How did you become interested in writing historical fiction?
I’ve always loved history; I grew up in southern Spain, near a castle that had belonged to Isabella and Ferdinand, and stories of the past were as real to me as the present. My mother gave me my first historical novel when I was eleven; it transformed me. Suddenly, the arid facts and events of history came alive for me. Reading historical fiction became my time machine that allowed me to go back and experience for myself the emotions and sensations of bygone eras. Simultaneously, I’d always written stories. Even as a child, I invented my own stories and even illustrated them. Writing has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and so, years later when I decided to try my hand at a novel, historical fiction seemed the natural choice. I write historical fiction because for me, it is the ideal medium for bringing the past into the present in a way that is immediate, visceral, and relevant. We may know the facts—for example, Catherine de Medici spent her married life sharing her husband with his much older mistress — but what historical fiction gives us is a way to experience how their lives and their world felt.
What drew you to Catherine de Medici as a protagonist?
Catherine de Medici is one of history’s most notorious women and I’d heard about her peripherally through the stories of other historical women I loved, such as Mary of Scots (Catherine was her mother-in-law). I was inspired to write this book originally because I thought it would be fascinating to tell a story from the point of view of a villainess, an unreliable narrator; Catherine seemed the perfect fit. However, as I did my research and began to realize that, while I’d known about her for years, I truly knew very little about who she was and what she faced, my opinion of her changed. She had a tumultuous, dramatic life, full of danger and challenge. She was known to have a gift of second sight; she patronized Nostradamus; and her sons ruled as the last Valois kings. She was a tough, resilient lady, but she’d been cast in history as this hollow cliché, the black widow plotting mayhem, when in fact she was so much more complex and interesting.
If you could rewrite her life, what would you change?
The religious wars she faced. France endured years of savage conflict between Protestants and Catholics and it plagued Catherine’s later years, not to mention wreaked incredible havoc on France. I’d have wanted her to not have to go through that, for the events that sprang from these wars ended up blackening her reputation for centuries. Oh, and I would have spared her the humiliations she suffered at the hands of Diane de Poitiers. It was hard enough to be married to a stranger at fourteen and be forced to leave her country; but to then have to put up with her husband’s very public infidelity, for all her married life . . . that is a tough pill to swallow.
[amazonify]034550187X[/amazonify]What is your process for writing a historical novel? Do you dive into the research first or just get the basics and let the story take over?
I start with preliminary research, as I call it. This involves reading as many biographies and books about the era as I require to have a grasp of the story I want to tell. I also travel to whichever extant sites exist; travel is very important to me. Though much may have changed as far as buildings and landscape are concerned, there is nothing more powerful than being in the places where my characters lived. The smells, the sights, the sensations; for me, the physicality cannot be re-created any other way. After I’ve done these things, I develop character sketches and a timeline of the events; because I write fictional accounts of actual lives, and a novel only has a finite amount of words, I have to go through the challenging process of deciding which events to focus on, which ones most define the person. Then, I start writing. I’m superstitious about outlining too much, lest the story ceases to surprise me. While I follow a factual timeline, I want the scenes and characters to develop organically. When I get stuck, it invariably means I need to do more research, so I pause and do it. It’s ongoing, the research; it never ends. But after a certain point in the writing, it’s not as demanding. For this novel, I read over thirty books and took two separate trips to France; the novel required four drafts and various revisions over a period of two years.
Who is your favorite historical figure? Who is your favorite fictional character?
I find it almost impossible to pinpoint a favorite historical figure; I’m in love with so many. But if I had to, it would be Anne Boleyn. Since childhood, I’ve been utterly enthralled by her. As far as fictional characters, at the risk of sounding self-serving I’m quite fond of Brendan Prescott, the squire-turned-spy of my novel The Tudor Secret. I simply never expected him. He appeared in my imagination one day and wouldn’t leave until I agreed to tell his story. He continues to surprise me, too. As far as other fictional characters are concerned, I’ve always wanted to meet Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She refuses to recognize defeat. She’s selfish, self-centered and utterly blind to her own faults – and yet, if I were on a sinking ship, I’d want her with me. If anyone can find a way to survive, she will. I’d also love to gossip with Margaret Ashbury from Judith Merkle Riley’s trilogy of medieval England. She’s a go-getter, with a wicked sense of humor, and she does not suffer fools gladly – my kind of lady.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me. If you’d like to learn more about me and my work, please visit my website at www.cwgortner.com