Three Queens and a Knave: Interview with C.W. Gortner

By Sarah Bower

C. W. Gortner is one of the most successful writers of popular historical fiction to emerge in recent years. His novels about some of the more controversial women of the Renaissance, including Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Juana ‘La Loca’ of Spain, Isabella of Castile, and, coming soon, Lucrezia Borgia, are immensely gripping and entertaining, but they also explore a more serious agenda about the perceptions of powerful women in a patriarchal society. He also writes the Spymaster Chronicles, a series of adventure novels set during the reign of Elizabeth I, the second of which he is currently at work on.

As if working on two books at a time wasn’t enough for him, Gortner is also an energetic and well-informed blogger on the subject of historical fiction at http://historicalboys.blogspot.com/, and is currently also involved in the production of an anthology of fairy tales with a twist in support of Asociación Baas Galgo, a Spanish charity for the care of retired greyhounds.

I was therefore very grateful to him for finding time to talk to me for Solander.

SB: Can we start with some background to your life as a writer? How long have you been writing professionally? Is it something you’ve always done, or did you, at some point, make the decision to become a writer?

CWG: My work was first acquired by a major house in 2007. I’ve been writing for most of my life, however. I never thought about publishing when I started, nor did I consider being a writer a professional choice I could make. Writing was what I did for myself; it was a compulsion. In my mid-twenties, I decided to try my hand at an historical novel. Again, I had no thought of publishing it, but my father asked to read my manuscript and so I gave it to him. When he suggested I find a publisher for it, I was flummoxed. How did one go about doing that? As I’d often done throughout my life, I took to the challenge. I hadn’t studied writing at that point—I enrolled in an MFA program several years later—but I read everything I could about the business and queried agents. That was the beginning of a 13-year journey, during which I had different agents and amassed over a hundred rejections. I also wrote three more novels and ended up self-publishing one, until I connected with my current agent, who sold THE LAST QUEEN and THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI at auction. She also sold my self-published novel, now titled THE TUDOR SECRET, in a 3-book deal, coincidentally to the same editor who, years before, had read and loved my first novel, but could not make an offer. The interesting thing I’ve learned is that becoming an ‘author’ is how we as writers lose our virginity. The acceptance by the industry justifies the years of rejection, but we’re never as innocent again. I’ve only recently allowed myself to decide that writing is what I want to do with the rest of my life because I realize that for the past few years, even as I’ve grown more successful, I have feared turning something I love to do into something I must depend on.

SB: You have, as it were, two strings to your bow – your series of novels about Renaissance women (Juana La Loca and Catherine de’ Medici; Isabella the Catholic and Lucrezia Borgia to come) and the Spymaster series of Tudor mysteries. How do you reconcile these two different styles of writing, and how do you find time to do both?

CWG: Finding time is often a challenge. It’s so easy to be distracted, by life, by the internet, by anything but that blank page. I do keep disciplined and write every day, even if it’s just a paragraph. My goal is to pound the first draft out. It doesn’t matter how bad it is. I find it’s often easier to refine an awful draft than nothing at all. As for the differing styles, with my stand-alone novels, each Renaissance woman I choose brings her unique sensibility to the story and I spend a considerable amount of time exploring her psychology and emotions, as well as the historical facts. I want each woman to “sound” like herself and be grounded in what is known about her. For me, the trick is to get my own self out of the way; this is not about how I feel or see the world. It’s about how this woman does.

My Spymaster series, on the other hand, is narrated by a fictional man with a deadly secret. He is entirely my creation. His particular arena is also more action-based and adventurous, and he has his unique voice. What’s challenging about him is to let him evolve naturally, without too much guidance. Because I can control fictional characters so completely—unlike my historical ladies who have already carved their path for me to follow—it’s very tempting to make my spy perfect. But I want him to have flaws, to stumble and fail on occasion. While I also research obsessively for my Tudor series, imagination plays a larger role. The fictional has to be as riveting as the factual, sometimes more so. I do like the way my career is going at the moment: I write a Renaissance lady one year and follow up the next year with a Spymaster. That way, they don’t bleed into each other and I get a few months of dedicated research time, a sort of literary sorbet between books to cleanse my palate.

