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Author Interview with C.W. Gortner

Jerelyn’s  (I-F-Letty) Interview with C.W. Gortner

C.W. Gortner has to date three published works.  His first The Secret Lion has been republished as The Tudor Secret, an excellent mystery set in the Tudor Court of Edward VI.  The Last Queen is about the little known (in this country at least) Juana, daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, their most Catholic Majesties of Spain; she was the elder sister to Henry VIII first queen, Catherine of Aragon. Also, he has written The Confessions of Catherine De Medici, who was Queen of France, mother to three kings of France, and two queens.


Jerelyn: First I would like to thank Mr. Gortner for agreeing to be interviewed for the PBS blog.

I first heard of you while reading the blogs of favorite authors Sharon Penman, and Susan Higginbotham to name a few. They praise your work.  It must be gratifying to have such support from these ladies. How important to you was their support?

C. W.: It’s always marvelous when other authors like and support your work; I do it myself. Sharon Penman in particular has been a long time favorite of mine, so her praise has meant a lot to me. Authors can be competitive by nature, but I’ve found that in the historical fiction community, by and large we tend to cheer each other on. Maybe because most of us are also devoted readers of the genre and we welcome its growth, rather than see other authors as a threat.


Jerelyn: What drew you to this time period?

C.W.:  I’ve always been fascinated by the Renaissance. It’s a time of great upheaval, tragedy, glory, and accomplishment, when we cast off medieval restrictions and bask in the classics of antiquity, as well as forge new directions in art, science, and religion. It’s not an easy time by any means, but it gave birth to some of history’s most fascinating characters as well as some of the world’s most famous artists. A multi-faceted genius like Leonardo da Vinci, for example, could only be a product of this time. It’s no wonder that even today we refer to people with diverse talents as a “renaissance” man or woman. This is an era when we begin to re-define ourselves as individuals and recognize the infinite realm of possibilities within us.


Jerelyn: It is a said that this is a notoriously difficult time period to write about.  Did you find this to be true?

C.W.:  I think recreating any era of the past is difficult. The research alone can be staggering, with volumes of books and documents to get through, and even the most reliable sources can contradict each other or be maddeningly obscure on something of significant importance to you as the writer. Also, the act of bringing to life people who lived over five hundred years ago carries a weight of responsibility, in that you need to make them accessible to the modern-day reader without betraying the time in which they lived in. It can be a delicate balancing act, to say the least.


Jerelyn: I have to admit to you that Secret Lion/The Tudor Secret sat on my shelf for nearly a year, before I read it.  Quite frankly I was Tudor-ed out, and the inundation of mediocre novels about this time period had also turned me off.  So I was a bit surprised and relieved at how fresh I found the The Tudor Secret to be.  Will you tell us about it?

C.W.:  Sure. I wrote it years ago, after my first two historical novels were rejected repeatedly by publishers. My agent at the time had grown doubtful about her ability to sell a straight historical by me—the genre hadn’t yet regained its popularity—so she suggested I try my hand at a mystery. Evidently, the historical mystery/suspense arena had more male authors and she thought it might be a good area to break me into. I wasn’t that interested, to tell you the truth. I was so depressed over having been rejected by thirteen publishers that the wind had gone out of my sails. I took several months off to research, however, and started to re-discover my childhood fascination with the Tudor era. I’d always loved the foibles and extravagances of the English court, and larger-than-life personalities who inhabited it, but I’d also felt it was overwritten. I started searching for something unique to build my story upon; as I explored the oft-neglected period between Edward VI’s demise and Mary Tudor’s coronation—a mere footnote in history—I got excited. Then I came across information about the spy system set up to protect Elizabeth I and that got me to pondering what such a system might have looked like before Elizabeth became queen. Thus, was my story born. It proved my most challenging book to write because of the intricacy of its plot but also one of my most rewarding.

