Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Today, the 12th of October, is my daughter's twelfth birthday, reason enough for celebration. But today is also the day that a wonderful book is being published, Revolution, by Jennifer Donnelly (Delacorte). Though I am committed to filing posts about Tuscany and Umbria for the next few months, I am departing today to Paris, the subject of my next book and one of two locales in Revolution (the other is Brooklyn).

Revolution is classified as a young adult novel, but it's one of those books that young and older adults can read with great satisfaction. It's also one of those books that completely envelops you, the kind you can't put down, the kind you can't stop thinking about, the kind that breaks your heart one minute and is hugely redeeming the next. It's a very thought-provoking book, and unique, but the story behind it is also unique, and that's what initially drew me to read the advance reader's copy (known as an ARC in book publishing lingo): Donnelly was reading The New York Times one day and ran across an article entitled 'Geneticists' Latest Probe: The Heart of the Dauphin' which was about the actual heart of Louis-Charles, a son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. I immediately identified Donnelly as a fellow clipper, and since I, too, had cut that article out of the paper and still had it in my files, I figured we were, on some level, soul mates.

I was fortunate to catch up with Donnelly via e-mail before she left for her nationwide tour, including big cities like Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago and smaller ones like Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Millbrook, New York (check the schedule on Jennifer's website). I was also fortunate to hear Donnelley speak, and she's terrific, so if you can meet her in person it will be a real treat!

Q: What made you clip that article from the paper, and what did you do with it?

Ah, that article. Revolution actually got started ten years ago, although I didn’t know it then. The article showed a picture. Of a glass urn with a small human heart in it. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The heart, which had been kept in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, had just undergone DNA testing and had been found to be the heart of Louis-Charles. I knew, as most people do, that Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined during the Revolution. What I didn’t know before I read that article, though, was that after the king and queen were executed, their children – fourteen-year-old Marie-Therese and eight-year-old Louis Charles were kept in prison. Marie-Therese would survive her imprisonment and would be released in 1795, after Robespierre’s reign of terror had ended. Louis-Charles was not so fortunate.

As heir to the throne, the child was seen as a threat to the revolution. It was rumored that powerful people, in France and outside of it, were plotting to free him and rule in his name. To prevent this, Robespierre and his crew essentially had the boy walled up alive. He was kept in a dark cold cell. Alone. Without books and toys. Without enough food, without a fire. He became sick. And he went mad. And eventually he died. At the age of ten.

After Louis-Charles died, in prison, his body was autopsied, and while it was open, one of the officiating doctors, Phillipe-Jean Pelletan, stole the child’s heart. Before the revolution, when a king died, his heart was cut from his body, embalmed, and kept in an urn at St. Denis. During the revolution, this didn’t happen. When Louis XVI was executed, his body was simply thrown into a common pit. It’s thought that Dr. Pelletan stole the heart because he wanted to safeguard it until the revolution was over, then take it to St. Denis. Things didn’t quite work out the way he’d hoped, though. Due to theft, violence, and politics, it took nearly two hundred years for that heart to get to St. Denis. It was finally brought there in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1999 that DNA testing confirmed that it did indeed belong to Louis Charles.

The article really upset me. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Couldn’t stop wondering how the idealism of the revolution had devolved into such cruelty. I went to bed thinking about it and woke up thinking about it. I recognized the feeling – it’s how I feel when a book is starting inside me. But I couldn’t act on it then because I had another book due at the time. The story stayed with me, though. Time moved on. I finished the other book. And I had a child. Which changed my life, as children do, in many wonderful ways.

And in one not so wonderful way – after I had my daughter, I pretty much lost my protective shell. The one we all have. The one that enables us to hear a horrible story on the news and somehow go on with our lives. When my daughter came along, suddenly every story about an abused child, or a child caught up in political violence totally did me in. As a new parent, I knew what a child was in a way that I hadn’t before. I knew how fragile and innocent children are. And to hear that somewhere in the world, a child was starving in a famine, or suffering in a hospital because she was in the wrong place when a bomb went off ... well, I couldn’t understand that and I couldn’t bear it and I wondered, as I never had before, what kind of world is this that allows such things? How do we live in it? How do we raise our children in it?

These questions were haunting me and I had to find answers. So I set about trying to do that the only way I know how: by writing a story. I remembered that article I’d cut out of the Times and I fished it out of its folder. That tiny heart in the glass urn took on a new and symbolic meaning for me. What happened to Louis-Charles was unspeakable, and yet, I felt that if I could face it and grapple with it, I might find my answer.

Q: The main character in the book, Andi Alpers, is working on a thesis about an eighteenth century composer named Amade Malherbeau. Is Malherbeau based on a real composer?

Malherbeau is mostly himself, though he contains a little bit of Mozart and Beethoven, with a touch of Jimmy Page and Jonny Greenwood. I listened to Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Mozart while I worked on the book. And I watched this video of Gustavo Dudamel leading the Gothenburg Symphony over and over again. The gorgeousness of the music, the passion, intensity and joy, the tragedy of Beethoven’s increasing deafness – Dudamel gets it all. In fact, I’m quite certain that at 3.5 minutes, Beethoven has taken up residence in Dudamel’s body, and by 6 minutes, the possession is complete. You have to watch it!

Q: Because I am a traveler who likes to know the stories behind everything I see, and I like to think about how I would act in certain situations in other time periods, I think my most favorite line in the book is when a St. Anselm teacher notes about history, "what you see when you look at it tells you as much about yourself as it does about the past." Have you always been drawn to history?

