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The Original "Getting Real"

The Original "Getting Real"
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Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My New Coat Makes Me Happy

New Year is a time for clearing out the old and bringing in the new. While clearing wardrobes and cupboards, it occurred to me how interesting it is that some garments - regardless of their appearance - make you feel great when you're wearing them, and others have associations with sadness or gloom that doesn't come from any specific moment while wearing them. I once had a wonderful pair of 'designer-label' (whatever that really means since everything is designed by someone!) jeans that fitted to perfection but every time I put them on, I felt unhappy. Then there was an old scruffy jumper that I wore till it virtually fell from my shoulders, and I parted with it reluctantly because it had a happy atmosphere about it. Perhaps the jeans were made in some sweat shop by some unhappy person who was being paid a pittance for their efforts and every stitch was sewn in with sadness (I try to find out where things come from to make sure that doesn't happen but you never know). Perhaps the scruffy jumper was made by a happy person somewhere...
They say that happy cooks create meals that bring health and joy; unhappy cooks, whatever their ability, create meals that leave an unhappy taste. I think this is true.
There is an atmosphere about us that we create. We might think that what we do is worthless or meaningless and makes no difference, or that some moments of our lives are unimportant. Standing in a queue in a post office or supermarket, we might feel like we're just killing time, but supposing that every moment we are creating something - adding to, or taking from the loveliness of creation. It makes every moment worthwhile. It makes a difference what we send out in everything we do.
If any of the people who made my new coat - which I love! - chances upon this site, I hope you know that every button you sewed, every seam, and the feel of the wool (thank you, sheep, and farmer and dyer and everyone else involved in its creation) has made someone very happy. Thank you!! How beautiful to create things that bring so much pleasure to others!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Wars of Religion and Divine Love

I realize that these views may be controversial and it isn't my intention to criticise or offend anyone else's beliefs. These are merely my thoughts at Christmas-time, which is always a time of reflection.
"Religion," I was taught as a child, is a 'rule of life' or way of measuring - a religio - or 'right thinking.' The religion in which I was raised, preached a beautiful God of Love; a Father; a God whom we find in each other and who, because we all made such a mess of it, was incarnated in Jesus. I loved my religion - I loved the incense, the sense of it touching my own personal 'tragic hero' (on which many of us, in our youth, love to thrive); I loved the beauty of stained-glass windows and the smell of churches, the beautiful writings of saints, the loveliness of the people within my parish...and I loved how it touched my own sense of martyrdom. But some things didn't make sense. I could accept those which didn't make sense to my intellect (after all, I was told, you're not God so His ways are mysterious to us); I could accept those that didn't make sense to my heart - the age-old question "If God is love, why do people suffer?" - Okay, God's ways are mysterious and we step outside of our immediate surroundings and it all makes sense. But still there was niggle right down in my soul - nothing to do with intellect or emotion...something deeper.
The story of the Garden of Eden, I learned, was the terrible tragedy of our kindly Father, offering us everything that was beautiful, and what did our forebears do? They ungraciously disobeyed him and ate the fruit of the wrong tree. For that, women (since the woman, having been temped by the serpent, tempted the man) were condemned forever to suffer in childbirth and humanity was condemned to sweat and labour and ousted from the garden. Now, it wasn't just the culprits who suffered that, but everyone forever. So...the kind, omnipotent, omniscient God of Love created a beautiful garden with a great big temptation in the middle of it; his children yielded to temptation and ever since then we all crawl on our bellies and are born with original sin. "Ho hum!" I thought as a child, "that seems a bit petty from someone so loving and so great?" and when I questioned this was told, "Everyone who ever lived would have committed the same sin - everyone except Jesus or Mary - and that is why we are who we are. That is the meaning of original sin."
So, basically, we're born 'bad' but we're the children of God? Does sour fruit come from a healthy tree? Do figs bring forth grapes? Does the God of Love bring forth 'bad' children?
Happily, I was told, our loving Father takes pity on us and became Incarnate to show us the extent of His love. The beautiful Christ-child was born; angels sang, wise men and kings worshipped him and all kinds of wonders took place because we were at last saved from the sins of our forebears. Hallelujah! Except, we were so wicked that this beautiful child had to then take upon himself the weight of all of our sins down the ages. He had to go through the sheer horror of the crucifixion - this innocent one - to redeem us. Why? Who asked that of an innocent one? Our loving Father (still holding a grudge because someone ate an apple once)? Satan - then Satan is more powerful than Love?? Some sin it must have been to merit such an excruciating (literally) death of an innocent!
I studied theology to degree level to try to understand this. I read Anselm and Augustine and Aquinas and Abelard - saw all the heretics who were burned to death for being a little off-course (or in disagreement with the establishment), saw the simple witches through the ages (the women who simply returned to what we all know in our blood and bones about the real Loving God - masculine/feminine in One), saw a lot of noise about nothing...and spent much of the time looking out of the window at people walking by as leaves fell, or as children ran in the snow and laughed, or as someone pushed a wheelchair and cared for someone else - I saw God in all of that and it was very different from the message of the theologians and authorities. Nothing I learned of those ancient debates explained it. And I was told it was arrogant to disagree with the knowledge and tradition of ages and of far wiser people than I am. So I studied history and read of the 'Wars of Religion', the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation - the martyrs and murders, the heathen and those baptised at sword point....and I looked out of the window and saw the children play in the snow, the old people chatting amid the fallen leaves, the drunks, the beggars, the beautiful people...
Here, in the midst of the Christmas season, there is a lovely crib, handed down through three generations. The figures are all beautifully coloured and so carefully created in such detail with their gold and frankincense and myrrh, the vivid and tasteful colours of their clothes, their serene faces - it is a truly beautiful work of art. It has nothing to do with original sin or the notions of theologians or the attempts of churches to control, or of ideologies or war lords who adopt a religion in order to amass armies, or those who decide that someone else's way of life, sexuality or beliefs are somehow damned. It has everything to do with the Christ within us all. Everything to do with recognizing once and for all that no loving Father would ever condemn generation after generation with original sin, or even see such an abhorrent notion, still less would demand the death of an innocent, or have to die himself to 'save' us.
To my mind, Jesus' message, the message of Christmas, is that Christ lives in each one of us - not only the baby Jesus in the manger (though I adore him), but in each one of us; we are all the expression of Life, of Love, of Freedom from ideologies, of freedom from having to fight for ideologies, to kill for ideologies, or to spend centuries repenting the 'sins of the fathers' and crawl through our lives as sinful worms in the dust. The reality is, surely, that Love means Love - not sentimental or Jesus-the-anaesthetic but Love that says we are, each of us, God's expression, free, as Christ is free.
I honour and worship the child in the manger. I honour you, as you are reading this as an equally beautiful expression of the beautiful creator of all.
Merry Christmas-tide and a very Happy New Year to you!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

