An Interview with C. W. Gortner

Here’s my interview with C.W. Gortner. If you love historical fiction, particularly Tudor fiction, then Gortner is your guy.

03_CW_GortnerC.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California, as well as an AA from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco. In 2012, he became a full-time writer following the international success of his novels. His books have garnered widespread acclaim and been translated into twenty-one languages to date, with over 400,000 copies sold. A sought-after public speaker. C.W. has given keynote addresses at writer conferences in the US and abroad. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights, in particular companion animal rescue to reduce shelter overcrowding. Half-Spanish by birth and raised in southern Spain, C.W. now lives in Northern California with his partner and two very spoiled rescue cats. For more information please visit C.W. Gortner’s website and blog. You can also connect with him on FacebookTwitterGoodreadsPinterest, and YouTube.

* * * * *

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

C. W. Gortner: I began writing as a child in southern Spain. My mom remembers that even as a young boy, I was obsessed with books and made up my own stories. It’s a passion inside me; I don’t know where it comes from. I’m a voracious reader and I love to learn; most of what I know, I taught myself through reading. I didn’t dream of being a writer, however, until I was in my late twenties. I wanted to work in fashion and had various jobs in the fashion business for years. I wrote in my spare time, but it was a hobby, a way to express myself. I did not start writing historical fiction; I loved fantasy and actually worked for years on an epic fantasy novel for several years, which I still have. Looking at it now, I realized it’s heavily influenced by history, which I’ve always loved. Then one day, I decided to write an historical novel because I thought it would be fun to try my hand at it. My father read my first manuscript – all 800 pages on Anne Boleyn!—and suggested I try to publish it. I had no idea how to do that, but I studied everything I could about publishing and began sending query letters to agents. That’s how my career as a writer started. Had my father not said he thought my writing was good enough, I might never have tried.

M.A.: I am, I admit, only lately come to the fascination with the Tudor period of history. What prompted your interest in this time period? And why do you think the Tudor period is such an object of fascination among so many?

C.W.G.: I grew up when the BBC series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R” were being aired; I was still quite young but I was utterly fascinated. The Renaissance era is one of my favorites. When I lived in southern Spain, history was all around me. A ruined castle that had belonged to Isabella of Castile was just a short walk from my house; I also attended both Spanish and English-language schools, and history was by far my favorite subject. I always wanted to know more about the people: how they felt, how their world looked, what challenges they faced. History is often taught to be boring, a recital of uninteresting facts, but I had a particular history teacher who saw how much I loved it. She gave me history books and historical novels. When I read my first historical novel, Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy, it was like a door opened wide. Suddenly, I saw how history can come alive, how emotions can clothe the skeletons of the past in flesh and blood. After that, I read every historical novel I could, as well as history books. History can teach us so much about our present; without knowing where we came from, how can we decide we are headed? To me, history is like a guide to the past and the future. I think the Tudors’ brief reign offers a microcosm for history lovers: there is so much upheaval, passion, intrigue, and drama; the larger-than-life personalities and their oft-tragic fates—we must see something of ourselves in the Tudors, for their fascination on our collective imagination is enduring.

M.A.: How would you describe your novels to potential readers?

C.W.G.: Depends on the novel. My stand-alone novels about famous women, such as Isabella of Castile in The Queen’s Vow or Catherine in The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, are reinterpretations of these maligned characters. I wanted to rip aside the legend and lurid myth, delve into the emotional and physical circumstances they confronted in life. Each of these women made controversial decisions that blackened their reputes: I wanted to explore why. My stand-alone historical novels are in-depth character pieces that seek to not necessarily restore these women to their rightful place in history, but rather illuminate the obstacles and challenges they faced as female rulers in a male-dominated world.

02_The_Tudor_Vendetta-1For the Spymaster novels, of which The Tudor Vendetta is the third and last, I returned to my lifelong love for the Tudors. But as the era has been quite well covered in fiction, I took a different approach. Instead of depicting the lives of the famous, I devised a fictional plotline about a squire, Brendan Prescott, whose secret past leads him to become the intimate spy of Elizabeth Tudor. I also set the novels within crevices of Tudor history, during isolated events that had significant impact at the time, but are often not widely covered. In The Tudor Secret, it’s the plot to seize the throne as Edward VI lies dying; in The Tudor Conspiracy, it’s the Wyatt Revolt and Mary Tudor’s quest to wed Philip of Spain; and in this new one, it’s the first few months of Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, when she faces great uncertainty, and the sudden disappearance of her trusted lady in waiting challenges everything her spy believes in.

M.A.: There are so many novels about the Tudor period. What makes your novels different from others about that era?

