Your book, The Last Queen, is one of my favorite historical novels. The book is about Juana of Castile, the daughter of Isabella of Spain, who is the subject of your new novel, The Queen's Vow. What was it like to first write about the daughter, then the mother?
It was marvelous to return to the era, which I find so compelling, and to Isabella. The Last Queen covers the last twelve years of Isabella’s life and her death, and so I focused my research and portrayal of her on the accomplished queen of legend, as seen through her daughter Juana’s eyes. In that book, Isabella is the woman we envision when we think of her, and Juana’s relationship with her is fraught with expectations, frustration, and misunderstanding; they do not get along until much later, when they reach a common bond. In writing The Queen’s Vow, I felt like I connected the dots, so to speak; I got to show how Isabella became the queen and mother she was, and to see Juana as a child through her mother’s eyes. Isabella adored her children, despite that outward reticence so innate to her character; you can see her enduring, if at times exasperated, love for Juana in my book and I loved being able to explore that. We must remember that Isabella was unique for her time, in that she reared her children. She kept them with her as a family, like she herself had been raised. Yet just as she experienced turbulence and difficulty in her relationship with her mother, she’s destined to repeat the pattern with Juana.
Were there characteristics of each woman that made you like one more than the other or were they equals in their own right?
I like them equally, for different reasons. I never want my characters to resemble each other unless the historical evidence warrants it. In many ways, Isabella and Juana were antithetical, yet they also share undeniable characteristics. Juana is emotion, impulse; she has the grandiosity of a diva, because it’s what she needs to survive. Isabella, on the other hand, is reason, control; she has her passions, certainly—and they can be as deep as Juana’s— but she is less prone to recklessness. Isabella has learned that caution is what she requires in order to survive. I love Juana’s drama, her fiery defiance, just as I love Isabella’s strength and unyielding determination. These were women who never gave up, never gave in. Returning to the first question, this is why writing both of these books has been so rewarding for me: together, the novels form a portrait of a mother and daughter who, for better and for worse, shaped the history of Spain.
You've written about some strong women from history: Juana of Castile, Catherine de Medici, Elizabeth I, Isabella of Spain. What inspired you to write about these women?
I’m clearly attracted to controversial women. In part, it’s because when I was growing up in Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime, I was taught censored history in regards to women; and in some respects, I’ve discovered that most popular history is, in fact, censored. We tend to pigeonhole historical women with convenient clichés: Juana as the mad victim, Catherine de Medici as the evil witch, Isabella as the devout fanatic. Yet it does them, and us, a great disservice, because these women were complex human beings. None of us are easy to decipher: our very contradictions define us, and that’s what I like about these women. Feminism did not exist in the 16th century; as much as we love movie depictions of sword-wielding heroines, most women of the past had few options. They forged lives against tremendous constraints; status, privilege, and crushing responsibility were often the lot of royal women. Being a princess was hardly a fairy-tale, yet despite this, the women I’ve written about became far more than anyone expected. I admire their fortitude, their courage; even when they lost, they still triumphed.
In a chat I attended, you spoke about travelling to the places where your books are set. Where have you visited and which place is your favorite?
I always travel to the places where my books take place. It’s essential for me to see the cities, the palaces and landscapes that my characters knew, even if much has changed, as it often has. Some of my favorite places are Hampton Court in England, the Alcazar of Seville in Spain, and the Château of Chenonceau in France.
Do you think it's absolutely necessary for a writer to visit the places they write about or is there hope for writers like me who cannot afford foreign travel (grin)?
For me, it’s essential. I have found no substitute for experiencing with my own senses the way a place looks, smells, feels. However, one of the wonders of the internet is that it brings the world to us. With the cost of travel so exorbitant these days, I imagine many writers cannot travel to every foreign place they write about and I’m quite sure you’d never know that by reading their book. With some imagination and good research, you can always recreate what a city looked like, what the weather was like, how people got from one street to another without actually going there yourself. What my partner and I do is combine vacation travel with my research needs; that way, we get to do both.
