C.W. Gortner is the author of the historical novels The Secret Lion and the most recent, The Last Queen, just released by Random House. The Last Queen is the first-person fictional story of the infamous Juana la Loca, or 'Mad Queen' of Spain, and took six years to research and write. In this interview, Gortner talks about the novel, his inspiration for it, and how he was able to find the right agent and land a contract with a major New York Publisher.
Thanks for being here today. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I write historical fiction; my new novel is The Last Queen, published by Ballantine Books, Random House. I’m passionate about books, animal rights and the environment. I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for the past twenty –five years but I’m half-Spanish by birth and also call Spain home. I hold an MFA in Writing with an emphasis on Renaissance Studies and have traveled extensively to research my work. It took many years to get a major offer from a large publisher; in the meantime, while I wrote, despaired and made secret pacts with every known spiritual entity for a break-through, I fed myself by working as a fashion marketer, editor, case manager, and administrative analyst. I published my first novel, The Secret Lion, with an independent print-on-demand publisher and, to my utter surprise, sold 8,000 copies online, which led to interest from my current agent and my sale last year to Ballantine. That, too, came as a complete surprise!
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
My novel The Last Queen is the first-person story of Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne, and of her tumultuous relationships with her parents Isabella and Ferdinand, and her unwavering determination to fight for her throne against her husband Philip of Hapsburg. Known as Juana la Loca, the Mad Queen, Juana’s story is hardly mentioned outside of Spain, though she was the sister of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and mother of the Emperor Charles V. Her life was full of drama, intrigue and passion, certainly worthy of a historical novel.
I’ve been fascinated by Juana for most of my life. In my childhood I lived near a ruined castle that had belonged to Juana’s parents. I’d clamber to its highest tower and think that Juana had touched these same stones, perhaps marveled, as I did, at the beauty of the Andalucian landscape. During a school trip to Granada, where Juana is buried, I found myself entranced by the marble effigy of this woman, whose face is turned away from the figure of her husband beside her. Most school children in Spain know the tale of Juana la Loca but I immediately wanted to know more. What was she like in real life? Did she really pull her husband’s bier behind her throughout the country, venerating his corpse? Was she truly mad? What happened to her to plunge her into such despair?
It took six years to research and write The Last Queen, including several trips to Spain and scrabbling in dusty archives. The challenge after the research was to sort through it all and decide what I wanted to write about. Fortunately, it quickly became clear that I wanted to focus on the woman herself— the fallible, humane, courageous and often lonely woman, whose experiences, while different from ours, certainly, are universal in the struggle to balance life and duty, betrayal and love. Juana has been dismissed, ignored and maligned by history but I discovered that she was an extraordinary figure for her time, and I felt she deserved a chance to tell her side of the story.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
Hopefully, the reader will come away with a sensory experience of Juana and her world. I write fiction, so my primary object is to take my reader on an emotional journey. That said, I strive for historical accuracy within the confines of fiction and hope readers will learn more about this queen who’s been forgotten by most of the world, as well as life in Spain during this time. The 16th century was a brutal, quixotic era; I’m enthralled by its beauty and contradictions, but I don’t share many of its beliefs. I also hope readers will realize that sometimes what we learn from history books, what is presented to us as ‘fact’, can be a matter of interpretation. It all depends on whose view point we’re shown.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse is fickle; she tends to tease me with ideas, get me fired up and then desert me when I need her the most. Infuriating little sprite! However, over the years I’ve learned to accept the gifts she bestows and rely on finger-grease to do the rest. I’m zealous about writing every day. Even if I only get ten words out, I write them. I write at odd hours, mostly in the early evening and sometimes late at night. I need quiet and have arranged my work space in a parlor of my house. My dog lies at my feet and occasionally licks my ankles to remind me that writing, as much else in life, mustn’t be taken too seriously. I’m surrounded by book cases with all the books I’ve compiled for research. When the muse fails me, I grab a book and read. I just open it at random to seek a word, a sentence, something to re-inspire me. I’ll look at an illustration or portrait from the period. If all else fails, I can always write about the weather or a gown my character is wearing. The mere act of putting fingers to the keys is often enough to get me going. It might not be a stellar night’s work but, for me, the magic of writing comes with re-writing. I never pop champagne when the first draft is done. I revel in the fact that I actually finished something, then dig into the really hard stuff: the shaping of that mass of wobbly prose into a coherent whole.
