Sunday, 6 January 2013

An Interview with the Author of 'The Queen's Vow' C.W. Gortner


C.W. GORTNER holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California.

In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into thirteen languages to date. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.

A very warm welcome to you C.W, and can I thank you, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today.

Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

For the benefit of our International readers can you tell us a bit about the part of the world that you are currently resident in and why do you like living there?

For the past thirty-so years, I’ve resided in San Francisco, California, in the United States. I was raised in southern Spain and when my parents decided to return to the US, my father chose the Bay Area, a part of the country he’d always loved. So, in a way I never chose to live here; it was a place I came to in my adolescence because of my parents. But I have come to love it: the landscape in Northern California is beautiful, rugged and there are both mountains and beaches nearby (though the ocean here is too cold to swim in!). I also spend time every year in Antigua, Guatemala, where my partner and I have a home. It’s a gorgeous colonial city, surrounded by volcanoes; Guatemala is an incredible country, sultry, inspiring, and full of colour.

Can I ask what sort of books did you like reading as a child?

As a child, I loved Enid Blyton. I grew up reading her books, as well as those of C.S. Lewis. Later on, I discovered historical fiction and Gothic novels; I became addicted to Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton, and the Bronte sisters. I must have read “My Cousin Rachel” and “Wuthering Heights” at least a dozen times! And Jean Plaidy’s “Murder Most Royal” was my favourite book; I still own the battered Pan edition I first bought in Spain, though I’ve since retired it in favour of a first-edition hardcover I had the incredible good luck to find in a bookstore in London.

Do you think the books that you read as a child have influenced your writing in any way?

Absolutely. I discovered that history could be alive; as vital, as real as anything happening today. Historical fiction clothed the past in emotion and flesh-and-blood for me; suddenly, historical names I’d heard droned out in class became actual people, with their distinct personalities. Their struggles and longings, desires and tragedies—I couldn’t get enough of it. Reading historical fiction instilled in me, as well, a lifelong passion for the past that has never diminished. To this day, when I open a new historical novel, I feel that eager anticipation of discovery.

Do you have a set routine when you are working on a novel?

 I write every day except Sundays or while on vacation, at least 4 hours or 1,300 words. Usually, I work from mid-morning to mid-afternoon, break for a late lunch (I’m still a Spaniard at heart) nap or read, then return for a few hours in the evening before dinner to revise what I’ve written. Routines are important to me as a writer because I’m always slightly fearful that if I stray for too long without writing, I may never go back to it or lose my “mojo” for it, as they say. It’s silly, really, because writers write: it’s what we do, and it’s as innate to us as breathing. But the fear spurs me and that’s good, because, especially when working on a historical novel, the research can be seductive and it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of researching some detail forever and never getting a word out on the page.

Where do you do your writing best?

 In my study at home, surrounded by my books and art and with my dog beside me.

What else apart from your obvious interest in history, helped you decide to actually write historical fiction novels?

 I’m attracted to hidden stories, to secrets within established facts. I’ve always loved novels that feature a mystery or secret that must be discovered yet is obscured by something else. In a way that is what historical fiction is for me. You have the established story: queen marries prince but prince dies; queen goes mad with grief and her kingdom falls apart. That is the “history.” But, what if there’s another, hidden story underneath it? What if, the queen didn’t go mad as we’re told but fought instead to protect her throne? What if her grief was actually defiance? What if she was a very different woman from her legend? This is what made me decide to write historical novels: I seek to uncover the other side of the coin, the tale that may have not survived. The facts must support it, of course; I can’t “make it up.” But more often than not, when I find myself drawn to a character, like Juana of Castile, Catherine de Medici and Isabella of Spain, there is far more to her history than meets the eye. These women were pigeonholed into easily identifiable clichés by historians, their complexity removed for consumption by the masses. And not just the women; a male character like Henri III in my novel about Catherine de Medici, a gay king in a deeply homophobic society, whose very decision to not hide his sexuality initiated explosive scandal—he’s rarely been accorded serious study. These are the characters I gravitate to. I crave controversy, because if someone has a reputation, chances are they did something interesting to earn it.

What made you decide to focus your current novel around Queen Isabella of Castile and her times?

