Interview: C.W. Gortner

After I published my thoughts on C.W. Gortner’s wonderful book The Last Queen: A Novel, many of you wrote and told me how much you also loved the book. It’s amazing how a book can unite people, isn’t it?

Well I’m here to tell you, if you thought the book was interesting, you will really enjoy this interview. Gortner is as interesting as the characters he writes about. The story about him doing research and getting to dance at Hampton Court is too much! As a Tudor history buff myself, I can’t imagine it! How fun.

Enjoy this interview.

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The Last Queen: A Novel was the first book I read by you, and as the readers here know, I loved it. After reading the book I was pleasantly surprised to see you also wrote a book about the Tudor Court called The Secret Lion. Tell us a bit about that book and how you came to write it.

The Secret Lion (The Spymaster Chronicles, Book 1) is actually the fourth book I wrote but it was the first to actually get published. Set in the court of Edward VI, in the days leading up to the succession crisis, it’s a fast-paced historical thriller, the first in a proposed series, featuring a young man named Brendan Prescott who’s been raised as a foundling in the Dudley household. Appointed as a squire to Robert Dudley, Brendan comes to court and has an unexpected encounter with the Princess Elizabeth Tudor; as they are both caught up in the Dudleys’ lethal intrigues, Brendan uncovers a plot that may reveal the secret of his past.

The Secret Lion is my attempt to honor my lifelong love for swashbucklers of old, such as Dumas, Sabatini, and others. It was published by a small press and I’ve always intended to write more in the series. In fact I was drafting the second one when my agent suddenly auctioned my two stand-alone historical novels, The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici: A Novel to Ballantine Books. I’ve since been busy working on these novels but I hope to return to Brendan’s adventures soon.

On to The Last Queen… so many other historical writers have overlooked Juana as simply mad, without wanting to explore more of her story. What drew you to this real life character and how did you go about creating the fictional Juana?

I was raised in southern Spain, near the ancient port city of Malaga; and I lived near the ruins of a castle that had belonged to Juana’s parents, Isabel and Ferdinand. I used to play inside that castle, and I also went to Granada several times, where Juana is interred in the Cathedral along with her husband, so in essence she was part of the fabric of history around me as I grew up. Juana is legendary in Spain; almost every school child learns about her, but the more I found out, the more I wanted to know. What was she like in real life? Did she really pull her husband’s bier behind her throughout the country? What happened to her to plunge her into such despair? Was she really mad? I always questioned the legend because I longed to discover the person behind it. No one had answers to my questions. That’s the problem with legends: they’ve become so immutable; they’ve ceased to hold much depth.

When I decided to write about Juana, I never considered any other method than fiction. I’m a novelist by nature and I’d read several biographies about her in English and Spanish which made me realize I didn’t want to present an academic look at her, removed from the immediate vibrancy of her humanity. I wanted to somehow see if I could let her tell her side of the story, because after years of research I was convinced she must have a lot to say! I knew the facts, the important events and people in her life; but in order to create her fictionally, I had to explore how she felt and how these feelings motivated her behavior. It sounds cut-and-dry when I explain it but the actual process of becoming a character is organic and Juana ended up surprising me quite a few times as I wrote. Writers often talk about how their characters can come alive and act on their own; Juana was definitely one of those characters for me. At times, it seemed as though she had a mind of her own. When this happens to writers, we know we’re on the right track. Still, she is not like me in many ways and I found myself wrestling with her personality, with her decisions and her reactions to situations where I would have acted differently; I had to learn as a writer to stop fighting my character and surrender to who she wanted to be.

How long have you been writing? Have you always been drawn to historical fiction?

I’ve been writing for most of my life. When I was a boy, I used to write my stories in spiral-bound notebooks and illustrate the covers for them. I was also always drawn to history. I devoured everything I could read that concerned history and was fortunate that my parents and my teachers encouraged my love for it. I discovered historical fiction in my early adolescence; I was introduced to Alexander Dumas, Daphne DuMaurier, Jean Plaidy, Lawrence Schoonover, among others, and immediately got hooked. Historical fiction offered that bridge I had craved between the history itself and the way it felt to live it.

I read on your website that you travel extensively when researching books. Tell us about some of the exciting things you’ve done or discovered while researching.

