top of page
  • JillianForsberg

Molly Greeley Author Q&A: Behind the Scenes of MARVELOUS

When I saw the cover of Molly Greeley’s latest novel, MARVELOUS, I immediately added it to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list without even knowing the premise!

Turns out, the premise is (wait for it) better than the cover. And the cover is spectacular.

I’ve long been fascinated with “oddities.” My own novel THE RHINO KEEPER is about an animal oddity. The people shown as sideshow novelties in vintage circuses captivate me, but I didn’t know that the practice of showing unusual humans as entertainment is centuries old.

MARVELOUS focuses on the obscure and strange life of Petrus Gonsalvus, a man who lived in the royal courts of France essentially on display because of his genetic condition, hypertrichosis. His sparingly documented life is rumored to be the origin story of Beauty and the Beast. Molly’s novel MARVELOUS paints the picture of his unique life, and beautifully tells a love story that will live long in my mind.

MARVELOUS is about Petrus Gonsalvus, born with hypertrichosis, a rare genetic condition.

I had the fabulous luck of Molly saying “Yes!” To a Q&A. I hope you enjoy, and I hope you read MARVELOUS.

How did you first hear the story of Petrus and his family, and what made you decide to novelize it?

I stumbled upon the story of the Gonsalvus family entirely by accident; I was at a coffee shop, deep in the middle of copy edits for The Heiress, my second novel, and wanted to double-check whether a fairy tale I’d mentioned would have been well-known during the time period I was writing in. By pure serendipity, one of the search results was a sort of click bait-y article with a title that said something like, “Want to know the true story behind Beauty and the Beast?” Having been a total Beauty and the Beast geek since even before the Disney movie came out (I was obsessed with the animated version narrated by James Earl Jones when I was in kindergarten!), of course I clicked… and lost myself in a rabbit hole for more than an hour. When I emerged, I remember turning to the friend who was working at the coffee shop with me and saying, “I think I just found the subject of my next book!”

What was your research process like for this book, and how long did it take you to write?

I researched for quite a long time before I actually began writing. I’d taken a class in Reformation history in college, so I had a little background in what happened in France during the turbulent time Pedro and his family lived there, but not nearly enough grounding to feel like I could write about it from the perspective of people living through it. So I began by reading as much as I could about the politics and court life of the time period and region. Then I read everything I could find about the “human marvels” like Petrus and his children who were kept at royal courts throughout Europe (Touba Ghadessi, a professor of history at Wheaton College, has written some wonderful papers and a book about these people with physical differences and the way they were viewed in the Renaissance. She was also kind enough to respond to my emails when I had additional questions!)

I also read as much as I could about the Gonsalvus family itself. Some of this included digital records kept by the French government and accessible online, which detailed the amounts of money set aside for the family at various times and for various purposes by the French court. Merry Wiesner-Hanks wrote a fascinating book about Pedro’s daughters called The Marvelous Hairy Girls, which was invaluable (and she, too, was generous and helpful when I emailed her with questions!) And there is one biography of Pedro, written in Italian, which I read and transcribed with the help of Google Translate.

Your cover is stunning. Tell us what you think of it.

I adore the cover of Marvelous! I felt so spoiled this time around—my publisher, William Morrow, sent over not one but two gorgeous cover options, both of which were so lovely I had trouble choosing. They were also great about tweaking the cover I ended up choosing, taking the fabulous font from the second cover option and using it on the one I chose instead.

Petrus has several names throughout the book and throughout history. How did you decide to call him Pedro, Petrus, etc.?