Always. It started when I was little and my mother took me to see the film Mary, Queen of Scots, with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Such drama! Such intrigue! Such gorgeous dresses! I was immediately hooked and have been ever since. One thing I didn’t realize when I was young, and would especially like my younger readers to understand, is that names and dates are only the beginning of the story. History is not only generals and kings and battlefields and acts of parliament and things that happened a long time ago to other people. It’s us. We are the living, breathing result of all the glory and pain and progress and mess that is history.

Andi’s teacher gets across a hugely important point – ask three different people for an account of the same event, and you will get three different accounts. A Paris stonemason might have a very different view of the events of the 1790s than a Paris priest or policeman, or a wealthy merchant, or the queen. I want younger readers to be aware that point of view and politics flavor not only eyewitness accounts of historical events, but also their contemporary interpretations. I want them to ponder history’s stunning complexities – not just cram for Friday’s test – and draw their own conclusions.

Q: Once you decided on the theme and time period for Revolution, and knew you had to do much of your research in Paris, where in the city did your research take you?

Everywhere! To the Archives of the City of Paris. To the catacombs, which was a tough trip because I am claustrophobic, and because they are full of dead people. To the very moving Picpus cemetery, where I saw the original gate through which carts came carrying the headless bodies of victims of the Terror, and the mass graves where they were dumped. To tragically gorgeous Versailles. To the underground kitchens of the Poilane bakery. To the Basilica of St. Denis, where the heart of a young child, and a lost king, now rests.

Q: When you were taking a break from research, what were some of your favorite places?

I never take a break. Sitting in a cafe, or in a garden, eating an apple tart on the banks of the Seine – it’s all research. In the cafe, I listen to the voices and watch the faces and gestures of the people around me and absorb it all. In the courtyard of the Palais Royal, I squint my eyes and look for Orleans’ ghost, or the ghosts of a gaggle of 18th century streetwalkers, an acrobat, a firebreather. Sitting by the Seine, I listen to the sound of the water, and breathe in its smell, and imagine the clopping of horses’ hooves over the bridge, and the creaking of the carriage springs and the flickering of street lamps.

My favorite places are those that allow me to connect very strongly with the past, places like the Picpus Cemetery or the Basilica St. Denis or the Conciergerie. But also butcher shops, because the big, burly ruddy-faced laughing butcher looks to me exactly the same as his 18th century counterpart must’ve looked. Or good bakeries, because they smell wheaty. Or street markets, because the cheeses stink and the cheesemonger is bawdy, and the birds have their feathers on, and the strawberries’ perfume makes you dizzy. I love the statue of Danton at the Carrefour l’Odeon because it is strong and fearsome and so alive, it feels as if it will step down and start bellowing at Robespierre at any second. And the jewel box Sainte-Chapelle with its breathtaking windows.

One of my favorite places is Poilane bakery. I’ve never had such good bread, and such delicious apple tarts, and I never will again until I go back. I’m so greedy, I eat what I buy immediately, right out on the street by the shop. I also love watching the line outside Pierre Hermé’s patisseries, full of devastatingly chic Parisians all waiting to choose a devastatingly chic little cake. And Laduree, with its painted ceiling, and its perfect little macaroons in their perfect little pastel boxes. The French understand the importance of such perfections, and what they do for the soul. And the handsome men in their linen suits behind the tea counter at Mariage Freres.

And as for a hotel, I stay at the Hotel Caron de Beaumarchais because it is charming and pretty and in the Marais.

Q: Your first young adult novel, A Northern Light, was honored with the prestigious Carnegie Medal in Britain, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature and the Michael L. Printz Honor Award. The book appears to have been inspired by the real-life story of early 20th century Grace Brown, who was the subject of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Were you in fact as curious about Brown as you were with Louis XVII, and were your adult novels -- The Winter Rose and The Tea Rose -- similarly inspired?

Curious is nowhere near a strong enough word. Obsessed is much closer. I’m driven very much by people and places and periods of time that grab hold of me and won’t let go, and characters who take up residence in my head and won’t leave until I’ve gotten their stories down. In Revolution, the inspiration was the heart and its story. In A Northern Light it was Grace Brown’s letters to her murderer, Chester Gillette. In the Rose books, it was the East End of London. The problem is, these characters don’t willingly relinquish their stories. It takes a great deal of time to understand people like Andi and Alex, the main characters in Revolution, or Mattie Gokey, or India Selwyn Jones, and to do them justice.

Q: Are you working on a new book now?

Right now I’m finishing up the third and final Rose book – The Wild Rose – and then after my book tour for Revolution, I will return to my desk and my pot of tea, and start in on a new young adult novel.


For another great interview with Donnelly, go to Random Acts of Reading, a good site to know about in general. In this interview, I particularly liked reading more about how she spent her time in Paris; but in it also she named some writers that have inspired her over the years, including James Joyce, Jeanette Winterson, Madeleine L'Engle, Stephen King, Colleen McCullough, Simon Schama, Laura Ingalls Wilder, A. S. Byatt, Meg Rosoff, Dante, E. B. White, Philip Pullman, Emily Dickinson, and the Brothers Grimm. She added that "When I was trying to write my first book, I didn't have the money to go to grad school, or the time to join writers' groups, but I had authors and their books. Everyone does. Open a book by Joyce or Greene, open a volume of poetry by Dickinson, and you've got a masterclass in writing, right there in front of you."

And on that very wise and veritable thought, I will close this post, but not before saying, read this beautifully written book!

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