An interview with C W Gortner

authorphotocwgortnerWhat was it that drew you to writing about Isabella of Castile in The Queen’s Vow?
I’ve always been attracted to controversial personages in history, particularly women. In part, I believe it’s due to the fact that I grew up in southern Spain during the last years of Franco’s regime and was taught censored history when it came to the role of women. I’ve since discovered that often, popular history is, in fact, censored. I learned about Isabella in school, of course, but always found her forbidding— a staid matron blindly devoted to her faith. It wasn’t until many years later, when I wrote my first novel, The Last Queen, about her daughter, Juana, that I discovered an unknown side to Isabella, the rarely told story of her youth and tumultuous rise to power. Her struggle to become a sovereign queen is rife with danger and drama, and shows such a different side to her. I knew then it was a story I had to write. I love working with characters who transform in unexpected ways, and Isabella is one of those. She did not start out as the somber queen she’s so often portrayed as; in THE QUEEN’S VOW, I depict how Isabella evolved into the queen and woman that she was, and how her passions, tragedies, triumphs and doubts shaped her. 

the-queens-vow-by-c-w-gortnerAre there any other characters in The Queen’s Vow from whose point of view you might like to tell the story?
I think the story could have been told from the point of view of Isabella’s best friend and loyal lady in waiting, Beatriz de Bobadilla, who is indeed a strong secondary character in this book. She’s almost like Isabella’s opposite, her effervescent twin sister. Impulsive, rash and opinionated, she spurs Isabella and counters the princess’s caution. I did in fact toy with this very idea, until I realized that one of the main attractions of telling the story through Beatriz is that she’s more approachable, as compared to the controversial aspects of Isabella’s personality. Because of this, I discarded the idea, as it would have resulted in a different novel, not one that focuses on Isabella. Beatriz also had a marvelous life in her own right, and while she remained at Isabella’s side throughout the queen’s life, save for a few brief absences, it would have been a disservice to use her as a vehicle through which to relay Isabella’s story. Beatriz truly deserves her own book.

How long does it take you to research an historical novel, and do you enjoy that aspect of writing?
My research takes years. Bibliographies for each of my novels number in the hundreds, from countless biographies to multiple volumes about the era, architecture, music, costume, gardening, medicine, hunting, etc. I also research in libraries and consult what we term primary sources, whenever possible— the extant letters, ambassadorial accounts, dispatches, and court paperwork. I seek out everything and anything that will help me flesh out the details of a vanished time. I often start researching several years before I’m under contract to write a novel. I “store up” my research, so to speak. In the case of Isabella, I began researching her while writing The Last Queen, though this initial research focused on her later years. Because research is so time-consuming and I enjoy it so much, I have to impose limits on myself. I could literally spend years digging around without ever actually writing a word of the novel, so I only research enough to gain a strong base on which to start writing. When I encounter blocks along the way, I go back, research again, and continue writing. I find it easier to ferret out details later, rather than know everything upfront. It’s a haphazard way to work, for some, but it works best for me.

You seem to be drawn to writing about very strong women throughout history (Juana la Loca, Catherine de Medici, etc), what is it about them that attracts you to them? Are there any others about whom you’d like to write?
I find that I’m drawn to controversy, to characters who made their mark in history with deeds that inspire debate. I’m not as attracted to the easy popular characters, the ones who’ve had simple lives or are plainly “good.” Human beings are complex; it’s our complexity, indeed duality for some, which inspire me as a writer. Juana, Catherine, Isabella— these are quite different women, both in their view of the world and how they lived their lives, yet they share a common trait of not being “model women” for their era. Each defied the rules in some way; each made her own fate, for better and worse. Their passion and strength, fallibility and courage, make them endlessly fascinating. And yes, there are other women I’d like to write about, as well, some of them lesser known yet who also bucked the societal restrictions to carve their own way.