C.W.G.: My novels are adventures with a mystery at their heart, presenting fictional characters interacting with historical personages. I also take a different approach to Elizabeth’s hotly-debated relationship with Robert Dudley. We like to see them as besotted lovers who can never be together, and to some extent, that is true. But Dudley was a lifelong, ambitious courtier with a mean streak; he’s not a knight in shining armor, and he made Elizabeth’s life difficult on occasion, despite her adoration. Dudley is Brendan’s antagonist; they were raised together and detest each other. I see Robert Dudley as that proverbial bad boy on the motorcycle whom our mothers warned us about: he’ll bring chaos, but we can’t resist him. He’s magnetic, dark and handsome; the serpent in the garden. I loved turning his liaison with Elizabeth on its head, exploring it from a different angle. She loved him, no doubt, but she knew he could never be her husband. A Dudley as king-consort would have been inconceivable, after the treason his family had indulged. And that enraged him. It took Dudley many years to finally realize he would never wed Elizabeth. As she herself once famously declared, “There will be but one mistress here—and no master.” But she was also vulnerable to him. Brendan’s job is not only to protect her from outside forces, but also the threat that Dudley poses.

M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?

C.W.G.: Very long and arduous. It took thirteen years to get my first offer. I wrote four manuscripts – three of which are now published—and had five agents before I met my champion, Jennifer Weltz of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency—who finally sold my first two books at auction. One of the struggles every writer faces is rejection; it requires perseverance to not let it defeat you. Being rejected is part of the journey, but it can be so disheartening. I had to keep reminding myself that I write because it’s how I interpret life; it didn’t matter if I ever saw one of my books published because writing was my passion. Of course, I did want to be published, and once I started pursuing it, it was impossible not to continue. But I’ve met writers who stopped because they couldn’t handle the rejection. I kept the nearly 300 rejections I received years ago; it reminds me that I accomplished something because I never gave up. But it’s easy to say that now; at the time, I did despair. I ended up self-publishing my first Tudor book, in fact, before the e-revolution. It was marvelous to finally see a book of mine in print, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t a true accomplishment because an editor in New York hadn’t seen my worth and given me an advance. The system for publishing has changed dramatically since then, of course, but I needed the validation from the industry. I suspect some writers feel the same.

M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?

C.W.G.: The joys for me are the research and the escape. When I write, I travel to another world and forget the realities of the one I live in. Research engrosses me; I can spend hours searching for the right saddle for a character’s horse. For me, writing is much like acting; we must strip away the essence of who we are in order to inhabit our characters, only as writers, we are invisible, so we can become whomever we want. Human emotion is universal; we all feel it. How we express our emotions depends on who we are and our society, era, and culture. However, I do find it challenging at times to write as a 16th century person because so much of what they believed is not me. I have to focus on not being myself to authentically write my characters and understand how they interact with their world, who they are, what they experience and feel. But it’s what keeps me going: challenge is very important to me in my work. I don’t ever want to get stuck in a rut, where I write the same novel over and over. Every book must be a love affair: I have to be so passionate about it, it’s like I’m falling in love again for the first time.

M.A.: What is the research process like for you?

C.W.G.: Demanding but exhilarating. I have a three-fold approach. The first part involves months of reading: biographies and books about the era, how people lived, dressed; transportation, architecture, medicine—everything I need to know to make the setting feel real. A significant amount of what I learn never makes it into the published book, but it’s important to discover as much as I can when I first start. I also draft emotional and psychological profiles of my characters, as people who lived hundreds of years ago experienced the world very differently. Research helps me understand their circumstances, so I can make them relatable to my modern reader. The second part of my research involves documents from the era, such as letters, ambassadorial dispatches, and accounts written by those who saw or recorded the events. This part is very time-consuming because the further back in time, the less likely these types of documents exist or are accessible; I have to write to university archives, museums, and historical centers to get copies, if available, or make appointments to see them. The third part, and most fun for me, is traveling to the places I write about, to see the locales where my characters lived.

M.A.: I just returned from a trip from London for research for a novel I’m writing, and I know it’s fun to travel to where you’re writing about if you’re able. Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your research?

C.W.G.: It’s essential for me. Much has changed; modern landscapes are not the same as they were in the past. Castles fall apart or are extensively renovated; parking lots pave over battle grounds, and malls sit on sites where historic murders occurred, but visiting the actual places where my books take place helps me visualize the settings. The colors of a garden, the echoes in a hall or texture of a painting: these details bring a novel to life in ways that pictures on the internet can’t. I must experience the locations in order to get a sense of the personality I’ll inhabit during the year-long process of writing. It’s part of how I become my character and live their life.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