The Christmas Spirit

I saw the Christmas Spirit
through an image of the past,
in a stable, warm and sheltered
from the night wind's icy blast,
when the shepherds trudged at midnight
through the pasture bleak and wild,
to behold that God is with us
in the clear eyes of a child.

And all the Christmases since then,
and not so long ago,
when we ran together, laughing
through our childhood in the snow,
when we hung our hopeful stockings
and we listened for the sleigh,
and we knew that God is with us
in the joy of Christmas Day.

And I saw the Christmas Spirit
in an image of our time,
when the world grew dark and fearful,
filled with violence and crime,
when the power-seeking despot
sent his soldiers through the town,
set to slay the Christmas Spirit,
to protect his hollow crown.

And I saw the politicians
of all countries and all years,
who would crush the Christmas Spirit,
by instilling us with fear,
taking freedoms, claiming power
till the Christ who lives within,
still finds, when he comes here knocking,
that there's no room in the inn.

But I saw the Christmas Spirit
in a dream of what could be,
when we recognize our beauty
and the Truth will make us free:
when we listen in the silence
and we follow our own call,
from that holy child of Bethlehem
who lives within us all.

O, little child, now sleeping
on the sharp and prickling straw,
come live through us this Christmas,
make us innocent once more,
may our hearts be free and fearless
till, like angels from above,
we'll rejoice that God with us,
and be messengers of love.

(Christina Croft)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Most Beautiful Princess

I recently had the opportunity to discuss Most Beautiful Princess with a group of readers here in America. This gave rise to a number of questions, which we put to Christina in writing (as she is in England). It might be of interest to other readers to read the questions and responses.

Cheryl: Prior to writing this novel, you had written a biography of Ella. What inspired you to do that in the first place?

Christina: The murder of the Russian Imperial Family is, of course, extremely well-known, and yet, though I was familiar with that, I had never heard anything about Ella until about ten years ago when I came across an article about her. I was amazed that this woman, who had once been seen as 'the most beautiful princess in Europe' and who had made such an impact on so many lives, was little more than a footnote in history. It was she who had virtually single-handedly engineered the marriage of her sister, Alix, to the future Tsar Nicholas II; she had - with her own hands! - picked up the remains of her husband when he was blown to pieces by a terrorist's bomb, and then forgiven his assassin; and she had done something totally unheard of in dispensing with her wealth in order to bring beauty to the poorest part of Moscow, personally tending the most abject patients in her hospital, and revealing a completely different side to the Imperial Family than the one which is usually presented of them living in luxury, oblivious of the poor around them. Most people I spoke with had heard of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, but I did not meet anyone who had even heard a word about Ella. Her statue stands above the door or Westminster Abbey and thousands of people pass it each day, knowing nothing about this remarkable life. At that time, there was no biography of the Grand Duchess published in England, and my sole aim in writing it was to make her better known as I feel she is one of the forgotten heroines of history, and a great inspiration to people today.

Cheryl: You decided to re-write the biography as a novel. Why was that?

Christina: A biography allows little room for interpreting feelings, emotions or spirituality. Biography, I think, is written very much from the head, whereas a novel can be written also from the heart. The more I learned about Ella, and the more I considered her motives and her spiritual experiences, the more I felt I 'knew' her and I wanted to go beyond the contraints of a purely 'factual' biography, wherein everything has to be cited from sources. I believe there are emotions and experiences that are common to all of us, which we never commit to paper or store in archives. I have no written sources for my own experiences of love, fear, awe and so on, yet I know I have experienced these things. When it comes to spiritual experiences - and Ella's, I am sure, were intense - it is even less likely that such things are put down in writing. Nor is it possible in a biography to state what someone was thinking, but it is possible to work backwards, seeing through actions to the motivations behind them, and the thoughts behind that motivation. There is much more freedom in a novel to create a fully-rounded human being, making the subject much more accessible so that readers can empathise more fully. That is what I hoped to achieve by this. I wish there were another term for this genre - something like 'faction' or 'ficto-biography' - as this book names no fictional characters, nor does it include any events which didn't actually happen. It is basically a biography with thoughts, words and interpretation of a heart, rather than simply events.

