Historical fiction is a genre I especially enjoy. It amazes me how an author can plot a fictional story around historical events or create a fictional life for unknown portions of a historical figure's life.
I asked C. W. Gortner, the author of The Last Queen to tell us about adding fiction to a historical figure's life, what the challenges were, and how he met them. Here's what he had to say:
THE LAST QUEEN is the 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 fight for her throne against her husband Philip of Hapsburg. Juana is a legend in Spain, known as Juana la Loca— the mad queen. Her story has been filmed twice; there have been numerous biographies in Spanish throughout the years. But outside of Spain, she’s scarcely mentioned except as the sister of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and as the mother of the Emperor Charles V. Yet her life was full of drama, intrigue and passion, certainly worthy of a historical novel.
I’m often asked how I became interested in Juana. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I was raised in Spain and am half Spanish by birth. In my childhood I lived near a castle that had belonged to Juana’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand. Clambering to its highest tower, I knew Juana had touched these same stones, perhaps marveled, as I did, at the arid beauty of the Andalusian 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. I even took the same route Juana made from Burgos to her final residence in Tordesillas. I visited the Alhambra and other castles associated with her, and read every contemporary account about her that I could find, including letters from her custodians to her son Charles V, many of which are archived in Simancas. The challenge after this rather exhaustive research was to sort through it all and decide what I wanted to write about. Fortunately, it soon 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.
The challenge in bringing Juana to life via a fictional voice was deciding how to interpret the events that she lived, through her eyes. I had to escape the verdict of the past and see her through fresh eyes. She’s been branded with the epithet of the Mad Queen, and it is generally accepted by most historians that she was insane and incapable of ruling. While I knew these facts, I also knew rulers paid chroniclers to write their particular version of history. It is how we got the distorted image of sovereigns like Richard III, whose life was distorted by historians in Tudor pay to vilify him and exalt their dynasty. I suspected much the same occurred with Juana; every contemporary account I read about her was written by a man with an agenda, either one in service to her husband or later on, by men working for Charles V. I was taken in by these accounts at first; in fact, I thought her terribly romantic and tragic, an eccentric, possibly unstable queen, who should never have been thrust into the situation she found herself in. However, as I began to shift more closely through these accounts I was stuck by the impression that no one seemed interested in questioning whether Juana might have been sane. I had this gut feeling that her “official” story, as so many histories, contained half-truths and lies, and so I set out to paint an emotional portrait of her based on facts but untainted by what others had written. If you view her actions from her viewpoint, i.e., a woman determined to defend her country and her children but without the advantages of an army at her back, much of Juana’s alleged madness unravels itself.
Fiction is a marvelous tool for exploring the past because it allows us to focus on the moments, and that is what I strived to do in fictionalizing Juana. From a fifteen-year-old princess sent into an arranged marriage with a handsome and callous foreign prince, to a young mother who wanted to be happy, to a daughter charged with her mother’s crown and a queen denied her voice, I tried to uncover the flesh and blood person underneath the various guises. While Juana lived over 500 years ago, and we cannot know the true “reality” of her existence, our emotions as human beings have not changed all that much. We all know what it is to suffer a loss, to yearn and hope; to fight for what we believe in. Through these common feelings, I painstakingly recreated the person I think Juana might have been. She is very different from the queen others have written about, but I think she is far more interesting and complex, as well.
None of us is a stereotype: we all carry contradictions in our characters. The biggest challenge of all was to allow Juana her contradictions and not fall into the trap of judging them. Did she always act wisely? No. Did she make mistakes? Absolutely. But she also showed great strength and endurance, and perspicacity in a time when women were expected to be passive vessels. She showed mettle, and that, more than anything else, made her into a threat. Had she submitted to what was demanded of her, her life would no doubt have been different. This gave me the key to unlocking her heart: it’s often what we don’t do that most reveals who we are.
I do hope readers will enjoy reading about Juana as much as I enjoyed writing about her.
THE LAST QUEEN is published in hardcover by Ballantine Books and will be available at most bookstores. Readers can visit me at http://www.cwgortner.com. My website has a tour of Juana’s 16th century world and special offers for book clubs, as well as a reader contest to win a free copy of the book and a gift. I’m happy to send a signed bookplate, too; just write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you so much for taking this time with me!
About the book: Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country’s throne, is an enigmatic figure, shrouded in lurid myth. Was she the bereft widow of legend who was driven mad by her loss, or has history misjudged a woman who was ahead of her time? In his stunning new novel, C.W. Gortner challenges centuries of myths about Queen Juana, unraveling the mystery surrounding her to reveal a brave, determined woman we can only now begin to fully understand.
The third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain, Juana is born amidst her parents’ ruthless unification of their kingdom, bearing witness to the fall of Granada and Columbus’s discoveries. At the age of sixteen, she is sent to wed Philip, the Archduke of Flanders, as part of her parents’ strategy to strengthen Spain, just as her youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, is sent to England to become the first wife of Henry VIII.
Juana finds unexpected love and passion with her handsome young husband, the sole heir to the Hapsburg Empire. At first she is content with her children and her life in Flanders. But when tragedy strikes and she inherits the Spanish throne, Juana finds herself plunged into a struggle for power against her husband that grows to involve the major monarchs of Europe. Besieged by foes on all sides, her intelligence and pride used as weapons against her, Juana vows to win her crown and save Spain from ruin, even if it could cost her everything . . . .
With brilliant, lyrical prose, author and historian C. W. Gortner conjures Juana through her own words, taking the reader from the somber majesty of Spain to the glittering and lethal courts of Flanders, France, and Tudor England. The Last Queen brings to life all the grandeur and drama of an incomparable era; and the singular humanity of this courageous, passionate princess whose fight to claim her birthright captivated the world.
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