SB: I’m interested to know what drew you to your chosen period.

CWG: I honestly don’t know. Since I was a child, I’ve always been intensely attracted to the period between the mid-1400s to the 1600s. When the BBC ran its Elizabeth R series on television, I sat there captivated— and I was only seven years old. I doubt I understood much of what was going on but I can still remember how strong an impression Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth made on me. There are other eras I love as well, such as ancient Egypt, but this particular period, roughly covering the Renaissance, is my magnet. I return to it again and again; if I believed in reincarnation, I’d think I lived then. The sheer explosion of art, music, and literature from this era is astonishing. Some of our most gifted and unsurpassed artists lived during the Renaissance; and the personalities surrounding them—the larger-than-life egos, the drama and tumult—entrance me. Everywhere I look, I find interesting stories, intriguing events, and, of course, extraordinary women. The Renaissance is filled with extraordinary women.

SB: You are known as a writer with a deep and sympathetic interest in Renaissance women. What draws you to the particular women you’ve chosen to write about? How do you – an American man – set about empathising with these women?

CWG: I’m attracted invariably to dark horses in history, people with controversial legends. It’s not just women; there are several men I find fascinating, as well. But of the women I have written, controversy is their initial attraction. Juana of Castile is known as la Loca, or the Mad—now, how’s that for a sobriquet? And of course my first question is: Why? Why did they call her that? What did she do? What happened to her? Same with Catherine de Medici: she’s the reptilian queen-mother, orchestrator of massacres and all kinds of sordid goings-on. She’s even called a monster. Why? People are not born monsters. Something happens to them, or several somethings, that change them. I’m fascinated by it; I love searching for those elusive secrets in the crevices of history.

As to how I empathise with them, it’s probably a combination of elements. I was raised in Spain and most of my childhood was spent among strong women—my mother, grandmother, aunts—so I absorbed their language, the ways they communicated. More broadly, our emotions are not bound by our gender: how we communicate our emotions is. Remove the societal constrictions on what men and women can do, or more importantly, what they should not do, and it’s simpler than we imagine. I realize this isn’t as straight-forward as it sounds; empathy is one of the most challenging emotions in the human repertoire because it requires us to step outside our own selves and literally “feel” someone else’s experience. Actors train for years to develop their empathic selves, so they can fully inhabit characters, even those whose very psychology is alien to them. As writers, we must do the same. In discovering why our chosen characters behave as they do, we get inside their skin and view them through their eyes. If done right, you can become either gender, even another species. Otherwise, we simply filter characters through our own circumscribed view and they end up sounding like us.

SB: What do you think an American writer brings to recounting European history?

CWG: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not strictly American. I’m half-European through my mother, who was born in Madrid, and I was raised in Spain. However, I think an American writer can bring a fresh perspective to European history because he or she is unburdened by the weight of tradition. For example, many English writers I read for research portrayed a decidedly malign portrait of Catherine de Medici. The reason is simple: She was a Catholic queen in the Elizabethan era and during her sons’ reigns, Protestants were persecuted. Catherine was cast in the role of evil queen-mother because of her actions, but it was a role defined by a decidedly Anglo-Saxon view of politics and religion that did not take into account the formidable obstacles she faced. In America, writers appear to be less encumbered by this, in so far as Europe’s history is concerned; they can interpret the history through a slightly different prism.

SB: There are an enormous number of technical changes taking place in book production, particularly the rapid rise in popularity of e-readers. What are your views on this?

