raced to get them down. It would take me years to find out how they all fitted together into a single narrative.
Conceit is a novel that plunges into the intensity and imperfections of love: erotic love, familial love, platonic love, unrequited love, and first love. Arguably the most powerful and all-consuming is erotic love. But instead of focusing only on John and Ann’s passion, you delve into Pegge’s imperfect relationships with Walton, William, and her own father. Why did you choose Pegge’s journey as the one to pursue? Do you feel you’ve learned anything about love in the process?
The real world doesn’t welcome the extraordinary passion of Romeo and Juliet, or John Donne and Ann More. It seems to want to stamp it out. Their love-marriage is at the heart of Conceit, but I was even more interested in how it affected their children. Would knowing about their parents’ love make the children’s lives more meaningful, or meaningless in comparison? How could the boys compete with Donne’s famed manhood? How could the girls find such fabled lovers as their father?
Pegge was the most intriguing because I never knew what she would do next. Her story kept opening out. Why was she infatuated with Izaak Walton? “Fish made her think of love”–her mind yoked bizarre things together. Pegge’s attempts to pry the secrets of love from her father led me to Ann, and Ann’s story doubled back on Pegge.
What surprised me most was her relationship with William. I have a soft spot for William because he is always longing for tenderness and struggling to understand Pegge. He began as a minor figure, but he kept turning up, trying to make sense of things, a bit like me I guess.
Exploring the lives of so many people, I have come to believe that there is more to love than any one of us can fathom. All the love stories we read converge into a single storyline since it’s really our own yearnings that we are trying to satisfy. Conceit is an ensemble love story, and as the seventeenth century closes, I would like to think that some couples–maybe Samuel Pepys and Elizabeth, or Pegge and William, perhaps even Franny and Mr Bispham–have learned more about the rewards of human intimacy.
Pegge is a unique character in many ways, particularly in her attitude towards social conventions and how she chooses to deal with them. How much of her character did you create from whole cloth? Do you believe a woman like Pegge could have existed in the seventeenth century?
Margaret interested me more than Donne’s other children because so few facts are known about her. She is almost totally fictional. Donne mentions her only twice. In a letter written when she was fifteen, he says “Pegge has the pox.” These words rang in my ears. I loved his pet name for her and wondered whether the pox had scarred her and spoilt her marriage prospects.
In those days, marriages were considered too important to be left to chance, and most young couples understood this. If they loathed someone they could object, but few dared to oppose their fathers. In Conceit, Donne’s other daughters encourage their father to find them husbands. However, desperate for the kind of love her parents had, Pegge swims against the current.
We are romantics, and find arranged marriages abhorrent, but Donne was acting as a loving father trying to settle his sons in careers and marry his daughters into plentiful fortunes. I believe human behaviour is more restricted today than it was in the seventeenth century. Life was raw. Death was always near, so was war, hatred of foreigners, public hangings, poisonings. Men pissed in the corners of rooms. Language itself was more ingenious and colourful, as Donne’s writing shows us.
We know that some very unusual women existed at the time, like the Duchess of Newcastle, who put her footmen into velvet, but dressed outlandishly herself and wrote very odd books and plays. And with a bloodline coming down from John Donne and Ann More–how could Pegge have been conventional and dull?
Nature, and the interaction of characters with it, is beautifully interwoven into the story: Pegge’s garden, Walton as angler, William’s fascination with colour, and John Donne’s famous flea, to name just a few. Why is this interaction important? Do you feel in our modern world that these relationships suffer and how so?
These connections to nature came up gradually in the writing, so I’m surprised to see how many there are in the finished book. You might be right in suspecting some sort of theme at work.
Yes, we’ve lost some of our sensitivity to the natural world, although so much of value in our lives is in our relationship to plants and animals. Today children are taught to recycle, but not encouraged to lie down in a field of barley and stare aimlessly at the clouds.
In writing Conceit, I reconnected to the world of my childhood, when I ran barefoot beyond the circle of adults. I grew up in a rural area of Victoria, and felt very close to the older world of my English grandparents. My father was an amateur naturalist. Once he brought home a dead mole with a strange pink nose and I was allowed to take it to school to show it off.
When my writing stalls, I look out my office window into a green belt and listen to the creek. I go for walks to feed my muse. Now that I have a young grandson, we stop to inspect things along the path. I want to teach him the things I learned from my parents and grandparents, really useful things such as how to make a whistle from a reed and how to peel apples for pie. I still remember my delight when my grandfather held up a long, unbroken ribbon of peel, then let me eat it.
