I’m once more glad to welcome Christopher Gortner to A Fantastical Librarian as part of the blog tour of his latest book The Tudor Conspiracy. As Christopher was kind enough to write me a guest post last year, I asked whether I could do an interview this year and the answer was yes. You can find the results below!
Thank you for once again visiting A Fantastical Librarian and taking the time to answer some questions. For those of my readers unfamiliar with you and your work, could you introduce yourself and tell us how you ended up writing historical fiction?
Thank you so much for inviting me. Delighted to be here. I am half-Spanish by birth and was raised in southern Spain. Growing up, I attended both a Jesuit school and an English-language school, where I studied Spanish and English history as part of my curriculum. I was always an avid reader, and often read historical novels. The south of Spain is full of historical sites; in fact, I lived near a ruined castle (now fully restored) so I basically had history all around me. It wasn’t just in books; I could see and touch history’s remnants. I was always intrigued by the personalities I read about, too, especially the maligned queens and the Tudors. My fascination never abated; throughout my formative years, I read everything I could and became interested in what lies underneath the veneer of what we call ‘fact’— those stories hidden within stories. That fueled my desire to both uncover and write these secret stories.
You write two very different kinds of books between the biographical fiction you write and the spy novels of the Elizabeth’s Spymaster series. Do these two different sorts of historical novel allow you to exercise different writerly muscles and, if so, in what way?
Yes, absolutely. My historical novels, which are stand-alone, focus on famous queens in history with controversial reputations. I have found that historical women, in particular those I’m attracted to, have not had much of a say in how their history was depicted. There is a repetitive pattern of stereotyping, when the truth is far more interesting. All of these women were fallible, flesh-and-blood human beings. Their motivations aren’t simply defined; the inspiration that spurs my writing is to get under their skins and discover the actual person they may have been. The research is intensive, often requiring several years, yet the challenge lies in depicting pivotal events within a finite amount of words that can present a panoramic portrait. Imagination comes into play in recreating events and emotions, but I cannot deviate from known facts. I seek to find hidden truths, plausible explanations that may have gone unexplored, but I cannot turn my lead character into someone she was not.
On the other side, the Elizabeth I Spymaster novels, while rooted in historical events that include historical characters, allow me more liberties. I love writing the Spymaster books because I get the chance to play with a cast of fictional characters, interacting with historical ones. I also like that my lead character, Brendan Prescott, is a man of shadows, caught between opposing worlds, fighting to defend Princess Elizabeth while trying to reconcile his own personal dilemma. Brendan is a man with a secret plunged into extraordinary circumstances, in which he must always contend with the consequences of his decisions. He is an everyday man in a time when ambition was the prevailing coin and power the only reward.
Your blog is called Historical Boys, yet your fiction often features strong women, such as Isabella of Castile, Catharine de Medici, and Mary and Elizabeth Tudor. Is that a conscious choice or are these just the subjects that spoke to you?
Both. Female readership dominates the historical fiction market and publishers often want books that feature strong women. That said, I am fortunate to have always been interested in women in history and all of my subjects thus far have been women that I wanted to write about. I’m also very interested in some male figures, but thus far have not been successful in proposing a novel about a king to an interested publisher. Again, in the Spymaster novels, my lead is male, so that balances out the ying-and-yang of my writing. I called the blog “Historical Boys” because initially I planned to feature other male historical fiction writers and highlight their contributions, but over time, it has morphed into a more eclectic variety of topics, which is great.
How was creating the fictional character of Brendan different from envisioning the voice of your historical protagonists? Was it harder to find Brendan’s voice or was the lack of ‘facts’ about him liberating?
