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Knowledge Base .: Meet The Author .: Fiction .: Christopher W. Gartner Author of The Last Queen Is Interviewed

Christopher W. Gartner Author of The Last Queen Is Interviewed

 

Author: Christopher W. Gortner

ISBN: 0972394788

                 

The following interview was conducted by: NORM GOLDMAN:  Editor of Bookpleasures. CLICK TO VIEW MORE OF  Norm Goldman's Reviews  

The read Norm's Review of The Last Queen CLICK HERE     

Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest Christopher W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen.

Good day Christopher and thanks for participating in our interview.

Norm:

Could you tell us something about yourself, when did you begin writing and what keeps you going?

Christopher:

I was born in the United States and raised in Spain. For as long as I can remember, I have been enthralled by history and by writing. History was my favorite subject in school; I was terrible at math, but when it came to history I couldn’t get enough. I began writing stories in my childhood, and continued to write throughout my adolescence.

I finished my first novel in my late twenties; of course, it was unwieldy and needed a lot of work! But the discipline and the joy I experienced during the writing process are something I’ve never tired of. I had written a first rough draft of “The Last Queen” when I first enrolled in an MFA program for Creative Writing, where I dedicated myself to mastering the craft.

I selected an emphasis in Renaissance Studies to compliment my twin interests. Writing is a solitary and obsessive pursuit; it demands far more of you than you think you’re capable of. Often, the challenge for me lies in the re-writing. To me, the first draft is usually like a lump of clay; it’s the polishing and trimming and ruthless editing of your words that creates the book’s final shape. What keeps me going is the thrill of discovering that shape within the clay, the knowledge that no matter how messy the first attempt may be, within it lies the story I set out to tell. My books usually take several years to reach their finished form. Perseverance is key.

Norm:

It seems that historical fiction is of late becoming very popular to the degree that publishers are now promoting not only individual historical novels but entire series of historical fiction. Would you please comment as to why this is happening?

Christopher:

I believe that historical fiction has always had a devoted audience: I myself am an avid historical fiction reader, and have been all my life. Readers who write to me often tell me they too have loved historical fiction all their lives.

The audience has therefore been there from the beginning, but publishers had ceased in great measure to provide the appropriate fare. I believe historical fiction, when it is well done, is a wonderful way to learn about history by experiencing it on a sensory level, through dialogue, description, and scenes. It goes beyond the established facts to create the world of the past, and that can be very seductive.

Unfortunately, for many years publishers believed historical fiction was a “hard sell.” I still hear this from publishers, to a certain extent. In the late 1980s and much of the 1990s, it was nearly impossible to sell an historical novel. I myself received over sixty rejections from publishers praising my writing but almost invariably lamenting the difficulty of selling the genre in today’s marketplace. But the recent unexpected success of various historical novels has reawakened interest.

More historical novels are available now than they have in years, and sales seem to be brisk. This may have re-inspired confidence in an industry notorious for being “risk adverse,” though the truth is certain historical novelists, such as the late Jean Plaidy – who wrote over 200 historical novels during her career – always sold extremely well. In publishing, the bottom line is everything. As long as historical novels continue to show a profit, we’ll see more of them.

Norm:

How would you define “historical fiction?”  What is the difference between historicizing fiction and fictionalizing history?

Christopher:

I define historical fiction as a story set in an actual historical setting, in which the characters are true to their time and circumstances. The characters can be fictional, such as the cathedral builders in Ken Follett’s masterful “The Pillars of the Earth”, or people who actually lived, such as Juana of Castile in my book, but they must behave and react in a way that does not contradict the period in which their story is set.

 I think the difference between historicizing fiction and fictionalizing history is that you can write a truly fictional tale that assumes historical elements but is not necessary a “historical” novel. When you fictionalize history, you are weaving a tale between the weft and warp of established facts; you are creating scenes, dialogue, and emotional resonance that are, by their very nature, fictional, but you are not deliberately distorting or ignoring the historical realities under which you work. History is the framework upon which we build the fictional flesh and blood of characters.

