Friday, June 22, 2012

Interview with Author C.W. Gortner

I'm excited to host my first ever author interview here at Confessions of an Avid Reader.   My guest is historical novelist C.W. Gortner, who is currently on tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours to promote his latest release, The Queen's Vow, an enthralling novel about Queen Isabella of Castile (click here to check out my review).   If you haven't read any of Mr. Gortner's novels, I highly recommend you do so as he is one of the historical fiction genre's best authors.    

Q:  Three of your four novels feature a controversial (i.e., Isabella of Castile and Catherine de Medici) or misunderstood (i.e., Queen Juana of Castile) female monarch as its principal character.   What is it about each of these women that drew you to write a novel about them? 

A: I’m drawn to controversial women. Popular history often reduces complexity to clichés, so that we have Isabella of Castile as the fanatic; Catherine de Medici as the evil crone; and Juana as the victim. However, the truth is much more interesting. These women were flesh-and-blood human beings. Their motivations aren’t simply defined; the challenge for me, the inspiration, is the desire to go beyond their legends to discover the actual person they may have been. In the instance of Isabella, I was attracted to her contradictions. She had the strength to become queen against incredible odds, coupled with a near-visionary belief in the unification of Spain, and yet she unleashed something as terrible as the Inquisition. I wanted to make sense of what may have driven her. With Juana, she’s accused of being mad and unable to rule; it’s said she threw aside her kingdom for grief. I wanted to delve into that myth and see if there was a deeper story there, and indeed it turned out there is. With Catherine de Medici, her legend is horrible: she’s accused of some of the 16th century’s worst crimes, including the massacre of nearly 6000 Protestants in Paris. Was it true? Did she conspire to kill those who stood in her way? When I start asking these questions, it’s usually a sign that this is a person I want to write about.

Q:  During the course of your research for The Queen’s Vow, what was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered about Isabella of Castile? 

A: Isabella had a very rudimentary education. Despite this, she was quite forward thinking in terms of women’s education. In an era when more than half the population of Castile was illiterate, Isabella decreed that women could study in universities, earn degrees, and teach there— the first time in Spain when women had any access to higher learning. She also employed a female scholar, the famous Beatriz Gallindo, known as la Latina, to be private tutor to her daughters and herself. Already a queen in her mid-thirties, Isabella set out to learn Latin, a language she had never mastered, though it was the primary language of diplomacy. She also imported the first printing presses to Spain and was known to call out certain, ignorant nobles at her court who eschewed learning by asking them if they’d read that book she’d sent them.  The nobles of her era were sword-wielding macho men with a serious contempt for what they deemed ‘monkish behavior’ but Isabella was a great believer in improvement through education and as a result, by her death, literacy in Spain had risen significantly.

Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?  Was historical fiction always the genre you wanted to write in?  If you weren’t a writer what do you think you’d be?

AI didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve written stories but I didn’t consider that I might try to make a living at it until later on in my life. I’ve also always loved historical fiction; growing up, it was my favorite genre. In my teens, however, I read a lot of fantasy and classics, and my writing reflected that. Then, in my mid-twenties, I re-discovered my love of history and began writing what turned out to be my first (and to date, unpublished) historical novel. Once I started, I found that I liked writing historical fiction best, because it combined my passion for history with the ability to turn the dry facts into a living world. However, if I wasn’t a writer, I’d have liked to work in animal rescue.

Q:  As an author of historical fiction, do you think certain historical figures and/or time periods have been overdone?   What historical figures or time periods do you wish were written about more often? 

AI think that we experience certain prevailing trends in the genre, and that some eras/personalities are endlessly fascinating to readers. I don’t really consider any particular figures or time periods overdone, providing there’s a fresh or unique approach. Take the Tudors, for example: you’d think there’d be nothing left to say about them, and yet every so often a novel appears that has a new spin, a new angle, a new way of telling the story. That said, I do wish there was less emphasis from a publishing stand-point on the so-called ‘marquee name’ or the most famous people. These characters are few, and we have a wealth of untold stories in other eras, and figures who are not considered household names; the medieval era, for example, is rarely explored outside of England.

Q:  Do you read historical fiction featuring the people about whom you’ve written?  Why or why not?

A: I can’t when I am writing about the character, because I don’t want to be influenced by another author’s vision. I want my interpretation to remain mine. Sometimes, once my book is finished and delivered to my publisher, I will read a novel about the same person. Not always, but I have in the past; mostly, when the author’s approach intrigues me and seems removed enough from my own.

Q:  Who are your favorite historical fiction authors?    What is it about their writing that you most admire?

AOh, far too many to mention! I think there are a lot of talented people right now writing in the genre, and to signal a few out wouldn’t be fair. However, among those writers who have passed on, I am a great admirer of Daphne du Maurier, whose historical novels, such as The Glassblowers, are under-appreciated today.

Q:  Have you started work on your next novel?  If so, who or what is the subject? 

AI’ve recently finished the second book in my Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (after The Tudor Secret). It is titled The Tudor Conspiracy and is scheduled for publication by St Martin’s Press in the US and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, in 2013.

I’m currently working on a novel about Lucrezia Borgia, tracing her years from her indulged youth as the illegitimate child of an ambitious Spanish churchman to her notoriety as the pope’s daughter and dangerous struggle to escape the web of her family’s ambitions. Once again, I’ve found myself drawn into the life of a woman who’s been vilified by history. The book will be published by Ballantine in 2014.

Q:  If you could invite three historical figures to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

A: Catherine de Medici, Rodrigo Borgia, and Erasmus: I think they would have a lot to discuss concerning freedom of religion and their perspectives would be fascinating.

Thank you so much for having me. I sincerely hope readers enjoy THE QUEEN’S VOW.  To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at:

C.W. Gortner is the author of The Last Queen, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici and The Tudor Secret.  He holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California.


In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into thirteen languages to date. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.


He's currently at work on his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about the early years of Lucrezia Borgia, as well as the third novel in his Tudor series,The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (US) or Elizabeth's Spymaster (UK).

Half-Spanish by birth, C.W. lives in Northern California.

Click here to check out the tour schedule for The Queen's Vow.