Thursday, August 19, 2010
An Interview with Christopher Gortner
Thank you for inviting me. Anyone with an interest in famous women of history will have heard of Catherine de Medici: she’s that evil queen who allegedly poisoned her enemies and orchestrated a massacre. Or, so the legend says. Initially, I was attracted to her precisely because of her legend. I figured, when someone has such a bad reputation there has to be more to her story. I wanted to know who Catherine de Medici truly was, to search beyond the lurid accusations and hyperbole for the person she may have been. Of Italian birth, Catherine was the last scion of her legitimate Medici blood; she dominated France in the latter half of the 16th century, a contemporary of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Left a widow with small children and confronted by one of the most savage conflicts of the time, she fought to save France and her bloodline from destruction. As I researched her, I realized that, like with most dark legends, especially those pertaining to women, there was far more to Catherine than popular history tells us. I thought how interesting it would be if Catherine herself could tell us her side of the story. If she had the chance to explain herself, what would she say?
What hardships did women face in this particular century and what lessons can today's woman learn from it?
Women, particularly noble and royal women, often had no say in who they married. Marriages were by and large political alliances, organized by their family to further standing at court, strengthen international ties and increase power. Princesses like Catherine— I consider an Italian princess, daughter of the Medici, one of Italy’s most influential dynasties— were wed to strangers, men they’d never met and usually had never seen, except perhaps in portraits. The success of the marriage likewise fell upon the woman; because the union was most often a strictly dynastic one, love was not a factor, and the birth of children, particularly sons, was of utmost importance. Everything depended on it—for the woman. A wife who failed to give her husband a healthy heir could be cast aside by annulment and end up in a convent. We see Catherine struggling over these very issues in the first years of her married life. While in Western culture, these are fortunately no longer survival matters for women, we need only look to other cultures in the world to find women who are powerless against their fate; every day, marriages are arranged and women are forced into them. They lose all rights to decide their lives and can be physically and emotionally abused, even imprisoned or killed, by their spouses and the male-dominated society they live in. I think today’s women and men must continue to fight for gender equality everywhere; the injustices that women of the 16th century faced are not relics of the past but rather still very much a part of some women’s lives today, in our 21st century.
Where do you get your inspirations for a novel?
I find inspiration in legend. Many of the characters I’m attracted to have some type of myth surrounding them, usually a controversial one. Juana of Castile was accused of being mad; Catherine de Medici of being evil; and so on. These legends are the result of centuries of male-centered history, where women are pigeonholed into easy clichés. This approach to history has cast a decidedly misogynistic taint on famous people and events of the past, especially on those women who do not easily fit the criteria. Even Elizabeth I has suffered from this; while she’s more acclaimed than many famous women, she’s also known as the Virgin— sexless and therefore unsullied, a woman who rules, and often acts, like a man. Of course, Elizabeth had her sexuality, as do all human beings, and her decision to live as she did cost her emotional and physical fulfilment. On the other hand of the spectrum, Cleopatra is the Siren, a temptress who ends up dead for her ambitions and unbridled passion. While we’re now in the midst of re-writing such women back into their real places, as complex, vibrant, and powerful figures in their own right, their legends are what inspire me—by questioning what the legend tells us, I begin to uncover the untold story underneath it.
Can you describe a typical writing day?
I don’t really have one. Because I still hold a 32-hour a week job, I write in bursts, at odd hours. I do try to write 2 pages every day; I find this approach less daunting and it helps me stay focused on the story without losing my rhythm. Two pages a day add up over time; within 9 months or so, I have the draft of a novel. I don’t work on Fridays so on those days I usually get up early, walk my dog, then sit down and work for several hours, often reviewing and revising what I have written. I eat lunch, nap, walk my dog again, and in the evening I work for several more hours, usually writing new pages. I can make a lot of headway on Fridays, if I stay focused. My theory when it comes to writing is that 10% is inspiration and 90% is just doing it. I can’t afford to wait for the muse; I have deadlines, instead. I prefer it this way: the muse is fickle and can just as easily grace me with ideas as leave me high and dry. The act of getting those 2 pages out, regardless of how inspired or uninspired I feel, gives me the discipline to master my craft.
Biographical historical novels are very difficult to write. Can you tell me how you create the plot?
I use history as a skeletal framework for my books; I usually create a year-by-year timeline of all the historical events I want to cover in the novel to guide my story decisions. Not everything will make it into the final published version and some events I decided at first not to cover may appear much later during revisions but in general the timeline helps me envision the arc of the plot. I also create character sketches for each major character that include a physical description and psychological and emotional details that I found during my research that define the character as an individual. What is more elusive and must develop during the writing itself are the details and scenes that breathe life into characters and the era. I don’t like to pre-plan too much of my actual story. I prefer to let my characters grow and show me the way; if this doesn’t happen, if I get stuck, then it usually means I have not done enough groundwork beforehand and so I go back and revisit my timeline and my character sketches, and do more research.
I have collected all your books and am already looking forward to the next one. Can you give us a sneak preview? Who is it about and where are you in the writing/publishing process?
I am currently working on Princess Isabella, a historical novel about Isabella of Castile, tracing her life from her dramatic youth to her accession as queen of Castile and the first twelve years of her exciting, controversial reign. I covered the latter years of Isabella’s life in my previous novel The Last Queen; while researching that book, I was captivated by Isabella as a character. She’s been lauded as a saint by some and a fanatic by others; she set in motion the terrors of the Inquisition yet she also financed Columbus and united Spain after centuries of internal strife. Isabella is the first queen of the Renaissance; yet few people know the incredible story of her tumultuous rise to the throne, her love affair with her husband, or of the events that led to the most climatic of years: 1492. I hope to bring to life her incredible vision and strength, as well as illuminate her intentions. Princess Isabella will be published in 2012 by Ballantine Books.
I’ve also recently finished a thorough editorial revision of my first novel, The Tudor Secret, a suspense tale told by a spy for Elizabeth Tudor, which takes place in the final days of Edward VI’s reign. The Tudor Secret is the first in a series of novels that will trace this spy’s rise to power as Elizabeth’s intimate and his own breathtaking struggle to survive those seeking to destroy him, amongst whom is a very dangerous Robert Dudley. Fans of my work will recognize The Tudor Secret as a re-issue of my self-published novel ‘The Secret Lion’; I was very fortunate last year to sell three books in this series to St Martin’s Press and to now be working with a talented editor who’s helping me revitalize the story. As soon as I finish writing Princess Isabella, I’ll begin writing the second book in my Tudor series, which is untitled as yet.
The Tudor Secret will be published in early 2011 in trade paperback by St Martin’s Press.
Thank you so much for inviting me, Mirella. I appreciate your generosity and support and hope your readers will enjoy The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. To find out more about me and my work, please visit my website at: http://www.cwgortner.com/
Christoher, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to visit. It was a pleasure learning more about you and your work. Now hurry and write, I'm anxiously awaiting the next one!