Thursday, October 30, 2014

Interview with C.W. Gortner, author of THE TUDOR VENDETTA

Yesterday I reviewed C.W. Gortner's newest novel, THE TUDOR VENDETTA. Today, C.W. answers some questions about the novel and his other works.

Welcome, Christopher! Congratulations on penning this most satisfying ending to your three-book Spymaster Chronicles series. It is quite evident from your writing that you felt a strong affinity for these characters. Which one of them will you miss most and why?

I’ll miss them all. I’ve lived with them for years, and as with any character that a writer creates, be it historically-based or fictional, you end up spending a lot of time with them. You get to know them intimately and they become your friends, even the ones who do rather terrible things. I also loved this series for the freedom it gave me, to search the crevices of history and develop suspenseful stories around certain events. But perhaps mostly, I’ll miss Brendan and Elizabeth. I think he has matured over the course of three books and come into his own. He’s been a wonderful, challenging character to inhabit. And Elizabeth, too, constantly surprised me as a character; she transformed, showing unexpected sides of herself. She did what she had to, to get ahead. I think she must have been quite something to know personally, and I’m honored to have had the chance to write about her.

Is there any historical evidence that someone of Brendan’s lineage might have actually existed?

There is, of course, evidence of royal bastards; Henry VIII sired at least one that we know of. But there is no evidence of someone with Brendan’s particular lineage. That was the fun part—to come up with a plausible origin for him and then explore how a man hidden from the world, unaware at first of who he is, must cope with his secret when he’s thrust into the thick of court and attempts to protect himself and those around him. I think that despite all the evidence we have of people who lived hundreds of years ago, there is still a lot we shall never know. Everyone has secrets; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tudor royalty had secrets, too. This was a time of intense scrutiny and little privacy, but also a time of no paparazzi (though foreign ambassadors came close) and no cell phones or photos. People in the public eye could still hide things they didn’t want others to see, if they knew how to go about it.

In your opinion, were Elizabeth and Robert Dudley ever actually lovers? Do you think Elizabeth would give a man such power over her? 

I don’t personally believe Elizabeth fully consummated a sexual relationship with Dudley. I believe they were indeed lovers in almost every way that matters, certainly on an emotional basis, and to an extent, physically, as well. But I also think we romanticize them to fit our own needs; we want to believe Elizabeth found fulfillment as a woman and Dudley was her pining suitor. The truth, however, is more complex—and to me, more interesting. We must take into account the realities of sexuality in the Tudor era. Birth control was imperfect at best, and Elizabeth was no fool. Once she gained the throne, she did everything in her power to minimize risks to her position: her aversion to war, to the execution of her own cousin Mary of Scots, who posed a significant threat, among others, attest to her legendary caution. In addition, her adolescent exploits resulted in a scandal that put both her and her servants at risk, and ended with the beheading of a man who, by all accounts, she loved. And because of her mother Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth must have learned early in life to equate sexual surrender with danger and death. I think her adolescent imbroglio was the one exception; in her later years, she showed evidence of a lifelong sexual frustration through the demands she put on her women to remain unwed, her rage when one disobeyed her, and ceaseless need for adulation. But I also think she made the choice upon winning the crown to never submit, and Dudley was not a devoted lover willing to lie at her feet. He came from an ambitious family and was, like most noblemen, always seeking his advantage. He wanted more than she was willing to give, which created a tension that fueled their attraction. Elizabeth understood there is nothing more tantalizing than forbidden fruit; she knew how to play Robert and keep him enthralled, even if in turn, her ploy exacted from her a heavy toll. She never forgot that her mother lost her freedom the moment she let herself be won.

Are you surprised at the endurance of reader interest in the Tudor era? Do you think the craze will ever fizzle?

I think it has its ups and downs. Interest is waning now due to overexposure, but after another fallow period, the era will rise again. These are fascinating, larger-than-life people in a tumultuous time, who also are very human; we are drawn to them because of their struggles and weaknesses as much as their strengths or triumphs. Not a happy dynasty, but one that has all the elements we look for in stories—drama, passion, intrigue, death, love and loss. It really doesn’t get better than the Tudors, whose reigns precipitated so much upheaval and change, and whose iconography is forever cemented in our popular imagination.

Who are some “underused” historical characters from the Renaissance you would like to see feature in novels?

Certainly, Renaissance France deserves more attention. Northern Europe, as well. I’d love to see more books about the Ottoman Empire, too. English history tends to dominate historical fiction in the US because of our strong links to the UK, but the Renaissance was a widespread phenomenon. There are many underused characters whose stories are waiting to be told. The challenge is market-driven. Recognition factor is a key incentive for publishers in our current climate, so a novel about, say, the Tudors is going to be more appealing from a marketing standpoint than one about an obscure sultan in Turkey. But that might change; I think my own career has shown that you can write beyond the margins while taking into account marquee appeal, and still have strong books. Then again, it took me nearly fourteen years to get published!

As an experienced novelist, what aspect of writing still challenges you the most? Where have you made the greatest strides in your writing?

