Tuesday, 4 February 2014

"Fiction gave me the freedom to use my imagination!" - the interview with Juliet Grey

Karolina Małkiewicz – the author of the Polish literary blog called I Visit the Universe – talks to Juliet Grey – the author of the trilogy about Marie Antoinette.

Karolina Małkiewicz: You are the author of the book about an unusual woman called Marie Antoinette. Why did you choose just her? What inspired you to write the novel just about her?

Juliet Grey: In the course of researching the royal marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for a chapter in my nonfiction book Notorious Royal Marriages, written under my real name, Leslie Carroll, I discovered how maligned the pair of them have been and that a lot of what I had originally thought about them was wrong, or skewed by the propaganda that found its way into the history books, repeated over the past two centuries as fact. Marie Antoinette in particular remains condemned as one of history’s most frivolous villainesses, tone-deaf to the plight of her subjects; and for the most part that wasn’t true at all. I felt that her story had to be told; and the best way to do it was in the form of a novel (or three – because the events of her life are too complex to shoehorn into just one novel: one book would barely skim them, covering only “the greatest hits.” So much would have had to be omitted and there would have been scant page time for character development, which was imperative, because Marie Antoinette’s journey was so spectacular. Many of the events of her life were so colorful and incredible that they seem invented by a novelist, which is one reason her story makes such an interesting novel. I have written scenes that sound incredible – but they are totally grounded in fact and based entirely on the historical record!

Fiction also gave me the freedom to use my imagination to fill in the gaps where the historical record closes the door, and to bring emotion to the story, allowing readers to connect to it in a more meaningful way. Yes, Marie Antoinette and Louis were historical figures. But they were not made of stone, clay, or wax. They were living, breathing humans with the same hopes and fears and high-stakes issues (if not higher, given their place in the social hierarchy of France) that everyone faces.

Karolina Małkiewicz: What has caused you the most difficulty in writing the trilogy?

Juliet Grey: In the past, the most difficult part has been to sustain the readers’ excitement from book to book, because readers would finish one book and then want to read the next one right away. But of course, the next one had not been published yet; I was still writing it! In America, the first book was published in August 2011, the second novel in May 2012, and the last novel in the trilogy was just published on September 24, 2013. So now that all three books are published in America, readers can go right from one book to the next. But before that, I was afraid that people who had been excited by Marie Antoinette’s story would forget about her while they were waiting for the next book to come out and the narrative would lose momentum.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Marie Antoinette was – and still is – loved or hated, she is extremely popular all the time. Was it a great challenge to measure up to the legend?

Juliet Grey: Most of what people believe about Marie Antoinette and what they read in history books and textbooks about her is based on the propaganda written during her lifetime and during the French Revolution that was intended to discredit her and destroy her reputation. There is an expression that “history is written by the winners,” and she was one of the 18th century’s biggest losers. But the more I researched her life, the more I discovered the true Marie Antoinette. She was a very good person and very deserving of our sympathy. She had a tremendous number of obstacles to overcome. And she was so young (14!) when she left her homeland forever to become a bride, that it’s hard not to feel sorry for her. Certainly, she does deserve to be popular as a glamorous icon because she set the trends for decades. Her purchases were not of course responsible for bankrupting France! That was pure propaganda. I chose to humanize the legend. She was a flesh-and-blood woman who more than anything wanted to be a mother. She had loves and hopes and fears just like everyone else. It was important for me to present her as a real person and I felt very much the same way about her husband, who history has painted as a clown. Louis XVI was basically a decent man who cared very much for his people.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Do you have some intriguing historical figures? Which ones?

Juliet Grey: Under the pen name Amanda Elyot I wrote about Helen of Troy (although she is largely believed to be mythological, I wrote her “memoirs” as if she were a real person.) And I wrote about two famous Englishwomen of the 18th century: Emma Hamilton, who was the lover of the great naval hero Lord Nelson; and Mary Robinson, an actress who was the first of many mistresses of the Prince of Wales (long before he became King George IV). Mary went on to become a novelist, poet, courtesan, editor, and an early feminist!

Karolina Małkiewicz: If you could go back in time and become any of historical figures, who would it be?

Juliet Grey: I’ve often thought it might be fun to be Nell Gwyn, the fun-loving actress who was the mistress of King Charles II of England. She was a spirited redhead with a big laugh and a wild sense of humor, like me. Plus, the clothing was so gorgeous during the English Restoration. And she had a fulfilling professional career and was a king’s mistress, even though she had to share him with a bunch of other women. But if you asked me the same question next week, I might give you a different answer: I am fascinated by so many different people.

Karolina Małkiewicz: What are your favourite novels and authors?

Juliet Grey: I like authors who have a distinct “voice” to their novels: when you pick them up, you can tell right away that no one else could have written them. I am a big fan of Jane Austen and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. I could read Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises every year. Some more contemporary authors who are favourites are Hilary Mantel and Sarah Dunant.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Are you working on another novel now?

Juliet Grey: I have a few ideas I am working on right now. I can’t talk about them yet, though.

Karolina Małkiewicz: Have you ever been to Poland? What do you associate with Poland?

Juliet Grey: I have never been in Poland, although (under the name Leslie Carroll) I wrote about Napoleon’s love affair with the great Polish beauty, Countess Marie Walewska, for my nonfiction book Royal Romances. My former in-laws were Polish and they came to the U.S. after WWII. My former mother-in-law was the only one of her family to survive and she spent part of the war being sheltered by an amazing Polish Christian family who took her in, asked no questions, and raised her with their own daughters. I get tears in my eyes thinking how kind and incredibly brave they were. So that is how I associate Poland.

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