CWG: I’m torn. I love books not only for their content but for their physicality; reading for me is sensory. I relish different trim sizes and papers, raised lettering on a cover, varnish, gilding, etc. I own hundreds of books because I find them beautiful. For me, the e-reader turns every book into the same thing. That said, content is most important, of course, and how we read is less important than that we continue to read. And e-readers have opened up a new market for writers as well as readers. I do worry that in the new paradigm of independent publishing we are forgetting the vital importance of editorial input. I have done both—commercially and self-published—and I know from experience the difference that a seasoned professional editor who knows the business of books can make. People who work in publishing and in book-selling do it because they love books; I have yet to meet a single person in the industry who went into it because of the money. While I applaud writers taking control of their work and welcome any new avenues that allow us, as a society, to read more, I would be deeply saddened by the disappearance of print books and publishers, not to mention book stores. An only-online world is not one I’d want to live in.

SB: Another strong trend among fiction readers is the development of book clubs and the way in which publishers target them with, for example, reading notes and suggested discussion points included in books. Do you see this as entirely positive or are there any dangers in this kind of targeting?

CWG: I think it’s a clever marketing technique. Book clubs have become an influential phenomenon that can propel a book to extraordinary success. I have all those materials in my paperback editions and have found book clubs like them and often use them, but not exclusively. I don’t particularly see any dangers in this type of targeting, other than that certain books that don’t fit the simplified criteria are being left out. Then again, not every book is ideal for book club discussion, nor would I want it to be.

SB: A lot of writers have ‘soundtracks’ for their novels, music that inspires their writing, reminds them of certain characters or scenes etc. Is that the case for you and, if so, can you give examples?

CWG: I can’t listen to music while I write. I have tried but I find that any sound other than that of the characters talking in my head is too distracting. When I am researching a novel, part of my research includes listening to music from the era. For THE LAST QUEEN, I listened to months of Spanish court music in my car driving to and from work. My friends used to tell me my car sounded like a funeral procession! Music does help me open up the sensory realm so I can better re-create the past. I have thought whom I’d like to score a film version of one of my books and, if I had a choice, it would be Lisa Gerrard. The music she has made as a solo-artist, in her film soundtracks, and as part of Dead Can Dance is awe-inspiring, and she draws on many ancient motifs.

SB: If you could only possess one book, what would it be?

CWG: How to Survive an Apocalypse, because if all I could possess was one book, then my world has definitely come to an end!

SB: Having written a novel about the Borgias myself, I have to ask, what is your view of Lucrezia, and of the HBO The Borgias TV series, which is airing in the UK at the moment?

CWG: I’m reserving judgment, as thus far I’ve only seen the first season. Lucrezia isn’t much of character so far— oh, wait. Doesn’t she sleep with the hot stable-boy? Yes, well. What I can say is that I like the look of the series and I’ve never held television or film to the same expectations as I do books. For me, series like The Borgias and The Tudors are about entertainment, nothing more. I’d rather poke fun at them than take them to task for all their inaccuracies. I understand the hurdles such series have to leap in the nefarious world of Hollywood to make it to the screen and, honestly, if the whole ‘I’m-too-sexy-for-my-doublet’ bit gets viewers interested in actually picking up a book about the period and learning more, I’m all for it. I have had passionate debates with other writers about this very issue and I do realize the flip side of it— that in distorting history, we set a dangerous precedent. But frankly, I’m more appalled by how little most people know of history at all. When the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII first aired in the ’70s, it opened up a floodgate of interest in the Tudors and history in general. Granted, it was far more accurate than the gauze and nipples we get these days, but I still hope the popularity of historical series—may there be many more!—will teach audiences that the past is not a staid object in a museum. It is all around us: it lives and breathes and seduces.

C. W. Gortner’s novels The Last Queen, The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici and The Tudor Secret are published in the US by Ballantyne and in the UK by Hodder and Stoughton. He is also widely published in mainland Europe. The Queen’s Vow, his novel about Isabella of Castile, will be published in the US and the UK in 2012. For more information, please visit www.cwgortner.com.

Sarah Bower’s Sins of the House of Borgia was published in the US by Sourcebooks earlier this year and has been sold to many other countries worldwide. Sourcebooks will publish The Needle in the Blood in March 2012.

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Published in Solander: The Magazine of the Historical Novel Society, v.15 no.2 (Nov. 2011)

Posted by Richard Lee

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