Mary Novik

Mary Novik: Author Interview

Mary Novik
Photo © Janet Baxter

I recently connected with writer Mary Novik, author of the novel Conceit, on Twitter, and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me.

I noticed that the story of John Donne’s vision of Ann with a dead child appeared in the book. I tell this story to my students when we study “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” What is one thing you wish your own English teacher had taught you about John Donne?

I would have loved to have known that, as a young man, John Donne sowed his wild oats with great abandon. Instead, my English instructors presented Donne as a devout husband and as a writer of holy sonnets. Sure, many of his best poems fall into those categories, but he also wrote seduction poems to women other than his wife, Ann. Knowing he was a bit of a lad rounds him out and makes him more intriguing. Although I’d admired his more sedate poems for years, it wasn’t until I discovered one of his racy elegies that I decided to write Conceit.

You have said you chose Pegge Donne because so little was known about her, so she aroused your curiosity. What do we know about her aside from Donne’s mention that she had the pox? For instance, were you able to find records for her family, such as the names of her children and grandchildren (the name Duodecimus kills me!)?

Donne only mentions his daughter Margaret in two letters, one about her baptism and one in which he announces “Pegge has the pox”. That was one of the triggering facts for Conceit. Smallpox could cause hair loss, scarring, and even death. My imagination ran riot. How would a fifteen-year-old in love with a family friend, the fisherman Izaak Walton, react to her hair falling out? Pegge’s personality began to take shape around this dramatic episode. Church and court documents only tell us the bare minimum about Pegge: her marriage, names of her children, her death. Duodecimus (which means “twelve”) was the real name she gave her youngest son. From that odd fact I came up with the idea that she was eccentric like her father and had twelve children like her mother. Did she identify with her mother? Did she read her father’s love poems? On it went, fact mingling with fiction, until I had my own Pegge, the main character of Conceit.

I enjoyed meeting up with the likes of Samuel Pepys and Christopher Wren in the novel. Some people might consider it coincidental, but I felt it showed the connectedness of humanity. In some ways, this book seemed to be about the ways in which we are all connected to one another and are important to one another—and it reminded me of Donne’s Meditation XVII in which he says, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” I was wondering if you could discuss the influence of this work of Donne’s on the novel.

Meditation XVII is so powerful that people often think it’s poetry, but it’s actually one of the twenty-three prose meditations in Devotions, which Donne wrote when ill and in a spiritual crisis. He was an amazing prose stylist. Today we think of priests as rather stuffy, but Donne’s sermons (like “Death’s Duel”) have wild, obsessive imagery. I was very influenced by Donne’s writing when I was working on Conceit. It’s been called a woman’s novel but, looking at it now, I would agree it’s also a meditation about humanity and evolving personal relationships in the 17th century. Although most marriages are arranged, John Donne and Ann More are so feverishly in love they elope, sacrificing their worldly status. Later, Donne arranges safe marriages for his daughters, but Pegge’s turns out differently than expected. In Conceit, this dance between men and women is often narrated by men. Two of my favourite chapters are “Virtuoso,” in which Pepys aches with pity for his wife, and “Unbuttoning,” in which William struggles to understand Pegge and the mysteries of human love.

One of the things I admired about this book was the way you brought life in the seventeenth century into vivid relief. Many historical novels throw in a few trenchers, some stays, and an archaic word here and there, but otherwise have people walk and talk like we do. I didn’t forget for a moment that I was reading historical fiction because I felt immersed in another time. It also occurred to me that it must be difficult to capture another time period and yet still help the modern reader along. How do you think writing historical fiction like Conceit is different from other kinds of fiction?

When I was writing Conceit, I was totally immersed in the characters. I’ve visited London many times, but if Pegge is walking along a street, I try to show it through her eyes not mine. What has changed since she was last here? Where is she going, and why? I don’t want to gawk like a tourist at things Pegge won’t notice. Too much description of, say, the lack of hygiene will kick the modern reader out of the story. I want the reader to smell, hear, and taste as my character does. An example is the scene in which Pegge runs along Fleet street and counts the taverns she passes. I used the names of taverns that actually existed, but she’s just a kid, counting them off because she’s racing home, her gown flying, to hide in her bedchamber before her father discovers she’s been out late at night.

Do you have any advice for writers?

Start with something short, like stories! Send the stories out to periodicals. Take workshops. Form a writers’ group. If you decide you absolutely have to write a novel, be prepared to throw everything at it, time, money, energy, for about five years. Do it only if you absolutely must. Don’t rush. Don’t try to figure out everything in advance or take the most straightforward path. And don’t just tell the story: let your characters talk to one another and reveal it for you. When that happens, you’ll know they have come alive on the page, full of passion and surprise. That’s the most glorious feeling.

