WATERMARK by Vanitha Sankaran
I decided to write my first novel, I knew right away that it would be
about papermaking. Paper has always fascinated me. As a child, I was
forever asking for a clean sheet; in old photographs, Iím often
clutching that empty page. Sometimes I actually wrote on the paper, but
most times, just holding it gave me a sense of comfort.
My search for the story behind papermaking focused primarily on the
craftís spread during the Middle Ages. Iíve long thought that, if not
for the plague, the Middle Ages would have blossomed into the frenzy of
thought, reason, and discovery that characterized the Renaissance. The
later part of the medieval era was ripe with change, teeming with
growing tension between the burgeoning middle class, the corrupt Church,
and a nobility worried about its own power. How would paper, an
invention brought to Europe by the Moors and deeply distrusted by the
Church, have fared in such a chaotic environment?
In order to pick the right location to host my tale, I looked at the
small towns along prominent trade routes leading from Spainówhere the
Moors built some of Europeís first paper millsóto France, Italy, and
England. Today, each town is still a goldmine of history, proudly
boasting of the turmoil and destruction itís survived to history-savvy
travelers, but I ultimately chose Narbonne as my setting. Situated in
the heart of heretical France, where alternate religious philosophies
often thrived alongside the Church, Narbonne remained a haven for
heretics, Jews, and other undesirables even during the Inquisition.
Compared to the thousands who were consigned to the flames in
neighboring cities, very few people burned in Narbonne. And the town has
a colorful cultural story of its own: its rise as a prominent trading
center and its surprising demise, brought about by the flooding of its
Much of medieval Narbonne can still be seen in the city today. Though
the Vicomteís Palace has been lost to time, the Archbishopís palace,
which went through centuries of construction, remains an impressive
edifice. The donjon has been preserved with eerily little degradation.
St. Paulís, in the Bourg, looks little different than it would have in
Audaís time. Her namesake, the river Aude, still flows through the city.
So much of the medieval flavor has been preserved in Narbonne that when
I walked down the old cobbled Via Domitia, sniffing the smells of myrrh
and incense in St. Paulís, I almost felt my characters come to life. I
felt their excitement at introducing the new craft of paper into their
older world as if it were my own.
Developing Auda as a character to love and admire was not as easy a
task. I didnít want to write another historical novel with a heroine
taken from modern times, a feminist who believed men and women were
equal and set out to prove it. Nor could Auda be one of the illiterate
commoners, with a convenient faith in this incipient art of paper. Her
ability to read and write and her love of paper had to be born of need
as well as desire. Through several incarnations, Auda appeared as an
orphan, a cripple, even a healer. Eventually, she emerged as someone who
didnít recognize her own limits, someone who had every reason to use
paper, for nothing less than to find her own self.
People often ask me why I write historical fiction, where these
characters and themes come from. I was never a particularly good history
student in school; dates and names often elude me. The best answer I can
give is that historical fiction appeals to both sides of my brain. I
love the empiricism of historical research and the creativity of
writing. It is a good balance between reality and imagination, not
unlike the duality at the heart of Audaís story itself.
My research for the novel began with a practical experiment trying to
recreate paper production from the Middle Ages. For two months, I kept a
bucket of molding linens on my balcony, judiciously adding bird
droppings, lye made from ashes, and rainwater to help the cloth break
down. Each day, I recorded the color, consistency and pH of the mixture.
Then, I would inhale the sharp scents, press the slick material between
my fingers, and capture every detail in paragraphs of description. Iím
not sure where the scientific observation stopped and artistic
expression began, but I do know that much of what I learned in this
experiment made its way into my novel.
In many cases, researching the past made history feel more modern than I
ever expected. People in the medieval era seem to me every bit as
curious about the world as we are today. Nobles debated the meaning of
love in their courts. Learned clergymen discussed heady subjects like
whether sex brought one closer to God. Dissidents questioned the feudal
system and the meaning of freedom. There were even people who wondered
what role the written word could have in a culture weaned on oral news
and entertainment. And Auda encounters all of these dilemmas, in varying
degrees, throughout the story.
My goal in writing this novel was not to write a story that probably did
happened, but one that could have. The narrative of history, for me, is
just like fiction with some immutable facts thrown in. All I had to do
was stretch my imagination and let the story come to life. I hope you
will do the same.