Monday, May 11, 2009

MISTRESS OF THE SUN by Sandra Gulland: Interview and Review

Today I'm fortunate to be able to participate in the blog tour promoting the release of the paperback edition of Sandra Gulland's novel MISTRESS OF THE SUN (Touchstone, 2008). MISTRESS OF THE SUN recounts the fascinating story of Louise de la Vallière, the first official mistress of the French king Louis XIV. Set against the "magnificent decadence of the seventeenth-century French court," the story follows Louise from her humble beginnings as the daughter of a lesser nobleman, through the blossoming of her love affair with Louis, to the difficult decisions she must make once Louis decides to share his affections with another woman, the dangerous Madame de Montespan.

I had the opportunity to ask Ms. Gulland some questions about her book and her writing experience.


1. What fascinates you most about Louise’s life or personality? If you could 
ask Louise one question, what would it be?

Mainly I'm fascinated by Louise's horsemanship. She is described as a timid, shy and retiring young woman who also just happened to be able to out-ride and out-hunt the King and his men. There was a puzzle in that I wanted to solve. I'd love to ask her how she learned to ride and hunt so well. It wouldn't have been easy for a woman in the 17th century.

2. I loved the Marquis de Saint-Rémy’s (Louise’s step-father’s) convoluted manner of speaking. Were you consciously invoking the linguistic affectations of the précieuses, the witty women of seventeenth century literary salons?

I love Saint-Rémy, as well. I wasn't thinking of the précieuses, but rather, simply, of a not-very-smart, stuck-up sort of man who puts on airs. It was fun turning his ordinary phrases into puzzles of complexity.

3. Did any of your characters surprise you by what they said or did as you wrote the novel? Were there any instances where the biography of an individual conflicted with the direction you wanted the story to go in, and if so, how did you resolve this conflict?

I knew from the beginning that Louise would leave her children, but I didn't know how it would work out. Biographers tend to judge her harshly for this, but I didn't see evidence that she didn't love her children. Quite the contrary. As I got to know her better, I began to understand.

4. Have you read Alexandre Dumas’s novel Louise de la Vallière? How does your Louise differ from his?

I have not read any of Dumas's work — yet. I started to read Louise de la Vallière, but then put it aside because I feared getting entangled in his imaginative interpretation of the history. Perhaps now I should read it. I’d be interested to see how they differ.

5. What was the most challenging part of writing this book? The most interesting?

I am — I guess one could say — an “open-minded” agnostic (raised atheist), and the most challenging part of writing this novel, for me, was getting into the intensely religious and superstitious head-space of my 17th century characters. This was crucially important to understanding the 17th century, and especially important to my main character, Louise de la Vallière. This realm of the research also proved to be the most interesting. Researching convent life at the time reveals worlds of horror (where the convents were stand-ins for prison), but also worlds of peaceful intellectual and artistic flowering, worlds where women could be (at last) free to rule their own domains. It varied greatly from convent to convent.

6. Who is a character (from any place or era) that you wish someone would write a novel about? Are you tempted to try?

I'm constantly noting in my margins of books: “This would make a great story!”

From the Sun Court era, I’ve tried a number of times to find a way to tell the story of La Grande Mademoiselle, the King’s eccentric, rich cousin and an early feminist. I’m reminded of a painting I bought, the image of a mountain. The artist told me, “I looked at that mountain for years, wondering how to paint it.” La Grande Mademoiselle is my mountain. 

I’d love to see (or write) a convincing and well-researched novel about the Man in the Iron Mask. (Back to Dumas here, of course!) If I were to write it — and I may, some day — I might explore one possibility that’s cited, that it’s really The Woman in the Iron Mask. 

Lauzun’s story fascinates me: his crazy relationship with La Grande Mademoiselle, his courtship for the King’s favor, his “true but chaste” love and heroic rescue of Mary of Modena. (It’s possible that La Grande Mademoiselle’s story could be told in this way — as well as the story of the Woman in the Iron Mask, since Lazun and "the Mask" were in the same prison. Perhaps I’ve just outlined a novel in answering this question!)

In any case, there are so many stories, I could go on and on (and ON). For me, there has to be something in a character that hooks my curiosity. 

7. What are some habits you have developed as a writer that have made you more productive?

The converse of this question is: Have I developed habits that have made me less productive? The answer to that question is YES: I’ve become accustomed to reading (and answering) email with my morning coffee instead of diving into my writing. And now, along with my email, I have to — of course — take a peek at Twitter.

But to answer your question, it's a question of tricking myself into working. Fear helps (especially fear of failure). Deadlines help too. Once I begin a draft, I've learned to move it forward daily until I reach the end. No looking back! I set daily minimums and chart my progress in a journal. I know from experience that just one day off equals three days of floundering, so I really try to hold to the daily goal. 

