A HARPERCOLLINS INTERVIEW WITH NICOLE GALLAND
What inspired you to write this story?
As I was finishing my first novel, The Fool’s Tale, I stumbled across a 13th century poem called “Romance of the Rose, or, William of Dole,” by Jean Renart. It’s a comedic jewel that depicts the lifestyles of the medieval rich and famous – as well as people trying to become the medieval rich and famous. It has a brilliant little plot twist at the end that is engineered by a strong female character. I liked that. (It’s notable for other reasons, too: for example, it’s a very early form – maybe the original example – of musical comedy.)
When I began to research it, I learned how much class-biased propaganda is hidden in this seemingly innocuous little creation. This tweaked my interest even more than the plot twist.
But what really grabbed me about the poem was that the narrator is not playing it straight with his audience, and I began to wonder why. He lies by omission, he hides things from us. At least four times, I found myself wondering, “Hey, what’s really going on here?” To satisfy my own curiosity, I made up the answers, and that become Revenge of the Rose – the story as I would tell it, if all the secrets were eventually revealed.
Can you give some examples?
The story is all about things that are hidden and then revealed, and so to talk much about any of the revelations gives too much away. I can’t even mention the most interesting thing about the book, it isn’t alluded to on the dust-jacket and I’ve noticed – with gratitude – that none of the early reviews have even hinted at it.
Can you say a little more about the “class-biased propaganda”? There’s a lot of political intrigue in the story but it doesn’t seem to be a “political novel” per se.
No, it’s not, and neither is the poem. Here’s the thing with the poem: It was written for a certain class, that being the lower aristocracy, from whence we get the fairy-tale knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, etc. The bad guy in this story is a steward – a commoner who actually has a job. By making himself useful to the emperor, he works his way up the socio-economic ladder. To the aristocracy, that makes him gauche; the aristocracy are born into their position, so to them, his sort are all upstarts, nouveau riche, arrivistes. The two classes were in competition for a certain level of power, and so naturally a story written for one group would make a villain of the other, just like during the Cold War the obvious villain in American action flicks was a Russian spy.
Once I realized that the steward was the villain largely because he worked for a living, my Yankee sensibility got upset and I immediately decided to make him more sympathetic.
Also, as I studied the medieval literary approach to “romantic love,” the code of chivalry, and all of that, I saw how intensely class-conscious it all was. The stuff that’s turned into our benign “once upon a times” and “happily ever afters” was originally encouraged as a form of class control.
One point of courtly romance is to encourage soldiers to believe that they are bettered through selfless devotion to somebody else – in literature it’s a lady, but she’s just an attractive stand-in for either the Church (if she’s the Virgin Mary), or the King (if she’s a devout subject to His Majesty), or perhaps her own husband, since the ideal Beloved Lady is often already married to somebody rich and powerful – i.e., a prospective employer.
Meanwhile, most damsels in distress know and accept their place. They usually have an aristocratic pedigree, but they don’t complain that circumstances have lead to their being disempowered and disenfranchised, and it’s their continued undemanding good nature and unselfishness that makes them worthy of being saved – by somebody higher up the food chain than they are. They don’t try to better their own lot; they are encouraged to be beautiful and passive and well-behaved, which is what the sister in the story seems to be until push comes to shove, and she shoves back.
So although my central romance (which doesn’t exist in the poem) is a genuinely sweet one, it takes place in a setting where the very notion of romance keeps getting explained away in political or economic terms.
How did you balance the need for historical authenticity with the desire to take creative license?
Although I did a huge amount of research, I adamantly don’t think of this story as historical fiction. I actually don’t think we should even market it as “Historical Fiction.”
That it happens to be set 800 years ago is, to me, a technicality; I think of it as literary fiction – its concerns are more Literary than Historical. It was inspired by a poem, not by history – the original poem was full of creative license and I took creative license even with that. As I said in the notes at the end of the book, reading this expecting it to feature real-life historical elements is like watching West Wing and expecting it to feature the real-life President of the United States.
So, to answer the question, there was no need for balance – I was free to go after the creative license every time. This was especially true when it came to women’s behavior; just as the sister’s behavior in the original poem turns out to be unexpectedly exceptional, probably all of my female characters are exceptional.
What changed the most and least as you transformed the story into a novel?
This question is hard to answer without giving too much away, but I’ll try. First of all, as I said, the poet’s villain becomes a sympathetic character in my story, and I invented two new characters to be the bad guys.
(Speaking of class-biased propaganda, my bad guys represent two classes that storytellers love to demonize in today’s world but could never have gotten away with demonizing in the middle ages: the clergy, and the upper-upper class.)
I also created two female characters, and expanded some minor characters from the poem – all to add texture to a theme in my story that is not in the poem: the attempt to control sexuality. I have gay characters, prostitutes, a woman who unwisely gives away her politically-significant virginity, a Catholic cardinal obsessed with using all such subversions to forward the church’s interests. None of that is in the original poem.
It’s astounding how indifferent to religion the poem is, by the way; Renart cheerfully belittles the Church a few times and then ignores it for more than 5000 lines. I’ve made Catholicism more a part of daily life than it is in the poem, and yet even in my book it’s not as prevalent as we think of it as having been – because, once again, my aim is not so much to depict Real Medieval Life, as it is to Tell A Good Tale. In that way I’m not changing the spirit of the original poem at all, I am honoring it.
However, my humor is not as cutting as Jean Renart’s, so my story is not quite so dripping with sarcasm and irony as the original poem. It’s funny: the Middle Ages is so often depicted as being embarrassingly earnest, and we think of sarcasm as the humor of modern times, so Renart’s extremely sarcastic poem almost feels more modern than my novel does.
I guess that means I’ve made the story more old-fashioned, even as I’ve embedded it with elements that would have been inconceivable in the poem – not inconceivable in actual Medieval Life, mind you, just inconceivable in a Medieval-Poem-Depicting-Medieval-Life. There’s a perverse irony in there somewhere, which I think Jean Renart would heartily approve of.