What would be your number one piece of advice for an aspiring writer of historical fiction?
Write the very best book you can. Or, in other words, master the craft. I learn something new every day when I sit down to write. But these days, with so many seemingly easy options for publication, I feel that some writers rush to get their work into the marketplace without fulfilling the necessary steps to prepare it for their readers. Revision is key. When I first started submitting to agents fourteen years ago I got dozens of rejections that said everything from “historical fiction is dead” to “no one wants to read about an obscure Spanish queen.” I also got some that said: “You need to de-purple your prose.” I paid attention. I took the time in-between submissions to attend writing courses, cut and edit, and do it all again. I was willing to rip the guts out of my books and put them back together again, because I learned that it’s during the revision stage where the magic of storytelling can truly happen. I fear that in this age of instant gratification, we’re losing the patience required to bring our writing to its full potential.
You're second Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles book is coming out in 2013 and you're currently working on your next book about Lucrezia Borgia (thrilling, to say the least!). Any future subjects on the back burner?
Yes, I’m always percolating ideas, but my agent has sworn me to secrecy!
I hope you don't mind me mentioning this, but as we are Facebook friends, I have noticed that you are very passionate about the plight of animals and you're also a cat lover, like me. Can you share a memorable experience or two that you've had with animals?
I recently took in two cats. I walk in a nearby park twice a day with my dog, Paris. About five years ago, we started seeing this wild orange cat streaking past us, under a small bridge we always crossed. I set up a feeding station under the bridge and slowly the cat began to approach to eat. Then, one day, she had kittens. They were fascinated by Paris, whose bluster conceals a deep gentility; she would never hurt another animal. With the help of the local feral cat program, I trapped the kittens; as luck would have it, we also caught the orange mom. Only one of the kittens eluded us— a male. The other kittens were adopted and the mom, whom I named Mommy Cat, was released back in the park, per feral cat rules of trap, spay /neuter, and release, providing someone is willing to feed the colony. I went up twice a day to feed and another lady who cares for other cats in the park agreed to be my back-up when I traveled. Eventually, the male kitten returned; he was a young suspicious cat now and we spent weeks luring him into a trap. We finally got him and after being neutered, he too was released. I named him My Boy; he and Mommy became constant companions. For about three years, I cared for them and worried for their safety. I had several run-ins with irresponsible dog owners who let their dogs chase the cats; a scary confrontation one night with a coyote in the feeding area, and other dangers. In February of this year, My Boy showed up with an injured paw. By now, I could pick him and Mommy up; they’d become very trusting with me. I took him to the vet and was told the paw required stitches. He’d have to be kept indoors or confined for a week until it healed. My partner and I decided to bring him and Mommy into our home, something we’d resisted because we were advised feral cats often cannot adjust to being indoors. It’s been four months now, and they seem happy to be with us. Paris isn’t as content as we’d hoped: she’s territorial with them, but is slowly adjusting. Boy loves to be cuddled. Mommy spends her days under the spare room bed (she hid most of her life in the park, so it’s ingrained in her) but she comes out for belly rubs. At night, we hear them racing around the house. They are safe now.
This last question has two parts and it's what I always ask authors because I love to hear what they're reading. So, what are you currently reading? What recent historical fiction novel would you recommend to my readers?
I’m currently reading a lot of nonfiction about Lucrezia Borgia, the subject of my next novel! In the little spare time I have to read fiction, I recently read Wolf Hall. I thoroughly enjoyed it; the first time I tried it, I simply couldn’t get into it. This second time, it clicked and I was swept up. That sometimes happens to me; a book doesn’t hit the spot and so I set it aside. But I always try again. I also recently read a marvelous novel called The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, set in 1920s Paris, about the artist, Tamara de Lempicka, and her love affair with a model.
Christopher, it has been a pleasure having you here today. Thank you.
Thank you for having me! To find out more about me and my work, please visit www.cwgortner.com
Read my review of The Queen's Vow.
Read my review of The Queen's Vow.
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