8. How does promoting the paperback edition of a book differ from promoting the hardcover?

The biggest difference seems to be, at least in my case, that the publisher 
promotes the hardcover, and the author promotes the paperback. For the hardcover, my publishers arranged book tours. For the softcover, I arranged my own Blog Tour (including this blog: thank you!). 

Thank you, Sandra! Your enthusiasm for the seventeenth century shines through, especially in the intriguing ideas you have for future novels. I'll be recommending MISTRESS OF THE SUN to all my reading friends and looking forward to your next novel.


I just finished reading MISTRESS OF THE SUN today and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. I found it a bit hard to connect with the child Louise in the first fifty or so pages of the novel, but once Louise moved to the French court to serve as attendant to Louis's sister-in-law, the English princess Henriette, something clicked and I was completely drawn into the story. Despite her obvious strengths, Louise retained an endearing fragility that made me root for her up to the very end. Far from a celebration of the sordid titillations of court life, this novel tells the story of a young woman who finds herself in her struggle to reconcile her convictions with her love.

I find it interesting that in the interview above Ms. Gulland acknowledges that getting into the "religious and superstitious headspace of [her] 17th century characters" was the most challenging aspect of writing the book, because I think she did an excellent job of doing so. So many times writers of historical fiction minimize the question of religion and its effects on their characters' outlooks and choices. Gulland's Louise, however, constantly struggles with her scruples. Highly spiritual by nature and formed in her faith by her father and a nun aunt, Louise has a difficult time reconciling her illicit love for Louis with her moral standards. Her sin never becomes any easier for her bear and leads her to embrace life as a religious once Louis's demands become too onerous. I admire how Ms. Gulland respects the fact that the real Louise did forsake her position in order to take the veil and how, in fact, the author prepares us for this choice by showing Louise's struggles from the very beginning. It would have been easy for Ms. Gulland to depict the choice as either imposed upon Louise from without or only tepidly embraced by her, but neither of these would have been true to the real Louise. Despite her weaknesses and faltering, Louise never loses her faith; in fact, her suffering strengthens it.

I found Ms. Gulland's depictions of life at court well-researched and vividly presented. She captures the superficiality and theatricality of the Sun King's court, its emphasis on "seem" rather than "be," on appearance rather than essence. These dichotomies are captured in Louise's love for "Louis," but her dislike of the "King." A genuine, trusting soul, Louise ever struggles in this duplicitous environment, yet finds the inner strength and determination to overcome its temptations. Her innocence is not an insipid, unthinking blandness, but the ferocious purity of the wild stallion who shadows her journey.

This is the first book I've read by Sandra Gulland and I look forward to reading more. MISTRESS OF THE SUN is a well-researched and engaging ride through the treacherous terrain of the French court--and the human heart.


Ms. Gulland has graciously provided a copy of the paperback edition of MISTRESS OF THE SUN for a lucky reader to win. If you would like to be entered in the random drawing, please leave a comment here with an answer to this question: 

Louise de Vallière was an amazing horsewoman. On a scale of one (You couldn't pay me to climb up on one of those beasts!) to ten (I'd give Louise a run for her money!), how good a rider are you?

Comment with an answer and your name will be entered once; comment and follow the blog (new followers always welcome!) and your name will be entered five times. The winner will need to email me her mailing address so I can forward it to Sandra's publicist. The contest is open from now until midnight PDT Thursday, May 14. Winner will be announced here on the blog Friday morning. Bonne chance!


Lucy said...

HI:) Don't denter me- I just wanted to comment on your excellent review. I too enjoyed the novel immensely. THanks:)

Danja said...

Another wonderful interview and review! Thank you so much for posting them. I look forward to reading this book.

Jackie Hodson said...

Thank you both for an insightful and interesting post :o)

Jessica Brockmole said...

Interesting interview! I agree that too many historical novelists tend to either gloss over religion or else have their character be suspiciously agnostic for the time. Religion played such a huge role in just about everyone's life then. It's not often that you see a historical novelist who allows this.

How good a rider am I? Let's say a 3. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've been on a horse, but I don't think I did too badly!

Shauna Roberts said...

I'd rate my horseriding skills as a 4, but it's been years since I've been on a horse, so I may be overrating myself.

Louise de la Vallière sounds like a fascinating person. Thanks, Sandra, for taking the time to give us such a great interview, and thank you, Julianne, for interviewing her.

I signed up to follow your blog.

Susan said...

Great interview! I've wanted to read this book for a long time, so I would love a copy!

How good a rider am I? I'd have to rate myself as a 1. The only times I ever rode any animal was at the Bronx Zoo when my age was in single digits. I think it was a camel that I rode!

Sheramy Bundrick said...

Enjoyed the interview & review! I read "Mistress of the Sun" when it came out in hardcover and enjoyed it very much.

Carine De Vos said...

Hi Julianne, great interview and review !

I'd like to enter the giveaway.

In answer to your question how good a rider I am : I have to rate myself 1 because the only time I was on a horse was during a fair when I was a kid ! :-)


Michelle Moran said...

As always, GREAT interview!