Thank you very much, Mary!

You can read my review of Conceit here. You can follow Mary Novik on Twitter, and be sure to check out her website.

Conceit, Mary Novik

ConceitMary Novik’s novel Conceit is the story of John Donne’s daughter Pegge and her quest to discover what love is. She is entranced by her parents’ relationship—in an unusual move for their time, they married for love, but by the end of his life, Novik’s Donne seems to regret this decision in some ways as he searches for husbands for his own daughters and tries to suppress his past and his feelings for Ann, who died years before the novel’s events. He is concerned about the legacy he leaves behind and works hard to construct an expurgated life story for himself, focused on his work as Dean of St. Paul’s. The novel begins as Pegge braves the Great Fire of London in 1666 to save the effigy of her father in St. Paul’s and travels back through Pegge’s memories of her father’s death, the memories of her own parents, and forward again to Pegge’s life as a wife, mother, and grandmother.

Novik brings seventeenth century England to life in this novel. In many cases, I think writers of historical fiction create characters who act too much like modern people. This novel reminded me of Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun (review here) in its attention to period detail. Novik has managed to capture a place that seems much more real than most historical fiction novels do. Even though Pegge is somewhat eccentric for her time, I found her completely plausible as a character because of Novik’s skill as a writer. What else would the daughter of John Donne be? I found myself shaking my head at her and sympathizing with her husband William a great deal, but she was oddly endearing. I really enjoyed reading about all of her experiments (from fish recipes to horticulture). A favorite quote by Novik’s Donne from the novel:

“That is my last poem, Pegge. See that it gets to Marriot for printing with the others.  I am glad it was you who came into the room just now. Of all my children, you have the most poetry in you, thought God knows how you will use it.”(214)

Conceit is a rare historical novel that allows the reader to feel immersed in a time period, learn some history, and enjoy the story all at once.

Rating: ★★★★★

I read this book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I’ve read three now. Twelve more to go!

Snow Day(s) Reading

Blue Whale Books
Tomorrow will be my fourth snow day in a row. I’m sure those of you who live in snowier climes think it’s absurd that five inches of snow or so has ground a city the size of Atlanta to a halt, but the fact is that we so rarely have snow that we don’t have the resources to clear it away when we do. I have read conflicting accounts regarding the number of snow plows the city has. One said eight, the other eleven. In any case, a city the size of Atlanta needs way more than eleven plows after a snow storm. Just in case you think I’m a wimp, I grew up in Denver, and I know from snow.

In my cabin fever, I have been reading, cross-stitching, and watching The Tudors. I’m late to that party—we just got Netflix. Enjoyable, but highly historically inaccurate. I think they missed an opportunity by not continuing the series through Elizabeth. Speaking of which, this new series on Starz looks like a combination of The Tudors and Arthurian legend.

I will probably watch it. James Purefoy is playing King Lot, and I really liked Purefoy in A Knight’s Tale. Of course, he’s playing Edward, the Black Prince, probably one of the coolest dudes ever. Perhaps not as cool as Alfred the Great, who is my new hero after reading more about him in The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser, which I am currently enjoying (I’m in the middle of William the Conqueror right now). Aside from Joseph Fiennes as Merlin, I don’t recognize any of the other actors in this new Arthur series. Speaking of James Purefoy, his IMDb profile states he’s Ned Alleyn in A Dead Man in Deptford, which is based on a book of the same name that is on my TBR pile. Plus! He’s a character in one of my current reads, Conceit. I didn’t realize Ned Alleyn had married Constance Donne, daughter of John Donne, but sure enough, he did. I need to move A Dead Man in Deptford up higher so I can finish it before the movie comes out.

Conceit is, so far, much better than The Lady and Poet, which read much more like a romance novel (albeit a pretty decent one). Conceit is much more literary to begin with, and I find the times captured more realistically. If I can be allowed a moment’s indulgence, there is an epidemic in historical fiction. It seems we can’t have a strong female lead who acts according to the historical conventions of her day. No, she must act as we would have her act. She must be headstrong and ahead of her time. I like a strong female protagonist, but I want her to be realistic, too. I am so tired of this modern reinterpretation of the feminine. Conceit is narrated by Pegge Donne, a younger daughter of Donne, and takes places years after the events of The Lady and the Poet. I can’t figure out why it hasn’t been published in the U.S., but thanks to Amazon, you can still order it through third party sellers, which is how I bought it.

I also saw the trailer to the new Jane Eyre movie today. Who is looking forward to this?

I was able to get a movie poster for this film at the recent National Council of Teachers of English conference, and it’s gorgeous. See:

Jane Eyre Movie Poster

photo credit: Funky Tee