Cheryl: From the prologue of the book we know of Ella's ultimate fate. Why did you choose to provide that information first?

Christina: The first thing I discovered about Ella was that she was murdered in so horrific a way by the Bolsheviks. It was that fact that led me to want to know more, and so many questions gnawed at me. Why did a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, a woman whom the Muscovites revered as a saint, meet so terrible a fate? Why was she a nun? Why didn't she escape when she still had the chance? How had she come from those glittering ballrooms, stunning every man in the room, to this violent end? The more I thought about this, the more it seemed that knowing the end of the story at the beginning, creates the whole sense of where Ella's whole life was leading. And, although the prologue speaks of her ultimate fate, there is an added epilogue, which contains some information not revealed at the beginning which, I think, adds a whole new perspective on her death...and beyond!

Cheryl: In spite of the tragedy of the story, several people have commented upon feeling much better and more uplifted after reading this novel. Why do you think that is?

Christina: I am very happy if people feel that way. I think that, in spite of the end, Ella's life is not gloomy or depressing because it was a very full life and she achieved so much in those fifty-three years. The images of beautiful malachite ballrooms, the dazzling jewels, the glorious splendour of it all, raises my heart when I think of them, but then, too there is all that Ella did to bring beauty into the ugliest parts of the city. She seemed to experience everything from adulation - for her physical beauty, and later for her spiritual beauty - to being attacked as a 'Hessian witch' or a 'German spy'. She knew the opulence of that fabulous Russian Court, and she knew the absolute squalor of the slums. She knew awe and wonder and she knew despair. Hers was a life lived to the full and I think that is an uplifting thought.

Cheryl: During her lifetime Ella's marriage was the subject of so much rumor and gossip, and the speculation about whether or not the marriage was consummated or whether Serge was homosexual, continues to this day. In Most Beautiful Princess, you present a more sympathetic view of Serge. Why is that?

Christina: I think a lot of very one-sided and superficial descriptions of Serge have been written. In numerous places, I have read glib lines about, "Ella was very unhappily married," "Serge was gay," "Serge treated her badly." It all seems to be a quick - and in my view, mistaken - judgement. No one is that one-dimensional, and I think both Ella and Serge were deeply complex characters. Serge has so often been made into some kind of one-dimensional villain, rather than a very highly-strung man, desperately struggling to keep his frustration in check - and that frustration often resulting in outbursts of temper. Ella loved him and mourned him deeply and, as I see it, gossip and rumour caused her more pain and humiliation than anything she suffered from Serge. That doesn't mean I think he was easy to live with - and I hope that comes across clearly in the book. I believe we can observe a lot in body language and the more photographs you see of Serge, the more obvious it becomes that he had something to hide...

Cheryl: Although you obviously love your characters, you have not shied away from presenting Ella's human flaws. You had no difficulty in doing that?

Christina: Not at all. As a child I read the lives of so many canonised saints who were far too good to be true, or even real. Ella was not a plaster-cast image, but a real person with the same emotions we all have. Characters are far more endearing and we can empathise with them more fully when we know they are no different than we are.

Cheryl: In this midst of this very moving story, there are times when it appears that Queen Victoria provides the light - even comic - relief. Isn't that surprising, considering the general perception of her as a rather dour and unamused woman?

Christina: Queen Victoria never fails to amuse me! A busybody, always wanting to know the latest gossip; viewing her own marriage to Albert as more blissful than anyone else's; viewing her own sorrow as deeper than anyone else's, and yet, at the same time being so genuinely concerned and loving towards her granddaughters. I love Queen Victoria! And she was nothing like the staid old widow that she is often presented as being!

Cheryl: The novel is rich in descriptions that appeal to every sense. We can smell the scents of jasmine in the Holy Land, or the explosives from the bombed carriage in Moscow. We can hear the music in the ballrooms, feel the icy wind, see the sun rising over the Moskva River. How do you go about creating these very sensual images that give us the impression that we are actually there?

Christina: Usually, scenes just come to me in an image and I simply sit and listen to music, look at the window in the night, and the scenes appear before me as though on a cinema screen. I don't know where it comes from, it's just like seeing a film in front of my eyes, and, as it becomes clearer, I just smell the scents and hear the sounds. It's as though I don't have anything to do with it. It just happens.

Cheryl: Are there any other members of Queen Victoria's family about whom you'd like to write a similar style of book?
Christina: Many of them! Prince Albert, whom I love! Vicky (Empress Frederick) and Alice, Ella's mother; Moretta of Prussia...even the Kaiser! But, first I need to complete The Beckford Suite, which is a sequel to an earlier historical novel - The Fields Laid Waste - set at the opposite end of the social ladder.

Most Beautiful Princess

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Palgrave's Golden Treasury

When I was a little child, my Mum used to quote poetry while she bathed us. She washed our hair quoting Charles Kingsley's beautiful poem, "The Sands of Dee" :

"O, is it weed, or fish or floating hair -
A tress of golden hair,
A drowned maiden's hair,
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes of Dee..."

(Yikes, no wonder I had nightmares about drowning!!).