C.W.G.: Every author who perseveres inspires me, because as I’ve mentioned, it’s tough to keep writing and make a living at it. I’m very inspired by close writer friends, because I know that despite the outward appearance of fame and fortune (and far less of the latter than the former, in most cases) we all also deal with personal issues, like everyone else, as well as the industry itself, which can be quite challenging. Getting published is step one; staying published is step two, and that requires many hours of hard work, with a myriad disappointments along the way. To us, every book is a special child: we nurture it, guide it, labor to deliver it, but then we hand it over to the house. To them, it’s one in a season of titles, but to us, it’s ours and we want it to succeed. Adjusting expectations is vital for our sanity, yet not easy at all to manage.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

C.W.G.: Write what obsesses you. Research can teach us what we need to know, but without passion for our subject—true passion—it becomes a chore. Also, while the genre has enjoyed a surge in popularity, it remains one of the lesser bestselling ones in the overall scheme of publishing. Publishers want subjects that are easily identifiable, set in eras which readers recognize, and that can be problematic when so many characters and eras are already covered. So, it’s important to understand the limitations of the marketplace, unfortunate as this may be.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

C.W.G.: Just to thank you for spending this time with me. I hope you enjoy The Tudor Vendetta. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at www.cwgortner.com.

Another Rejection Letter? Here’s an Editor’s Point of View

You mean I have to do work for a PhD? Who would have thought?

The truth is, I’m enjoying my work for my doctorate, but it certainly is time consuming. I knew it would be, but crazy me I signed up anyway. I needed a new challenge, and this is it. I’m researching the teaching of writing (no great surprise there) and it’s fascinating. I’ll share some of my findings soon.

The new novel is coming along. Somehow I’m managing to steal a few moments here and there to scribble out a few words. Luckily for me season 5 of Downton Abbey is on so that’s giving me the inspiration I need to keep writing (yes, I live in America, and yes, I watch Carson and Lady Mary when they’re on in the U.K. If you ask nicely I’ll tell you how I do it). There will still be a new James and Sarah Wentworth story in 2015 for you Loving Husband Trilogy fans. I’m happy to say the box set of the trilogy is now officially an Amazon best seller, so thank you to everyone who helped put it there. The complete box set is still on sale for .99 cents at Amazon, BN, and Kobo.

It’s taking some time to learn how to juggle teaching full time, writing my papers and reading my assignments for school, and keeping up with everything else. I was talking to a friend at work the other day and she said, “You’re still smiling so that’s a good sign.” So there you go. I’m still smiling. While I’m busy working on my lastest doc assignment, known in polite company as a literature review, I thought I’d repost this oldie but goodie about those dreaded rejection letters and how, from an editor’s point of view, they’re really nothing personal.

* * * * *

Contrary to popular belief, editors don’t find a sadistic satisfaction from sending out rejection letters. There is that one editor with a voodoo doll and a case of push pins, but that’s another post. Most editors are writers too, and we know there’s nothing like the prick of a rejection letter to pop the air from a writer’s bubble.

There have been times when I received too many rejections in a row and I couldn’t help but take them personally. Was it my storytelling? My habit of submitting acrostic poetry? Was my Aunt Ellie just wrong and I really don’t have a way with words? But then I became an editor, and I realized that decisions aren’t always about storytelling or talent.

Here’s the big secret that’s really no secret at all: most decisions are based on personal preference. There’s no complex system editors use to determine quality (think of the formula in the textbook meant to determine a poem’s value in Dead Poet’s Society). There’s no list of writers to accept or reject. It’s not about what MFA program you went to, or if you even have an MFA. Not everyone’s style is to everyone’s taste. That’s it. If we turn down a piece at Copperfield, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just not for us at that time.

At The Copperfield Review, we tend to have more literary, experimental tastes. I have great respect for Hemingway-esque simplicity, but it’s not the kind of work I’m drawn to publish. I love work that plays with, stretches, challenges the English language. We’re blessed to write in the English language. Truly. Our wealth of vocabulary, limitless possibilities for structure, and ability to be straightforward or lost in a stream of consciousness makes our language a vast artist’s toolbox to use to paint pictures in words.

Since Copperfield is a journal of historical fiction, we get a lot of submissions set in the same era—World War II and the Old West are two of the most popular. But because we receive so many stories set during the same time, we can’t publish them all. I know the consensus is that you should read literary journals to see if those journals have published pieces similar to the work you want to submit. Generally, that’s true. But let some time pass if you want to submit a story on exactly the same subject as one that’s just been published. If you see a story in Copperfield about the American Civil War in our Spring edition, wait at least until Autumn before you send in your Gettysburg tale. We’re open to it, just not so soon.

Once we received twenty World War II submissions for the same edition. No joke. There was nothing particularly wrong with any of the stories, but we couldn’t publish twenty stories on the same subject. We rejected eighteen of them, most of which might have been published if they had been sent at another time.

