In Lucy Pick's fascinating new novel, PILGRIMAGE (Cuidono Press, July 2014), a blind noblewoman navigates the shoals of international politics and the difficult terrain of Northern Spain as she follows the Way of St. James to Compostela. Today Lucy answers some questions for us about the writing of her debut novel.
1. Was Gebirga of Gistel, the novel’s protagonist, a historical person? What do we know about her?
Gebirga of Gistel came about when I combined two historical clues. The first was a passage in the medieval manuscript containing the Pilgrim’s Guide to Compostela that describes the manuscript as being written by, among others, someone named Gebirga of Flanders.
The second was part of the story of Saint Godeleva of Gistel, an eleventh-century noblewoman who was killed by her husband. The husband was reputed to have a blind daughter, and to himself have gone on crusade. What would it be like, I wondered, to have a mother who was a saint and cured everyone but you?
I combined the unknown Gebirga of Flanders with the blind daughter of Godeleva, and there was my heroine.
2. In the novel, Gebirga falls blind around the age of three. What challenges did writing a blind protagonist pose? How did it affect your handling of point of view?
As you can see from my account of her origins, Gebirga’s blindness was the first thing I knew about her, and it provided challenges and opportunities. For a beginning novelist, it was a wonderful discipline to be forbidden from describing what my protagonist sees and having to rely on all her other senses to create the mood and set the scene.
Taste is an important part of the book, and we learn a lot about Gebirga’s journey from cool, damp Flanders to sunny Spain by the way the food she eats changes. So is touch, as the feel of the clothes she wears shifts from wool to cotton and silk.
I had to stop myself from using metaphors of sight in relationship to Gebirga. “Gebirga saw what he meant” was a sentence I could not write, for instance. But the hardest part was having her travel through Europe at the height of the Romanesque building boom without seeing any of the spectacular churches going up all around her. Her companion, Katerinen becomes our eyes on what that might have looked like.
|photo by Yearofthedragon|
Santiago de Compostela became, with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the three most important pilgrimage sites in Medieval Europe because of its reputation as the burial place and location of the preaching of one of the apostles, James the Greater.
It really took off in the eleventh century, in the decades just before my novel starts, and a lot of historians credit the involvement of the monastery of Cluny in the development and popularization of the road to Compostela. The abbots of Cluny worked hard to create both political and spiritual ties to the different Christian kingdoms of Spain and used the pilgrimage to do it. That is one reason Gebirga starts her journey to Spain at Cluny, even though it isn’t one of the “traditional” origins of the road.
It has revived as a pilgrimage destination in recent decades for people whose motives are as mixed as they were in the Middle Ages. Your readers may know Paulo Coelho’s novel The Pilgrimage, which brought a kind of New Age element to the pilgrimage, and Martin Sheen’s movie, The Way.
I have not done the pilgrimage myself, though I have travelled to many of the places along the road that I describe, and I drew on stories of both medieval and modern pilgrims in constructing my narrative. For example, my sister walked the last part of the route with a group of breast cancer survivors and their families, and that is how Gebirga finishes her journey too.
4. What is your favorite scene from the novel? Which scene was the most difficult to write?
My favourite scene from the novel was one of the first scenes I ever wrote, and at the time I wrote it, I did not yet know exactly how it worked into the story. It is a scene in which Gebirga is attacked and left alone on a mountainside. No one knows where she is, and she has been injured. This moment of crisis gave me a chance to get to know who she really was, and also to explore some of the spiritual aspects of her medieval world, both Christian and pagan.
The hardest scene to write was a moment of tragedy, and I won’t say more lest I give the plot away. Like my favourite scene, I knew it was going to be in the book right from the beginning.
5. PILGRIMAGE is one of the first novels published by Cuidono Press. What advantages have you found working with a small press offers?
There are distinct advantages to working with a small press and with a new small press at that. The main one is that I don’t feel the pressure to come right out of the gate with huge sale figures to justify my existence. My novel is one of those that will help define what Cuidono Press stands for as it grows, and I expect it will stay in print a good long time and have a chance to find its audience. That is invaluable for a first time novelist.
Another was the chance to be involved with the creation of the book cover, which uses a detail from a fifteenth-century panel painting that shows scenes from the Life of St. Godeleva.
6. What piece of writing advice helped you most during the crafting of PILGRIMAGE and your search for publication? Do you have other advice to pass on to writers of historical fiction?
Write what you love; write what you want to read. Keep trying to improve. Don’t give up.
There is an old piece of writing wisdom that says there are only two plots in the world, someone leaves town, or someone comes to town. PILGRIMAGE is the story of someone who leaves town. But Gebirga leaves her home when her father returns after decades away with a young, spoiled bride. This character, Aude, is pretty unsympathetic in the novel. I began wondering what it would be like to be Aude, and wrote a novel about her, which begins as a “someone comes to town” story, and involves Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade. But whether Gebirga and Yusuf ever reappear in a story of their own is up to the readers of PILGRIMAGE!
Thanks so much, Julianne, for inviting me to be part of your blog, and for all the work you do supporting historical fiction and introducing us to so many wonderful books.
Learn more about Lucy Pick and her books at her website. PILGRIMAGE is available at Amazon.com or directly from the publisher, Cuidono Press.
My review of PILGRIMAGE may be found here.