An Interview of Susanne Dunlap, author of THE SPIRIT OF FIRE

Susanne Dunlap has just released THE SPIRIT OF FIRE, the second installment (already!) of her acclaimed ORPHANS OF TOLOSA trilogy, set during the 13th century during the crusade against the Cathar heresy, in a place that would soon become part of France. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions.

What made you choose a French setting, and this era?

Well, first of all, I’m a huge Francophile! Also, what really got me interested in the place and time was learning about the amazing women troubadours who wrote poetry and music for only about 80 years at that time. This region (now called Occitanie) wasn’t part of France at the time, but an autonomous that was a patchwork of baronies and counties, whose lords owed fealty to the count of Toulouse, the King of Aragon, the Holy Roman Emperor, and sometimes, yes, King Louis IX of France. It was a time and place that was comparatively tolerant of different religions, and there was no primogeniture. Unmarried women had to be left an equal share of the property when someone with land died. They had their own language, as well — Occitan — which is closer linguistically to Catalan and Spanish than French. This was all destroyed and later subsumed into France. Although there’s been a movement to bring back Occitan, and street signs etc. are now in both French and Occitan in that part of France.

What are the challenges of research like for that period?

Anything from the 13th century is a challenge because there are limited sources. However, that does give a writer a lot of latitude for inventing things, which I took full advantage of!

What surprised in the course of your research?

I was actually very surprised about the winemaking tradition in the region. Wines were drunk the year they were made; there was no aging and storing of vintages. And the region has really wonderful wines now—much better value than those from the well-known terroirs.

What makes the story of the orphans of Tolosa relevant to today’s readers?

I think this biggest thing is that the story revolves around religious persecution, wars against a peaceful sect, the Cathars, who were Christians, just not Catholics. I think it’s important to be reminded of the many atrocities committed in the name of religion at all times in history.

What are the challenges of writing a trilogy?

The biggest challenge is in creating a story that’s big enough to stretch across three books!

After the success of Game of Thrones, do you see a blurring of the line between accurate medieval historical fiction and fantasy?

I don’t know, really. I still think historical fiction and fantasy are quite separate. And although I did my research thoroughly and the historical events in my trilogy happened, all my characters are fictional as are most of the smaller events. But no dragons. I draw the line at dragons.

Thanks for the interview! And merry Christmas to you as well! Or, I should say, joyeux Noel!

Joyeux Noel to you, Susanne, and to all the readers of Versailles and More!


I love Nancy Bilyeau’s novels and needed a fast read to distract me from thoughts that had been weighing me down during this Advent season. So, I purchased THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE.

A fast read it was (it’s a novella) but one that will stay with me. In ten chapters, Bilyeau weaves many threads: New York during the Gilded Age, the wonders of the Morgan Library, the barely met but ever present J. P. Morgan himself, the close-knit and diverse Irish-American community, family ties that bind, hurt and heal, and twin stories of love lost. Of course, as the title indicates, this is also a ghost story. But here the supernatural, as in the Sister Joanna trilogy, guides the arc of the story without veering into horror tricks.

We meet Helen O’Neill, a middle-aged widow and denizen of the Bronx. She has never recovered from the untimely death of her husband but finds some solace in the embrace of her upwardly mobile family, and her own professional achievements. She has just been hired by Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan’s fascinating librarian, to tend to the treasures of his collection. Because Helen has a gift with ancient artifacts. A gift best described by ancestral Irish lore. Certainly a gift that has allowed her to rise from kitchen hand to unofficial conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Maybe the same gift that makes her notice an oddly dressed young woman on Madison Avenue.

As with every great read, the turning of the last page opens more doors. I now want to return to the Morgan Library to look at it with a new eye. I also want to learn more about J. P. Morgan and his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. Yes, she is a historical character.

THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE helps us refocus on the true meaning of the season, on our loved ones, present and departed, how much we miss those we lost, and how we wish their ghostly presence would watch over us through the trials of life.


The Salon of the Grand Couvert at Versailles: the room where Marie-Antoinette did not have dinner

Another Versailles update: the Salon of the Grand Couvert has been restored to its past splendor, as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the entire palace.

Versailles, the Salon du Grand Couvert, by Didier Rykner

The Salon of the Grand Couvert is part of the Queen’s Grand Apartment. Couvert means place setting in French, and this is the room where the royal couple had dinner. The King and Queen sat on armchairs, facing the audience. Duchesses had the privilege of sitting on a row of stools arranged in a semi-circle a few feet in front of the table. Further away stoo the rest of the courtiers and the public, for anyone decently dressed was admitted to the palace.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette during the very last years of the Ancien Régime, attended these occasions (more…)

Marie Antoinette a la rose by Vigee Lebrun

Marie-Antoinette and Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: the Queen and the painter

Without Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, our mental image of the Queen would be different, so iconic have these paintings become. All the more reason to look into the relationship between the two ladies. And what better way to do so than return to Madame Lebrun’s Memoirs?

It was in the year 1779, she writes, that I painted the Queen for the first time; she was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty [she was twenty four]. Marie-Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best gait of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that marked her as the Queen in the midst of her whole Court, her majestic mien (more…)

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Marie Antoinette’s unsung legacy to French food: the croissant

If you watched Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, you know that the Queen liked to be surrounded by pyramids of gorgeous pastries and followed a strict macaroon-and-champagne diet. Or did she?

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Well, according to contemporary accounts, not at all. The etiquette required the King and Queen to take some of their meals in public, in front of the courtiers and visitors. Anyone decently dressed was admitted in Versailles, and many came to the Palace to watch the royal couple eat.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, attended those occasions. She notes in her Memoirs that “the King ate with a hearty appetite, but the Queen did not remove her gloves, nor did she unfold her napkin, in which she was very ill-advised.”

Marie Antoinette porcelain cup

Marie-Antoinette literally did not touch her food (more…)