She quoted the beautiful, "Lady of Shalott"

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and of rye
That clothe the wold...

And a hundred more besides. As soon as I was able, I ran to her 'Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Poetry' and devoured all the words which, even when they had no meaning to me, sounded so beautiful.

John Masefield's beautiful Cargoes:

Quinquireme of Ninevah
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory,
Apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood and cedarwood
And sweet white wine...

Or Caroline Sarah Elizabeth Norton's, "I do not love thee"

I do not love thee, no, I do not love thee,
And yet when thou art absent, I am sad
And envy even the quiet blue sky above thee,
Whose silent stars may see thee and be glad.

It concerns me sometimes to think this beauty is not something that is part and parcel of everyday life now. Children have not heard of Masefield or Kingsley or even Longfellow and Tennyson. There are times when we feel things and do not have words to express them and suddenly, in such times, moments of poetry - remembered lines - express them for us so clearly. At times we all lack the vocabulary to express our highest selves, or to express the deepest reaches of our souls, but sometimes lines of poetry - like bars of music - say things for us that just 'get it'.

How has it come about that everything is now taken to its lowest common denominator? So-called poetry writes of joy-riders; so-called art speaks of unmade beds, pickled fish, emptiness. For heaven's sake - we are worth more than this! Isn't it time to return to beautiful language, beautiful art, beautiful imagery? Palgrave's Golden Treasury remains with me always - a real treasury of beauty.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

A Song From "Branwell" - Where Wild Geese Fly

Where Wild Geese Fly

Chill falls the winter
and the evening sun descending,
pale as the moon.
An icy November sky.
Frozen the river,
and another day is ending.
Wild poppies wither in the frost
and die.

And wild geese fly
on silver wings over meadows,
far from this land,
this season of sad songs and snow.
Do they know I would go
if I had wings I’d follow,
home to the love I left so long ago?

Well I remember
burning bonfires bright and warming,
firelight and friends,
the glow of an autumn blaze.
On through December,
when the icicles were forming,
sleigh rides and laughter
of my childhood days.

And wild geese fly
on silver wings over meadows,
far from this land,
this season of sad songs and snow.
Do they know I would go
if I had wings I’d follow,
home to the love I left so long ago?

Soon shall the summer
steal across the wide horizon,
melting the ice
as southerly thaw winds blow.
Then shall the petals
shed their scent across the gardens
calling me back to love
I left so long ago.

And wild geese fly
on silver wings
over meadows,
far from this land,
this season of sad songs and snow,
do they know
I shall go!
I’ll find my wings and follow
home to the love I left so long ago.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore

There's a song in "Gigi" called I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore.

We live very much in youth culture - I believe that is truer in America than in England, though I might be mistaken about that - and people go to such extremes to remove any signs of ageing, as though it is shameful to no longer be young.

Nature has no such qualms. Nature goes through her seasons so happily and the wise old trees are equally beautiful as the saplings, often more so. The trees and flowers are so refreshing in the spring, but the trees in the winter have a loveliness of their own. It's a wisdom, a certainty, a sense of everything being as it should be. Faces which are stretched and pulled tight by a scalpel are not nearly as beautiful to me as faces that tell a story - misery, selfishness, kindness, laughter - all these things are etched into faces and do we really want to remove those signs of life experience? Those signs of wisdom?

There are elderly people who take great pride in being old - why? It's no great honour to say you lived a long time. Equally there are people who are terrified of being old. Why? It's no great honour to say you are young. Surely, it's how we live that matters. Age is utterly irrelevant.

Having said that, and thinking I'm glad I'm not young anymore - isn't there something wonderful about being beyond the angst and self-consciousness of youth? Isn't there something wonderful about being able to feel deeply and not feel the world is about to collapse because something unpleasant has happened to you? Isn't there something wonderful about having the experience of so many different people coming in and out of your life that you gain a fuller picture? What is really sad to me, is that perhaps many people who want to appear eternally youthful, are really trying to capture a youth they never enjoyed or they live in fear of worse to come.

The most beautiful thing of all is surely to maintain the wonder of children, the excitement of adolescence, the confidence of early adulthood, and combine that with the wisdom of experience. Who cares how many years we've been here? The question really is, are we doing here what we came here to do?

So, if you wake on a Monday morning with a face like an old sack and wonder where the years went, why not think, "Well, this old sack is filled with goodies! I'll bring them out today like a magician brings a rabbit from a hat, with a young and happy heart!"

Saturday, 6 December 2008

An Interview With C.W. Gortner about his latest book: THE LAST QUEEN

We are delighted to have been able to interview C.W. Gortner about his latest book:
THE LAST QUEEN (Ballantine Books 2008), a thoroughly absorbing novel about Juana of Castile, the last Queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne.

H & C: From the moment we heard about THE LAST QUEEN, we were fascinated because, from the few references we had read about Juana, she had seemed a rather sad and insignificant woman, demented by the death of her husband. What inspired you to delve more deeply into her story in the first place?

C.W.Gortner: I was raised in southern Spain, near a ruined Moorish castle that had once been a summer residence of Juana's parents, Isabel and Fernando. Growing up, I was always fascinated by the legend of the Mad Queen, who'd allegedly dragged her husband's coffin with her throughout Spain and whose unwillingness to rule had eventually resulted in the end of an ages-long line of monarchs of Spanish blood. One year, my family took us on a trip to Granada, where Juana and Philip the Fair - her husband - are buried alongside Isabel and Fernando in the Cathedral. The sight of Juana's effigy, half-turned from her husband's, riveted me; and when I later went into the Alhambra and thought of her spending her youth there, I just had to know more. My mother tells me I asked a thousand questions about her: was she really mad? Why did she mourn Philip so? What happened to her? She haunted me; and many years later, after reading several biographies of her that left me with more questions than answers, I decided to investigate her on my own and perhaps find a way to satisfy both my questions and the desire to discover who she might have really been.

H & C: Would you say you approached your research in the manner of a detective, gradually uncovering more clues, or was there an intuitive sense from the start that there was far more to her than met the eye?

C.W. Gortner: I always had this intuitive sense that there was more to Juana's story, secrets and facts that had been distorted. We're talking, after all, about the daughter of one of history's most influential queens. Juana had been chosen by her mother to be the wife of Philip of Habsburg, the heir to a vast and powerful empire. It was a vital dynastic union for Spain, and a dual one, as Juana's brother Juan wed Philip's sister, Margaret. The marriages were strategic, designed to bolster Spain's prestige in European eyes and form an unbreakable alliance against Spain's territorial foe, France. I cannot emphasize enough just how importantly Isabel viewed her Habsburg alliance, how essential it was to strengthening Spain's international reputation and safeguarding Spanish claims in Italy. So many of Juana's biographers claim that she'd always been unbalanced, even in her youth, moody and melancholic, already on the inexorable path to dementia - but this didn't seem to correspond with the very fact that Queen Isabel had chosen Juana to represent Spain in the Hapsburg marriage. That was my first clue. Why choose the most unbalanced of her daughters for this incredible role? As I researched and traveled to the places associated with Juana, I discovered more information that refuted the established interpretation of Juana as an unstable woman unsuited to rule. I became a detective in that I deliberately set out to explore each of the alleged "facts" to see if they stood up to more enlightened ways of looking at history and women in history in particular.

H & C: The era in which THE LAST QUEEN is set, is one of enormously complicated political rivalries and intrigues. How did you tackle making those complexities accessible to readers who know little about the period?

C.W. Gortner: That was definitely my primary challenge. Because so many English-speaking readers have more working knowledge of English history, I had to set Juana's story in the larger context and make her importance as both an international figure and a Spanish queen accessible and understandable. One of the ways I did it was to bring forth the associations Juana had with famous historical figures most historical fiction readers are familiar with, such as Catherine of Aragon. She was Henry VIII's first wife and Juana's youngest sister. We meet Catherine in the book. Readers are also familiar with Charles V, as he was part of drama set in motion by Henry VIII to annul his marriage to Catherine; Charles was also Juana's eldest child. Naturally, there were complexities that had to be simplified for dramatic purpose. For example, the convoluted struggle between Spain and France over the crown of Naples was long-standing and had many factors woven into it, with each side claiming their superior position. Rather than explain all of it and bog the narrative down in unnecessary and complicated details that had, in the end, little to do with the immediate story, I simplified the argument through the eyes of the characters. Juana's father Fernando of Aragon is the one defending his claim to Naples claim against France; and as Juana adores her father in the novel, he explains it to her in ways that she, as a young and reluctant bride - and the reader - can understand. It's a matter of looking at the larger picture, determining as a writer which parts the reader must know, and then figuring out unobtrusive and hopelessly seamless ways to weave these parts into the story If it affected Juana directly, I tackled it. If not, I made conscientious decisions about what to include and what to leave out.

H & C: In commenting on your book, you said that Juana had been denied a voice for centuries and 'the time has come to let her speak.' Was it for this reason that you chose to write the novel in the first person?

C.W. Gortner: Actually, the first draft was in third person. But I hit a wall when I finished the manuscript; Juana proved elusive in third person. And my agent, bless her, told me she felt Juana came across as enigmatic and unreliable. I realized then that I had inadvertently shied away from taking a definitive stance with her, perhaps in the mistaken hope that I could leave it to the reader to decide ultimately who Juana was. My agent thought I had done enough groundwork to embody her fully, so I cautiously revised the first few chapters in the first person. As it turned out, I found this exercise quite liberating and began to see how I could capture her in a deeply personal way that I'd not been able to do before. I ended up re-writing the entire book, ripping out old scenes and creating new ones, so I could discover the woman I'd researched for years but had kept at arm's length. At first, I found it intimidating to write in the first person as a woman; but emotions do not recognize gender. We all know what it feels like to love, to hate, to be betrayed, to long, to laugh, to hope. Once I managed to suppress my ego (I employed an acting technique, in which you subdue your personality in order to inhabit the character you're playing) I found that "becoming" Juana came naturally and far more easily than looking at her through the third-person lens. I also found that some of the knots in the story dissolved, because now she herself could live out the ambiguities of her own life. Rather than bear witness to them in third person, I "lived" them through her.

H & C: Did you find there were drawbacks in approaching the novel from that viewpoint?

C.W. Gortner: There are always drawbacks to any viewpoint. First person narrows the story to one character's point of view; what the character doesn't know, the reader can't know. Foreshadowing pivotal events becomes more difficult, as does bringing to life the thoughts of other characters. However, it is also a marvelous vehicle for focusing on the lead character and staying on course with your story. In third person, I have a tendency to want to digress, to swim into the broader currents of historical events that muddy my central storyline, as well as leap into every one's heads. I first started writing fiction in the third person but for me personally, first person has become more immediate and compelling. That of course might change in the future, depending on the demands of the story I'm telling. For Juana, however, it was the perfect viewpoint for the story I wanted to tell.

