Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Q&A with Molly Greeley




Molly Greeley is the author of the new historical novel Marvelous. It is set in the 16th and 17th centuries, and is based on the lives of Pedro and Catherine Gonzalez, who may have inspired the "Beauty and the Beast" story. Greeley's other novels include The Heiress. She lives in Traverse City, Michigan.


Q: How did you first learn about the Gonzales family, and at what point did you decide to write this novel based on their lives?


A: I first learned about the Gonzales family entirely by chance; I was looking up a historical fact for my second novel, The Heiress, which I was editing, and stumbled upon an article about the “true story behind Beauty and the Beast.”


After reading that article, I immediately started Googling to see what else I could find; when I emerged from that rabbit hole a couple of hours later, I knew that I absolutely had to write about Pedro, Catherine, and their children. 


Q: The writer Natalie Jenner said of the book, “In Marvelous, Greeley bridges four hundred years and our own image-obsessed time with beautiful humanity, moving philosophy and spellbinding prose. Marvelous proves how love is always what truly binds and saves us in the end.” What do you think of that description, and how do you think the book deals with the idea of one’s own self-image?


A: I agree with Natalie completely that love - in Marvelous, in Beauty and the Beast, and in our lives in general - absolutely is what matters in the end. And I think the issue of one's own self-image is as inescapable in Marvelous as it is in the fairy tale.


Pedro, of course, struggles with his own appearance - he lived during the Renaissance, when “werewolves” were still being burned; his hairiness, and that of his children, was not just something that might be a source of cruel humor, but something that could conceivably put them in very real danger.


Throughout the book, he and his children must wrestle with the fact that others' perceptions of them do not match their inner selves; their hairiness subjects them to both the fascination and the repugnance of the other courtiers.


Pedro’s eldest two children by turns loathe their own appearances - one even tries to rid herself of her hair - and use it to their advantage, allowing their royal protectors to show them off in return for money, homes, and other favors.


Pedro himself struggles throughout the book, trying to show the world that he is more than his appearance, and, in some ways, losing himself in the process. 


But the theme of self-image goes beyond the hirsute Gonzales family members, and also affects many of the book's other characters.


Noblemen and women at the time often “collected” unusual-looking people, surrounding themselves with the very small, the very large, or the very hairy; they used people with physical differences to bolster their own self-worth in the same way they might show off precious gems, expensive horses, or fine art.


And Catherine, Pedro's wife, must reckon with her own self-image; born the beautiful daughter of a beautiful woman, she grew up with the unspoken understanding that her beauty was her key to a bright future, something that must be carefully preserved.


When her life takes an unexpected turn - when she finds herself married to the “wild man” of the French court - she must find reserves of strength within herself, and learn to value herself for more than her appearance, just as she must learn to value her husband for all the good he holds inside himself. 


Q: What do you see as the relationship between the Gonzales family and the Beauty and the Beast story, and why do you think this story has endured for so long?


A: I don’t know whether we will ever know for certain if the Gonzales family truly inspired the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale.


Pedro and his children were well-known enough in their lifetimes, having lived at multiple royal courts and having had their images and descriptions included in both medical texts and texts about human marvels, that it seems entirely possible to me that Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, who wrote the original story, might have heard of them, though she was writing a little more than 100 years after Pedro’s death.


But the relationship between Pedro and Catherine Gonzales and Beauty and the Beast is one of striking similarities.


Pedro was not magically imprisoned in his castle, but he was subjected to the whims of his royal protectors, living in a sort of gilded cage that acted as both a refuge from and a barrier to the wider world. Catherine, like Beauty, is remembered by history for her striking good looks and her unusual relationship, but little else.


But because these were real people who, unlike their fairy tale counterparts, could not magically escape from the challenges of physical difference, their story, to me, is the fairy tale distilled down to its essence, stripped of magic and moralizing, leaving only two people thrown together in difficult circumstances, who must learn to understand and, hopefully, love one another.  


It's that love that is, I think, the key to the fairy tale’s enduring power. Beauty and the Beast is a story I've adored since I was about 5 years old, even before the Disney animated film came out. It’s the first story I can vividly remember being enthralled by.


But it’s not without its issues - depending on the version you read or watch, you might find a young woman who comes to love her captor despite his cruelty; a tale where the moral is that virtuous girls always obey their fathers and subject themselves to the desires of much older husbands who were chosen for them without consideration of the desires of the girls themselves.


So it can feel a little baffling that even now, in our age of (comparative) equality between the sexes, the story is still so beloved, and still inspires so many retellings.


But again, if you move aside the problematic elements, you find at the story’s heart a love between two people that has flourished despite the odds; a love that stems from truly knowing one another (how many fairy tales, after all, allow the protagonists to spend countless days together before they actually fall in love?).


It's that sort of love - the sort that knows and accepts another person’s faults, and also encourages them to be better - that truly lasts. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I began my research by finding everything I could about Pedro Gonzales and his family. There are several excellent books and essays written in English about him, or which include his story - one fascinating book for anyone who would like to learn more about the family is Merry Wiesner-Hanks’s The Marvelous Hairy Girls.


I also read an Italian biography of Pedro, which was a long, painstaking process given that I do not read Italian (thank heaven for translation apps!), along with finding what I could in the French National Archives about Pedro and his wife.


Because I had never studied the French Renaissance in any depth, I read many, many books about the time's turbulent political climate, as well as biographies of notable players (Catherine de’ Medici, in particular). 


One interesting thing I learned in the course of my research was that Pedro and Catherine’s son Henri very likely used his hairiness as a bargaining chip to persuade the Duke of Parma, under whose protection they lived at the time, to allow the entire family to move away from his palace and court life, settling in the small town of Capodimonte.


Pedro’s biographer believed that Henri argued that “wild” people like the hairy Gonzales family needed to be close to nature in order to thrive. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: For the first time in my life, I’m working on multiple large projects at once, which is making each one go much more slowly than I’d prefer (though I’m excited to have so many ideas at the same time!).


None are far enough long to talk about in any depth, but I will say that one is another historical take on a fairy tale, one is a fictionalized biography of a historical figure, and the third is a departure for me, a contemporary ghost story. Time will tell which is completed first!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’m thrilled to be able to do in-person book events again, and if any readers in Michigan are interested, I have bookstore events coming up in Ann Arbor and Brighton in March! (Details are on my web site!)


I’m also very much looking forward to chatting with fellow writers Kris Waldherr, Alyssa Palombo, and Heather Webb at the Historical Novel Society Conference in June at our panel on retelling classic stories. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Molly Greeley.

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