I'm always sorry to finish a book, to let go of characters I love, people I've struggled to understand for years, people who evolve before me. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I've never had the sense I was "making up" a character. It feels more like watching people reveal themselves, ever more deeply, more intimately. When a central character in The Binding Chair
committed suicide, I moped for days, maybe even weeks. I cast my eye back over her past, reviewed the life she'd lived — the one I'd written — the trials she'd endured, and what hints she'd given me as to the state of her soul. She'd always been willful and impulsive. Though her life took her far from the childhood she endured, she'd remained captive to the torments of her early years.
After she died, I said to myself what people always say at such times: that I should have seen it coming, that I wished I'd done something, that hers was an unbearably tragic end, that I was sorry I wouldn't ever again look at the world through her eyes. It was strange enough that I hadn't seen where the story was going, that suicide was the inevitable end of the life I'd invented, the one she showed me; more surprising was my grieving over a woman who "didn't exist." The experience suggested that separating from Joan would prove that much harder.
I redrafted the final chapter of Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured almost 30 times — and, as my editor would attest, those I inflicted on him were mostly awful. Looking back, I can't believe I submitted them. I know now what I didn't understand at the time: I was stalling, failing and failing again to get it right, avoiding taking leave of a heroine like no other I could find or invent, the loss of whom left me bereft. By then I'd spent years in Joan's company. She claimed the majority of my attention; her life consumed mine. Our younger daughter developed a grudge against her, as, day after day, she found me already at my desk when she got up for school, still there when she returned, and likely to substitute takeout for a home-cooked meal. All three children sat at the dinner table and commented on tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, acts of war, or the movie that won Best Picture, and when I asked what any of these were, they rolled their eyes and said, "Really? You had no idea? How is that even possible?" Their father could have told them what he tells me, that I am out of step with my own culture, and that I do in fact have no idea what's going on in the world in which I nominally live.
For years the place I really lived — the world I watched, the one I thought and wrote about — was 15th-century France. I might have been more concerned with what the Taliban was up to were I not attending the coronation of Charles VII, his kingdom having been restored to him by a teenage girl who had the audacity to put on a man's armor, take up his sword, find her way to the king, and demand that he do as God asked: give an illiterate peasant from the hinterland his royal armies to lead. I joined the throngs of French citizens who fell in line behind the Maid of Orleans, knowing they were risking their lives for a chance to follow God's anointed into a holy war. I attended a witch trial, and watched an innocent girl burn alive for the crimes of wearing men's clothes and claiming her own relationship to God — unmediated by the Church patriarchy. Even though all my family knew I was writing a biography of Joan, that it was my job to study her life, they were surprised by the excitement occasioned by my coming upon yet another book or film about Joan. To them it looked liked jumping up and down in delight upon receiving extra homework. How unfailingly interesting could her story be?
Completely. Mark Twain called Joan's "the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only One." Before her short life was over, Joan of Arc had become one of history's few grand souls whose life stories would forever teeter between fact and fiction. Chosen by the God who sent his angels to her and mythologized by throngs thousands strong, Joan lived with her feet on mortal ground and her head in a realm invisible to those around her.
For 600 years biographers, artists, and physicians have puzzled over Joan's visions, many explaining them as a symptom of madness. But madness is chaos, madness is volatile, madness can't be controlled let alone harnessed to a political agenda that concerned all of Western Europe. If the diagnosis of madness cannot exonerate a Hitler, neither can it be credited for Joan's messianic rise. Each had great charisma; each believed wholly in his or her mission; each possessed an unwavering vision that engaged ever more multitudes. Months before her validation by the court and taking command of the royal army, Joan had already transformed her people's inert despair into a hope that would carry them onward to victories she attributed to God. No matter how they explained the nature of Joan's visitations, not even her enemies imagined she'd lied — made her angels up. On the contrary — she accorded them a reality she didn't find in mortals. And she had superhuman gifts: clairvoyance, unnatural energy and tolerance for pain. Witnesses swore she changed the direction of the wind at will, and raised an infant from the dead. The Western world's first superstar, the name on everyone's lips, the focus of all eyes and ears — she was a popular heroine whose cult grew with an exponential energy that forced her canonization. The Church that burned Joan for a witch couldn't dismiss or destroy the love people bore for her. Five hundred years after being executed for being a witch and relapsed heretic, Joan was canonized.
Because there is so rich a tradition of literature about Joan — not only biographies but ballads, novels, plays, paintings, and epic poems — I had an extraordinary vantage from which to consider what it is that I do as a writer: tell stories. I had six centuries worth of retellings of the same life. While Joan's may change from one era to the next, one biographer to another, it has two extraordinary features: hard documentation in the form of Church trial records and countless letters and bulletins from all over Europe, as well as the ancient symbols and familiar plot developments essential to the rise of a messianic heroine who answered her country's plea for salvation. As Joan herself knew and reminded her fellow citizens, the future of France, crushed under the occupying English for 75 of the Hundred Years' War by the time she set off on her mission, rested in the hands of "a virgin from the marshes of Lorraine," a national prophesy grounded in Joan's birthplace.
I'll never have so compelling a figure within my embrace as Joan of Arc; there will never be a book whose last chapter is so very hard to get right. I wanted to remain among Joan's comrades, one of whom testified at the trial that nullified the judgments brought against her, "I had great trust in what the Maid said, and I was on fire with what she said, and with a love for her which was, as I believe, a divine love." My copy of the transcript of the trial of Joan of Arc will always be, as it has for more than 30 years now, within arms' reach, close enough to my desk that I don't have to stand to take it off the shelf so I can listen once again to the voice of a girl with the integrity to die for what she believed and the audacity to warn her Inquisitors to "Take care what you are doing, for in truth I have been sent by God and you put yourself in great danger."