What type of scenes give you the most trouble to write?
Beginnings! I have an awful time with beginnings. I’ve been known to re-write them more than any other part of a book; I could literally spend years trying to craft the perfect opening chapter. It’s an OCD thing with me. I’ve had to teach myself that if I want to move forward at all when working on a first draft, I must ignore that lousy opening chapter. It’ll never be what I envision because I haven’t written the book: nothing is envisioned yet, except in my brain. If I can just dash out that opening chapter and keep going without looking back, once I’m finished with the first draft the opening usually resolves itself. I can see clearly how it should look, and nine times out of ten, it’s nothing like what I first “envisioned.” The framework of the novel itself clarifies where it should start. A hard lesson for me to learn, but one which has saved me hours of banging my head against the computer screen!
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
Oh, I’d be upset. I have been upset! There’s no use denying it; your books are like your children and you want everyone to think they’re as special as you do. But I’ve learned to be philosophical. Reading is subjective; we bring our own inner worlds to the experience and not everyone is going to like what every writer has to say. Reviews usually represent one person’s opinion; if I’ve done my best, then I try to accept that I just didn’t happen to please that person. If I got more than one negative review, however, and a theme emerges, then I’d definitely try to determine if there’s something I can do different the next time. Writing thrives with improvement. Sometimes, reviews can show us the flaws and teach us where we can learn as writers.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
I spent thirteen years looking for a publisher. I wrote four novels in the process, including the earlier version of The Last Queen, and was under contract with three separate agents. None of them were bad agents; they just weren’t right for me. Like many writers, after sending out hundreds of queries and piling up pyramids of rejections, when an agent offered me a contract, I said yes. It wasn’t until I’d left my third agent after years of futile submission and spent the next year writing and trying not to dwell on my battle scars that I realized how much grief I could have spared myself if I’d interviewed my agents beforehand. I ended up cutting a deal with a POD publisher myself for my first novel, and that experience gave me confidence; when I finally met my current agent (who is the right one for me!) I could ask the questions I needed to and prepare myself for the rounds of submissions in New York. I studied how books sell while marketing my first novel and I came to understand publishing much better; my agent appreciated this and helped clarify her role and her process; she kept the faith when I started to lose it, and she finally sold not one, but two, of my books in auction. In today’s challenging publishing climate, your agent is your lodestone. No one will value your writing as much as the right agent. After that, the right editor is the next blessing in a writer’s life.
So, the advice I’d give writers is twofold: take time to find the right agent for you. Check out what the agent has sold in the past and who he or she represents before you query and establish that this agent is someone you’d like to have representing you. Be selective. Remember, this is business and you’re providing the product. Every writer is different, and so is every agent. Talk to the agent who offers you representation to get a sense of their philosophy around selling books, ambitions for your writing, and the current climate for your type of work. The next advice I’d give is inform yourself as much as you can about the business of publishing, from the agent’s role to the editor’s, to marketing and publicity, as well as sales. There’s a ton of available information; make use of it. A well prepared writer is an asset to an agent, plus you should want to know as much as you can about the business where you hope to succeed.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Readers can visit me at: www.cwgortner.com. My website has a link to my blog. My blog is called Historical Boys and I interview historical fiction writers, as well as share anecdotes about my writing experiences and talk about books I’ve read.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’m currently completing my editor’s suggested revisions to my book about Catherine de Medici, which will be published by Ballantine sometime in 2009. I’m very excited about this novel, because Catherine is another of those maligned, misunderstood historical figures, and I was completely transformed by my research into her life. I started out wanting to write a book about an ambitious, power-hungry woman and ended up discovering someone quite different. She’s so unlike Juana, both in her outlook and the challenges she faced; and yet they share striking similarities.
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
Readers. Every time I get an e-mail from a reader who tells me he or she enjoyed my work, that’s my reward. The simple truth is, I write to be read. I revel in the process of writing, of course, and while I’m working I’m so focused on the character’s voice I don’t think about much else. But once those unwieldy pages have been pruned and polished into a manuscript, the reader comes into play. I need their eyes and hearts to experience my story; I need them to live it. Readers and writers are soul-mates; we need each other to be complete.
Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I had fun answering these questions and I hope readers will enjoy The Last Queen as much as I enjoyed writing it.