John Donne rose to be one of the most popular preachers of the era, particularly during the reign of Charles I. He was known for his elaborate metaphors, powerful religious symbolism, and quick wit. In Conceit, you expertly capture the essence of this public man and at the same time give voice to his private struggles. Was he a difficult character to create? What was the process you engaged in to write such a convincing portrait?
To us Donne seems a peculiar man–a titan of peculiarity!–yet he was revered by people like Izaak Walton, who was totally under Donne’s spell. Donne was an absolute gift to me as a novelist.
One of the macabre details about Donne is that, when he was dying, he dressed up in a shroud to model for his effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral. He was a serious guy, but he seems eccentric to us. So I went into the eccentricity–the metaphysical, the quirkiness, and the baroque language. Donne pretty much wrote himself. I had so immersed myself in his poetry and prose that he sprang to life. I went around thinking like John Donne for the better part of a year.
The first stage of getting ideas down is always the most exciting, because I never know what is going to show up. I keep a notebook beside my bed and wake at night to scribble frantically. In the morning, I look at my messy notes and have a devil of a time deciphering them. It also happens when I get behind the wheel of a car. I start woolgathering and have to pull over to the curb to get it down. On good days, it takes forever to get across town.
Like Pegge, you grew up in a large family. What is it about the dynamics of large families that interests you? How much of your own family life is mirrored in the pages of Conceit?
Like most fiction-writers, I’m not averse to pinching things, and what better place to pinch from than human nature? I don’t think that humans have changed in the essentials down through the centuries. Their desires, needs, disappointments must have been the same in the seventeenth century as now. I didn’t draw on my family specifically, but I do admit that I was intensely curious about what went on in the Donne household.
The anecdotes we have about Donne come from an early biography that made a saint of him, but everything that I imagined about him disputed that notion. No man is a hero to his own children! I knew from my childhood that such a house would have been hectic and noisy. All those bedrooms, sounds in the night, people dressing and undressing. There must have been friction–doors slamming, arguments, children sneaking up behind one another. Family dinners would have been utter chaos. How could Donne have got any work done in such an environment? Sternness would have been his only weapon.
How did the children feel about their father? Would they have ganged up against him, or divided into factions? Which of the playful rivalries grew dangerous as they grew older? I wanted to know everything about that house–the servants, what the dog sniffed, even where the Dean hung his hat and cloak. What did he see when he looked in the mirror in his library, and what was the mirror doing there in the first place?
In your acknowledgments, you note the writers that inspired you while writing Conceit, including John Donne himself. What writers inspire you generally? Which ones have been most influential in your own writing? What is on your bedside table right now?
I enjoy dipping into works from previous centuries, but I’ve also been influenced by Canadian writers like Margaret Laurence, Sheila Watson, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Thomas, and Michael Ondaatje. Most of all, I love big comic novels that take risks like Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman and Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers. I also try to keep up with contemporary Canadian novelists. On my bedside table at the moment are Shaena Lambert’s Radiance, Peter Behrens’ The Law of Dreams, and Ondaatje’s Divisadero. I’ve been looking forward to them for so long, it’s going to be hard deciding which one to read first.
You’re a member of the BC writers’ group, SPiN. Can you describe how the group works? What do you feel are the most significant contributions the group has made to your writing life?
June Hutton, Jen Sookfong Lee, and I met in a workshop five years ago. Our website www.spinwrites.com tells the story. Writing is a lonely occupation and the group gives us the camaraderie we need to keep going even when things get tough, as they still do from time to time. We do events together and meet monthly in one another’s houses–great long meetings full of laughter and tears and celebration. We all have supportive husbands and great editors, but this is one place where we can talk writing nonstop and not bore anyone, even for a second.
What is your next project? What are the most rewarding aspects of having your debut novel published?
I’m currently writing another historical novel, but it’s still too early to say much more than that. Conceit was seven years in the making, and when I held the finished book in my hands for the first time I was amazingly happy. Now that I’ve calmed down, I am enjoying hearing what readers think of Pegge, Donne, Ann, Walton, and William. Book clubs are finding lots to discuss, which is great fun. To learn that my characters have come alive for others–that’s such an amazing rush. At www.marynovik.com, I have event photos, a biography, a seventeenth-century backgrounds page, and an area for visitors’ comments. I hope that readers of Conceit will drop in, stay a while, and join the conversation.