Mary Novik’s Conceit, which was named one of the Globe and Mail‘s best books of the 2007 and nominated for the Giller prize, is now out in paperback. I caught up with the Vancouver-based author recently over email to talk about her novel, why John Donne is sexier than Sir Philip Sidney, and what it’s like to live inside your characters.
* * *
In a time when so many first novels are autobiographical, you chose to retreat into the past. What drew you to the historical novel as a form?
When I started to write fiction, about ten years ago, I figured that young writers were much better at getting the contemporary idiom right, so I should try something different. I enjoy reading older literature and came up with the idea for Conceit when reading John Donne’s poems and wondering what his kids would have thought of Dad’s erotica.
Conceit developed organically over a period of seven years. I didn’t have a plan. That would have been like writing an obituary before the novel was born. I was just following my nose, but once the story gripped me it felt more like a rope tugging on a ring through my nostrils.
I agree that autobiographical novels seem to be everywhere. I don’t feel any kinship with the first-person confessional or domestic fiction. I didn’t have a politically correct upbringing and read books that are out of favour today. When I entered university, I cut my teeth on Joyce and Lawrence. Later, I felt drawn to Ginsberg and Kerouac, and later still to Richler and Davies. Today the new writers who appeal to me most have a muscular, aggressive style.
Conceit’s detail is remarkable. How did you go about researching the book? Were any sources particularly helpful?
Once I was really inside a character (and that took a while), concrete objects came naturally into focus. When Donne’s daughter Pegge is hungry, she smells a meat pie. She doesn’t walk the streets like a twenty-first-century tourist, taking in everything. She only notices things that stand out for her that day. Seventeenth-century hygiene, for example, left something to be desired, but unless someone stank more (or less) than usual, Pegge wouldn’t notice.
Most of Conceit strikes out beyond the bounds of history, into the private lives of the Donnes, so I steered away from histories and biographies. However, I liked Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne since it is so full of mistakes and myths. I read John Stow’s Survey of London, along with other seventeenth-century writings, letters, and diaries, for instance Samuel Pepys’s eyewitness account of the Great Fire. I laid maps all over my floor, figuring out how Pegge navigated the City as she searched for Walton’s buried rivers. I also studied drawings by artists like Wenceslas Hollar, who were the photographers of the time.
Lucky for us, Donne was fond of having his portrait taken in various costumes, so we know what he looked like up to the moment he dressed in his shroud to pose for his effigy in St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’ve got some of these on my website, marynovik.com As Conceit took shape, I came to believe that Donne was aiding and abetting his fictionalization. I became so immersed in his voice that I was dreaming in it. Even now, I can’t tell where his words end and mine begin. As I wrote in my acknowledgements, there was something fitting about this, since late in life, Donne confessed, “I did best when I had least truth for my subjects.”
Why the Donnes? The Renaissance alone would offer a dozen or so poets who would work in this form. What is it about Donne that fascinates you more than, say, Sidney?
Sir Philip Sidney has no sex appeal. Sorry. He just doesn’t. Who crawls into bed reading Astophel and Stella? Donne’s poetry is raw, brash, sensual, immediate. The man lurks behind the wit. He didn’t write about his mistresses in tidy sonnet sequences like Sidney and Shakespeare. He wrote about them so realistically that we believe they existed. The poems that pun on the words “done” and “more” were probably written to Ann More. He was thrown in jail for eloping with her, almost as bad as being hanged for “not keeping of accent,” as Ben Jonson said he ought to be.
After Ann died and Donne became a priest, he buried Jack Donne, the womanizer. I imagined his seven kids digging up his past as they grew older. I was fascinated with the children born from that passion, maybe because I came from a large family myself. When Pegge is a teenager, she tries to piece together the story behind the poems and reads herself into her mother’s place. Frustration and menarche push her into an unhealthy obsession about her father’s love-life. Once I began thinking like Pegge, I couldn’t shake her view of the Dean of St. Paul’s on his deathbed, still battling sin, still haunted by Ann.
What’s your favourite John Donne poem? Why?
Ah. This would be like asking Donne who his favourite mistress was. I doubt you’d get an answer from him! According to his poems, he had quite a selection. Worse, it would be like asking him to choose between God and women, since he later turned to writing holy poems. It’s said that he wrote love poems like a priest and holy poems like a lover. In his most mature love poems, the lovers worship one another and in “Batter My Heart,” arguably his best holy sonnet, he begs God to rape and subdue him. I’ve been commenting on Donne’s poems on the backgrounds page at marynovik.com. I’m lingering over this project, hoping to spin it out over several years.
Forced to choose, I might pick “The Ecstasy” since I have fond memories of Warren Tallman teaching it at the University of British Colombia. It’s not as well-known as some of Donne’s other poems and offers an erotic twist on platonism that we can all connect to: “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, But yet the body is his book.”
What’s next for you? When will your next novel take place?
I’m working on a novel that is set in eighteenth-century England. I floundered about, playing with this idea and that for a long time, but this one is sticking and now I’m far enough along to feel that ring in my nose, tugging me forward. This will be my third novel and they are beginning to feel like variations on a theme that I am fated to explore.