Friday, 30 January 2015

It’s a great experience seeing my novels adapted for television or film...

Interview with Philippa Gregory
by Agnes A. Rose

Philippa Gregory is a British historical novelist. She has been writing books since 1987. The best known of her works is “The Other Boleyn” (2001), which in 2002 won the Romantic Novel of the Year Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association. The author was born in Kenya, and when she was two years old, her family moved to England. She wrote her first novel – “Wideacre” – while completing a PhD in 18th –century literature. Philippa Gregory has written novels set in several different historical periods, though primarily the Tudor period and the 16th century. Now in Poland you can read her book which is titled “The White Princess”*.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for your accepting my invitation to this interview. I am very grateful for this! At the beginning I would like to ask you what way you started creating literature. Have you dreamed about it since your childhood like most writers have? And why did you choose historical fiction?

Philippa Gregory: Thank you. I didn’t intend to be a writer; actually I wanted to teach at university. My PhD was on popular literature in the 18th Century literature, so when I was doing research and reading (I read over 200 novels in four years), I taught myself how a novel works, how to pace it and how to tell the story. At the end of my PhD, there were no jobs in the universities so I wrote instead. I had a baby daughter so when she was sleeping I would work at my desk. I ended up writing my first novel “Wideacre”, and you can see that it’s influenced by my PhD – it’s set in 18th Century England and is the story of a woman fighting for the right to inherit her family home. The novel sold really well all over the world and I haven’t stopped writing – now it’s my career. I’ve always loved history, reading it and thinking about it and understanding it, so writing historical fiction came easily.

Agnes A. Rose: Your books are very famous all over the world. In Poland you are a very well-known writer. Could you tell the Polish readers how you prepare your novels? How do you deal with the historical background, all those facts, and threads?

Philippa Gregory: Each book takes about two years. It takes six to nine months of researching and reading before I start writing. I read all the histories about the period in general, and all the histories about the main characters, then I visit the London Library to read the older books that are out of print. Then I read all the articles and essays mentioned by the books. I visit the major sites for each novel and go to museums and talk with museum curators and local historians. I constantly take notes and I have a big folder of notes for each novel. When I can hear the characters voice in my head, then I start writing. I continue reaching when writing, to answer specific questions and so on. I like to work in my study, where I have my research nearby, although a lot of the research is now electronic; I have timelines, family trees, maps and major dates up on my study walls, to keep places, people and dates in my head in the right order.

Agnes A. Rose: In Poland the most popular of your books are “The Cousins’ War Series”, “The Tudor Court Novels” and “The Wideacre Trilogy”. Which of these series is closer to you and why?

Philippa Gregory: They are all close to me – I think “The Wideacre Trilogy” will always feel special – “Wideacre” was the first novel I wrote and had published, and I’m very fond of the Tudors and the Plantagenets.

Agnes A. Rose: Let’s talk more about the women of “The Wars of The Roses”. The main character of “The White Queen” is Elizabeth Woodville. She is a quite different than Margaret Beaufort, who is extremely demonic. The fact which most captivated me while reading is that Elizabeth was a wonderful wife and mother. In view of this, was she really able to throw a curse?

Philippa Gregory: I think Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta were very courageous and strong women. Elizabeth would have been passionately protective of her family – she lived in a dangerous time and would have done everything she could to look after them, so cursing someone is definitely a possibility. 

Agnes A. Rose: The women you create in your novels have strong character and they perfectly know what they expect from their life. Despite the fact that they need to obey the men, who generally use them to satisfy their own ambitions, the women also stubbornly pursue her goals. Which of the women appearing on the pages of your novels was the most difficult to create and why?

Philippa Gregory: I struggled at the start with the character of Margaret Beaufort in “The Red Queen”. She’s very different to Elizabeth Woodville, who I had spent more than two years reading and writing about for “The White Queen”. It was a quick turnaround and I had to go from sympathising with the Yorkists to getting into the mind of their enemies, the Lancastrians. At first Margaret Beaufort can seem like quite a cold and unforgiving character, but I admire her passion and devotion. You have to try and see things from the characters perspective, so you see why they did the things they did. Eventually she achieved what she wanted and saw her son crowned king.

Agnes A. Rose: You are also the author of “The Order Darkness Series”. This series is addressed to young readers. So far in Poland two parts of this series have been published – “Changeling” and “Stormbringers”**. Why did you decide to create this kind of story? 

Philippa Gregory: I knew that there are a lot of younger readers who enjoy my books, so I wanted to write a story for them with younger characters. It was something new and exciting to write books with a completely fictional cast of characters. The story is set against real historical events so there’s still a lot of research in each book. The books are set in Europe, so it was interesting to write about somewhere other than England. The third novel, “Fools’ Gold”, is set in the wonderful, unique city of Venice so it was an added bonus that I had to travel to Venice to do research for the book.

Agnes A. Rose: Sometimes in your books we can also notice some elements of fantasy literature. Let me mention such books as “The Wise Woman” or “The Lady of the Rivers”. In my opinion this is the perfect mixture. Why do you decide to use fantasy in your works?

Philippa Gregory: People in the 15th and 16th centuries often attributed things that they could not explain to sorcery and witchcraft, and there were a lot of superstitions held at that time, so my decision to included elements of magic is more to do with how these characters saw and interpreted the events in the novels. Jacquetta’s family really believed they were descended from the water goddess Melusina, so the events in the novels caused by ‘witchcraft’ are things that can be perhaps explained by modern-day science and knowledge of the world, but were thought to be magic at the time.

Agnes A. Rose: As I mentioned above, now in Poland we can read “The White Princess”. This book is a part of “The Cousins’ War Series”. Could you encourage your Polish readers to read this novel?

Philippa Gregory: It’s the story of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Elizabeth Woodville and Edward IV. (You can read her mother’s story in “The White Queen”.) Elizabeth is made marry Henry Tudor to make peace between the warring houses of York and Lancaster after Henry defeats Richard III in battle, ending the Cousins’ war, and becomes king. The Tudor dynasty is born, and Elizabeth gives birth to two sons, Arthur and his younger brother, Henry (who we know as Henry VIII). It was very interesting for me to write this novel, as even though the Cousins’ War was officially over, it was a very tense time politically – Henry was paranoid and feared his people would rebel against him. Elizabeth’s personal story is deeply intertwined with this political intrigue and it makes for an exciting read.

Agnes A. Rose: Your novels are also moved to the big screen. What do you feel when you can see your characters animated by actors?

Philippa Gregory: It’s a great experience seeing my novels adapted for television or film, and I’ve been very lucky to have had some wonderful actors playing the characters in my books. It’s a completely different way of telling a story, personally I’ve chosen the novel as my way of telling a story but it is great to see the characters brought to life. My favourite on screen portrayals include Rebecca Ferguson’s Elizabeth Woodville and Janet McTeer’s Jacquetta in “The White Queen” TV series. They played the characters almost exactly as I see them in my head.

Agnes A. Rose: I would like to thank you for this interview. However, on behalf of myself and all the Polish fans of your work, I wish you further success and subsequent great books.

Philippa Gregory: Thank you very much!

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

* This interview was done shortly after the Polish premiere of "White Princess", which took place on 18 June 2014.
** Now in Poland the third volume of the series entitled “Fools’ Gold” is available. At the time of this interview, the Polish readers could read only two previous parts. 

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