Wednesday, 11 June 2014

"The Good Child" Roma Ligocka

The Girl in the Red Coat was a debut novel by the Polish writer Roma Ligocka. It was a spectacular success, as the story of a little girl surviving through the Holocaust was a real tearjerker. Her newest novel The Good Child proves that the World War II was not the only trauma that the writer had to cope with.

Adolescence is always the time of great turmoil. The 12-year-old Roma lives only with her mother, since the rest of the family had died. The girl struggles to find her way through the new world, which she does not understand. She is a Jew but she does not have to hide anymore. She goes to school, she has her dreams and interests. Nonetheless she is still full of fear about the only parent that has left, her mother Teofila.

The Good Child is a very intimate autobiography. The author uses fragments of her grandmother's diary. These pre-war notes helped young Roma to survive through hard times, because they depicted a different, forgotten world, in which her family used to live. It is visible in her mother's inability to adjust to the new reality, as she once used to be a spoiled daughter living in the world of glamourous parties and luxuries. Roma is the victim of her mother's frustration.

The mother-daughter relationship is full of intense emotions. Roma is constantly worried about her suicidal mother. The older woman sees Roma as a lunatic hidden in her own reality. Her mother's affair with a married man only makes things worse. Roma is paranoid, she starts to read her mother's letters, she eavesdrops every conversation. Eating and physical contact repulse her. And she still remains alone.

It is difficult for me to evaluate Roma Ligocka's novel. It is as difficult as to criticize someone's experiences. Roma did not choose her fate, first as a war child, later as an abandoned teenager. Thanks to painting and writing she has found her identity , but she will probably run away for the rest of her life. In this sad, very personal story there is some place for hope. The Good Child enabled the author to leave the past behind and see the relationship with her mother from a new perspective. I truly hope that she did.

Roma Ligocka (born Rominka Liebling, 13 November 1938 in Kraków, Poland) is a Polish costume designer, writer, and painter. Her novel The Girl in the Red Coat was inspired by Steven Spielberg's movie Schindler's List. After watching the movie she recognized herself as a Jewish child that wore a red coat. (Source:

Sunday, 1 June 2014

I love hearing from readers and discussing my novels with them...

Interview with Christopher W. Gortner
by Agnes A. Rose

Christopher W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing an emphasis on Renaissance Studies from the New College of California. In his extensive travels to research his books, he has experienced life in a Spanish castle and danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall. Half-Spanish by birth, he lives in Northern California. His novels have been translated into many languages. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights, in particular companion animal rescue to reduce shelter overcrowding. In May this year Christopher W. Gortner visited Poland to promote his latest novel in Polish “Queen's Vow. A novel of Isabella of Castile”. He met his Polish readers at Matras Bookstore in Warsaw.  

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you very much for your accepting my invitation to this interview. I am very happy about it! At the beginning I would like to ask you about your experience of staying in Poland. Is there anything what most stuck in your memory?

Christopher W. Gortner: I think what most sticks in my memory right now is how incredibly beautiful Poland is. The landscape is so green, with these huge trees – flowering chestnuts, enormous maples. I love trees and Warsaw is full of them; the city also has wonderful parks that you can stroll in for hours. I was also very touched by the warmth and generosity of the Polish people.

photo by Stephanie Mohan
Agnes A. Rose: I am sure that you travel to different countries around the world to meet your readers and promote books. Do you notice any differences between the readers in Poland and in other countries of the world?

Christopher W. Gortner: I found my Polish readers to be very interested in the history that I write about and quite knowledgeable about how certain events connect with their own history. Sometimes, readers meet me and know very little about the history behind my novels, which is fine; but I had some great conversations with my Polish readers because they did have an understanding of the historical background. I even had one reader take me to task for omitting Henri III’s yearlong reign as king of Poland in my novel about Catherine de Medici. I had to admit that while I knew about his time in Poland, I ended up cutting it from the final manuscript because my editor felt it digressed from the main narrative. I apologized and the reader was pleased; I learned that it’s not always wise to tamper thus with history, though in my rather futile defense, Henri was not very influential in Poland and the novel wasn’t about him.

Agnes A. Rose: Would you like to visit Poland in the future, for example as a tourist not as an author?

Christopher W. Gortner:  Oh, yes! I absolutely want to go back and spend more time. Because I was on a schedule, my free time was quite limited. I only saw Warsaw and spent a brief two hours in Krakow; what I did see made me want to stay longer. I would especially like to spend several days in Krakow, as it’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve visited in Europe.

Agnes A. Rose: Recently your novel “Queen's Vow. A novel of Isabella of Castile” has been translated into Polish, as I mentioned above. Could you tell us why you decided to describe the story about Isabella of Castile? What inspired you to write this novel?

Christopher W. Gortner: I first wrote about Isabella of Castile’s later years, starting in 1492 and leading to her death, in my first novel “The Last Queen”, which is about Isabella’s daughter, Juana. Growing up in Spain, I learned about Isabella and her reign in school, but it wasn’t until I researched “The Last Queen” that I understood how much Isabella had struggled to become the famous queen who united Spain. She faced tremendous obstacles and prejudices, yet the story of her tumultuous rise to power is relatively unknown. I thought that a novel about how Isabella become the queen we all know would be fascinating. She was complicated and not always easy to understand. She made some terrible decisions but also accomplished great feats. I think part of my reason for writing about her was to present how extraordinary she was for her era yet still so much part of it; she was forward thinking in some respects but when it came to her faith, she was blind to the consequences of her actions. A queen like Isabella could only arise out of the chaos of late 15th century Spain; uniquely Spanish in character, her reign had tremendous impact not only on her country, but also across Europe and the Americas.

Agnes A. Rose: Is there a scene in this book that made you upset and you thought that you wouldn’t keep writing?

Christopher W. Gortner: I struggled with Isabella’s decision to create the Spanish Inquisition and expel the Jews. Though she reaches these decisions toward the end of the novel, in doing so she caused massive suffering and defined herself in history as a cruel fanatic. Knowing that Isabella was responsible for these tragedies, I wondered if I would be able to capture her reasons for doing what she did. It didn’t stop me from writing the novel, obviously, but I did ask myself at first if I wanted to take on such a controversial subject. It is important to note that I do not find Isabella heroic when it comes to her religion; I think she was deeply dogmatic in how she saw her world and her place in it. Writers always want to “like” their lead characters and I did not like Isabella at moments, but I came to realize that liking her all the time was not necessary. On the contrary, because I disagreed with some of her decisions, my challenge was to refrain from judging and present her viewpoint. Isabella believed she was doing the right thing; for her, faith was paramount. I had to portray her as she was, not as I wanted her to be. “The Queen’s Vow” was in some respects the most difficult novel I’ve written but it also ended up being the most rewarding, because I learned to write about a character whose personality and beliefs are antithetical to mine.

Agnes A. Rose: What is the most interesting or maybe surprising fact you came across in your research for “Queen's Vow”?

Christopher W. Gortner: I had no idea Isabella championed women’s education. Because she had such a rudimentary education growing up, when she took the throne she couldn’t even speak Latin, the international language of diplomacy. Isabella was in her early thirties and struggling to unite her realm when she decided to learn Latin. She searched for the best scholar in Europe and found a Spanish-born woman named Beatriz Gallindo, known as La Latina, who had studied at the University of Salerno, the only place in Europe at the time where women could get advanced degrees. Isabella not only hired La Latina to teach her but also to teach her daughters, the infantas; she issued a decree that allowed La Latina to lecture at Spain’s foremost university in Salamanca and allowed other women to pursue studies there. Isabella also brought the first printing presses to Spain and made books accessible; she increased literacy in the country and shamed the swaggering, mostly illiterate nobles into becoming educated. The advances she made helped pave the way for Spain’s Golden Age in the 17th century.

Agnes A. Rose: You are also the author of the book “The Confessions of Catherine de Medici”. Most of us know Catherine de Medici as a cruel woman who trampled over people to achieve her aim. It seems to me that you warmed her image a little. Why?

Christopher W. Gortner: Like Isabella, Catherine de Medici did horrible things to safeguard her country. History has condemned Catherine based on the horrors of the Massacre of St Bartholomew; she is also infamous for being a poisoner, though I found no historical evidence that she poisoned anyone. It is less known that she also struggled for years to protect France from the devastation caused by the savage Wars of Religion, seeking many different ways to resolve the conflict, to no avail. She was not the instigator of the wars; she had underage children to protect and deeply treacherous nobility plotting behind her back. The massacre was not a deliberate action on her part; yet through this one terrible deed, she set in motion a chain of unstoppable events that blackened her name. As with Isabella, I sought to portray Catherine’s point of view; I did not always agree with her but I believe she was an intelligent woman who fought for peace. She despised war and wanted only to see her sons rule in prosperity. In this respect, she was not cruel, but she could turn cruel when it came to protecting her interests, like every monarch of her era. Even Elizabeth I wielded death when threatened; she executed Mary of Scots and ravaged Ireland because she believed they menaced her safety and power.

Agnes A. Rose: In Poland “The Tudor Secret” is described as the novel with the gallery of the stunning characters with very intelligent and enigmatic Elisabeth I in the center. I’d like to ask you what is so special about this English Queen that writers describe her life so often? Why did you focus your attention on her?

Christopher W. Gortner: I think Elizabeth has enjoyed such acclaim because she was a successful, long-reigning queen who made tremendous sacrifices for her country. Known as the “Virgin Queen” (and history always loves a virgin!) we tend to forget that in order to retain her power, she forsook the most compelling of human intimacies. Nevertheless, Elizabeth appeals to our modernity; she seems more like us than, say, Isabella of Castile or Catherine de Medici. Yet Elizabeth did not face the same challenges as Isabella or Catherine. Although she had religious conflict to contend with, it was not nearly as divisive or brutal as in Spain or France. She did not have children of her body to defend, a husband to please, or vastly rapacious nobility to thwart. Yet she was still a woman like them, exercising power in a time when few women did. Like them, she was also a 16th century ruler who did reprehensible things to protect her throne. Elizabeth persecuted Catholics; she exploited the rapine of the Americas. She could be tyrannical when the mood struck. We forgive her, however, because her reign is full of glorious events, like the defeat of the Armada; the works of Shakespeare; and relative peace England enjoyed under her rule. Bold and brash, beholden to no man, Elizabeth represents 16th century feminism – and that, I believe, is why we love her.

In my Tudor trilogy, I focus on her earlier years. The first two books, “The Tudor Secret” and “The Tudor Conspiracy” take place in the time before she becomes queen and the third one, “The Tudor Vendetta”, covers the first months of her reign. All three books feature the perspective of a fictional young man with a secret of his own, which compels him to become Elizabeth’s intimate spy; these novels are full of adventure and suspense, more fictionalized than my books about controversial queens. Elizabeth is an important character but the stories themselves revolve around the dangers she faced while waiting to assume the throne. She is indeed enigmatic during this time; an expert in the power games at court. I find her quite fascinating during these years, as I do her counterparts, her half siblings King Edward and Queen Mary I, whose troubled reigns had a long-lasting impact on Elizabeth. I also reinterpret her relationship with Robert Dudley, who is my main character’s chief adversary.

These are the Polish covers of Christopher W. Gortner's books

Agnes A. Rose: I’m interested to find out why you choose such controversial female rulers as the principal characters of your books. Let me mention Queen Juana of Castile, Catherine de Medici, Isabella of Castile and even Queen Elizabeth I.

Christopher W. Gortner: I am attracted to controversial women because history judges them more harshly. None of the women I write about behaved worse than their male counterparts – Indeed, in some ways, they behaved better. Yet we do not interpret them as we do the men; instead, we reduce them to clichés and deny the extraordinary complexity of these women’s lives. I do like difficult characters who face challenges; and women who exercise power are undeniably that. Even today, we read articles in so-called women’s magazines that promulgate how to have it all: career, family, and self-fulfillment. We rarely see this type of advice for men; society has always assumed men will put their career, or their power, first. The women I choose to write about may have lived in the past and the specifics of their struggles may be different from ours, but the underlying theme is the same: They were not supposed to claim their power and faced opposition because of their gender. Yet they defied the odds. You really can’t find a better story!

Agnes A. Rose: At what point did you decide that you’d like to be a writer full time? And why did you decide to create historical fiction?

Christopher W. Gortner: I didn’t decide to be a full time writer; it decided for me. I always liked writing even as a child but I never considered it a viable profession. I wanted to be in fashion and obtained my first post-graduate degree in merchandising. I worked for over twelve years in the fashion industry before I began writing professionally for the public health sector. In my early thirties, I returned to a graduate program and earned an MFA in Writing and History; my thesis was a completed novel. Shortly thereafter, I was starting submitting my work to agents. It took thirteen years, three subsequent manuscripts, and four different agents before I sold my first two books at auction. I held a full time job throughout this time; writing seemed a risky way to put food on the table. I finally became a full time writer two years ago, when I realized that I was in fact making a living at it. Still, it was a difficult decision for me.

As for historical fiction, it was – and still is – my favorite genre to read. I loved history in school and my mom gave me my first historical novel when I was eleven. After that, I read every historical novel I could find. Historical fiction brings history to life for me in a visceral way, clothing the past in vibrant color and emotion. I had favorite characters, many of whom I now write about, so it seemed natural when I began to write my first novel to make it historical fiction because I have such passion for it.

Agnes A. Rose: How do you navigate the line between staying historically accurate and telling the most compelling story?

Christopher W. Gortner: I do try my utmost to stick to the facts, while taking into account that a “fact” is not always true – especially concerning women who lived many years ago,  whose lives were often recorded by others, with their own bias and agendas. What we believe to be historically accurate may not be entirely so, as every story has two sides. As an historical fiction writer, I seek to uncover truths that may not have made it into the official annals of history. That said, in the end my books are fictionalized interpretations of historical characters. Because I must deal with a finite amount of words, highlighting milestones in an oft-complex life, I have to make certain choices as to what I can and cannot cover. Likewise, I must work with my editors, for whom the demands of the story always takes precedence. Writing historical fiction also presents the particular challenge of precision; unlike in nonfiction, I cannot say, “She did this and we don’t know why.” I have to either know why or reach an educated decision. It involves thorough research and applying that knowledge to my character’s emotional profile. I usually consult numerous sources that are not part of the popular bibliography; it is common for me to discover that what I initially thought I knew about a character is actually more myth than fact. Therefore, to do my characters justice, I must reach conclusions that feel both historically accurate and plausible, irrespective of the established history. A line in an ambassadorial dispatch; a letter that has remained untranslated in an archive; or unexplored circumstance surrounding an event can often shed startling new light that reveals a hidden aspect of my character. I live for those moments; it is why I write historical fiction.

Agnes A. Rose: How do you deal with writing books from the perspective of women? Is it difficult for you?

Christopher W. Gortner: I’m often asked this question and it always surprises me. I think it’s more difficult to write from the perspective of a person who lived hundreds of years ago. Gender, for me, is not nearly as challenging. Perhaps I have a deeper understanding of women; who knows? A few male writers have told me they would find it very tough to write a female character’s perspective for an entire novel, yet for some reason it comes naturally to me. Of course, some readers think I fail miserably at it, but when I write, I never think, “So, how would a woman feel about this or that?” Much like an actor, I must “become” my character. I have to strip away my own self in order to experience her emotions from inside her skin. It makes no difference if my character is female or a male: I must know who they are in order to inhabit them.

Agnes A. Rose: I’ve noticed that you have a very good contact with your readers on the Internet. How does it influence on your writing?

Christopher W. Gortner: I love hearing from readers and discussing my novels with them. Truly, it’s a great honor and pleasure for me. But I cannot let myself be influenced by their opinions in so far as how I approach my work. I appreciate from the heart all the praise and criticism I receive – and I get both – but if I start doubting my ability to tell a story, then I will second-guess everything else, wondering at every turn how the reader might react. To write, I must retain my pact with my character and stay true to my vision; it’s the only way I can summon her voice.

Agnes A. Rose: What is your next project? Are you working on your new novel?

Christopher W. Gortner: I have three novels in the pipeline. The third and final book in my Elizabeth I Spymaster trilogy, “The Tudor Vendetta,” will be published in the US on October 21, 2014; my publisher Znak in Poland has acquired it, but I don’t have a Polish publication date yet. I also recently sold my new historical novel about Coco Chanel, tracing her dramatic life from her forsaken childhood to her tumultuous rise to fame as the world’s most iconic designer and controversial affair during WWII: tentatively titled “Mademoiselle Chanel”, it’s scheduled for US publication in the spring of 2015. Lastly, my novel about Lucrezia Borgia’s dangerous Vatican years is currently with my US editor and scheduled for 2016; Znak has also acquired it for Poland. I am currently researching a new novel, set during the Belle Époque.

Agnes A. Rose: Finally, I’d like to ask you about your work for animal rights. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Christopher W. Gortner: I help to network and pledge funds to save dogs and cats from overcrowded shelters in the US, particularly in the southern California area, where the rate of euthanization is very high due to overpopulation caused by irresponsible pet ownership and back yard breeding. I’ve loved animals since I was a child; I started actively networking companion animals for rescue a few years before my beautiful dog, Paris, passed away. I now donate in her memory. She was my canine soul mate and I miss her every day; unlike the animals that I help rescue, she never knew abandonment or neglect, so it feels right to save others in her name. I also have two former feral cats who bring me much love and joy.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for this interview. I wish you all the best for your further creative work. Is there anything you would like to add?

Christopher W. Gortner: Thank you for spending this time with me. I hope your readers enjoy THE QUEEN’S VOW. To learn more about my work, please visit:

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here