Which brings us to the million dollar question: how can you know exactly when to submit your work? Unfortunately, you can’t. Sometimes journals ask for specific types of submissions for certain editions, but otherwise timing can be the luck of the draw. There is an element of luck involved in sending your work to the right publisher at the right time. But the more research you do, and the more you submit, the more opportunities you have to turn the tides of timing in your favor.

I know the form letter rejections aren’t very helpful for writers, but they’re a necessary evil due to the number of submissions most journals receive. Just remember, the next time you receive one, it’s not about your talent. It’s about the editors, their personal tastes for the type of writing they prefer, and the type of stories they’re looking to publish at the time.

Advice On How To Be Happy

I was standing in Starbucks yesterday morning when I saw this list from author Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) hanging from the community board.  I think his advice is as appropriate today as it was over a hundred years ago. I’ve been pretty busy lately and I haven’t had time to slow down, so reading this was a good reminder of what’s really important. Enjoy.

1. Make up your mind to be happy. Learn to find pleasure in simple things.

 2. Make the best of your circumstances. No one has everything, and everyone has something of sorrow intermingled with gladness of life. The trick is to make the laughter outweigh the tears.

3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t think that somehow you should be protected from misfortune that befalls other people.

4. You can’t please everybody. Don’t let criticism worry you.

5. Don’t let your neighbor set your standards. Be yourself.

6. Do the things you enjoy doing but stay out of debt.

7. Never borrow trouble. Imaginary things are harder to bear than real ones.

8. Since hate poisons the soul, do not cherish jealousy, enmity, grudges. Avoid people who make you unhappy.

9. Have many interests. If you can’t travel, read about new places.

10. Don’t hold post-mortems. Don’t spend your time brooding over sorrows or mistakes. Don’t be one who never gets over things.

11. Do what you can for those less fortunate than yourself.

12. Keep busy at something. A busy person never has time to be unhappy.

Read more: http://www.life-with-confidence.com/how-to-be-happy-stevenson.html#EwMyglEm8LQz5wTs#ixzz0rijIWRP5

Which Authors Have Influenced You the Most? Here’s My List.

I was asked by Prism Book Alliance to name the top ten authors I admire. Sounds simple, right? Yet I found it wasn’t that easy for me to narrow down the list since I’ve been influenced and inspired by so many authors over my lifetime. Dickens is listed at number one–no great surprise there–though the others aren’t in any particular order. I’m not sure there are any surprises here except for perhaps the poets–Whitman and cummings–though anyone who has read any of my fiction can see the Whitman influence in my prose (and in my choice of titles). Here are the top ten authors who have influenced my writing. Of course, the list could change tomorrow…David Copperfield

  1. Charles Dickens. I do what I do (write novels) because of the influence Dickens has had on me. I get my sense of the absurd and my social consciousness from him. I try to create stories that are worlds unto themselves because of him.
  2. Walt Whitman. The title for That You Are Here is from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I’ve written three or four books where I’ve paid tribute to Whitman in one form or another. I love his message about being honest about who you are and being true to yourself. I think I learned more about how to put words together to create an image from Whitman than from anyone else.
  1. Toni Morrison. I love her writing because of the poetry in her language. I try (and fail) to replicate that in my own writing. I think of myself as a frustrated poet who writes fiction. Bird by Bird
  1. Anne Lamott. She’s brutally honest in her writing and I admire that so much. I love her book about writing, Bird by Bird. I especially love her for introducing me to the phrase “shitty first drafts,” which I clutch close to my heart whenever I’m writing a shitty first draft.
  1. David Sedaris. No writer can make me laugh out loud like Sedaris. He’s wry and observant and I love his personal essays. I’ve read all of his books. He’s going to be here in Vegas and I already have my tickets.
  1. e.e. cummings. He taught me that it’s okay to break the rules, even the grammar rules, as long as you maintain control of the language.
  1. Natalie Goldberg. Her book Writing Down the Bones was life changing for me. I discovered that it’s okay to write for the love of writing, and that becoming a writer is a process that occurs over many years.
  1. Jane Austen. She’s a great example that the ladies are just as observant, insightful, and funny as the men. Pride and Prejudice is one of my all time favorite novels.
  1. Hilary Mantel. I love writing historical fiction, and she’s a master. She does a great job of weaving the research into the story so that fact and fiction flow together. I love her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and I can’t wait for the third book to come out.
  2. Brokeback MountainAnnie Proulx. I read Brokeback Mountain before I started writing That You Are Here, and I’m so glad I did. I love the literary quality to the story, and I love how it focuses on the love between the two men over the years, even if they weren’t able to acknowledge that it was love. That’s what I wanted to do with That You Are Here—I wanted to write a love story.

So here’s my list. I’d love to hear which authors have influenced you the most. I’m always fascinated by which authors have inspired others to become writers.