Launch: Susanne Dunlap’s Voices in the Mist

INTERVIEW BY ANNE EASTER SMITH

Susanne Dunlap’s latest novel, Voices in the Mist, is set in 13th century France and concludes her trilogy on the Cathars.

Please give us your elevator pitch for the Orphans of Tolosa trilogy.

The bonds of family, faith, and love are tested as three young Cathars in 13th century Languedoc fight to avoid the inquisitors’ questioning—and work to preserve their unique cultural heritage. Men and women of Toulouse, forced to flee the cruel persecution by the Catholics and defend their faith, leave their young children behind to fend for themselves. My trilogy is the story of three of these orphans.

You have achieved success mainly with books about music and musicians, which has been your particular academic field of study. Your first book was Liszt’s Kiss, wasn’t it?

Actually, I first drafted Orphans as a single novel, back in 2005, presenting it to the Touchstone editor as one single manuscript. Her reaction was it was far too long, had no marquee name, and “no one has ever heard of the Albigensian crusades. So what else could you write about?” Sigh. I was always interested in the mystique of 19th century pianists, so I suggested Liszt, who was kind of a rock star in his day. I wrote a brief proposal for Liszt’s Kiss, and they accepted it.

Voices in the Mist is the last of the series. Tell us more about how you developed the three books.

The manuscript sat for a long time after being rejected, and I teased out the two first books later, but then five years ago it struck me I wanted to fill in the obvious why the orphans” question and thought it might just be more saleable as a trilogy. Unfortunately, I lost my agent in 2017, and there they all sat without any hope of traditional publishing, so I chose to bring them out with Bellastoria Press (a boutique publisher in Massachusetts, started by two author-businesswomen).

The titles of the books cleverly incorporate your elemental themes: Wind, Fire, Mist. Did the titles come first or the themes?

Titles are so hard! The first two changed multiple times, and this third used to be called Bruna’s Song. Listen to the Wind came to me when I had gone to that part of France, clambering all around the castles and hills, and the wind was a constant. At one point I had to lie down because I thought I was going to get blown off the cliff. The second,  Spirit of Fire, ended with the famous auto da fe [mass burning] at the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur. The last book went back a bit in time and so into the mists of the past. Thinking about themes is strange, because for me thematic things usually come in a rewrite. If you start out with saying this is going to be about this or that, writing to it makes it clunky. Besides readers will always see different things that you might not have thought about.

Should this series be read in order?

Yes, it was written to be read in order, but a lot of time has elapsed since the first two, so I made major revisions in the third one to try and reconnect the story for readers. I rewrote Voices in the Mist several times. I added a point-of-view character about seven months ago. The third book ties up some loose ends from the first two.

Why this period? Did you visit the area and get intrigued?

I love to answer this question. Writing about this period and area came to me when I was doing doctoral studies in music history at Yale; I was introduced in a class to the women troubadours, “trobairitz,” of medieval Southern France—the Midi. I took a trip to the area to do some research and I fell completely in love with the region, the music, the history, the religion—especially the Cathar sect, which flourished there in the 12th and 13th centuries until they were driven to flee to the fortified mountaintop castle of Montsegur. I decided I wanted to write about that time and place, and of course it was important to me to weave in the music.

What were your go-to books for your research?

Eileen Power’s Medieval Women as a general reference book; the one that’s the best about the region is Montaillou, The Portrait of Life in a Medieval Village. I also learned a little about how to speak the old Occitan language from a book and CD I discovered.

Tell us about those Albigensian Cathars.

The Cathar religion that flourished in that part of France is very humble. It came from Bulgaria and Germany and their Christian beliefs were simple and very different from Catholicism, which put them at odds with the powerful Papist majority that dominated most of Europe. There was no holy Trinity, because they believed Jesus was an ordinary man who married and had children; there was no Hell, only Heaven; and attaining a state of perfection was the only way to get to Heaven. Many Cathars led very ascetic lives in order to attain perfection before they died. If they didn’t, they would return in some reincarnated form and try again. Important for my story is that women were just as powerful in that religious hierarchy, and indeed women comprised the majority of Cathars. Their teachings and beliefs terrified the Catholic church, which thought there should be no other teachings but theirs. So the Cathars were horribly hounded and persecuted. The Albigensian Crusades were the only crusades waged by Christians on Christians. It was brutal and bloody.

Who of your minor characters wormed his or her unexpected way into your heart in Voices in the Mist?

Baron de Balascon. He is a complicated person, with divided loyalties, and he charmed me. I did have some grudging respect for the mother-in-law, who had dynastic reasons for being the antagonistic person she was.

What is your next project?

I am publishing The Portraitist with She Writes Press in August 2022. It’s about the 18th-century French artist, Adelaïde Labille-Guiard, whose self-portrait has always been one of my favorite paintings in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.

What is the last book you read?

Whereabouts by Jumpa Lahiri. It is magnificent. Oh, and James Mitchell Kaplan’s lovely book Rhapsody—about Gershwin.

 

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