Hmm. Let’s see. . . My partner and I were visiting Hampton Court, which is one of the most beautiful Renaissance palaces in Europe and one of the few examples of extant Tudor architecture. It’s also indelibly associated with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Anyway, when we arrived there, a professional dance troupe was performing in the great hall, demonstrating various Tudor dances, and at one point they asked the audience for volunteers. We assembled tourists all nervously eyed the dancers in full costume as if they’d asked us to strip, so my partner pushed me forward. I started to protest, but he whispered: “When will you ever have the chance to dance in the very hall where Anne Boleyn once did?” I thought about this for a moment and plunged in. The dancer I was paired with – a lovely dark woman in a saffron-colored dress— taught me the steps, just a few, and then, with lute music playing, I got to very clumsily dance with her. To realize that under the great painted vaults of that very hall, one of England’s most famous queens had perhaps performed this very dance . . . it was intoxicating.

In your opinion, what’s the best thing about writing?

The ability to travel back in time and become someone I am not.

Share some of your writing goals.

First, to always strive to be better. Like every art form, writing can always be improved; I never want to be lazy about it. Second, to always be passionate about the story I’m telling. Writing is for the most part fun but it can also get rote. It’s challenging to remember the passion that inspired me to tell a particular story when the characters refuse to cooperate, the prose feels flat, the facts get in the way, etc. And last, but never least, I want to always respect my reader. Historical fiction has become so popular that it’s tempting to give in to market demand and tell the stories that are most commercially viable; but I think historical fiction readers crave variety and nuance and I want to write stories that acknowledge this.

Is there a specific time of day you like to write?

Early in the morning or late at night: I prefer it when the world is quiet.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantakis.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always written but I didn’t realize I actually wanted to be a writer until my early twenties.

Favorite authors?

Among the classics, Daphne Du Maurier and Alexander Dumas rank high on my list. Among today’s writers, I admire Isabel Allende, Robin Maxwell, Sharon Penman, Sarah Dunant, Michelle Moran, Karen Essex, and David Ball.

Book you’re currently reading.

The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

I’m compulsive about writing a book from beginning to end; otherwise, since I quit smoking and drinking coffee, my ritual mainly involves making the time I need to write every day.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

I believe more in writer’s exhaustion than block. For me, writer’s block is usually temporary, often linked to the fact that I’m pushing myself too hard. Writing a historical novel takes an enormous amount of dedication and perseverance; not only must we tell a compelling story within a finite amount of words but we must always temper our imagination to the established history. It’s a delicate, demanding process, so when I’m done, I need time to decompress and release all that struggle and passion for my story. I recently finished editorial revisions to my novel on Catherine de Medici, and she’s such a strong character, who lived such a tumultuous life – all of which I also lived with for years as I wrote – that while I know who I want to write about next, I can’t quite bring myself to start the actual process yet. I’m always amazed by writers who finish a book, take a day or two off, and start another. I need to allow myself whatever time is required to become ‘me’ again, so that the next character I write about benefits from a fully engaged mind, unaffected by the story that came before. I do try to stay disciplined and differentiate between decompression and procrastination, however, as these can sometimes look the same – particularly when there’s a shoe sale going on at Barneys!

Advice for other writers?

Write the stories that you must tell. Don’t write for glory or money, to suit a current fad or emulate a successful novelist; believe me, it never works. It took me thirteen years to get published and I tried all of those things, to no avail. In the end, all it did was teach me how not to write, until I gave up and returned to the stories I could not live without, the ones that kept me awake at night. It still took a while but eventually I found an agent and publisher who believed in me.

Where can we learn more about you?

At my website and on my blog .

Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you so much for having me on your blog. I love meeting bloggers and readers; the blog world has been instrumental in helping me get word out of my books, and has shown me great generosity. If you want to invite me to chat with your reader group – which I can do via speaker phone or Skype – please visit my website and click on the Readers Group link on the main menu.

More books from C. W. Gortner:

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3 Comments on "Interview: C.W. Gortner"

  1. Thank you so much for the wonderful review and fun Q&A. I had a blast answering your questions and hope your readers enjoy my responses. I’ve also really enjoyed reading your other interviews, especially the one with the fabulous M.J. Rose!

    I look forward to visiting again soon.
    All best, C.W.

    [Reply]

  2. M.J. Rose IS pretty fabulous, isn’t she? But so are you! And I’m so happy you could visit here! I hope you’ll come back again sometime.

    [Reply]

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