H & C: Do you think there are difficulties for a man writing from a woman's perspective - particularly a woman of a different era?

C.W. Gortner: I touched on this earlier, and, yes, of course; not just as a woman but as a person who lived in a different time. For all we think we may know about life in the 16th century - and we know a lot! - the truth is all we can achieve as novelists is a close approximation of the reality of life in those times. I am enamored of the period but I do not share its beliefs; the religious intolerance, misogyny, racism, cruelty towards the impoverished and towards animals are distasteful aspects of the time that I do not admire. But in order to portray them accurately and communicate insightfully with my reader, I must understand why people felt and acted the ways they did. Even a Grand Inquisitor burning heretics had his reasons and they made sense to him. I don't condone his actions but I must comprehend his way of thinking. The same applies to writing as a woman in a different era; I had to dig deep into myself to uncover the commonalities we share, despite our genders; the bias and passion and darkness. And whatever I did not know - such as the act of giving birth - I questioned my women friends about in minute detail. A writer needn't be shackled by our sex: we can research emotion just as we do facts. And I believe our hearts don't recognize the boundaries of our physical exteriors. The hardest part is letting go of our ego and the societal skills we are taught to embody in order to "be" a man or woman. Ultimately, I think I succeeded in portraying a woman's point of view but I must defer to my readers, in the final accounting. It does bear noting that my agent and all my editors are women, and not once did they question my ability. Indeed, they expressed astonishment at how well I captured Juana's perspective.

H & C: You comment, too, on the way in which women have been badly treated throughout history. Did this influence your decision to write of Juana's life?

C.W. Gortner: It influences everything I write. I'm an innate feminist. I think women have suffered from historical oppression because history, by and large, is told from the male point of view. This was certainly at the forefront of my mind as I embarked on the novel. I could almost see the distortions in the biographies and contemporary accounts, the ways in which Juana's struggle for power had been degraded to serve the perspective of the men who had wronged her. Almost nowhere in these accounts do you hear her voice, do you see her as anything other than a stereotype: she's the besotted princess enraged by jealousy, the bereft widow so disconsolate she can think of nothing else, the mad crone worshipping a corpse as her kingdom crumbles around her. She's the ultimate victim, helpless before her own emotional turmoil. And that, for me, was the biggest red flag of all. No woman I've ever met is that one-dimensional!

H & C: Your extensive research involved being in the places where Juana lived, and walking the roads she had travelled. Did that help you to gain a fuller understanding of Juana? In what ways did the landscape of Castile help shape her character?

C.W. Gortner: Absolutely. Juana was a quintessentially Spanish woman. She cannot have existed as she was in any other country than Spain. Being half Spanish myself and having lived in Spain helped a lot, but seeing the places she lived, walking the paths she took - it alchemized my understanding of her. The aridity and desolation of Castile in winter, the verdant abundance of spring and scorching heat of summer; these are all part of Juana's soul and symbolize her contradictions and pride, her strength and her despair. I believe she loved Spain with an intensity that surpassed her love for Philip, and in order to understand how she became the woman she was you have to understand the passion of being a Spaniard. For me, this is perhaps the most challenging and defining aspect of writing a historical character. Today, we have globalization; cell phones, blue jeans and fast food are part of the lexicon of almost every culture. In Juana's era, being a princess of Castile signified a way of thinking, of acting, of seeing the world that was very different from being a princess of France or England. You have to pull back the veil between the past and the present and reveal the country as it was when your character lived in it. If you succeed, then you can visualize how the landscape around her shaped her personality. And by landscape, I mean both the physical and emotional. We are all shaped by our surroundings; the trick is to understand how this occurs and apply it to a time when life was more brutal, shorter in length, and more intense in its quest for survival.

H & C: Why, do you think, the information about Juana remained classified even in the 20th century? Was the truth you uncovered so devastating that it meant history had to be completely rewritten?

C.W. Gortner: I think the information remained classified as a holdover from the embargo first set on it by her son Charles V. After the Comuneros revolt and his private meeting with his mother -events I do not cover in the novel as they took place years after my story ends - Charles ordered a new set of custodians to guard Juana and had her access to the outside world severely curtailed. These custodians were expected to answer only to him, and their voluminous letters detailing Juana's life in confinement for the next twenty-odd years are part of the documents that ended up in the classified file. Why? What happened between Chares and Juana at that meeting that made him enforce her imprisonment to such an extreme? And what did the custodians' letters say that Charles didn't want anyone else to see? I think they said his mother was sane, and from what I was able to read - as many of the documents are no longer extant - I think Charles had determined that this fact could never be made public, as it would have essentially signified that he, the Habsburg emperor, held his mother, the rightful queen of Spain, under duress. Hundreds of years later, after the Spanish Civil War, Franco threw out the monarchy and established his fascist regime. Anything relating to the monarchist rule was suppressed during his regime and by default, the papers concerning Juana fell under his dragnet.

