Friday, May 22, 2009

Interview with C.W. Gortner--Author of The Last Queen

Today’s special guest is author C.W. Gortner. The trade paperback of his historical novel, The Last Queen, was recently released by Ballantine Books (the hardcover was released in July 2008). We’re going to talk to this talented author today about Juana of Castile, the heroine of his novel.

Welcome to The Book Connection, Christopher. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself?

I write historical fiction; my novel is THE LAST QUEEN, published by Ballantine Books, Random House, was recently released in trade paperback. 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.

When did you decide that you had to write about the life of Juana of Castile?

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; and during a trip to Granada, where Juana is buried, I found myself entranced by her marble effigy. 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 plunge her into such despair?

The book is full of period details and rich descriptions. How long did it take you to perform your research for this book and did you travel to any of the locations mentioned within its pages?

It took six years to research and write THE LAST QUEEN, including several trips to Spain. I did visit most of the sites mentioned in the book, as fortunately many of them are still extant, if somewhat changed since her time. The challenge after the 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 her struggle to balance life and duty, betrayal and love. I even took a drive from Burgos to Toro in Spain, tracing Juana’s own trajectory.

You’ve written The Last Queen from Juana’s point of view. Did you find that difficult?

I didn’t, actually! What I found most difficult was getting up the courage to actually do it. I had written a previous version of the novel in third person, but my agent told me she felt something was missing, that Juana seemed too enigmatic. My agent didn’t tell me how she thought I could fix this, but as I began revising the manuscript, it soon became apparent that what I really needed to do was slip into Juana’s skin, to experience her life as she might have, through her eyes. It freaked me out at first, to attempt to write in the first person as a woman, but then I realized that writing is one art form where gender shouldn’t matter. We are invisible: our characters tell the story. And while I had to do some research to portray certain experiences, like giving birth, there were many other moments and emotions that Juana felt that were very familiar to me.

You’ve portrayed a different picture of Juana of Castile than what the world has been led to believe about her. Were you ever concerned that someone would question your portrayal of Juana?

Well, I thought it might raise some controversy but it wasn’t something I worried about. No other novelist had attempted to depict her side of the story before and frankly parts of her myth were so ludicrous I was surprised no one had challenged them before. I have had a few e-mails from readers who actually sounded offended by my portrayal of her, which to me just proves how deeply we want to believe the myths told about historical characters. In a way, it’s much easier to say, “Oh, she was crazy, the poor dear,” than look at the far more unsettling possibility that she was in fact not mad at all. Juana herself left almost nothing in her own hand, and much of what she said and did was recorded by men whose prejudices reflect the era. I always kept in mind that whatever I read about her was, in essence, an interpretation by someone who wasn’t necessarily disposed to show Juana in a kind light. While today we understand the effects of prolonged stress on the human psyche, in Juana’s era no one would have considered this as a possible cause for her behavior. When I carefully examined each of her allegedly erratic moments within the context of her circumstances at the time, her behavior became not only reasonable but often quite justifiable. I think that we need to challenge the old historical guard at moments; in the case of women in particular, history can deceive.

Juana is betrayed by so many people she should have been able to trust. How do you think that impacts how she has been viewed by future generations?

I think that we want to believe that somehow she was to blame for her misfortune. It’s very discomforting to think that she was betrayed, that very few people actually fought to save her from her fate. Future generations were indoctrinated by the historical record to believe that she was unstable and incompetent to rule, and she had to be dealt with accordingly. It was a concerted effort on the part of those who usurped her throne to obscure the truth and build up a legend of this mad queen so distraught over her losses she fell apart. Her son Charles V in particular had to justify his continuing imprisonment of her because he held her throne, and to admit that an injustice had been done to his mother would have been to admit he was not, in fact, the rightful ruler of Spain – which he wasn’t, not until her death. Juana was locked away because others wanted her power, and I think that’s one of the hardest things of all to accept. We want to pigeonhole events and people so we can better understand them, and to look at Juana’s fate as I think it occurred is not easy.

Let’s assume for a moment that tragedy did not strike Juana’s family and she did not inherit the throne when her mother died. What do you think this would have meant to Juana’s marriage? Do you believe her husband, Philip would have acted differently?

I don’t honestly know. Juana and Philip seemed quite happy in the initial years of their marriage, and it’s possible they might have remained so had she not become her mother’s heir. In my opinion, Philip was not as mature as she was, and perhaps later on they would have gone through difficulties. I certainly don’t think it was in his nature to remain faithful to her, and that no doubt would have caused friction. But their roles would have been reversed; as his father the Emperor’s heir Philip would have eventually inherited the Habsburg Empire and Juana would have been empress, his consort, mother of his children but not a ruler. In becoming queen of Spain, she in fact inherited more power than Philip and he just couldn’t accept it, not in a woman and not in his wife, whom he believed, as did most men of his time, should be subservient to him.

One thing that comes through clearly in The Last Queen is the level of greed and lust for power on the part of many of the male characters. Was the level of corruption as bad as is portrayed?

It was probably worse! The 16th century was very brutal as far as politics go; and at court power was everything. Men sacrificed their souls in pursuit of it. I think we desperately want to see the past as a glamorous, damask-laden time of castles and chivalry, but the truth is romance was a rarity, especially among royals. Women often were married off for political and familial advantage, and disposed of limited legal rights. And still, we find many examples of courageous and defiant ladies, Juana among them.

What is one thing you would like readers to learn about Juana of Castile?

That she was a woman who did the best she could under extraordinarily trying circumstances.

Could you recommend a good resource for readers wanting to know more about Juana?

Unfortunately, there are few biographies in English about her, and fewer in print. I can recommend Bethany Aram’s nonfiction study, Juana the Mad: Sovereignty and Dynasty in Renaissance Europe.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a novel about Catherine de Medici, which will be published by Ballantine Books in 2010. Catherine de Medici is a very misunderstood and maligned woman in history, accused of some of the 16th century’s most heinous crimes. But during my research I uncovered a different picture of this Italian woman who became mother of the last Valois kings and one of France’s most influential queens.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. I hope readers will enjoy THE LAST QUEEN as much as I enjoyed writing it. I always enjoy meeting with reader groups / book clubs and as a Random House Readers Circle edition, THE LAST QUEEN is a perfect book for discussion. If you want to schedule a chat with me, please visit my website for more information. I also always appreciate hearing from readers, who can write to me via my website at:

Thank you, Christopher for sharing more about Juana of Castile. Best of luck with your virtual book tour.

You may read our review of The Last Queen here.

1 comment:

Cheryl S. said...

Great interview - I'm looking forward to this book.