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Interview with C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen

Welcome to the blog tour for C.W. Gortner’s wonderful book, The Last Queen, here at Medieval Bookworm. Today Christopher has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for me, and I hope the answers are as interesting for you as they are for me!

cwg_red_background_for_web1. My blog readers will know that, as a historian-in-training, historical accuracy is a frequent issue of mine when it comes to fiction. I very much dislike historical books to go against known facts. I know that you strove for this kind of historical accuracy with THE LAST QUEEN. Would you mind weighing in on this issue? How close do you think authors need to get to real history in fiction?

This is a very interesting issue, and, I must say, an often contentious one. For my writing, I always strive for accuracy; I think as writers of historical fiction it’s our responsibility to get our facts right. But sometimes dramatic license is required for the sake of a story that would otherwise get lost in a morass of history or to illustrate complex elements in a single scene. When this license is taken it should be well-considered and as plausible as possible. I did some of this to make THE LAST QUEEN accessible; my editors and my agent helped immensely in this regard. I also made some inadvertent mistakes, because, after all, I am human. Historical fiction is still fiction; as novelists we’re dramatizing a story based on actual events and/or people; but actual history, like life, isn’t always easily distilled. A historical novelist sometimes faces difficult choices in order to tell his or her story and because of these choices I believe some dramatic license is essential, providing it doesn’t go so far beyond what is known it careens into fantasy. If it does, then at the very least an author’s afterword or note is required.

2. I loved Juana’s character and had a really hard time believing that a man wrote this book! I had always heard that men couldn’t write women and women couldn’t write men but you completely eradicated that stereotype. Did you have any inspiration for her or experience that fueled your ability to portray a woman so well?

I heard that, too – for thirteen years as I attempted to get published! I think it’s one of those generalized misconceptions that persist, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Of course, there are men who can’t write women and vice versa, but novelists should, for all intensive purposes, strive to be as invisible as possible. Our characters tell our stories, not us. One of the marvelous boons of writing is that we are defined not by our gender but rather by our ability to inhabit the characters we create. That said, I was raised by women – my mom, my grandmother, my aunts – and I grew up at the table listening to them tell stories and gossip; maybe I somehow learned more about the female heart? I don’t know. I must admit, however, I often feel I understand women more than I do my own gender. I also first wrote THE LAST QUEEN in the third-person and it didn’t work. Juana was too enigmatic; the editors who read it came back with rejections that basically said, “Something is missing here.” It wasn’t until I put my own trepidations aside and slipped into her skin, so to speak, that much of her inner life became clear to me. Call it inspiration or channeling or imagination: whatever the case, Juana spoke to me as she never had before and as a result the book transformed in dramatic and unexpected ways.

3. What inspired you to write about Juana of Castile?

I grew up in southern Spain, near a ruined castle that used to be a summer residence of her parents, Queen Isabel and Fernando. I clambered about in that castle and knew she had lived there; in a way, she was a part of my world. Every school child grows up hearing the story of Juana la Loca; we even sing a childish rhyme about her. But when I first visited her tomb in Granada, I was fascinated by the sight of her effigy. It literally haunted me. I immediately wanted to know more about her. My grandmother was a celebrated theatre actress for years in Spain and had played Juana on stage; she introduced me to the drama inherent in the legend. She even took me to see a movie that was made in the 1940s about Juana, which had become a classic. I was entranced. I couldn’t get enough. I must have seen that movie over fifty times. I studied history in school, too, and Juana was one of those characters that everyone shuddered over, the poor mad queen. I remember thinking, What if she wasn’t really mad? Even then I had this sense that her side of the story had been buried under historical propaganda. The legend was dark and macabre and very juicy, but it felt like a legend, not the truth. Years later, when I began to pursue writing seriously in the hope of publication, I decided to write about her after my first novel didn’t sell. I set out to find out as much as I could, and the more I researched, the more inspired I became. Here was this woman who was locked up for forty-six years, accused of being insane, when in fact she may have been anything but. I felt she deserved a chance to speak for herself, and historical fiction was the perfect vehicle for it. Still, now and then I get e-mail from the occasional reader who tells me I’ve played fast and loose with her story; that everyone around her agreed she was unstable and unfit to rule. It shows how deep the legend has permeated, that for some readers the mere fact that I’ve chosen to depict a different version of Juana must mean I’m inaccurate. It could be I’m wrong; after all, I never met her. But I’m not convinced the popular version of her story is accurate, either.

4. I’m planning on visiting Spain in the next few years and, especially after reading your book, I can’t wait! Can you share with us a couple of places in the novel that you’d recommend visiting?

Absolutely! Spain is a marvelous country, full of contrast and vibrancy, much like Juana herself. I’d say a trip to Castile, the central part of Spain, is essential, as it’s where most of Juana’s story took place. The city of Toledo near Madrid is a medieval marvel and the Cathedral was embellished by Queen Isabel; also near Madrid is the Castle of La Mota, where Juana staged her infamous act of defiance. About three hours from Madrid is the city of Burgos, where you can visit the Gothic cathedral where Juana first declared herself queen; the Casa del Cordon, where Philip of Hapsburg died, is now a bank but the stone knotted façade remains intact. In southern Spain, you can visit the mountain city of Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors, and the stunning Moorish palace of the Alhambra.

5. Do you mind telling us what you’re working on now?

I’ve just finished a novel about Catherine de Medici, which will be published by Ballantine Books in 2010. Catherine de Medici is a much misunderstood and maligned woman in history, accused of some of the 16th century’s most heinous crimes, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew. She’s been called ruthless, ambitious and cruel; she truly has a black legend attached to her name. But during my research I uncovered a different picture of this Italian woman who became mother of the last Valois kings and one of France’s most influential queens. She had immense perseverance, loyalty, intelligence, and tolerance. She loved animals and detested the senseless waste of war. In an era of savage religious conflict, she steered France to safety. She’s interesting and complex; and I had an incredible time slipping into her skin. I’m very proud of this book. Though it was exacting and I had to revise it a few times to get it right, in the end I think I’ve done her justice.

6. How about favorite authors? Do you have any favorite authors or books we should be reading while we’re waiting for your next book, or perhaps seeking out your first?

I don’t have any favorite authors, per se, simply because I like so many for different reasons. Historical fiction books I’ve really enjoyed recently include Robin Maxwell’s Signora da Vinci; Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars; Vanora Benett’s Figures in Silk; Michelle Moran’s The Heretic Queen; Karen Essex’s Stealing Athena; David Blixt’s Master of Verona; and Judith Merkle Riley’s The Water Devil. All are well worth your time and money!

Many, many thanks to C.W. Gortner for answering my questions! The Last Queen was released in paperback on May 5th and has been published in 10 countries. It’s available from Amazon and Amazon UK.

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