Norm:

Why did you feel compelled to write The Last Queen?
 
Christopher:

I have always been fascinated by the story of Juana la Loca. She is an historical celebrity in Spain, and every school child grows up learning about her. But her life is also shrouded by lurid legend, and I’d always imagined there was more to her than the popular accounts. She was, after all, an important figure and a queen in her own right.

Having grown up hearing the legend and having visited many of the places associated with her, I sought to uncover the secret history behind her, the woman behind the myth. I often am drawn to secret histories; after all, what we call “history” is often a mixture of opinion and fact. There are always those tales that don’t get told or are changed to suit preconceived notions. In addition, women in history often suffer from the biased viewpoints of male contemporaries, who chronicled their lives and the events of the era.

In history, women are frequently classified as the victim, the survivor, the harlot, or the virgin. These pre-defined and erroneous pigeon-holes do not begin to do justice to the complexity and richness of women’s roles in history. Juana, for me, is one of those women.  The epithet she has been accorded – the Mad Queen – is in fact not true: there is much more to her, as there is to all of us. This was my primary reason for wanting to write her story.

Norm:

Although your main focus of the book is on Juana daughter of Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragon and her personal story, you have made very little if any reference to the Spanish Inquisition that was transpiring at the time and was one of the bleakest moments in Spanish history.  Was this intentional and why?

Christopher:

It was intentional, to a certain extent. First of all, Juana was not instrumental in either the rise or the propagation of the Inquisition. She did witness the fall of Granada, but she left Spain a mere two years after that. I do attempt to show in the opening scene of the book her natural empathy for the Moors. Chroniclers of the time commented on her “strange fascination” with the vanquished world of the Moors. But the subsequent expulsion and enforced conversions that occurred in Spain were not relevant to her particular story: they are more relevant to that of her mother, Isabel of Castile.

Isabel is closely linked to extreme Catholicism and persecution, yet when I investigated her reign, I was surprised to find that, in fact, she had denied the Inquisition several key powers, which they were later accorded by Isabel’s grandson, Philip II of Spain. I found no evidence that Isabel actively relished violent persecution; she fought for a united Spain and, being a woman of her times, believed Spain had to be united under the Catholic Church.

This is one of those circumstances where as a novelist you must make choices, difficult as they may be. Had this novel been about a Jewish or Moorish person living at the time, it would have been very different. I cannot deny that Isabel, by today’s standards, must be harshly judged. She was not a tolerant person, like many European monarchs at the time. Tragedy ensued as a result, as it invariably does when freedom is repressed. Historical fiction can be tricky in these situations. I sought to portray Isabel as she is seen through her daughter’s eyes, not the eyes of posterity. That does not mean, however, that I chose to ignore Isabel’s less admirable qualities. I imply them in her character, from her banishment of the last caliph to her manipulation of her own children’s fates and that of her kingdom.

Norm:

Can you explain some of your research techniques, and how you found sources for your book?

Christopher:

The first and most important part of my research involves locating and reading primary sources, i.e., extant documentation from the period such as ambassadorial accounts, letters, official documents, etc. I then usually move on to the secondary sources, such as chronicles, biographies of key characters, nonfiction books about the period in general and books concerning specific areas, such as clothing, social mores, ways of life, food, etc.

It’s very time consuming, but integral to the work. It’s how I lay out my framework and start thinking about where to fit the story. With historical people who actually lived, it becomes paramount, because there are certain facts and incidents in the person’s life you cannot ignore. For “The Last Queen,” I read the majority of my primary and secondary sources in Spanish. These date from as early as the 1400s all the way up to the modern-day biographies. I consulted libraries in Madrid and in England, and had access to the astonishing Archives of Simancas, which hold a wealth of material about the period.

I also made a point of viewing as many contemporary portraits of the relevant characters as I could find, and visiting all extant locations. I traveled to Spain twice to visit the sites associated with Juana’s life, and even followed the trajectory she took. As a novelist, I must get a “feel” for the landscape, even if it has changed from the time when my characters experienced it. Regardless of whether that castle has been demolished and a parking lot now sits where that forest used to be, the very act of being in the places where your characters lived helps to conjure them and their world.