Fast-forward five years. No editor wanted to publish my so-called mystery, so I ended up leaving my agent and publishing the book with a small independent press that only had online distribution. As time went by, the book gained notice. Eventually, it attracted the attention of my current fabulous agent, who called me out of the blue to see what else I had stashed in my desk. She went on to sell The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici to Random House at auction, as well as the now-titled The Tudor Secret and next two entries in the series to St Martin’s Press and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK. Ironic, huh? Just goes to show, perseverance is key in this business. You never know when things will turn around.


Jerelyn: I love the story about dancing at Hampton Court, would you share?

C.W.:  Oh, yes. That was an experience I’ll always treasure. During my research, my partner and I visited Hampton Court. We happened to arrive on a day when the palace had costumed entertainers demonstrating different dances of the era to tourists in the great hall. After several demonstrations, they called for volunteers. Naturally, no one obliged. If you’ve seen a sixteenth century dance, you’ll understand why. But my partner leaned to me and whispered, “Are you kidding me? You’re standing in the very place where Anne Boleyn danced with Henry VIII and you’re not going to volunteer?” He was right, of course. I adore Anne Boleyn and the thought of somehow following her footsteps proved too seductive to resist. My hand shot up. I’m afraid I was rather clumsy, but the smiling lady in costume with whom I danced looked just as I imagine Anne must have, with flowing dark hair and a marvelous laugh, so I could have fallen on my face and not cared!


Jerelyn: I understand there is a second book in this series.  When is that scheduled for release?

C.W.:  In 2012. I’m in the process of writing it now. It begins a few months after the end of The Tudor Secret. Brendan returns to court at Cecil’s behest to protect Elizabeth from a web of intrigue being spun around her by the Spanish ambassador, Renard, and her own sister, Queen Mary. This time, Brendan is more experienced and thinks he knows how to handle the treachery, but he’s in for quite a surprise, not the least of which is at Elizabeth’s own hands. It’s a darker, more suspenseful tale and I hope readers enjoy it.


Jerelyn: Your second novel and first biographical fiction novel is The Last Queen about Juana of Spain.  I found her fascinating. Will you tell us about her?

C.W. : She’s an intriguing character, in that she’s truly the last queen of the medieval Spanish bloodline to inherit the throne and yet she’s been completely obscured by lurid myths that really downplay her importance both as a woman and a queen. I heard about her while growing up in Spain (I’m half-Spanish by birth) and was fascinated by the stories of Juana la Loca, the mad queen who dragged a coffin around with her and ended up locked in a castle. Years later, when I decided to write about her, my research led me to discover a very different and untold story, one of passion, betrayal, and immense courage.


Jerelyn: You seem to be drawn to, and very sympathetic to the plight of these royal pawns, both in The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.  Why did you feel their stories deserved to be told?

C.W.:  As a culture, we often only get to hear the sides of the victors in history, and mostly, from the voices of men. It’s getting better, but many women, particularly those like Juana and Catherine, who’ve been saddled with unsavory reputations, suffer from the verdict of history because of relentless stereotypes. Their complexity is diluted both by a rush to pigeonhole them (oh, she was mad and that one was evil) and by a male-dominated view of history. For example, I found no evidence that Catherine de Medici poisoned anyone; I found little evidence to suggest that Juana was mentally unbalanced from childhood, yet these fallacies persist, almost to this day, in part due to the legends constructed around their personae. I felt it was important to give them a chance to tell their side of the story, to unfetter them from their own dark legends and set them as women within the context of their time. I’m always intrigued by the untold stories under the veneer of history and what these women might have said, had they been given the chance.


Jerelyn: Male writers do not always write convincing women, but your women are so well written, so I can tell you really identified with them.  Where does this come from, this empathy?

C.W.:  I can’t really say. Perhaps it comes from being in Spain with a lot of strong women around me—my mom, my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins. They used to gather in the kitchen to gossip and tell stories and I was always among them, wide-eyed and big–eared. I loved hearing them behind closed doors, while the men napped or drank or watched television; they had a world apart, where secrets were revealed. I think I absorbed some of their sensibility; I certainly to this day have more women friends than men. I invariably find women more interesting.


Jerelyn: Catherine De Medici is one of the more maligned historical characters.  A bit like say Richard III or Edward II.  Do you think she was a victim of her enemies’ propaganda?