Accessibility always remains a challenge. To write the past, you must always bear in mind that your modern-day reader may know little or nothing of the era you are covering, and you can’t throw a thousand things at them. You can’t expect them to understand the world-view of your characters without detailing it, of course, but too much detail swamps the momentum of the story you’re trying to tell. Balance between everything you know with what the reader needs to know is a fine point in writing historical novels; my motto is, less is more. I’ve had a few reviewers take me to task for not “including the wider historical context.” But that’s really a compliment to me. My books focus on a single point of view in first person. I seek to reveal my character’s inner life as they navigate their particular circumstances. They only know what they know and see what they see. It makes it easier for me and my reader, because it creates intimacy. In the end, I’m not an historian seeking to teach you about Spain, France, or England in the Renaissance. I’m a storyteller, depicting one individual’s story through their eyes. I think I’ve made the greatest strides in mastering my enthusiasm for research with what actually ends up on the page. I know the wider historical context; I have to in order to write, but I’ve also learned that not everything my research has uncovered must, or even should, be included in my book. It’s my framework, the block of stone upon which I chisel out my characters. What remains is necessary: nothing more and nothing less.

Out of the seven novels you have written, do you have a favorite?

The last one is always my favorite. But beyond that, I am very proud of all of them for different reasons: THE LAST QUEEN is my novel of the heart, the one I struggled with for many years to see published, about a bold woman unjustly maligned by history. THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is my most ambitious, in that I undertook an entire life in a very complex era, and found that my original intent to write a villainous narrator became a quest to reveal another woman who’s been misunderstood. THE QUEEN'S VOW was the most challenging, because of all my characters, Isabella developed her personality early in life and remained steadfast in who she was, despite her travails. Writing her was tough because in her core, Isabella did not change; she is nothing like me. But in the end, I empathized with her because I think she honestly believed she was doing her best. I don’t agree with her, but I understand her impetus. The three Spymaster books have been my playground, where my imagination could roam through a fictional male character who shares many of my beliefs about how the past can haunt us, my love for animals, my respect for loyalty and forgiveness, and the need for compromise.

Will you ever revisit Brendan, Kate and Raff again?

I hope to, in the future. I simply felt I had reached the end of this particular journey and wanted to explore other horizons. I’m not an historical novelist who can mine the same era over and over; I’m eclectic in my obsessions, with many interests beyond the Tudors. It was time to move onward, but I bear great fondness for these characters, and who knows what the future holds? For now, however, Brendan deserves this respite. He’s been through a lot!

Your newest novel, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, about fashion designer Coco Chanel, will appear in March 2015. What prompted you to choose a subject so far removed from the Renaissance? Did writing about the 20th century pose different challenges than writing about the 16th?

Before I became a full time writer, my career trajectory included ten years of working in the fashion industry; I came to learn about Coco Chanel while undertaking my degree in fashion marketing. She was my style icon. I had a battered book of her designs that I referred to often when consulting with clients. Writing a novel about her was something I always wanted to do, but the idea sat on the sidelines for years. When I did decide to do it, it was on impulse. I had spare time after delivering two prior manuscripts; my editors were reading those, and while I waited for feedback, I made the spur of the moment choice to try writing a modern woman. I was not under contract for this book and had no idea if it would work, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wrote the first draft in five months— record time for me. Coco’s story presented different challenges, of course; she’s a 20th century figure who’s been extensively documented, and the choice of language and style for this novel had to fit her times. But again, my foremost challenge became what to include, much as with my 16th century novels. I had to find the intimacy in her story without overwhelming my reader with minutia. Still, writing a character who could actually telephone her friends was a plus! Communication is so much easier in our age. And portraying a woman who rose from nothing, not born to privilege yet who became a queen in her own right, was fascinating. And the clothes, of course: all those fabulous clothes. What’s not to love? She also made controversial decisions that blackened her reputation, so in some ways, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL is not so removed from what I’ve written previously. She is an extraordinary woman in an extraordinary era, who lived by her own rules, despite setbacks and personal tragedies. She shares certain traits with my 16th century ladies.

Whose journey, out of all the characters you have created, most closely mirrors your own journey as a writer?

Probably Chanel’s. Not that it’s a fair comparison; she faced obstacles I never have, foremost being misogyny. Because of her gender, she had to fight to be taken seriously in a time when women had few options. But as a gay man whose writing had been rejected over 300 times over the course of thirteen years, I understood both her frustration and determination to succeed. I also think I relate to her decision to live as she saw fit; gay men have faced prejudice and hatred because of our sexuality, and Coco experienced prejudice because of her lifestyle. She also reaped rewards, but she paid the price for who she was. I know what that feels like. Nevertheless, all of my characters carry a bit of me inside of them, or rather, I find a bit of me in them. It’s what writers do: we cannot live for years with characters we detest. We must find an echo of their souls in ours to bring them to life. Without that echo, the writing is empty.

Thank you for sharing this time with me. I hope your readers enjoy THE TUDOR VENDETTA. To find out more about my work, please visit me at:


J.M. Aucoin said...

Love Gortner's stuff. Great writer and super nice dude.

Julianne Douglas said...

He is! And very helpful and supportive of writers at all stages of their journeys.

J.M. Aucoin said...

Definitely. He's been very supportive of my own writing. :)