This interview has been taken from the official Ysabel website of Penguin Canada, with permission.
Q: One of your trademarks as an author is to take real historical events and settings and use them as the basis for the fantasy settings you create. In this case your new book is set in modern day, real world Provence. And yet the history of the region is very much a part of the story. What sort of research did you do for Ysabel?
A: Some of the “research” was literally wandering Provence, the well-known and the completely unknown places, with a camera and a notebook. When you’re there long enough—and we’ve lived there three times before so I already had some grounding in the region—you have a chance to get a little bit below the surface.
What lies beneath a part of the world that is called a paradise, the dream destination for so many people for so long, is in good part what Ysabel came to be about. One of the things my own reading in history has taught me is that when a place is a ‘paradise’, it’s coveted. And if a place is coveted it’s going to know warfare; it’s going to know a darker side than that glamorous surface image. A good part of what gave rise to Ysabel was reading about, and traveling to some of the places that carry that more violent and mysterious history.
Q: Was the research process different this time around than with your previous books?
A: In the past my research has tended to focus on doing a tremendous amount of reading and e-mailing to authors, historians, academics and so on. One of the fringe benefits of getting better known is that, gratifyingly often, when I read a book about an era and then track down the author they say “I know your work” or “my wife reads your books.” I’m very fortunate in that I’ve always received a serious response from historians to my queries—and then to the books themselves. Given that what I do is to take the period they’re interested in and spin it through a prism of fantasy, I might have expected tension from academia but I’ve gotten a lot of understanding.
I still did a lot of reading and e-mailing to authors in researching Ysabel but because it’s set in contemporary times, and because I’m dealing with real places, I also spent a lot of time just being there. I was put in touch with (and I acknowledged them in the book) a couple of historians at the University of Aix in Marseilles and a pair of extraordinarily generous archaeologists—who were responsible for recently uncovering the Roman theater in Aix-en-Provence. (One of them did the sketch work for what the Roman city under the medieval and modern city might look like.) These guys were extraordinarily generous with their time. They helped me anchor that part of the writing.
Another core element of the book is the idea of geography influencing history. I’ve been writing for twenty years about the way in which the past has lessons for the present and how fantasy might make people receptive to those lessons instead of them being trapped by their own assumptions and prejudices. That’s one of the reasons I work with fantasy. In Aix, I started with the notion that if you’ve got a beautiful, lush, fertile valley, you’re going to see that people will have fought over it for centuries. Then you start thinking about who those people have been…
Q: The Roman era is central to the story. What, in particular, grabbed you about that period in the history of Provence?
A: One of the things that grabbed me was learning about the battle between the migrating Celtic/Teutonic tribes and the Roman general Marius—an uncle, by marriage, to Julius Caesar. It was fascinating to read into that episode of history, and to drive and walk along the path where Marius first encountered those hundreds of thousands of migrating tribesmen (and their families), and ultimately to end up at Pourrières where they fought an absolutely huge battle. (Incidentally, Pourrières literally means putrefaction. There were said to be a quarter million rotting corpses after the battle. That’s one of the hypotheses as to why this is such a fertile area.)
This was a pivotal moment in western history. The tribes were heading for Rome, and Rome was not then the empire it became. It was a successful city-state just starting to branch out. (Provence is called Provence because it was the first settlement—the first province—marking Rome’s initial expansion out of the Italian peninsula into what would eventually become the Roman Empire.) There’s a widespread belief among historians that had the Celts succeeded in pushing their way past the greatly outnumbered Roman force in Provence, and made their way down to Italy and Rome, there would have been nothing to stop them and the empire would never have existed. So this battle was a turning point in the world. And yet it’s a remarkably unknown segment of western, and by extension, world history. I found that compelling.
Until the early years of the 20th century Marius was one of the most common names of boys born in Provence. Most people using it didn’t know why. It’s not a saint’s name which is what they tend to use in France. But in Provence, generation after generation used the name Marius because he saved Rome and he saved the province itself. For two thousand years this invisible tradition was handed down. That sort of thing is meat and drink to me.
But so is the opposite angle on things: what did he save them from? What would the world have been if it had fallen out otherwise?
Q: Several key scenes in the book are set at a round ruined tower near Aix. Can you tell me a little more about it?
A: It was about a 30-40 minute walk from where we were living. Local maps identify it as “Caesar’s Tower,” which suggests they think it’s Roman. It’s not. It’s a medieval watchtower. And nobody goes there. It’s not at all on the tourist track. It’s stunningly evocative and I set two different scenes in the book there. When you see this lonely round watch tower guarding the eastern approaches to the city, you can’t help but wonder what they were defending against when they built it. When you start reading about those times, the violence of those days, you can’t help but imagine the people in that tower far outside what were then the city limits. Seeing things like that—standing by that tower at sundown—is what gives me access to being able to write certain things more vividly.
I felt the same way as I wandered the ruins of the Celtic stronghold at Entremont, which provides one of the critical moments of the story. There’s almost no one there most of the time, today. So you find yourself walking alone in a Celtic ruin whose smashed walls were brought down by Roman catapults in 124 BC. In the wake of the stronghold’s destruction the Romans founded their first city in the province, Aquae Sextia, which eventually became Aix-en-Provence. Walking around a place like that is a way of mainlining to the past.
That same hill is where the Nazis built bunkers when they were controlling the region during WWII. That elevation above the city—2500 years ago when the first Greeks visited the coastline; 2000 years ago when the Romans settled the region; 800 years ago during the crusade against the Cathar heresy—has always had great importance. And this had me thinking that the past isn’t just 2500 years ago or 800 years ago. It can also be 25 years ago for a family. When we talk about ‘the past’ we can mean dramatically different scales of time but each of these layers can linger to influence how the present operates. And that, too, became one of the themes of the book.