Norm:

How do you balance between history and fiction and do you agree that accuracy remains a primary obligation of all historical fiction?

Christopher:

The balance, as I indicated in the previous question about Isabel and the Inquisition, is often a delicate one. It can even become tenuous, in particular when you are confronting issues of religion, race, sexuality, and gender. I write about people in the 16th century; I do not share their beliefs. The Renaissance was a brutal, quixotic, and complex time in history: as much as I strive to bring it to life for readers, the truth is we can never truly understand what it was to actually live in the 16th century.

The best even a very gifted historical novelist can achieve is a close approximation. That said, I do consider historical accuracy a primary obligation – in that the writer should not deliberately alter or distort known facts or have characters behave in overtly modernized way, just to suit a particular publishing fad or temperament. To have my lead character march at the head of an army like Joan of Arc, for example, would fly in the face of every known fact about her.

However, facts are only a small part of a life filled with moments, and in the final say, I write fiction. My books are novels; their principal function is to entertain. I hope my readers will become immersed in the story, that they will feel it on a sensory level. I also hope, as a secondary objective, to awaken interest in the time itself. If someone reads my book and thinks, “Hey, I want to know more about Spain in the 16th century,” then I’ve done what I set out to do. Likewise, if someone reads my book and writes to me, as they have, saying, “I couldn’t wait to turn the page,” that, too, accomplishes my goal as a novelist.

Norm:

You very creatively used language and dialect that corresponded to the vocabulary of the era. How were you able to accomplish this feat?

Christopher:

I don’t really know. Honestly, writing is largely an organic process for me. After months of research, once I start writing I try as best as possible to just let my characters move and speak through me. It’s difficult to explain. As a researcher, you get a feel for how people communicated. Though their letters and dispatches can sound stilted to our ears, and often deal with politics rather than personal sentiments, if you are doing your job you will absorb the lyric of their particular language, the methods in which they communicated with each other, the cues and words and evasions. You must then take this knowledge and relate it on the page in a way that modern readers can understand. It is, again, a delicate balance, between being true to the period and not “going Shakespearean” on your reader, as a historical novelist friend of mine is fond of saying. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan times for Elizabethan people. A few “nays” and “ayes” go a long way in a modern historical novel. Likewise, you want to give a sense of class and education in characters, without falling into the trap of having people sound like caricatures or clichés. A tavern keeper will talk differently than a princess, yes. The trick is to do this without going over the top.

Norm:

As most of your book is a first-person narration analogous to a diary, what were the constraints, if any, did you encounter in the writing of the novel.

Christopher:

The biggest constraint was not being able to leave Juana’s point of view; it was also, for me, the biggest advantage. Every moment is filtered through her mind, and therefore I could focus fully on giving her secret history a voice. First-person narration requires discipline and forethought: as you can’t jump into different characters’ heads whenever you please, you must convey the other characters’ emotional make-up and beings through the narrator’s eyes and through their interactions with him or her. In addition, you must convey the era in a way that foregoes the ubiquitous omniscient camera. It can be done, but it takes a level of concentration and commitment that I find both challenging and deeply rewarding. The old axiom in writing of “Show, Don’t Tell” takes on a specific resonance when you are constructing a first person account. In the wrong hands, it can read flat and lacking in perspective. When done right, it can be a rich journey through the psyche of the narrator, who can embody to a certain extent the era in which he or she lives.

Norm:

How do you deal with the fact that today the strong, active male heroes of the traditional historical novel are now joined by equally tough females who often defy the authoritarian dictates that define female behavior at the time of the story? Yet their actions and beliefs must reflect not the values of contemporary times but the period in which they are living.

Christopher:

I deal with it the way I deal with everything else in writing a historical novel – by being as true as I can to the period, regardless of whether or not it suits today’s sensibilities or political dictates. Some women in history did flout the system; most women did not. But women could, and often did, exercise power in different ways.

