Monday, July 28, 2008

Interview with author C.W. Gortner

A warm welcome to C.W. Gortner, author of the fabulous new historical novel The Last Queen (Ballantine, 2008). C.W. graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog; it was great fun corresponding with someone who loves the Renaissance as much as I do. Here is what he had to say about the writing of The Last Queen and historical fiction in general. 

1. What was it about Juana of Castile that inspired you to write about her?

I’ve been fascinated by Juana since childhood. I’m half-Spanish by birth and was raised in Spain; as a child, I visited her tomb in Granada and I remember staring at her effigy, her anguished face turned away from that of her dead husband, and thinking: Was she really mad? What happened to her? Her story intrigued me even then, for she is legendary in Spain. Much later on, when I began seriously contemplating writing a novel about her, I took into account the fact that history is rarely kind to women, particularly women in power. And history has by and large relegated Juana to a side-note. Though she’s the sister of Catherine of Aragon and mother of the Emperor Charles V, as well as her mother Queen Isabella’s legal heir and the last queen of her medieval Spanish bloodline to inherit the throne, she barely excites notice. Yet, she shaped Europe through her children, and her own life was full of drama and passion—she seemed to me a remarkable woman and very contemporary in her struggle to balance life and duty, love and betrayal. I thought, why has no one questioned the official accounts? The implicit silence around the usurpation of her rights, the agreement among historians that she was unbalanced and would never have been able to rule, seemed to hide something. There had to be more to her story than we’d been told; she couldn’t be this stereotype I kept reading about. The compulsion to unravel her mystery inspired me to undertake what turned into years of research and writing.

2. Did you ever consider writing Juana's story from the third person? What made you choose first, and what challenges did this choice pose?

I actually wrote the first draft in third person. It was my agent who told me that while she loved the story and felt I had captured Juana’s world, something in her character was missing. I’d actually felt the same while writing her. I was frustrated but unsure as to how to fix it. Juana wasn’t an easy character to capture; and I’d been so focused on not making judgments about her, in third person my caution had translated into making her seem remote. My agent patiently suggested some changes I could do to make her more accessible; changing to first person never came up, simply because that kind of overhaul is monumental and more often than not can collapse a carefully constructed novel. It was only while I was working on the changes, and by chance reading a historical novel in first person that captivated me, that the idea surfaced. As a reader I’d always preferred third-person narratives, but I saw how deep a first person narrative could delve and I thought, maybe I’ll try it. Just a few chapters. The moment I slipped into first person, it was as if Juana was with me. It’s hard to describe, but there’s this transformation that occurs during writing and a writer can “feel” when a character finally breathes on her own. Allowing Juana to tell her own story released her from the constraints I’d imposed on her as a character. As a result, the novel changed in many ways; the beginning was totally re-written and all the characters had to be reinterpreted. The main challenge was to retain the scope of the original version as seen through Juana’s eyes yet the actual work itself was very instinctual. It ended up being a year of re-writing but she stayed with me the entire time.

3. Juana is a woman of intense passion and often exaggerated action, yet you avoid any trace of melodrama in your narrative. How did you achieve this?

Lots of re-writing?! Actually, I was keenly aware that Juana’s story is so intense at times it lends itself perfectly to the type of lurid melodrama I adore in old films and so I deliberately stopped myself from indulging. There’s a film about her that was made the 1940s in Spain and won lots of awards: it’s deliciously over the top, and while as a child I’d stared mesmerized at the spectral actress playing Juana in her billowing black veil, as a writer I was very cognizant to not let my childhood fascination overcome me. Past depictions of Juana are almost all melodramatic, but her story is a serious one, with terrifying consequences, and melodrama by definition degrades. I wanted to avoid this at all costs.

4. The opening scene of the defeat of the Moorish prince Boabdil in many ways prefigures Juana's fate at the end of the book. Was the Boabdil scene always the opening scene in your mind, or did you arrive at it during a later draft of the story?

It came later. It was one of the scenes I wrote after I switched to first person. In third person, I had a similar scene involving the fall of Granada but Juana’s is a peripheral viewpoint. When I started my massive re-write, the scene developed organically and ended up replacing the first four chapters in the original draft. I’ve had other readers tell me, that scene echoes Juana’s fate. It must be something I constructed on purpose on some level, but it was very subconscious. It wasn’t something I set out to achieve deliberately; though I’m delighted it worked out that way. That’s the fun part of writing: things happen that you never envisioned.

5. [Possible spoiler, but I had to ask] About three-quarters of the way into the book, Juana commits a horrendous act that you admit in your afterword was pure speculation on your part. Narrative considerations aside, did you have any qualms about attributing this grave deed to the dead queen?

Ah, yes. Well, I must admit, I did. I was actually horrified when it first arose and I came to a complete stall in my writing. As I’ve said, sometimes things happen on a subconscious or organic level during writing, particularly when it’s a novel, which can take years to complete, and this was another of those moments when the character took over. It sounds like a split-personality excuse, but I have to say in all honesty, the Juana I created wanted to go there. I tried several other devices and everything fell flat. When I finally just allowed myself to write the scene I’d been avoiding, it flowed out in one burst and has remained virtually untouched by both my agent and my editor—which is saying something! My theory, if it can be called that, isn’t completely without basis: there were rumors at the time and for years afterwards that the event had occurred; only someone else was blamed for it. But yes, strictly speaking, it is speculative on my part (though I like to think she would have been perfectly justifiable, had she done it) and I do hope it doesn’t cause great offense.

6. I was particularly drawn to the character of Soraya, Juana's Moorish handmaiden. Was she an actual person? How did you learn about her?

She’s a fictional composite of two actual persons. Accounts of Juana’s household when she first left Spain for Flanders include ‘two Moorish handmaids’, a euphemism for slaves who had agreed to convert. Most likely, these were young girls caught up in the expulsion of the Moors ordered by Queen Isabella, who were either orphaned or abandoned to fend for themselves. They’re unnamed, but they must have stayed with Juana for years because when she later returned to Spain to fight for her throne, the handmaidens are mentioned again in a dispatch from one of Philip’s henchmen—this time, saying they’d been banished from the queen’s service, to her outrage. Philip used her fury over the loss of these servants he barely considered human as another reason to promulgate her unworthiness. Thus, was Soraya born. Spain has this unique and beautiful combination of the Islamic, Celtic and Christian cultures: Juana embodies these contrasts in her uniquely Iberian character. It might be of interest to you to also know that Soraya didn’t exist as a character in the third-person draft of the book. She came to me through Juana’s first person voice, another of those surprises I mentioned.

7. How do you think Spanish, and indeed European, history would have been different had Juana been allowed to rule?

First and foremost, Spain would not have suffered the degradation it did under the Hapsburg rule of Charles V. As queen, Juana would have sought to maintain the realm’s independence and unity, to uphold the statutes that her parents worked so tirelessly to achieve. She would also in time have inherited her father’s kingdom of Aragón and no doubt have called for her children to join her in Spain, if not year-round, at least for extended periods of time. They would have had a mother present and Juana would probably have been a good one, because she knew first-hand the importance of family. Charles V was raised as a prince but he never knew familial affection as a child and this had profound effects on him. He showed his indifference in the way he raised his own son, Philip II, who also suffered from distance from his family and a severe lack of affection. Charles V had his father Philip the Fair’s education, reared to be a Hapsburg first, and he treated Spain as a vassal state. As a result, he endured violent revolts by the Spanish, one of which had direct implications for Juana. This might not have happened had Juana ruled. Spain would have had a sovereign queen and it truly is fascinating to conjecture if the terrible hostilities between Spain and England, once historically allied countries, would have arose; if the Armada would have sailed; if Juana would have authorized the horrors of the Inquisition that took place under Philip II. I think much would have been different, and Spain might not have reached its brief apex under Philip II only to collapse into bankruptcy at his death. Queens, historically, are less prone to sacrificing their realms to unrealistic ideals.  

8. Which scene in the book was the most difficult to write? Which scene did you enjoy the most?

Hard questions! It’s all difficult and it’s all enjoyable at the same time, for different reasons, but if I had to pick the most difficult scene, I’d say it’s the one where Philip assaults Juana. There’s a terrible finality to that moment: she realizes she is trapped in a disintegrating marriage she can’t escape and that everything she has believed in is a lie. It was quite painful to experience that with her. As for my favorite scene, it’s the one where she makes peace with her mother. I love the tenderness of that scene, the realization that they’ve been at odds for years because they are so alike. It is a defining moment for Juana as well: she emerges from that room as the woman she will be for the rest of her life.

9. I would think American readers, on the whole, are less knowledgeable about Spanish history than British, or even French. How did this affect your presentation of history in the novel?

Quite a bit. I had to be meticulous in giving the reader the information they would need to understand and navigate the past, without making it pedantic or overwhelming. I also had to link the more familiar aspects of history for American readers (i.e., the Tudors) to Spain. Fortunately, Juana was a well-traveled princess for her day and her own life facilitated this.

10. If you could have included one hundred more pages in your novel, what would you have added or expanded?

Oddly enough, not much more than I have now. The book captures everything I wanted to convey about Juana. If I had to add something, I might have started the story earlier, when she’s younger. But then, I’d have lost the impact of that first chapter. I know many writers bemoan the enforced reduction of pages we often endure, and I’m going through some challenges now with my next novel, in terms of length, but with THE LAST QUEEN it just wasn’t an issue.

