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.

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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.

An Interview With Barbara Taylor Bradford

Cavendon HallAs the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a journal of historical fiction, I’ve been able to interview such literary legends as John Jakes and Jean M. Auel. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview another legend, Barbara Taylor Bradford.

Barbara Taylor Bradford has written the notable New York Times Best Sellers A Woman of Substance, The Ravenscar Dynasty, and The Women in His Life, among many others. Her newest novel is Cavendon Hall, set to be released April 1, 2014. Cavendon Hall will be available from Amazon and other book retailers.

Meredith Allard: I admit, when I read the synopsis of your newest novel, Cavendon Hall, I jumped at the chance to read it because it reminded me of Downton Abbey, which is one of my all time favorite shows. Was Downton an inspiration for Cavendon Hall? Were there other inspirations for Cavendon Hall as well?

Barbara Taylor Bradford: No, Downton Abbey was not my inspiration for Cavendon Hall. In fact, the outline for this book and the sequel I’m now writing (The Cavendon Women), was created six years ago. I did not present it to my publisher at that time because they were looking for books set in the present from me. I wrote Cavendon Hall in 2013.

FYI, I have been writing family sagas since A Woman of Substance, including six sequels to AWOS, making it a seven book series, set at Pennistone Royal (the stately home in Yorkshire), and at Harte’s Emma’s department store in London.  A Woman of Substance was a six-hour mini-series for television, and was followed by two more series, Hold the Dream, and To Be the Best, made from my books. Stars in these shows were Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir John Mills, Liam Neeson, James Brolin, Nigel Havers, Deborah Kerr, Jenny Seagrove, Lindsey Wagner, Victoria Tennant, Fiona Fullerton, and many renowned actors.

Altogether, ten of my books have been made for television, nine by my husband, Robert Bradford, who is a movie and television producer, as well as the manager of my career.

I wrote another family saga, The Ravenscar Dynasty, about the Deravenel family, also set in Yorkshire, London and other parts of the world. The UK newspapers say I re-invented the family saga for this generation, and created the first department store dramas with the Emma Harte series, long before all those recent television shows. They call me the “undisputed queen of the family saga” in the UK newspapers and magazines.

The idea for Cavendon Hall and The Cavendon Women came to me when I was thinking about the long friendships I personally have had with my women friends, some over thirty years. I was suddenly taken with the idea of writing about two girls who grow up together and remain lifelong friends. . .Cecily Swann and Delacy Ingham, and I took it from there. It begins in 1913.

M.A.: Tell us about Cavendon Hall. How would you describe it to potential readers? How is it similar/different from what readers have come to love about your novels?

B.T.B.: Cavendon Hall is a family saga about two families, the aristocratic Inghams, and the Swanns, their retainers, who have stood by the family for 160 years. It is not actually an upstairs-downstairs novel, but an upstairs-in-the-middle novel, with the downstairs servants taking a smaller role in the story. As the First World War looms, a devastating event threatens the Inghams, one of which could bring the family down. Certainly it changes the future for them all. It is a blend of history and drama, romance, betrayal and loss. It ends in 1920. The sequel, The Cavendon Women, starts in 1926, and picks up the previous story of the Inghams and the Swanns.

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

B.T.B.: I love writing fiction. It is a great challenge, but also it’s like starting out on an adventure, especially historical fiction. Going back into the past is intriguing and full of possibilities.

M.A.: For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part of writing historical fiction. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

B.T.B.: I do most of my own research because I know exactly what I’m looking for. In this instance, I already knew a lot about the Edwardian era, partially because I researched it for The Ravenscar Dynasty series, and also because being English I am well-versed in the history of England. In fact, it was always my favorite subject at school. When I am researching I prefer to use books by well-known historians, which I trust the most. I sometimes go back to places in England, which I need to refresh myself about. For instance, I went back to Ravenscar in Yorkshire, before I started that entire series. I wanted to get a sense of that place. I hadn’t visited it since I was a teenager. I weave in the true facts of history, and very carefully, because I don’t want the research to jump out at the reader. It is always subtle but correct, and therefore, adds authenticity to the drama unfolding. Research shouldn’t be obvious.

M.A.: You’ve written some of the most beloved novels of all time. I certainly count A Woman of Substance as among my favorite novels. When did you begin writing, and what were your earliest inspirations? Why did you decide to start writing novels?

B.T.B.: I started writing when I was seven years old. My mother had taught me to read at four, and I was addicted to reading. Then I started to tell my own stories in school exercise books. When I was ten my mother sent a story of mine to a children’s magazine. They not only accepted it but paid me ten-shillings-and-sixpence for it. The day I saw my byline my destiny was sealed. I was going to be a writer. Actually I became a journalist. I started on the Yorkshire Evening Post as a reporter, became women’s page editor, and then went on to work in London on various newspapers and magazines. I consider myself to be journalist today and still write for British newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. However, I had always wanted to be a novelist, and I started but did not finish four novels before I had the idea for A Woman of Substance.

M.A.: Your first novel, A Woman of Substance, became a best seller, which is incredible. What was your journey to publication like?