I grew up in Spain hearing about Isabella: she’s of course a subject of study in every elementary history class there, the queen who united the country and created the powerbase that made Spain such a force during the 16th and 17th centuries. But, as with most learned history, she was also enigmatic to me, one-dimensional and frightening: the fanatical warrior-queen who kicked out the Moors and the Jews, and initiated the Inquisition. I knew little else about her until I wrote my first novel, “The Last Queen” about her daughter, Juana. Isabella is a strong character in that book; we meet her after her triumphs, as she launches her newly-forged nation through the marriages of her children to various world powers. Juana and Isabella have a difficult relationship; they’re antithetical in so many ways, yet also, as is often the case with relationships among family members, rather similar in character. I researched Isabella extensively while writing “The Last Queen” and discovered this rarely-told, fascinating story of her tumultuous youth and dramatic struggle to win her throne. She did not start out, I found, as the sombre matron of her later years. Like all of us, she was once young, ambitious, determined. She had nothing to start with save her royal birth; no one ever expected her to find greatness, and yet she defied the odds. She defied her society’s rules, too, by choosing a husband forbidden to her and assuming the throne as a sovereign in an age when few women had ruled successfully. The story of Isabella’s youth and early reign are as exciting, as passionate, as steeped in tragedy, intrigue, and triumph, as any I had read. I knew that I had to build a novel around her. It also brought me full circle to “The Last Queen,” which begins where “The Queen’s Vow” ends.

When you are writing a novel, how do you place yourself into the time period that you are actually writing about?

I read voraciously before and during the writing, anything and everything I can find about my characters and their era. My bibliography for a novel includes countless biographies, social and cultural accounts, art books, architectural books, costume and music and gardening books—in short, anything that fuels my imagination and inspires me with details of a vanished world. I also travel extensively to as many extant sites related to my character as I can; though the places and the landscape have usually changed a great deal, for me there’s no substitute to experiencing the countries that my characters once walked in. And I’m always rewarded by these trips; I had a memorable experience in Seville while researching “The Queen’s Vow” that shifted my perception of Isabella and her stay in that city significantly. You uncover nuggets of treasure when researching in the actual places which nothing else can substitute, not even the internet. The libraries and archives in the cities I visit are always invaluable for locating little-known contemporary documents, such as letters and eye-witness accounts that can change, sometimes dramatically, my take on a particular event. I also listen to period music and when I can, seek out period re-enactors to try on the clothing of the era. Though again this has changed (the Renaissance didn’t have synthetic fabrics), the very act of donning a doublet, a gown with a train, a hooded cloak; of moving within the weight of these unfamiliar constructions, helps me get a feel for how my characters felt when they were dressed—and, conversely, when they were not. It’s also practical: you discover that perspiring in velvet is unpleasant, that riding or dancing in a costume embedded with jewels is a test of strength, and that it’s impossible to wear most of the outfits we see in the portraits on a daily basis. The day-to-day clothing was less ostentatious; what has survived, what we see, is the ceremonial appearance.

How do you go about imagining, developing and give real lives and personalities to the characters that we read about within in your books?

It’s almost forensic, the process I go through to create an emotional and psychological profile for my character. First of all, I start with what is known. For example, we all know Isabella was pious. There’s no getting around it. Everything related to her emphasizes her Catholicism in a fervent era when people truly believed that the survival of the soul was a matter of deepest concern and God was a vengeful being who would punish the sinner. So, my task is to discover why is she particularly affected by this piety that brackets her world; what happened to her that makes her respond to it? It’s painstaking; I must outline everything I can find—her reactions to events, anything she said or wrote, anything that was said or written about her—and then, through a careful process of examining her experiences within the overall trajectory of her life, I put together my version of her; the woman I think she may have been. None of us start out as the person we are when we die. Life moulds us, often in unexpected ways. This is how I approach developing my characters’ personalities, in a nutshell. It takes a lot of time and searching; I’ve even been known to consult experts in psychiatry to pinpoint a certain aspect of a character that is troubling me, but I consider this to be the single most important aspect of writing a book. If I don’t know who she is, how will my reader? And while my job ultimately is not to make you necessarily sympathize or even like her, I do feel that in order to create her successfully, regardless of whether we agree with her or not, we must understand her.

For the ‘budding’ authors who visit my blog, can I ask if you found it easy to get your first book accepted and published?

