Interview: Mandy Hager talks about her new novel, Heloise

Laid to rest in Paris’s famous Pere Lachaise cemetery, Benedictine nun Heloise d’Argenteuil and her lover and husband, the theologian and philosopher. Peter Abelard, became legendary. Theirs is one of the great love stories of all time. Centuries later, their tragic enforced separation and Abelard’s castration in particular, continue to be remembered and fire imaginations the world over.

But what was their real story? Mandy Hager, best known for her award-winning, young-adult novels, wanted to look behind the legend. In her new, vivid and evocatively written novel for adults, Hager brings to life Heloise’s haunting, compelling and surprisingly modern story, just as Hilary Mantel did with Thomas Cromwell in her recent award-winning books. Mandy Hager talks to NZ Booklovers about Heloise.

Tell us a little about Heloise.

The book follows the life of Heloise d’Argenteuil, famed lover of 12th century French philosopher Peter Abelard. A determined young woman with an exceptional mind, longing to pursue learning rather than marriage or life as a cloistered nun, her path inevitably crosses with Peter Abelard, the celebrity philosopher, theologian and master at Paris’ famed Cathedral School. When two such brilliant minds meet and engage, sparks are likely to ignite. But theirs is an impossible love. This is the time when the Gregorian Reforms are starting to bite and celibacy among the clergy and church officials is being rigorously imposed. It shines a light on a changing world whose attitudes and politics are not so very different from our own.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was studying the letters of Irish writer and medievalist Helen Waddell, who wrote a novel about Peter Abelard in the 1930s. In one, she tells a moving story of her time researching the book in Paris, when she fell ill and spent three days in a Paris hospital hallucinating that she was Heloise. The power with which she talked about Heloise’s feelings (as if her own) so moved me I was hooked! I had to find out more and try to answer the many questions roaring in my head.

What research was involved?

A huge amount! Biographies and writing of both Abelard and Heloise, historical accounts of the times in which they lived, analysis of their writing, the classical texts they both read and quoted, medieval and classical philosophy (including Abelard’s works), French history, medieval practices and thought, a trip around France visiting sites relevant to the story and to walk through examples of 12th century architecture, medieval theology, the latest journal articles on the subject, various theses on them, feminist (and other) analysis of their letter exchanges, fleshing out the other historical characters around them, medieval monastic rules and life, the church and state politics at the time. All in all, I spent 18 months solidly researching and then organising the material by creating timelines, quick reference guides and scene sheets before I started writing.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Up early to check up on the world via Twitter, and then a 40 minute walk while listening to associated material on audio books, before writing from 9am – 4pm, then editing for an hour or so in the evening.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

‘She’ by Charles Aznavour, Gregorian chants/plainsong, and some of Abelard’s own compositions.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

French actors Anaïs Demoustier for the younger Heloise and Isabelle Huppert for her later years; Vincent Macaigne or Daniel Day Lewis for Abelard.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this novel?

How much it extended my knowledge in so many areas.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Went to bed for a week!

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty. Fresh, audacious and hugely relevant and political

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m starting to write a sequel to my YA politcal thriller ‘The Nature of Ash’.

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Karen McKenzie Karen McKenzie is a Director of NZ Booklovers. She has worked in book publishing for the past 17 years, as a publicist and also selling international rights. Karen is passionate about book publishing and enjoys working with authors to help them realise their dreams. She is also a published author of twelve books under the name ‘Karen McMillan’. More info at

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