An interview of Elena Maria Vidal, author of The Night’s Dark Shade

To introduce Elena Maria Vidal’s new novel, The Night’s Dark Shade, I will be content to quote the opening words of her preface:

Nights Dark Shade Elena Maria Vidal

Nights Dark Shade Elena Maria Vidal

The Night’s Dark Shade is a novel of thirteenth-century France. The Middle Ages was an era of intensity. People applied themselves with great ardor to every endeavor, be it art, poetry, warfare, love or religion. They were particularly fervent in regard to matters of faith. Religious convictions were not subject to indifference, as they tend to be today; rather every nuance of doctrine was of vital interest to all. Fanatics appeared from time to time, and the blood of innocents was shed. Heresy was viewed as a capital offense, for it was seen as leading to the death of the soul, which was for the medievals more to be dreaded than mere bodily death. Too often, battling heresy became an excuse for pillage, as wars arose. This is the story of the conflicts which raged in individuals, as well as in families and kingdoms, amid the tumult of the Albigensian Crusade.

The Albigensian Crusade and the story of the Cathars resonate deeply with me, because it shaped the destiny of France, and also because some of my ancestors were, if not Cathars themselves, prominent supporters of that faith, and took part in the Crusade, on the losing side.

Elena tells this story through the eyes of the orphaned Lady Raphaëlle, a devout Catholic who leaves her home in the mountains of Auvergne (a place dear to my heart) to marry a nobleman in a remote castle in the Pyrenees. There she encounters members of the mysterious Cathar sect who challenge her most deeply held beliefs. As she seeks her path, she discovers hatred and betrayal, as well as abiding friendship and unexpected love… Elena kindly agreed to tell us more about the novel and its background.

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Elena Maria Vidal

Elena Maria Vidal

Elena, welcome to Versailles and more! It is an honor to have you here upon the release of your third novel, The Night’s Dark Shade. It takes place during the Albigensian Crusade, in 13th Century France. After Trianon and Madame Royale, why this continued attraction to French settings and French characters?

Thank you,Catherine, it is a joy to be interviewed on one of my favorite blogs. In high school and college, I took French classes; the language, history and culture of France all captivated me. I have to say that the times I have visited France, I have always felt very comfortable there, in spite of any number of misadventures that can happen when traveling. I suppose I enjoy writing about a place that I love.

This is a complete change of era, from the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the Middle Ages. What are the challenges of working with a medieval setting?

For me, the Middle Ages is the easiest era to write about. I am very much at home in the Middle Ages.As a teenager, I wrote stories with a medieval setting and researched every detail, trying to make my stories authentic. I was constantly reading novels with medieval-type settings, such as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Kathryn Kurtz; the Middle Ages were part of the air I breathed.

The challenge of writing The Night’s Dark Shade was not the medieval setting but in finding accurate information about the Cathars. The sect is either totally glorified or totally demonized. I wanted to find what the daily life of the Cathars was like and how their beliefs and rituals affected the larger community. The book which gave the most balanced portrait of life in “Cathar country” was Emmanuel Leroy Ladurie’s Montaillou: The Forgotten Land of Error. I noticed in his book that, contrary to what I was previously told about women being “freed” by Catharism, the Catharist belief that sex and marriage were abominations actually led to many women being used and exploited, especially poor women.

Indeed Leroy Ladurie is one of my favorite French historians and his works are a wonderful resource. I knew, of course, of the Cathar movement and its insistence on purity, but I was intrigued to catch at times in your novel almost a foreshadowing of the theories set forth in The Da Vinci Code. What are the origins of the Cathar faith and, in your opinion, the reasons for its success with the populations of southern France?

Cathar Chateau Termes

Cathar Chateau Termes

Some of the ideas about Christ expressed by Dan Brown in his books were believed by the Cathars. I began researching the Cathars in the mid-80’s at SUNY Albany and came across what the Cathars called their “secret doctrine.” This was, of course, long before The Da Vinci Code. The Cathars were essentially a gnostic sect, believing in two gods. Gnosticism predated Christianity by several centuries. When Christianity rose to prominence, the gnostics veiled their beliefs with Christian terminology, and using even the names of Christ and His Apostles, although what they taught was very different from what most Christians believed.

The Bogomils were one of the gnostic sects which flourished in Bulgaria in the tenth century. From Bulgaria they traveled to western Europe where they became known as the Cathars, or “Pure Ones.” The word “bugger” comes from “Bulgars” which is what the Bogomils were called; they were said to favor sodomy over procreative sexual relations since they believed that begetting new life was evil. They believed the entire material world was created by the evil god. They believed the God of Israel mentioned in the Old Testament was really the devil, an idea that later appealed to the Nazis, which is why some Nazis made expeditions to Cathar castles, hoping to discover their lost secrets.

