There are many ways to measure research: 15kg of books, 14,500 kilometres travelled, a truckload of annotated notes.
The numbers represent a small insight into Mandy Hager’s time in France as the Menton Fellow last year where she was researching her latest book — this time an adult novel that finds its roots in two 12th century individuals, Abelard and Heloise.
At her presentation at the City Gallery in Wellington recently she said Abelard and Heloise’s story has fascinated writers and readers for centuries.
"Their fame comes from the letters they wrote to each other. Letters discovered three centuries after their death. They were viewed as a real life Romeo and Juliet, which perhaps puts a gloss on it."
Mandy’s task was to dig down beneath that. She started by working her way through the 15kg of research books, making notes and marking bits that would make good scenes.
"I also needed to build up a picture of the times—the politics, everyday events. I visited places of significance to the story, soaking up the atmosphere — the smells, sounds of footsteps in the cloisters….all the things you can’t experience from New Zealand. Because Heloise loved Ovid’s Heroides I’ve been upskilling myself in classical literature. What she read would have been influencing her and I want to be able to reference that on many levels."
And, of course, it’s about being able to tell a story that will captivate readers today. Mandy, who’s been the Waikato University’s writer in residence this year, has been head down with writing during every spare moment. When she spoke last month she had five chapters to go.
To finish her presentation Mandy gave the audience a tantalising sneak preview of Je Suis Heloise, which is told in the first person during the last year of Heloise’s life. As one member of the audience said afterwards: I want to go out and buy the book right now.