C.W.:  Absolutely! And a victim of her own mistakes, which she didn’t set out to make, yet caused horrific ramifications in at least one case. We must remember that Catherine de Medici was not a princess trained to rule; she was expected to bear the children of the king’s second son and fade into comfortable obscurity. Her tenacity and zeal to defend France and her sons’ throne from a rapacious nobility and horrific religious conflict catapulted her into the spotlight, but she was still seen as an Italian, a Medici, a parvenu— and she was not loved. I find it sad that to this day, there is almost no reminder of her anywhere in Paris. There’s a great memorial to those who died in the Massacre of St Bartholomew but she has been erased. She forestalled the French Revolution by nearly two-hundred years; she almost single-handedly preserved the monarchy for the accession of one of France’s most beloved kings, Henri IV, but she’s still looked at askance, a foreigner, not really a patriot. She’s been relegated to the shadows, the reptilian Madame Serpent who would do anything in her lust for power. Now, that’s enemy propaganda at its best.


Jerelyn: You write about the humanist education she received, and in turn gave her children.  Do you think this was one of the reasons she was much more religiously tolerant, than other Catholic rulers of that time?

C.W.:  Yes, and I believe that during her early years in Italy, as a Medici who knew her own family had vied and bribed their way to the Holy See, she learned that faith and religion are two very different things. She didn’t harbor the fanaticism of Philip II or entrenched fear of Catholic reprisal of Elizabeth I; she truly “did not wish to make windows into men’s souls”, to use that famous catch phrase of Elizabeth’s. Catherine remained Catholic in her observances but her own letters and numerous public declarations confirm she sincerely believed that the two faiths should, and could, co-exist, as they shared a basis in the same fundamental teachings. In this, as in other aspects of her personality, she was ahead of her time.


Jerelyn: I admit that I always felt that she was horribly wronged by Henri II and his mistress Diane de Poitiers.  Modern sensibilities get in the way some time, a 43 year old woman, mistress to a 14 year old boy.  How do you get past such things when writing?

C.W.:  By looking at it through the prism of the age; this goes back to what I said earlier, about how historical fiction writers have to make these characters accessible to modern-day readers yet never betray the era in which they lived. In the sixteenth century, especially at court, a fourteen year-old prince was considered nearly a man. There was no acknowledged prepubescent period; boys and girls went from childhood to adulthood directly. However, it doesn’t say much for Diane’s scruples and I took that into account while crafting her character.


Jerelyn: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

C.W.:  That Catherine de Medici loved animals and espoused a nascent animal rights movement at court. Her apartments were filled with birds and dogs and she even had bears and monkeys; she couldn’t tolerate cruelty to animals and she really did have the decrepit lion cages at Amboise renovated. When she traveled, she brought her animals with her. It must have been quite a sight, to see the queen-mother ensconced in her carriage with her bears ambling behind.


Jerelyn:I read about your travels, what are your favorite places from each of your characters’ lives?

C.W.:  From Juana in The Last Queen, the spectacular medieval city of Toledo in Castile; from Catherine in The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, the sublimely feminine chateau of Chenonceau; and from Brendan in The Tudor Secret, the Tower of London for its history and impregnability.


Jerelyn: What are you reading now?

C.W.:  Research for my next stand-alone historical, which I have to keep under wraps until I get the okay from my editor and agent to announce it. I’m also reading Margaret George’s excellent Elizabeth I.


Jerelyn: Who are your favorite authors?

C.W.:  There are too many to cite here and I don’t want to leave anyone out 😉 Suffice to say, I’m a fan of most of the historical fiction authors writing today. I love the energy and diversity in our genre right now.


Jerelyn: Do you think sites like PaperBackSwap are helpful to authors?

C.W.:  Any place where writers and readers can meet is helpful. I’m always intrigued by the many ways in which the internet has facilitated communication with readers and vice versa.


Jerelyn: Do you think that social media has helped you in marketing your books?