I think the devastating truth that was kept hidden was that Juana was driven to madness years after her initial imprisonment and subsequent rulers of Spain conspired to keep this fact a secret. Even Francesco Borja, Father General of the Jesuit Order who was sent to question Juana late in her life over rumors that she had embraced heresy, came away from several in-depth meetings with her shaken by her conviction and confused over her alleged insanity. He saw evidence of instability - who wouldn't after spending years in confinement in a castle? - but his letters to Charles V, which can still be read today, are almost chastising in their imploration of Charles to treat Juana with the dignity and decorum her station demanded. Borja must have seen that an injustice had been perpetuated and he did what he could to alleviate her suffering.

H & C: Why did you choose to write of Juana's life in the genre of a novel, rather than a biography?

C.W. Gortner: I'm a novelist by nature, not a biographer. Though I enjoy reading biography, it's not what I am personally compelled to write. As a writer, I'm motivated by the challenge of bringing history to life in a novelized form. Biographers can remain neutral; they can state: "She attacked Philip's mistress in a jealous rage." But a novelist must get inside the character and find his or her motivation. I also love the craft of interpreting history through the eyes of the characters. These characters often become both the historical figure that inspired them and something more; they transform in unique ways that reflect both the writer's inner world and the worlds of the readers he or she seeks to reach.

H & C: You must have had a great sense of satisfaction in bringing to light so many of the inaccuracies that had been taken as fact for centuries. Would you say that historical novelists have a responsibility to correct many misconceptions about people of the past?

C.W. Gortner: No. I don't see myself as having brought to light inaccuracies so much as I sought to portray Juana of Castile from another perspective. While I endeavored to remain historically accurate, I freely admit that I altered certain events and timelines to make the novel more accessible. Historical novelists are, in the final say, storytellers. We seek to entertain and transport readers to another place; we want them to experience the worlds we create on an emotional level. While accuracy is important - and if you have the chance to clear up misconceptions along the way, well, that's fine, too - ultimately I don't think it's the novelist's responsibility to "set the record straight." This has become a bone of contention at times, I know, between readers and certain books, particularly concerning inaccuracies or disagreements about a character or event. While gross inaccuracies should be avoided whenever possible, novelists are human and mistakes do happen. Sometimes, in order to facilitate a story's dramatic arc, a novelist will make certain choices to enhance this event beyond its actual historical significance, or set that event later in time to ease the narrative flow, etc. Such choices are usually undertaken with care and consideration, as historical novels cannot, by their very nature, capture all the intricacies and the mendacities of history; they capture a moment, a slice. They're life with the boring parts taken out (hopefully!) To me, historical novels are just that: fictional recreations of the past for a modern-day audience, not mechanisms for debunking historical record. What I do think historical novels can do is stimulate interest in a subject and present diverse ways of interpreting history. After all, there are always different sides to every story and historical novels are the perfect vehicle for telling them.

H & C: Quite often, when one begins to research one subject or character, many other amazing truths come to light. Was this so in the case of your research into Juana's life, and has it given rise to ideas for further books?

C.W. Gortner: Yes. I've grown excited about writing more about Juana's mother, Isabel, and hope to do so at a later date. But I must say, that once I've finished a novel I tend to want to go somewhere else for my next project. I just finished my novel about Catherine de Medici, set in 16th century France, and am now starting research on my next book, which will be set in early 15th century Italy. After that, I hope to return to Spain and the court of Philip II. I like to travel as a writer, both physically and artistically.

H & C: Thank you so much for telling us more about the background to this fascinating story!

C.W. Gortner: I really appreciate this opportunity to visit this blog. If readers want to learn more about me or my work, please visit where you can take a tour of Juana's world and, if you lead or are part of a book group, sign up for an author chat with me. I love talking to readers and am always available for book group chats either via speaker phone or in person. I hope your readers enjoy discovering THE LAST QUEEN as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Money Talks

In a lovely wooden box, engraved with the initials of someone I never knew and have no idea where the box came from - I just always had it since childhood - there is a stash of old coins from the pre-decimalisation era of my earliest years. Some of them I put there, as a child, others were given to me later from ancient relatives. There are worn pennies from as far back as 1864; silver thre'penny bits and the other hexagonal sixpenny pieces, farthings and ha'pennies, and some half crowns and crowns. On some, Queen Victoria - in various eras - is depicted on one side and Britannia on the other. On others there is George V, George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II, also in various eras. They are all quite worthless now but, holding them in my hand, there is such a sense of history about them and they say a lot.

Firstly, I wish they had not compelled us to remove Britannia from our coinage. Secondly, I pray that they will not deprive us of our history by switching us to the Euro, because coins - like stamps or like letter boxes and telephone boxes - hold history and tell us where we came from. It's not a question of economics; it's a question of identity. Thirdly - the overriding thought - I touch these coins and wonder how many hands they passed through. Were they dropped into charity boxes from the pockets of philanthropists? Were they fought over? Were they used to pay for child labour, or for crimes? Were they dropped on the ground and trodden on by people in clogs, making their way home from the mills and eagerly gathered up by someone thinking they had made a great find? Did they pay for a gill of gin or did they pay for a gift for a child? Did they exchange hands gladly or were they handed over grudgingly? Who held them? What kinds of kindly or grasping hands? Where have they been and how were they used? A million stories flow from every one of them...Money does talk. It talks of history and identity and tells its own tale.

Money is an odd thing, isn't it? It was a piece of metal or pieces of paper. It's something that changes in value. It used to be measured in coinage and now is measured by a click on the screen or a piece of plastic stuck in the hole in the wall. Yet people kill for it, people create wars for it, people die for it. Strange how civilised we consider ourselves compared to animals - at least they fight over something concrete like something to eat or a mate. Only humanity could be bizarre enough to cause wars over something that is only a concept...Ho hum!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Nature and Cycles and Seasons

I don't remember the first time I heard about death. You would think that something so alarming would be a major trauma of childhood realizations, but I have never met anyone who remembers when their mortality first became apparent. At the changing of the seasons, at the stillness of the year, when the trees are like skeletons, the flowers have gone and the sky is starkly bright, that thought comes home.
Everything moves in cycles and, though we live now in a semi-seasonless, hourless world, where we are governed not by Nature but by technology, it is interesting to think sometimes how far we have come from our roots and who we really are.
Nature is so much wiser. Nature doesn't go against the grain and force summer flowers to bloom in winter or the sun to shine in the middle of the night. Nature allows things to move at their natural pace; Nature has no targets; Nature doesn't expect everything and everyone to be the same or to fit the same pattern; Nature is filled with diversity and yet everything has its place and moves in perfect syncopation.
Nowadays, it seems, we think we are more powerful than Nature. Because we can create light in the middle of the night and can create heat in the middle of winter; and because we can create and then combat disease, we think we are overcoming Nature. We even have the audacity to think we are so powerful that our little footprints and meddling have altered Her course.
Nature, to me, is like a wise Mother who sits silently in the middle of chatter - the chatter where children argue and struggle for supremacy in a game and believe for an hour or two that they are Richard the Lionheart, Spiderman, or any superhero and things seems to be of huge importance - and all the while, the wise Mother just goes about her business calmly, listens and shakes her head and then says, "It's time for bed children." The games are over and reality dawns.
Powers, dominations, kingdoms rise and fall. Nature, and the gentle hearts who listen to her wisdom, go on - as Robert Louis Stevenson so brilliantly wrote - 'at their own private pace, like a clock in a thunderstorm.'
I don't remember the first time I heard about death. Still less, do I remember anyone ever teaching me what it really means to be alive. Perhaps that is a lesson we learn for ourselves; and perhaps that is the only lesson worth learning.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Windy Moors

The snow continues and, apart from the images it evokes of Imperial Russia - the winter balls, the opulent carriages, the wilderness of Siberia, and the snowflakes on the lamps of Grand Duke Serge's carriage, as he and Ella (Grand Duchess Elizabeth) emerge from the theatre only days before his assassination; Ella, kneeling over his remains in the snow...It also brings to mind the 'wily windy Moors' of Emily Bronte's beautiful experience (and Kate Bush's fabulous interpretation of it!).

Today, according to the local news, Haworth was deep in snow. The silence and bleakness of snow seems so apt for the fascinating soul of Emily Bronte! Seemingly sheltered, the daughter of a parson, cut off from the world, despising having to be in company - to the extent that she was ill if she were compelled to be away from the freedom of the Moors and her own inner world for any length of time - she lived within herself with so mystical and imaginative an inner life that she seemed barely capable of surviving in the day-to-day world. The contrast of appearances and what is really so, is so striking in Emily Bronte!

At the top of a hill, the parsonage overlooks a graveyard where many of the headstones were originally laid flat on the earth so that wolves didn't dig up the bodies, or so that - which is more macabre? - the undertakers could turn the stones over and engrave names on the other side to fit more bodies into the graves! This was the view from Emily's windows. All around was the great expanse of the Moors. She never married. She never did very much at all. A brief spell in Brussels, where she was viewed as unfriendly; working as a teacher and hating every moment that kept her away from the freedom to walk and think and be with her beautiful animal friends...And yet, what an inner life that came out in such writing as 'Wuthering Heights' with its darkness and shadow side, with its passion and sheer, raw, untamed emotion and 'violence' - truly Nature in the raw. No wonder she is seen as such a 'Pagan soul'!

To me, Emily Bronte is a true mystic. Her soul was forever 'in another place' and unfettered. If only she had found a way to live on earth what her soul was reaching for! Her brilliant poem The Prisoner speaks so clearly of that anguish of disparity between 'what the soul knows' and physical life; the sense of being enchained in a body:

...Mute music soothes my breast - unutter'd harmony
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels;
Its wings are almost free--its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulf, it stoops, and dares the final bound.

O dreadful is the check - intense the agony -
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb - the brain to think again -
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.

I wish she could have found a way for her Spirit to be free, without having to leave at such an early age. But she loved the inner worlds, and the beautiful snow creates that sense of
stillness, wherein the inner and the outer merge.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Birds Singing In the Snow

December and there was snow - how perfect is that? It wasn't the beautiful depths of snow as on André's lovely photograph but perhaps it will come and go and, for the first time in years, we will have a proper white Christmas.
Once all the traffic rush and bothers about transport are over, there is something so calming about the snow; a sort of stillness when all the sounds are muffled, as though Nature is saying, "It's time to be still and reflective." Seeing the frozen grass and fallen leaves, like the white hair of the earth, it seemed as though it was the part of the year's cycle when Nature is old and wise and still. It brings a quietness inside.
Strange how the birds seem to rejoice in the snow! On the damp, grey days, the birds seem so silent but in the icy sunshine, they all start singing again. There is something so beautiful about the sound of winter birds singing in the snow.