Turning to the past: Historical novelist Susanne Dunlap pens new book set in medieval France

  • Northampton author Susanne Dunlap, seen here in her home, has written seven books of historical fiction. Her newest title is "Listen to the Wind,” the first book of a trilogy set in medieval France. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton author Susanne Dunlap, seen here in her home, has written seven books of historical fiction. Her newest title is "Listen to the Wind,” the first book of a trilogy set in medieval France. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton author Susanne Dunlap, seen here in her home, has written seven books of historical fiction. Her newest title is "Listen to the Wind,” the first book of a trilogy set in medieval France. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Northampton author Susanne Dunlap, seen here in her home, has written seven books of historical fiction. Her newest title is "Listen to the Wind,” the first book of a trilogy set in medieval France. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • “Listen to the Wind,” first book in the trilogy “The Orphans of Tolosa,” examines the story of the Cathars, people in medieval France who were denounced as heretics by the Catholic Church.

  • This illuminated manuscript, circa 1415, depicts the expulsion of Cathars from Carcassonne, a walled city in southwestern France, in 1209. Image from British Library/public domain

  • The Châteaux de Lastours, the ruins of a castle in southwestern France dating from the 11th and 12th centuries and at one time a stronghold of the Cathars. Image from Wiki Commons

  • Susanne Dunlap, who has a PhD in music history, has used that background for a number of her historical novels, including her first book, “Emilie’s Voice.” Northampton author Susanne Dunlap, seen here at right in her home, has written seven books of historical fiction. Her newest title is "Listen to the Wind,” the first book of a trilogy set in medieval France.

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2019 4:22:05 PM
Modified: 7/10/2019 4:21:50 PM

About 20 years ago, Susanne Dunlap had completed her PhD in music history and, after doing some initial teaching at Columbia University in New York, began looking for a new position.

But Dunlap, a 1976 Smith College graduate who had previously worked in advertising before returning to school to study music, could not find another teaching job — at least one that wouldn’t completely disrupt her family life by forcing her to move away.

“I was crushed,” the Northampton resident said during a recent interview at her home. “I had a family here, two teenagers in school — I couldn’t just pick up and move.”

But Dunlap didn’t let her advanced degree go to waste. In fact, it served as her entrée of sorts for a new field: writing historical fiction. “I realized I could still be involved in history, and the history of music, by telling stories about it,” she said.

Today, Dunlap has seven published novels to her credit, another largely complete, and plans for an additional one. The last two books will be part of a trilogy set in medieval France that looks at the largely forgotten struggle of the Cathars, people who lived in what is now southwestern France and were attacked as heretics by forces of the Catholic Church because they had different beliefs about God.

“The Orphans of Tolosa,” the first book of the “Listen to the Wind” trilogy, is her newest offering, an adventure tale of a young girl and boy, Azalaïs and Azemar, respectively, who are separated from their families in the 1230s in the area then known as Languedoc (also called The Midi), an independent kingdom that’s now part of France. Occitan, which Dunlap says has some connection to Catalan, was spoken there (and still is, in some places) rather than French.

The two friends forage in the forest with some other rootless children but then are forced to flee, separately, from mysterious attackers, and they’ll only meet up again nine years later in their late teens, when both get caught up in dramatic events that will see France trying to take control of the region after Pope Innocent III, mercenary knights and French barons make war against the heretics.

The story is told predominantly though not entirely from Azalaïs’ point of view, which is consistent with the narrative voices of Dunlap’s previous books. From “Emilie’s Voice,” the tale of a talented young singer ensnared in the palace intrigues of the court of Louis XIV of France, to “In the Shadow of the Lamp,” in which a young English serving woman becomes a nurse working under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, Dunlap has used female characters in her novels to bring the past alive.

“So much of history is told from the perspective of men,” said Dunlap, who has written for both adult and Young Adult (YA) audiences. She loves to do the research for her subjects “and then build the narrative around these imaginary characters. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a way to tell the stories of women, since we rarely hear about them.”

There are some harsh reminders, indeed, in some of these stories about the treatment women were long subjected to. Women of aristocratic households in medieval Europe, as one example, were considered little more than breeding stock whose primary purpose was to produce a male heir or cement a union with another kingdom. In “Listen to the Wind,” which treads a line roughly between YA and adult fiction, there’s a scene involving a noble couple’s wedding night that doesn’t exactly brim with romance.

But part of the satisfaction in writing these books, notes Dunlap, “is finding ways for my characters to overcome the kinds of barriers women could face.”

A different kind of music

Dunlap actually wrote the original manuscript for “Listen to the Wind” after she had published her first historical novel, “Emilie’s Voice,” in the early 2000s. Just as music was the focus of that first book, Dunlap got interested in a story of medieval France and the Cathars through a study of music in their period (and a visit to southwest France). She was particularly intrigued by the trobairitz, women troubadours who had a distinctive style of singing and poetic songwriting.

The music “was performed based on a very different set of scales and tones,” said Dunlap, a serious piano student when she was younger, and at Smith; she also previously served as the managing director of the Pioneer Valley Symphony.

Part of the appeal of “Listen to the Wind” is its evocation of this music and the instruments it was performed on, such as the vielle, a bowed, oval-shaped instrument, and the citole, a very early version of the guitar. The story also captures the sounds, sights and rhythms of a very distant time: peasants toiling in vineyards; drafty castles; people traveling on foot or by horse; dinner tables laden with foods such as boar heads, roasted peacock and meat pies; knights crashing into each other in jousting contests.

“I really wanted to get into the mindset and habits of the characters,” said Dunlap. “I mean, there were no clocks. People gauged the time by looking at the sun.”

Above all, though, the novel is a character-driven tale of adventure. Azalaïs is something of a chameleon, at first finding sanctuary with a kindly friar who helps disguise her as a boy while teaching her herbal medicine and how to read. But Azalaïs will eventually be forced to take to the road again, and to assume another identity. In a twist on “The Prince and the Pauper” storyline, she’ll take the place of a headstrong noblewoman, Jordane, who wants no part of the arranged marriage her father has planned for her.

Azemar, meantime, will become an itinerant rural laborer and meet an older man who becomes his benefactor; he’ll be apprenticed to a merchant in the town of Bésiers, site of an earlier massacre of heretics, and will begin training to become a knight. He and Azalaïs, as resourceful as they are, will struggle to find each other, and only late in the book will they begin to learn why they’d previously been separated from their families — and how that past may be catching up to them.

There’s intrigue, a bit of romance, and some violence, though none of it is over the top. Still, the length of the story, with two installments yet to come, meant Dunlap was not able to convince her previous editors with Simon & Schuster and Bloomsbury Books to publish the trilogy. It’s now being handled by Bellastoria Press, a smaller publisher in Longmeadow.

Even if working for a smaller press means she now has to do most of her own publicity, Dunlap says she’s thrilled Bellastoria has committed to her work; she’s happy, too, about some good initial reviews of “Listen to the Wind,” including one from Kirkus Reviews that calls the book “complex, absorbing, and dramatic.” Now she’s waiting for feedback on the book from some of her grandkids.

Writing about history, she added with a laugh, “is kind of a compulsion.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Susanne Dunlap’s website is susanne.susanne-dunlap. com. You can also read more about her planned trilogy at orphansoftolosa.com. “Listen to the Wind” is available at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton and at amazon.com.




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