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Dr. Medieval

Author’s doctoral studies shape her historical fiction

Special to The Recorder

Paula de Fougerolles has wanted to write historical fiction most of her life. “I always knew that this was what I was supposed to be doing. It was the thing that gave me the most joy,” she said.

In fact, she wrote her first novel when she was 8 years old. “It was not very good,” she noted ruefully. Her prose has definitely improved.

As a child, she fell in love with the legend of King Arthur and the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien. “I was always one for footnotes,” she recalled. “I thought it was just fascinating that (Tolkien) was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.

“And a lot of the world building and languages that he was creating were based on Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic myth. By the time I was 8 or 9, this was my thing.”

She studied English and American literature at Brandeis and earned a Thomas J. Watson fellowship after her graduation in 1988. This fellowship is awarded to scholars, in de Fougerolles’ words, “whose interests fall out of the traditional models.”

She spent a year touring historical sites in Europe: “Just myself and my backpack and my journal and my camera.” The idea for a series of medieval novels came to her at this point, but life took her in other directions.

She came back to the United States, worked, married and ended up at Cambridge University in England, where her husband was doing postdoctoral research in immunology. She decided to pursue a doctorate in medieval history at Cambridge’s department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.

“We joke around the house that I got the Ph.D. so that I could write novels,” said de Fougerolles, adding on a more serious note, “You have to be able to read the literature in the primary languages. The novels take their historical framework from my learning.”

Her series, “The Chronicles of Iona,” follows the true story of Columba, a 6th-century monk, prince and, eventually, saint. He is best known for founding the monastery of Iona, a center of learning and literacy in the Dark Ages.

At the beginning of the first book, “Exile,” Columba is banished from his native Ireland to an Irish colony called Dal Riata on the west coast of Scotland. The first person he meets there is Aedan mac Gabran, the son of the colony’s late king. They soon become involved in physical and psychological battles that test Columba’s faith and Aedan’s endurance.

The author read an early biography of Columba and became fascinated by him. “That book is the best primary source for the 6th century for Scotland and Ireland,” she explained. “Columba is the first Irish saint who has some historicity about him. You really get the sense that you’re reading about a real man’s life at that time.

“His first cousin was the over-king of the north part of Ireland. Suddenly, in 563, he was excommunicated and then exiled. The sources are really silent about it. Apparently, he got involved in some battle and probably killed at least one man.”

Columba’s exile made de Fougerolles think. “Where do you go when that happens? How do you survive something like that?”

She was even more fascinated at the notion of pairing Columba in her fiction with mac Gabran, who became a great warrior and the forefather of Scottish kings. He did indeed befriend Columba.

“They were two figures who leapt from the pages of history,” said de Fougerolles. “Columba was obviously a man of faith and Aedan was not. There was something intimate yet epic about their friendship.”

She set about telling the story of their banding together to start Iona — and in a sense to start Scotland as well; the country had no real identity in the 6th century. Her tale of adventure explores the characters, resources, and leadership skills of both men.

Mac Gabran uses his wits, his passion and his brawn to fight for what he wants. Columba uses his wisdom, his faith and his love for others. Together they make a remarkable pair.

The task of telling their story required de Fougerolles to fill in a lot of details that don’t appear in history books. “The 6th century is called ‘the lost century,’” she explained. “It was after the collapse of Rome but before the stabilization of government and record keeping under the Anglo-Saxons.”

She noted that having a doctorate in medieval history came in very handy for the task of inventing those details. “I can construct plausible stories, knowing about the culture and about the wider medieval scene at the time, not just in Ireland but in Europe. I can fill in the gaps with likelihoods.”

“Exile” is the first of what de Fougerolles projects as a seven-book series. The second volume is due out in a few weeks. The author, who lives in Brookline but spends about half of the year in Hawley, is having fun introducing the first book to readers.

Next year is the 1450th anniversary of the founding of the monastery of Iona as well as of the city of Londonderry. The book and de Fougerolles will be featured in several related celebrations. It was also highlighted at the recent Golden Bridges Conference in Boston, which brought together business people and artists from Boston and northwest Ireland.

And “Exile” is being featured in the Global Diaspora Project of the County of Donegal in Ireland, where Saint Columba was born.

De Fougerolles returns to her roots in Hawley frequently. She and her husband own a historic house on Pudding Hollow Road and her ties to the town are strong.

“My family has lived in Hawley and Charlemont for a very long time — since a couple of years after Hawley was founded,” she said. “I’m descended from the Hunts, who were one of the first Hawley families, and then the Whites, who were later interlopers, but not very much later.”

She enjoys the rhythm of the seasons in Hawley, helping her cousins boil maple tree sap into syrup in the spring and making cider using her grandfather’s old press at this time of year.

“Hawley is like my Mecca,” she explained. “It’s spiritual for me how much the land and its history are in my blood and part of my cellular structure.”

De Fougerolles will read from “The Chronicles of Iona: Exile” on Saturday, Nov. 24, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield. For more information about the reading, call the shop at 772-2186. For more information about the book and its author, visit
http://pauladefougerolles.wordpress.com/.

Tinky Weisblat is a writer and singer who lives in Hawley. Her Web site is www.merrylion.com; her blog is
www.ourgrandmotherskitchens.com.

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