Questions about Mistress of the Sun

Tell us about your novel, Mistress of the Sun.

Set in 17th century France, Mistress of the Sun is a novel about Louise de la Vallière (pronounced valley-air), a name that will likely be unfamiliar to people outside of France. I love her, and think my readers will as well.

The novel was eight years in the making, but my passion for Louise’s story began well over fifteen years ago. As mistress to Louis XIV, the Sun King (the rock star of kings), she was, in effect, the “real” wife to one of the most powerful and charismatic kings in history.

Like Josephine, Louise—affectionately called Petite—was an unlikely young woman to rise to such a prominent position. She was of relatively modest birth, an unambitious and, although cultured and intellectual, a somewhat unsophisticated young woman. Most notably, she was a tomboy. It was this last that most appealed to Louis, I suspect, for he was a passionate hunter and rider, and Louise was more than his equal in the wild.

The Sun King’s mistress, a Carmelite nun, a Devil on horseback: Louise fascinated me. It was the contrast of these qualities in her that intrigued me: she was shy, yet daring on horseback; she was devout, yet France’s official “fallen woman.” Entwined with her story is that of magical Versailles, the one place where she and Louis could be freely together.

As well, it’s a remarkable period, at the early stages of modernism, yet with strong elements of the Middle Ages. Witchcraft was no longer punishable by death, for example, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t practiced: and with dire results. What interested me most was the discovery of “bone magic,” a type of witchcraft practiced on horses.

The plot

The novel opens in late summer of 1650, in a small town in the Loire Valley in France. The main character, Louise de la Vallière—known as Petite—has just turned 6, and she has just been smitten by a wild horse, named Diablo, which she secretly tames using Black Magic.

Over the next decade, Petite matures, ending up with her family in Paris on the periphery of the Royal court, where, ultimately, she becomes maid-of-honour to Henriette, the Sun King’s sister-in-law, and she falls for the considerable charms of the charismatic Sun King.

One tragedy follows another and the novel ends in February of 1671, Ash Wednesday, when Petite flees. Some might call it a tragic ending, but although it is certainly not a happily-ever-after story, I feel that the ending is victorious.

How did you come upon Louise’s story, and why did you decide to write about her? 

I looked into Louise’s story because a biography of her was popular in Josephine’s time. I wanted to know more about what my own characters were reading, find out what interested them. And was swept away! Mainly I was intrigued by Louise?s horsemanship, which was extraordinary for a woman at that time. She is described as shy, something of a wallflower, and yet an Amazon on horseback. She was religious, yet the official mistress. The pieces of this puzzle didn’t fit: I wanted to know more. And thus begins that long journey ? writing a novel.

Why did you decide to write the epilogue from Louise’s daughter, Marie-Anne’s point of view?

Mistress of the Sun evolved through countless drafts: there have been many endings!

I had initially planned to write an afterword, explaining what happened, and to whom. I felt that the reader would want to know. Marie-Anne was, in fact, present at her mother’s death: something I found very moving. I chose her first person point-of-view because it felt right, and because Marie-Anne was in a position to inform us of what happened to her brother, her grandmother, her uncle, her father’s I gave it a try.

I emailed Marie-Anne’s account of her mother’s death to my editors, and they loved it. Even so, I wasn’t sure if it worked . . . and I didn’t really know until I read the novel through from beginning to end (for the hundredth time). Marie-Anne’s account made me cry: I knew then that it was the right way to end the novel.

How were the covers designed? Were you involved?

A number of people ask me whether or not I was involved in the design of my book covers—especially now, because the covers of the Canadian and the U.S. editions are quite different. One reader wrote: “What kind of role does the author play in choosing their cover art? Are you hands on, or do you go with the work the publishing house chooses?”

I don’t know how it is with other authors, but I had a great deal of correspondence with both my Canadian and U.S. editors about the cover designs. Together we searched for ideas, brain-stormed, corresponded back and forth. I think both editions are handsome ; some readers love one, and some the other.

On the missing scenes: 

A reader writes: “I enjoyed the book very much–you did the near impossible–you brought Louise Vallière to life and made her a comprehensible and touching character to modern eyes. Usually in most histories on Louis XIV, she is presented as crying ninny who goes off to a convent when Louis moves into Versailles, but you actually made her life interesting. My only quibble is that you left out some of the more dramatic stories on Louise–like her riding to the front to see the king without his permission, the queen refusing to feed her, the queen remarking on La Vallière’s earrings, the queen tormenting La Vallière for being pale after her secret birth, Montespan hypocritically taunting La Vallière publicly for being the king’s mistress when she was also involved with him at the exact same time, etc.”

I knew that readers who knew Louise’s story well would note that there are some scenes missing. These are dramatic scenes and I thought of them at length, and wrote them. I wrote the scene of Louise riding to the front, and her humiliation after, several times over, but I could never seem to get it right. Plus, historically, the accounts are somewhat contradictory. My own feeling is that Henriette may have urged Louise on (Voltaire claims that Henriette provided a carriage and horses), and certainly the sister-in-law may have been insistent. It’s also possible that Louis sent for Louise (he needed a cover, after all, for his affair with Athénaïs). As for the horses bolting across the fields in front of the Queen: I can’t understand it. It is so out of Louise’s character.

As for Athénaïs scorning Louise to the Queen—Louise was not present when this happened, and for this novel I’ve held to either Louise’s point-of-view or the point-of-view of someone who was near her. If I write about Athénaïs, these scenes will likely be part of her story.

The painful part of writing historical fiction is that so much must be taken out for the story to work. My cut files are three times the length of the novel!