Mary Novik explores the romance of medieval history in new novel

North Shore author will introduce latest work at the Vancouver Writers Fest

The Vancouver Writers Fest, Oct. 22-27 at Granville Island. writersfest.bc.ca.

Coming face to face with the art adorning the walls of Pope Clement VI's bedroom in Avignon's Palais des Papes, North Vancouver writer Mary Novik knew she had her story.

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On one of her five trips to the southeastern France UNESCO World Heritage Site, referred to as the City of Popes due to their presence in the 14th century, Novik had opted for the "secret palace tour" and was given an opportunity to explore spaces not viewed by the typical tourist.

"I was in the pope's bedroom and there are these wonderful frescoes on the walls and they're very secular frescoes, they're not religious at all," she says.

She began to wonder whether vows of chastity had indeed been kept in those days. "I write fiction, but if you're writing about a historical period you want to be accurate about the important facts so I needed to be sure that this had indeed happened," she says.

Novik started digging and discovered that the pope and his peers at the time had faced harsh criticism from people, like poet Francesco Petrarch, for things like lechery and greed, "And so I had the basis for a plot," she says.

From there, her newly released work of fiction Muse, a follow to her 2007 debut Conceit, "sprang to life."

Deciding to make Petrarch a character in the work, Novik's further research suggested he himself had had a mistress and that very little was known about her.

"Then I began to think, 'Well what if she had been the poet Petrarch's muse instead of Laura who is always called his muse?' - so then I had a character and I had a conflict and I had moral dilemmas. Before that, I just had an exotic setting. But this gave me my story," she says.

Muse follows the life of Solange Le Blanc, a daughter of a harlot who dies during childbirth. Solange is raised by Benedictines, educated as a scribe and believed to be a clairvoyant. The book depicts her escape to Avignon where she comes to be at the centre of a love triangle with Petrarch, and later becomes Pope Clement VI's mistress and confidante.

Conceit, which was nominated for the Giller Prize and won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, also focused on a writer of love poems, John Donne, and his daughter, Pegge, in 17th century England.

"I'm absolutely fascinated by these guys," says Novik, of her passion for literary greats, both their works and personal lives.

That said, she doesn't view Conceit as a traditional historical novel.

"I tend to say that my novels are fiction that's set in the past, rather than historical fiction, per se," she says.

"With this book, Muse, it is more towards that, it's more in that direction," she adds.

She found her change of approach to have occurred naturally, the result of writing about one woman in particular.

"When you're writing about one woman that would just right away make it more accessible and easier for the reader right there. And since she's speaking in her own voice, you're not intrusive as an author, it's just her telling her story, so it comes across as a more traditional historical novel. The next book that I write will probably be different from both those books.

There is a relationship between my books but they're not sequels," she says.

Novik is glad Muse is finally out, giving her an opportunity to engage with readers.

"I like talking about my work," she says. "Especially afterwards, people will come up and ask a couple of questions, or they'll be interested in a particular thing, or want to know how much research you did and that's really fun to just chat about."

Novik will offer insight into her new work and craft at the upcoming Vancouver Writers Fest, being held Oct. 22-27 at various venues on Granville Island.

She's been featured at the annual festival before, following the release of

Conceit, and has long attended, including with the members (June Hutton and Jen Sookfong Lee) of her writing group SPiN.

"It's a big week for us," says Novik.

They welcome the opportunity to catch up with local writer friends as well as meet and be exposed to international novelists.

"It's just wonderful to be able to see all those writers, see what they're doing, because the thing is they're all so different," she says.

At this year's Vancouver Writers Fest, Novik is scheduled to participate in two panels. As the Past Comes to Life, Saturday, Oct. 26 at 10:30 a.m. at

Performance Works, she'll join fellow B.C. writers Roberta Rich, Janie Chang and Claire Mulligan, as well as the United Kingdom's Sarah Dunant, in a discussion about historical fiction.

"It's going to be a fun group," says Novik.

She'll also be featured at The Afternoon Tea, Sunday, Oct. 27 at 3:30 p.m. at Performance Works along with Mulligan, Maria Semple, Chad Pelley, David Macfarlane and Eleanor Catton.

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