B.T.B.: Having discarded four ideas for novels, at around 100 pages, I asked myself a lot of questions one day: What sort of book did I want to write, where did I want to set and what year would the story start. I came up with these answers: A traditional family saga, set at the turn of the 20th century, and in England, or rather, Yorkshire. I wanted to tell a story about an ordinary woman who becomes a tycoon, a great success…a woman of substance. This thought became the title. I wrote an outline, showed it to a friend in England who was an agent. He told an editor at Doubleday about my outline and gave her my phone number. After reading it overnight, she told me it was the best outline she had ever read, and that it if I wrote it I would have a big bestseller. She was correct. To date the book has sold 35 million copies worldwide, and is now a huge success as an e-book for the first time, published by Rosetta Books.

M.A.: How have you seen the publishing industry change since A Woman of Substance was published?

B.T.B.: Publishing has changed throughout the world. The changes have come about because of the internet and digital publishing. But I always welcome change and my books sell very well as e-books. I have noticed there are “trends” that last for a while, such as the Dracula books, and other. But trends do seem to come and go. One trend that has lasted is the crime novel. It goes on forever.

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

B.T.B.: I was always influenced by the classics, which I grew up with. My favorite writers have always been Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, in particular; Thomas Hardy, and Colette, the French writer. I also have drawn inspiration from their work, and learned a lot about life and writing about life’s experiences.

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

B.T.B.: My advice to those who want to write is to actually sit down and do it. However, I think they come to that chair well prepared. I always think out a story to the very end, and I believe that is the only way to go. Once I have thought out the characters and the plot, I write an outline for myself. It’s my blueprint. Once I’m satisfied I have covered everything, I start telling the story. I always do it very systematically, from page one until the end. I don’t jump around, writing bits and pieces and then fitting them. I divide my books into different parts: Part One, Part Two, and so on. I have always done this, and I find it helped me to organize the characters and their lives.

M.A.: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

B.T.B.: I plan to keep on writing for the rest of my life.

An Interview With Ruth Hull Chatlien

amb-frontRuth Hull Chatlien is the author of the historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Here’s her take on writing historical fiction.

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

I started my first novel when I was ten years old—so long ago that I don’t remember why I did it beyond a love of stories. That first novel was historical fiction about forbidden romance and patriotic spies during the American Revolution. I finally finished the 120-page manuscript when I was in high school. In college, I majored in literature, and influenced by that experience, I spent the next 30 years writing literary fiction. I managed to get a few poems and short stories published. Finally, a few years ago, I decided to go back to my first love: historical fiction.

What inspired you to write The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte?

My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

Tell us about The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. How would you describe it to potential readers?

The book combines romance, action adventure, and a tale of family dysfunction. Betsy Bonaparte was a heroine as beautiful and headstrong as Scarlett O’Hara, but unlike Scarlett, she was a real woman. She led a tumultuous life because of her belief that a woman had as much right to exercise her talents as any man.

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

Originally, I sought traditional publication for the novel. I spent about six months shopping it around to agents without success. The original version of the book had two problems; it was longer than what publishers wanted to see from a first-time author, and because I had tried to keep it short, it wasn’t descriptive enough. Then in February 2013, through a mutual friend I met the man who had founded Amika Press in Chicago. He was excited about the concept of my book, so after taking some time to consider whether I was ready to give up on New York publication, I submitted the manuscript. The publisher and editor at Amika both read it, liked it, and agreed to take it on. My editor was fantastic and really helped me make it the book I dreamed it would be. To my surprise, he wanted me to make it even longer by adding the descriptive details I had left out. We went through one major revision and one copy edit, and then the novel came out in December 2013.

For me, researching historical fiction is always the most challenging part. What is your research process? Do you travel for research? How do you incorporate the facts of the era with your fictional story?

I researched the novel by reading several biographies of Betsy as well as books about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early excursion to Niagara Falls. I also took a research trip to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.

Even after gathering all those facts, I still had to deal with areas where details have been lost to the historical record. One of my favorite analogies for writing historical fiction is “hanging the swags.” I think of the known factual events as brackets extending at irregular intervals along a wall. As a novelist, I had to make up scenes and bits of dialogue to connect those known events—like draping material to connect the brackets.

Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

I owe a tremendous debt to Graham Greene for showing me that it’s ok to write about deeply flawed characters. I very much admire historical novelists such as Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Dunant for the way they have made the past come alive in their work.

What advice do you have for those who want to write and publish historical fiction?

Tell a good story, but don’t neglect the history. I recently read a historical novel set in the same period as mine and dealing with some of the same people. The plot was fast-paced, and the characterization of the heroine was well conceived, but the book was riddled with anachronisms and inaccuracies. I had a very hard time remaining in the world of the book because the mistakes kept jarring me out of the story.

What else would you like readers to know?

I love hearing from readers. People can contact me at the following sites:

my blog: ruthhullchatlienbooks.com

my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ruthhullchatlien

Read Tracey Skeine’s review of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte on The Copperfield Review here.