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The Original "Getting Real"

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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.


Mikaela D'eigh said...

Thanks for highlighting this book! It is now on my Christmas list for the bookworms in my family!

Christina said...

Mikaela, it's a wonderful book with a wonderful story to tell :-)