The Cathars flourished in the south of France because the secular leaders there were tolerant of the heresy; many nobles embraced it. Catharism appeared to be more rigorous than Catholicism but only for the Perfecti elite; the ordinary Cathar believers were not bound to fast or abstain from meat or from carnal relations. Individuals who were already drawn to a hedonistic lifestyle found that Catharism relieved them of guilt. When everything is sinful then nothing is sinful.

You do not try to hide the horrors of the religious strife that ultimately led to the destruction of the Cathars. Were you at times tempted to rewrite history? Could you imagine a different ending to this dramatic era of French history?

Albigiensian Crusade Louis VIII

Cathars Albigiensian Crusade Louis VIII

No, I was never tempted to rewrite history. Only the reality of the past can help us to understand the realities of the present. I believe that we need never be afraid of the truth of history,
no matter how ugly it might be, because we have to learn from it. Yes, innocent people were massacred in the name of religion. People were burned alive. As the Dominican friar says in the novel, preaching may be more effective than the sword and the stake.

But it is generally forgotten that the Cathars struck out in violence first by murdering the papal legate Pierre de Castelnau in 1208. The violence escalated from there. Ultimately, the war became a conquest of the south by the north. The fight against heresy was just an excuse for war and political strife, since many Catholics fought other Catholics as well as Cathars.

My favorite secondary character was Simonette, the mistress of your heroine’s uncle, a man whose wife has become a Perfecta, a Cathar religious leader. I see Simonette too, in her own way, torn between her faith and difficult circumstances. With her liveliness and good cheer, she counterbalances the stifling, nightmarish atmosphere of the Chateau of Mirambel. Who would be your favorite secondary character?

Yes, Catherine, you are right about Simonette. She is indeed torn and trying to make the best of a bad situation. Her warm earthiness is a foil for Lady Esclarmonde’s cold religiosity.

My favorite secondary character is Esterelle the hermitess. She is based upon a friend of mine who lives an eremitical life in a valley in an old house full of icons and cats. Esterelle has a great deal of wisdom and insight into earthly matters and yet at the same time she has already stepped over the threshold to the other side.

What have you learned from writing this book?

So much, I would not know where to begin. It has been a long journey, writing, looking for a publisher, rewriting. The main thing I have learned is that no matter how good a book may seem after the first draft it can always be better, much better. Itis important to rewrite until you feel you have stretched your creativity as far as it can go, all the while pruning away what is excessive or redundant.

A selfish question, from a historical novelist to another: you are self-publishing this book with Lulu.com. What are in your experience the pros and cons of this option,compared to standard publishing?

I have to say that publishing with Lulu.com has been on of the best decisions I ever made. I worked on the manuscript of The Night’s Dark Shade for two years or more with some editors from a publishing company who were helping me to get the book into shape for publication. We disagreed, however, about the main characters and where the story was going. I would not make the changes they wanted. Ultimately, every writer needs to be faithful to his or her unique inspiration. The story has to be yours, not someone else’s, even if it means self-publishing.

Publishing with Lulu.com gives the author complete control over the creative process, from choosing fonts to designing the cover. There are professional editors on staff to give assistance if you need it. And the author gets most of the royalties.

On the other hand,when one self-publishes there are not the same resources to promote one‘s book, to get it into bookstores, as there are when one has a typical book deal. It is all up to the author to make it happen. This can be a challenge, even if you already have a well-established readership, but it is an exciting challenge. If you are a first time author, I do not know if I would recommend self-publishing, although there are people who have done it with eventual success.

I am anxious to know about your next project… What can you reveal?

My next novel is based upon the lives of my Irish ancestors and the hardships they endured in their native land and in coming to Canada. It is going to tell the story of several generations at once with flashbacks to the past, showing how individual lives are like the interconnected links of a chain, especially the lives of a family. It will be the first book that I will not have first peddled around to publishers since I will be going straight to Lulu.com with it, and from thereto my readers. I write better when I know I am writing for the enjoyment of my readership, not to win over an editor in order to get a book deal. Overall, I love the freedom of self-publishing.

Thank you, Elena, for joining us for this illuminating discussion, and best wishes for the success of this remarkable novel!

Cathar Chateau Peyrepertuse

Cathar Chateau Peyrepertuse

A note on the photographs: the cross-shaped window is from the Cathar chateau of Termes, the view just above from the Chateau of Peyreperthuse, another Cathar fortress.

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