The Tudor ConspiracyThe Spymaster Chronicles are set during the Tudor period, focusing on the legitimate children of Henry VIII. What drew you to that particular period, and what do you enjoy most about it?
I find that while the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are, to a certain extent, well covered in fiction, the so-called forgotten Tudors, Edward and Mary, are far less so. I have always loved the Tudor era, ever since I was a child growing up in southern Spain. I read voraciously about the Tudors and found the tumult, the drama, and far-reaching consequences of this relatively short-lived dynasty fascinating. I decided to set the first two books of the Spymaster Chronicles in Edward VI’s and Mary I’s reigns because the realm underwent significant upheaval in a short span of time. Issues of faith, economic, social and political uncertainty were all at play, and Elizabeth herself – a major figure in these novels— found herself in some of the most perilous situations of her life, without recourse to her power yet as a queen. This time-period offers a wealth of situations for a novelist with a fictional spy to engage with; it just seemed the perfect milieu for Brendan and his friends.

The court intrigue and political upheaval of the Tudor period always make for an exciting setting. How long did it take you to do all the research on the real historical figures in the book, and how many liberties (if any) did you take with factual evidence?
Research for every book I write can take years. I’m fortunate in that I’ve been studying and exploring this era for most of my life, so some of the heavy research work has already been done. Elizabeth is such a charismatic yet enigmatic subject; as much as has been written about her, we still don’t know many telling answers, such as, in The Tudor Conspiracy, how involved was she in the plot to depose her sister? It makes for amazing conjecture. With the Spymaster books, while I ground the events in actual historical incidents, I do take liberties with the time-line and circumstances surrounding them, mostly to facilitate the ease of the reader, as things can get very confusing. These books are spy thrillers and my lead character Brendan must uncover secrets that are not recorded for posterity. However, that said, I strive to remain true to my actual historical characters and what is known about them, while fitting them into the plot. In particular, I do my best to show them in their complexity, as fallible flesh-and-blood people with weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as strengths. I also want to show the brutality lurking under the glamour of the era. The Tudor era was not an easy time to be alive and the court was often a snake pit of rivalries and machinations, where power was the only coin. Everyone had an agenda and you had to tread very carefully in order to survive. Brendan learns this the hard way.

Brendan Prescott is a very likeable and “normal” kind of guy whose sensibilities often seem very forward by the standards of the time (possibly very contemporary to our own modern day sensibilities). Is he based on anyone you know? Or is he a composite of real historical figures? How did you go about blending such a modern personality with an historical setting?
He is purely imaginary, though I suppose he does share some of my personality traits. For example, he likes animals and is loyal, often to a fault; he doubts his own abilities and wonders if he’s doing the right thing. He’s a stranger in his own land with a deadly secret, a permanent outsider who has to cultivate a keen eye and ear. I wanted him to be a 16th century man with a modern-like sensibility because he offers a fascinating juxtaposition to those around him. I do think there were some men like him in the Tudor era, albeit rare ones; and he is the exception to the rule, which is the principal reason he gains Elizabeth’s trust. She sees in him someone she can depend upon, who is not like anyone else she knows.

Do you enjoy the promotional side of things, such as public readings and signings? If so, which has been your most enjoyable experience?
I do enjoy promotion. It can get tiring, particularly as you’re often writing the next book at the same time as you’re doing events, but meeting readers is always a joy and an honor. I feel very privileged to be able to write for a living; it’s never a guarantee that every writer will make an impact, much as we wish otherwise. One of my most enjoyable experiences was the Historical Novel Society’s conference in the UK in 2012. I had not been to a UK-based conference before and had the honor to speak there. I also met many UK historical writers I admire, and I always love visiting London.

What inspired you to historical fiction? And why do you think this genre appeals to so many readers? Are there any other genres you plan on trying?
Growing up in southern Spain, there was history all around me. I lived near a ruined castle that had belonged to Isabella of Castile and visited many historical sites in Europe as a child. I read voraciously, as well, in particular historical fiction, so when the time came to try my hand at a novel, historical fiction seemed the natural choice. I think the genre appeals to so many readers for the same reasons it appeals to me: historical fiction clothes the skeletons of the past with emotion, dramatizes the bare bones of fact and allows us to experience the past in a visceral way. We find that these people who are either just names in books or legendary figures veiled by myth are, in fact, human beings like us, who suffer and aspire and yearn for many of the same things we do.

As for other genres, I do hope one day to write a supernatural thriller, as well as a family saga. I already have some preliminary plot ideas, so let’s see how they develop.

Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at my website at www.cwgortner.com.

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