When imagining the “voice” of a woman who actually lived, it’s imperative to consult as many accounts of her life as possible, as well as her letters or personal documents, when available, and other extant source material. This helps create a sense of how she expressed herself. You must understand how she saw her world and interpreted it, as best you can; know what things she liked and disliked; how she might react to certain situations; where she was strong and where she was vulnerable. All of this background knowledge will formulate her voice. With Brendan, I undergo a similar process, only all his background comes from my imagination. I must find who he is by exploring his situation using source material about general life in the era and applying psychological and emotional insight to his character. The lack of facts is actually more daunting, because I find it is often easier to make mistakes and not fully ground him in his time-period. I have to be very conscious that while he is unique in many ways, ahead of his time because of his experiences, he still lives in the 16th century, with all its prejudices and superstitions. But he possesses some modern sensibilities, too; he is not like everyone else.
You’ve spoken before about your research process here on the blog. In writing the Elizabeth’s Spymaster series, which source was the most valuable to you?
I have found A.L. Rowse’s two-volume set on Elizabethan life one of the most valuable sources for understanding how Elizabethan people interacted with their world. I also rely heavily on The A to Z of Elizabethan London, which offers district-divided maps of the city in Tudor times, in order to move Brendan about accurately. Each book in the series also has its particular bibliography, focused on that particular story; for Tudor Conspiracy, I found Carolly Erickson’s Bloody Mary very insightful in its compassionate depiction of Mary’s troubled psyche.
Will there be more adventures for Brendan Prescott in the future?
Yes, I have just completed the third volume, The Tudor Vendetta, which will be published in 2015. It takes place in the first crucial weeks following Elizabeth I’s accession, when the novice queen sends Brendan on a mission to uncover a terrible secret linked to his past—and hers.
What is next writing-wise for you? Can you reveal anything about forthcoming titles?
In addition to the next Spymaster book, I have completed a novel about Lucrezia Borgia’s formative years, or her time in the Vatican, when her father Pope Alexander’s accession to the papal throne plunges her into a vicious struggle against the ruthless ambitions of her family and her own defiant quest for independence. The novel is currently in the editing process with my US publisher. I am now writing a new novel but am not at liberty yet to disclose its subject matter. Hopefully I can soon!
If you were to recommend one historical novel to convince someone that historical fiction is a fantastic genre to read, which one would it be?
Immortal Queen by Elizabeth Byrd. Though dated now, it remains my favorite historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots. As a boy, I read it more than a dozen times. I could recite it by heart. In fact, I still own my battered first edition.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than books?
I am dedicated to supporting rescues who save homeless dogs and cats from US shelters. We euthanize thousands of these innocent souls every single day because of overpopulation, irresponsible ownership and backyard breeding. An animal has the same noble heart, whether purebred or mixed. My cats are rescues. If every one of us adopted a homeless animal, shelters wouldn’t be so overcrowded or desperate for funds. If you can’t adopt, please consider fostering or volunteering your time, donating money or supplies. Animals have no voice to defend themselves with; we must be their guardians.
I am also involved in various environmental causes. This planet we call Earth is so beautiful, the only home we have, and we are destroying it. Sustainable energy, wildlife and wild-land protection, restoration of decimated habitat and stricter poaching and hunting laws are all causes I dedicate my time and effort to. I want this earth to thrive and remain a precious refuge for every creature that shares it with us, long after my generation is gone.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I shelve by topic, usually with the first three shelves containing those books that I’m consulting for the current work-in-progress. I have separate bookcases for my favorite novels, signed first editions, and books that I hope to read soon. There simply isn’t enough time to read everything I’d like, but I do my best to take out two or three hours every day to just sit and read.
Thank you for hosting me during my virtual tour. I hope your readers will enjoy The Tudor Conspiracy. To find out more about my work, please visit me at: www.cwgortner.com
Thank you, Christopher!
Bio (from the author’s website): C.W. GORTNER holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California.
In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into fourteen languages to date. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.
He’s currently at work on his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about the early years of Lucrezia Borgia, as well as the third novel in his Tudor series,The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (US) or Elizabeth’s Spymaster (UK).
This interview is part of a blog tour. You can find the other stops below: