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
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 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 Poland . 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
. Is there anything what most stuck
in your memory? Poland
Christopher W. Gortner: I think what most sticks in my memory right now is how incredibly beautiful
is. The landscape is so green, with
these huge trees – flowering chestnuts, enormous maples. I love trees and Poland 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. Warsaw
|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
and in other countries of the
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
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. Poland
Agnes A. Rose: Would you like to visit
in the future, for example as a
tourist not as an author? Poland
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
and spent a brief two hours in Warsaw 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
” 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
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
, 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 Spain 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 , the only place in University of Salerno 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 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
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
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 France I wielded death when threatened;
she executed Mary of Scots and ravaged Elizabeth because she believed they menaced
her safety and power. Ireland
Agnes A. Rose: In
“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? Poland
Christopher W. Gortner: I think
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 Elizabeth or Spain . 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. France persecuted Catholics; she exploited
the rapine of the Elizabeth . 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 Americas enjoyed under her rule. Bold and brash,
beholden to no man, England represents 16th century
feminism – and that, I believe, is why we love her. Elizabeth
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.
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. Elizabeth
|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
, Catherine de Medici, Isabella of Castile and even Queen Elizabeth I. Castile
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
on US October
my publisher Znak in 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
Poland publication in the spring of 2015. Lastly, my
novel about Lucrezia Borgia’s dangerous US Vatican years is currently with my editor and scheduled for 2016; Znak
has also acquired it for US . I am currently researching a new
novel, set during the Belle Époque. Poland
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
, particularly in the southern US 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, California , 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. Paris
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: www.cwgortner.com
If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here