The subtlety and steely resolve of women in the Renaissance often offers a perfect foil to the swaggering bluster of their men—and often proves more interesting. I am troubled by the current trend in novels to focus almost strictly on feminist, revisionist depictions of women. We are uncomfortable reading about women forced into arranged marriages; women who are cloistered after giving birth; women who were helpless against the intrigues of men. But that was the reality for many, and the challenge is not have them arbitrarily defy the authoritarian dictates, if they didn’t, but rather to dig deeper and uncover that core of strength and resolve so many women possessed.

Even Eleanor of Aquitaine—history’s poster queen—was imprisoned for years. What is interesting isn’t so much the fact that her husband held her captive but rather what she did during that time. Again, it’s the secret history that engages me. As a writer, I am drawn to the women who defied conventions not by acting like men, but by knowing how to manipulate, circumvent, and/or overcome their own constraints, or who sacrificed pieces of themselves to achieve their goals. Juana sacrifices personal fulfillment to fight for her throne. The end result isn’t a fairy tale, but her strength prevails.

Norm:

Do you believe that historical fiction should be more frequently used in primary and secondary school classrooms in order to teach history? If so, why and what are some of the problems?

Christopher:

I believe historical fiction has place in the classroom, as an additional way to get students excited about history. I have taught college seminars about the Renaissance and I am always surprised by how often students come up to me after my classes to tell me how they always thought history was boring and meaningless to their world until they came to my class.

It is a huge compliment to hear, “You made history interesting to me.” I use the techniques I employ in my novels in my classes; I therefore know first-hand that historical fiction can ease the oft-arid recitation of facts and dates that so often categorize how we teach history in schools. By bringing the past to life through scenes and characters, you offer students a glimpse into the drama of life, and show them that human emotions are still the same today as they were 500 years ago.

We’ve all felt passion, desire, longing, and greed; the human heart has not changed that much. My teachers in Spain introduced me to historical fiction as a child because I craved more than the staid history books offered. It did not stymie my interest; on the contrary, it became a lifetime pursuit for me. That said, you can’t substitute one technique for the other. Historical fiction and history itself should walk hand-in-hand.

Norm:

Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections?

Christopher:

Reputable agents have represented all of my novels. I spent sixteen years making submission rounds in New York. As I mentioned earlier, I received a lot of praise and encouragement, and that in of itself propelled me forward in my writing. Rejections were numerous and always hard to deal with. I started pursuing publication during what my agent termed the “drought years” for historical fiction, and thus never gained a large commercial house offer. I got very close a couple of times but never made it past the editorial boards, whose rejection was based almost entirely on marketing considerations for an unknown novelist working in an uncertain genre.

At one point the rejection overcame me and I seriously considered not writing anymore. The business of publishing can be very disappointing and disillusioning, particularly to new writers. However, I did not stop, because writing is something I must do; it really isn’t a choice. I finally decided to move past the larger commercial houses and pitch my books to smaller presses.

My first novel “The Secret Lion” got picked up, and then I sold “The Last Queen.” My agent was not involved in these deals because the money simply isn’t big enough to warrant it. Being with a small press has its intrinsic rewards and drawbacks; for me, it works out well, because I like to be involved in the publication of my work and a small press allows me that privilege. My opinion is taken into account and I enjoy the hands-on relationship I have with my editor, the book designers, and the marketing teams. It’s the kind of success that keeps me humble, and keeps me writing.

Norm:

Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?

Christopher:

I just want to thank you, Norm, for your kindness and willingness to review my book and speak with me. The art of the book is one under peril: there are so many other means of entertainment today, vying for our attention; and yet, in my opinion, nothing can compare to the book. Storytelling is our most ancient form of making sense of the chaos and beauty of being alive; no other medium tells a story like a book, and we must ensure its future. Your reviews and interviews help immeasurably to exalt the joys of reading and writing.

Thanks once again and good luck with The Last Queen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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