Oh, no! I endured quite a trial-by-fire in order to be published. It took me thirteen years and four agents before I broke through the gates. My first published novel “The Last Queen” was rejected many times in its various incarnations; I had, in fact, written a previous manuscript that was represented and rejected before I wrote “The Last Queen”. It was—is—my second manuscript and after it was rejected by practically every editor in New York, I wrote “The Confessions of Catherine de Medici” and “The Tudor Secret” and had the very same soul-crushing experience with both. Editors liked my work but none offered a contract because at the time, it was believed historical fiction was a “dead” genre. I ended up going the indie route, out of desperation, and this was before self-publishing came into vogue. Then, out of the blue, my current agent contacted me; I had queried her months before but never followed up, she’d finally read my manuscript and seen what I had done with my indie book. She was curious. We decided to go out with a revised version of “The Last Queen” after she provided input that proved invaluable; and still, we racked up several rejections. By then I was so inured to people saying no, I didn’t expect anything. But my agent persisted and finally, in 2006, two of my manuscripts sold at auction to Random House. Shortly thereafter, my Tudor mystery sold in a 3-book deal, as well, and my career was launched. It was a tough road, but looking back I believe it happened exactly as it was meant to. I learned so much during those rejection years about my craft; I even returned to school and earned a degree in writing and history. And I studied the business of publishing. For it is, in the end, a business. And for writers, the balancing act can be challenging: what we do is our passion, our art, but what publishers do is rather different. We need each other to bring a book to the public, but it behoves writers, especially in these days of so many choices, to understand what publishing is and what publishing is not.  

What is your favourite book and why?

Oh, there are simply too many to single out one. I love so many books for different reasons; but if I had to pick two, for a novel I’d say “My Cousin Rachel” because, for me, it perfects the art of the unreliable narrator; and for non-fiction, “Report to Greco” by Nikos Kazantakis, for very personal reasons.

Are you currently reading a book at the moment, and if so what is it?

I just finished the marvellous “Wolves in Winter” by Lisa Hilton. Set in Renaissance Italy, it tells the story of a strange Spanish child who is sold in slavery to the Medici and then becomes the confidante of Caterina Sforza, the Lioness of Forlí who was ousted by Cesare Borgia. I loved it.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests that you enjoy in order to give you a break from your normal routine and your writing?

I relish being in nature. I live a few hours from Lake Tahoe, where I have a second home, and hiking in the mountains is always a fulfilling experience. The vastness of it, the stunning breadth of the land: it reminds me of how small we are in the scheme of things, and how often we fret over inconsequential things. I also travel to Guatemala often and love exploring the beauties of that country, in particular its spectacular beaches. I’ve always had a deep affinity for the ocean, so swimming in it is something I seek out whenever I can. I also help rescue animals about to be euthanized in overcrowded shelters; I’m passionate about animal welfare, ever since I was a boy in Spain, and find that sharing my life with these fellow beings brings me a sense of peace that I otherwise would find elusive. I’m restless by nature and somewhat melancholic; an animal’s pure sense of joy, of always being in the moment, without brooding on the future or the past, dissipates those tendencies in me. To see a rescue animal come out of a shelter and respond to love, no matter what it has endured, is a lesson we should all take to heart. Animals never forget but they always forgive. They are all emotion, not intellect; the primal side of us we‘ve forgotten in our mechanized world.

Can you give us a hint about any other books that you may have in the making?

I’m currently working on a novel about Lucrezia Borgia. It traces her so-called Vatican years, from the time her father becomes pope to her third marriage and departure for Ferrara. Lucrezia is fascinating, another enigmatic woman in a time of drama and intrigue, the sole daughter in a notoriously rapacious clan, who had to fight for survival. Publication will be sometime in 2014, I believe. And in July, the second novel in my Elizabeth’s Spymaster series, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, will be published in the UK. I’m proud of this second book in the series: the lead character, Brendan Prescott, returns to court, now under Mary I, and becomes ensnared in a treacherous conspiracy that will test all his resolve to protect both Elizabeth and his own dangerous past. It’s a darker, more mature story than “The Tudor Secret” and I hope readers will enjoy it.

C.W., I have been absolutely delighted and very honoured that you agreed to be interviewed for my literary site. I would also like to thank-you again for taking the time to speak to us today.

Thank you so much! I sincerely hope your readers enjoy THE QUEEN’S VOW.

Just Released by Hodder and Stoughton:-

If you would like to find out more about C.W. and his writing, the link to his website is given below:


  1. Thank you so much for hosting me. It's a pleasure to be here and I hope your readers enjoy THE QUEEN'S VOW.

    1. Thank you too for calling by and leaving your comment. It is very much appreciated. 'The Queen's Vow' is a great read!


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