Whew, this was honestly something I struggled with. I have always privately thought of him as “Pedro,” but he was referred to as “Petrus” in most sources I found from France, and was even known as “Don Pietro” when he lived in Italy. I decided to have his wife, Catherine, refer to him as Petrus throughout, as that is likely what he would have been called at court when she first met and married him. But near the end of the book, I chose to have Pedro himself wrestle with the question of what name he preferred—which really meant wrestling with his own identity, because each of those names was associated with a specific way he was viewed by others. My character decides that Pedro is the name he prefers; whether the real Pedro Gonzales/Petrus Gonsalvus would have chosen that, however, is a mystery. One interesting thing claimed by Pedro’s biographer is that his son Henri hated that when the family moved from France to Italy the Farnese, under whose protection they lived, called him “Enrico.”

Rare histories like this often tell us more about society as a whole during a certain time period. How do you feel Petrus’s story is related to society in the 16th-17th centuries?

One thing that struck me about the story of both Petrus and his wife Catherine is how commodified they both were. Royalty throughout Renaissance Europe were happy to feed, clothe, and house people with physical differences like Petrus and his children in order to have those people adorning their courts; they were displayed in much the same way that gold and jewels were displayed, as a show of the owners’ importance, wealth, and power. Catherine—like other women of her time—was also a commodity in her own way; Queen Caterina de’ Medici herself paid Catherine’s dowry when she married Petrus. Women’s worth was tied to their youth, their beauty, and their ability to bear children, just as Petrus’s was tied to his hairiness.

What was the hardest part of your writing or research process for this work?

Honestly, I think the hardest part of writing this book was the time and circumstances in which it was written. I started writing just as Covid lockdowns hit, meaning my three kids—then aged 8, 4, and 2—were home all day. For the last few school months of 2020 my older two were in virtual school; in the fall of 2020 my husband and I made the decision to homeschool because virtual school had not been right for our kids. So most of Marvelous was written in the afternoons during my youngest kid’s naps and while the older two played or did schoolwork that didn’t require my help.

One of Petrus’s children

 In the book, you describe some primary sources: a doctor who examined Petrus and Catherine’s children, and art. Obviously those are wildly important to your research. Talk about the value of those primary sources.

Primary sources, like the doctor who examined the children, were so valuable. For obscure history like this, so much of what we “know” is pure rumor that anything that comes from someone who directly interacted with the book’s subjects is like gold. In the case of the doctor, I was able to read his notes about the children’s appearance, which informed the way I described them in my book; although we do have portraits of Petrus and some of his children, some of them may not have been painted from life, and the other descriptions we have of their appearance sometimes vary wildly.

A quick Wikipedia search tells me that Petrus’s wife wasn’t well documented. What did that mean for your writing and characterization?

In a way, Catherine’s obscurity was a gift to me as a writer because it meant that I felt freer to play around with her history and, particularly, with her feelings about her marriage. Sometimes writing about real people can feel like balancing on tightrope; stick too closely to the facts and the novel runs the risk of being dry, veer too far from them and the history buffs among your readers start readying their metaphorical pitchforks! So knowing only a handful of facts about Catherine was really the perfect sweet spot.

Petrus and his wife Catherine

Without giving away any spoilers, it’s known to history that the end of the family’s lives weren’t exactly clear. How did you feel tying loose ends when history doesn’t tell you exactly what happened?

Aside from one of the children, we do know what happened to Petrus, Catherine, and most of their family. With that particular child, I had a hard time giving readers a concrete answer to what happened to her; but that was more for personal reasons than because I felt bound to leave the gaps in our historical knowledge unfilled. I did feel more tightly bound by what we know for sure happened to them, which is a little ironic because in general, as a reader of historical fiction, I tend to fall on the side of not minding when authors fill in those gaps or use their imaginations to write and answer “what if?” questions about historical figures and events, particularly when those authors are honest in their notes at the end of the book about which parts were known to be true and which were fabricated for the sake of the story.

Lastly, what are you working on next?

I am currently working on another novel about a real-life person, this one better known than Petrus Gonsalvus. And I will say, regarding the question above—I’m playing more with history than I allowed myself to in Marvelous, and so far it’s been great fun!

For more about Molly, see her website. And do tell me what you think about her novel MARVELOUS!

15 views0 comments


bottom of page