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In Her Own Words
Amy Hassinger on writing The Priest's Madonna

I first learned about Bérenger Saunière back in 2000 when I was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop taking a seminar on Love (these are the sorts of graduate level classes one takes as a writer). We were studying de Rougemont's Love in the Western World and learning about the troubadour poets in France and their association with the Catharist heresy. My professor, James Alan McPherson, happened to mention in passing one day the notion of a bloodline descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "Huh?" was my initial reaction. "Did I miss something?" When I asked him about it, he referred me to a book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. (Baigent and Leigh are currently suing Dan Brown.) Their book opens with a brief summary of Saunière's life. Parish priest in the tiny Pyrenean village of Rennes-le-Château, Saunière became mysteriously wealthy at the turn of the nineteenth century and built a large estate, including a villa, tower, and promenade, as well as a garden and grounds adjacent to the villa. The story struck a chord: I wondered what had gone on internally with this priest, how he had gone from a certain idealism in his early years to thoroughly basking in worldliness. Later in the book, I came across Marie Dénarnaud, his long-time servant, companion, and, as it was rumored, lover, who was known in the village as the priest's Madonna. I realized that the story I wanted to write was hers. Mary Magdalene had to be in there as well, I felt -- she had attracted me to the story in the first place, and a parallel narrative through her eyes seemed like a natural fit.

Writing a historical novel is kind of like playing football (from someone who has seen maybe three football games, ever). You can only go one down in your writing before you have to stop and regroup in your research. I started out by writing a very sketchy draft of the first scene. About two pages in, I realized I couldn't write any more because I didn't know enough. So, I read: histories of the Languedoc region and France as a whole, accounts of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the unstable French state in the nineteenth century, local Languedocian folklore, as well as narratives describing the Cathar heresy and the Albigensian Crusade. I reread the gospels and scoured the libraries for sources that might help evoke life in ancient Israel/Palestine. I also brushed up on my French. Then, armed with three months of solid reading and about fifty tentative pages of early draft, I traveled to Rennes-le-Château.

My main objective on that trip was to absorb: to soak up the setting, get a sense of the light, just be in the place fully enough to be able to imagine it well. I expected it to be charming and lovely. It was breathtaking. Hills quilted with trim fields, seamed with rivers, and bordered by the dramatic Pyrenees; the aging Mediterranean architecture with its stucco homes and red-tiled rooftops; cypresses and oaks, grapevines, the scent of lavender and dry broom on the hillsides -- it overwhelmed the senses. I stayed in a B&B in Couiza, downhill from Rennes-le-Château, and drove the narrow winding road up the hill every morning to the tiny village at the top. I stepped into the cold church that Saunière renovated and gazed at the painted terra cotta sculptures and the bizarre pastel patterns on the ceiling, wondering what the real story of his wealth was. I traipsed through the moldering villa that he built for Marie, trying to imagine the wallpaper before it began to peel, the ceilings before they were marred by watermarks. I took in the view from the promenade and the tower, and looked over the few volumes that were left in the tower library. I hiked over the red dirt, fingering the scrubby trees and broom, breathing the air. On the wetter days, I drove through the countryside, stopping now and then to marvel at the ruined castles that spotted the hilltops. My host was gracious enough to act as my translator on a few occasions, and with her help I went to visit Antoine Captier and Claire Corbu, the authors of L'heritage de l'Abbé Saunière, one of my favorite sources. Claire Corbu's family bought Saunière's estate from Marie when Marie was about 80; they lived together in the villa until Marie's death in 1953.

Having walked through the landscape, tasted the food, sat in the church pews, and heard (and attempted to speak) the language, I felt I could, in earnest, begin to write the novel.

Copyright © 2006 Amy Hassinger

Author Bio
Amy Hassinger is a graduate of Barnard College and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is the author of The Priest's Madonna (April 2006; $24.95US/$35.00CAN; 0-399-15317-9) and Nina: Adolescence. She teaches in the University of Nebraska's MFA Program in Creative Writing and lives in Illinois with her husband and daughter.

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