11. Why do you write historical fiction? What principles guide you as you write?

I’m often asked this question, and while I have the usual answers (I loved reading it as a child; I want to immerse myself in the past to make sense of the present; etc), all of which are valid, the more I think about my reasons for writing historical fiction the less clear they become. Put simply, history compels me. It’s almost as though I seek to return to a place I once knew and re-experience it on a sensory level. I once had a psychic reading (it was the 80s!) and the woman told me I was an old soul who’d taken on earthly form only a few times. She didn’t know anything about me but she mentioned seeing a past life in ancient Egypt and two different lives in the Renaissance. Eerie, because these are by far the eras I’m most attracted to. Of course, she might have been assessing my decidedly gothic way of dressing at the time and drawn reasonable conclusions. A man who wears a cape in broad daylight would probably like the Renaissance, right? Still, it does feel as though I’ve been there before and my obsession with historical fiction is an emotional coping mechanism, since I don’t own a time machine. I’m rarely as content as I am when I’m writing. The book itself may present a thousand challenges and drive me nuts but the scents, the tastes, the textures and hues of history . . . they’re manna from heaven to me.

As for my principles, I strive for historical accuracy. I research to the best of my abilities; I make it a point of actually traveling to the places I’m going to write about (a picture on the web just cannot replace the feel of those stones under your hands); and I take great pains to draw up psychological and emotional profiles for my characters that are true to the recorded circumstances of their lives. That said, I look for secret stories, the ones that hide within official accounts, and I am a novelist first and foremost, whose primary principle is to take the reader on an emotional journey into the past. While I do my utmost to present as realistic a depiction of that past as I can, it is still a fictional interpretation, as we can never know completely what it actually felt like to live in that world. Being twenty-first people defines us just as being 16th century people defined them; all we can manage are close approximations. Perhaps we write historical fiction and read it to kindle a connection that would otherwise be lost forever.

12. What advice do you have for unpublished writers of historical fiction?

Be persistent; be true; be brave. Writing is a tough pursuit: while we experience the euphoria of creation, the act of publication can be anything but. Historical fiction presents unique challenges in that it ebbs and flows according to consumer demand—today it’s hot, tomorrow it’s not – and it suffers to some degree from literary snobbery, in that it’s viewed by some as a “genre” and thus devoid of true lasting merit. This perception is changing (and it’s blatantly wrong, as historical fiction is one of writing’s oldest traditions) but the change is fueled by commercial success and it’s still difficult for the average debut historical writer to get noticed in today’s fiercely competitive marketplace unless he or she hits that coveted bestseller list. Also, the success of one author can dictate to some extent the way others’ books are perceived. You must stay true to your voice, because if you try to imitate the most recent historical bestseller chances are you’ll betray yourself and fail at it. While editors may declare, “We want more books like so-and-so’s”, the truth is what they want is that more books will appeal to so-and-so’s target audience and sell as well. Publishing, like any other business, is driven by profit. The trick is to appeal to the current audience for historical fiction without sacrificing that unique story you want to present.

Thank you so much for taking this time with me. I wish everyone the best of success with their endeavors and hope you enjoy reading THE LAST QUEEN as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please visit me at to learn more about my work, Juana and her world, and special offers and contests for readers.

And thank you, C.W., for this fascinating look at the genesis of The Last Queen. I wish you all the best, and can't wait to read your next novel, about a figure near and dear to my heart--Catherine de Medici.

Readers, if you have any questions for C.W., post them in the comments. I'm sure C.W. will be happy to stop by to answer them.


elena maria vidal said...

What an excellent and fascinating interview, Julianne! I will definitely be linking to this soon!

Julianne Douglas said...

Thank you, Elena! I agree--reading Gortner's answers was as interesting as reading his novel. I can't wait to see what he does with Catherine de Medici.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading the interveiw! Having the interveiwer be a writer also made it so insightful!! For those of us who are simply "readers" not writers, finding out more about the process (blood sweat and tears!) that go into the creation of what we hold dear and enjoy soooo much, makes us appreciate those incredible reads even more... and their authors!!!!! Thanks to both of you for sharing :) Renee

Julianne Douglas said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Renee. It was fun thinking up the questions. C.W. did all the hard work answering. :)

cindy said...

what a fantastic interview. thank you to mr. gornter and to julianne! i'll be adding this book to my wishlist. =D

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, Cindy! You won't be disappointed.

C.W. Gortner said...

Thank you all for stopping by! I'm so pleased you liked the interview and hope you'll enjoy the book!