C.W.:  Very much so; word-of-mouth recommendations are, in the end, the best way to sell a book. If I tell you, “Wow, I loved this!” and you trust my opinion, you’re far more likely to pick up that book the next time you’re looking for something to read. Despite all our fancy technological advances, we’re still human and we still need to talk to each other. Talk markets books. It’s that simple.


Jerelyn: What are your feelings about Amazon and Barnes and Nobles customer reviews?

C.W. : I think that except in cases of outright cruelty, everyone has a right to their opinion and everyone’s opinion is subjective. I browse customer reviews when I’m looking to buy a book but I’m rarely influenced by them. I’ve just read too many novels that other people disliked and vice versa. I prefer to make up my own mind, and the only way to do it is to read the work if I’m interested.


Jerelyn: What is next for you?

C.W.:  I’ve just finished I, Isabella of Castile, my next stand-alone historical novel about the youth and tumultuous early reign of Spain’s famous crusader queen, for publication by Ballantine Books in 2012. I’m currently writing the next book in the Spymaster Chronicles.


Jerelyn: Thank-you Mr. Gortner!

C.W.: Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure.


If you would like to learn more about C.W. Gortner visit his website http://www.cwgortner.com/

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici was published in trade paperback today, May 24 and Mr. Gortner has donated a copy to be given away in a drawing for those who comment. A winner will be chosen at random. Good Luck!



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16 Responses to “Author Interview with C.W. Gortner”

  1. ANNA S. (SanJoseCa) says:

    I love all C.W. Gortner’s books! (He has a fun website) Grest interview Letty!

  2. Vicky T. (VickyJo) says:

    Another new author to read! Wonderful interview, Jerelyn. And thanks to Mr. Gortner for taking time to talk about his work. I loved the dancing at Hampton Court story!

  3. Stephanie G. (thestephanieloves) says:

    I took an European History course last year, and found it fascinating — especially the unit about the de’Medici reign. I’d love to read your book sometime!


  4. Deb B. (bookzealot) says:

    Great interview — thank you both. Eager to read Mr. Gortner’s books — off to visit his website now!

  5. Maria (SassenachD) says:

    Agreed, Excellent interview! I too am off to investigate his website.

  6. Michelle F. (Micky) says:

    It sounds like an interesting book. Hadn’t heard of this author before.

  7. Cozette M. (CozSnShine) says:

    Great interview – thanks

  8. R E K. (bigstone) , says:

    Great interview! Looking forward to more from this author. Ordered a couple of his books from the library so I can catch up with everyone else – never!

  9. Bonnie (LoveNE) , says:

    Way to go Jerelyn and thank you Mr. Gortner for a very informative interview!

  10. Charles W. (chukandcher) says:

    It’s great when these interviews are done because it brings out authors that might not have been noticed. I love reading these and finding authors I would be interested in reading. This author, Mr. C.W. Gortner, sounds like he would be one to sink my teeth into. Thanks so much for another great eye-opening. I also like the first two initials: C.W. 🙂
    Sincerely, C.W.

  11. Karen H. (warbler43) says:

    Great interview…thanks. Mr. Gortner is a new-to-me author. I’ll be spending time getting acquainted with his work.

  12. Colleen J. (shukween) says:

    Nice interview–Can’t wait to pick up one of Mr. Gortner’s tomes!

  13. John L. (longblade) says:

    This was a great interview! i went and bought the book, i was so impressed. there are also more of his, I will buy. of course i’m lost in the dark ages and loving it.
    Thanks again.

  14. Sarah B. says:

    Your books sound great! Am looking to check them out!

  15. Martha E. (wytewolf) says:

    Thanks for doing these author interviews! I stumbled across this while digging deeper into the site and was pleasantly surprised. I will definitely be checking out Mr. Gortner, his stories sound so interesting.

  16. Jeanne L. (bkydbirder) , says:

    I think that this was the BEST interview yet! As I have not read any of Mr. Gortner’s books to date, I have to say that they sound very intriguing. I was unaware that some of his works were historical mysteries – which are my favorites. Thank you both so very much for such an enlightening interview!!!

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