Historical fiction is a genre with roots as deep as the storytelling tradition itself. And to the modern day, we love historical fiction. You need only to think back on the success of Titanic, or Gone With the Wind, or anything that aligns itself with the Tudor or Jane Austen canons, to see the genre’s persevering popularity. Our media is flooded with films, television shows and novels, all depicting their separate, different, dramatized versions of ‘a long, long, time ago…’
This issue, Backstory Journal was kindly given the opportunity to ask some questions of one of the most authoritative voices in the historical fiction today – historical fiction author, C.W. Gortner. Backstory hopes that you enjoy reading his answers as much as we did, and are as inspired by his passion and knowledge as we were!
C.W. Gortner is the internationally bestselling author of nine historical novels, including his most recent releases Marlene, Mademoiselle Chanel, and The Vatican Princess. A former fashion executive, he holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis on Renaissance History. His books have been translated into over 20 languages to date.
Was there something specific that drew you to write historic fiction, rather than other fiction genres?
I was raised in southern Spain and am half-Spanish by birth. When I was growing up, Spain was under the final years of Franco’s regime and the south, in particular, felt frozen in time; we had two television channels, movies were censored, and so I developed a lifelong passion for reading. History was all around me, too. Granada, with the marvels of the Alhambra, was a two-hour drive away, and a ruined castle that had once belonged to Queen Isabella was just a short walk from my home. I used to play in that ruined castle, which today is fully restored; and my imagination ran wild. Some of the books I most loved were historical fiction. These books brought the past to life for me in ways that reading nonfiction didn’t. When in my early twenties, I eventually decided to try my hand at writing a novel (even as a child, I’d written stories) historical fiction seemed the natural choice for me.
Do you agree that historical fiction has a purpose in present-day that is separate from mere escapism? Could it shed light on the present, or prompt valuable investigation into the past?
I do think historical fiction can illuminate our present. Though our circumstances have changed, people in the past struggled with many of the same issues we face today: intolerance, greed, ambition, love, lust, loss, matters of faith, and family. We haven’t changed as much as we should, and historical fiction can resurrect the past through the prism of the present. Our hindsight into these bygone historical characters and events sheds new perspective on them, and hopefully allows modern-day readers to discover the relevance in their own lives. In the end, I’m a writer of fiction and my ultimate goal is to entertain. But if my books help bring insight to history and inspire further interest, that’s always wonderful.
Do you have a ‘pet-time-period’ that you love to research, and write about?
I’m passionate about the 15—16th centuries in Europe, known as the Renaissance. My first six books are all set in this era. I do tend to move around, however. Two of my novels are set in early Renaissance Spain, one in late Renaissance France, and three in Tudor England. One of my latest novels, The Vatican Princess, takes place in Borgia-ruled Italy. I’ve also branched out into the early 20th century with my novels Mademoiselle Chanel, about the fashion designer Coco Chanel, and my most recent novel, Marlene, about the iconic actress and entertainer, Marlene Dietrich. I’m fascinated by many eras in history and don’t like to be tied down to one specific period. As a writer, I crave variety. But the Renaissance remains a favourite for me.
Yes! When looking at the libraries of historical fiction author’s work, most of the time it is easy to spot the pattern in their period(s) of choice and make a good guess which period holds their interest. You have spanned a lot of time, and countries! With your first few novels, it could be assumed your interest lies primarily with the Renaissance era. However, like you mentioned, Mademoiselle Chanel and Marlene are not Renaissance novels at all! A closer look at your work subject matters, and furthermore the way that you write about your characters, as well as the characters you choose, a pattern does look like it appears. It seems as though you have an affinity for the ‘maligned’, ‘difficult’, or ‘controversial’ women in history. Would you say this is true? What is it about the stories of historically ‘difficult’ females that capture your interest?
There is a pattern, yes. I’m attracted to underappreciated characters. And women, by and large, are not often treated fairly in history. We’ve had many powerful female historical figures, yet historians tended to ignore or downplay their accomplishments, in particular their more controversial ones, until our modern age. I do like so-called “difficult” women; I want to explore a breadth of human experience in my writing, and the women I select—or perhaps, they select me—fit the bill. They lived complicated, challenging lives; they weren’t always pleasant. In many ways, they rebelled against the constraints of their era to become something different than what was expected of them. They all share a common trait: at one point, whether willingly or not, they had to seize control of their fate. For most, it was a harrowing journey, with terrible sacrifices along the way, but it’s the journey itself that captivates me. Discovering how these women overcame odds to make their mark on history is so compelling to write.
Do you think you would ever be able to look at the history and journey of a male figure and feel the same pull and want to tell their story?
Absolutely. There are several men in history I’m very interested in exploring. Unfortunately, the publishing landscape doesn’t allow for it nearly as much, at least not in the first-person biographical fiction format that I work in, where 90% of my identified readership are women. The genre itself tends to be divided between books aimed at female readers, about women, and books about warriors, aimed at male readers. Male leads fall into a strange gap; we’ve had many wonderful novels with men as protagonists, but it’s still quite difficult to get a publisher interested in a historical novel about a man unless the audience is clearly defined as male readers. My books are not male-orientated, in that I explore relationships, emotions; the drama of being human. Not that these books I’ve mentioned about men don’t, but publishers tend to think a book for men should be lighter on the emotional aspects and heavier on the action. My Elizabeth I Spymaster novels are actually told in a male point of view, a fictional foundling with a secret who becomes a spy for Elizabeth Tudor. The books are more action-orientated and sold well, but there’s still a divide. I want to write more novels in my Spymaster series, and hopefully, one day, write a full biographical novel about a male character. I don’t agree with the publishing adage that women don’t want to read about men or that men don’t want to read about women.
Writers spend a lot of time with imaginary people (or, I suppose, we prefer the term ‘characters’!) In historical fiction, though, not all characters are imagined. Does knowing that these were real people change the way you approach writing them? Have your personal feelings towards a historical figure ever affected the way that you characterised or portrayed them?
Well, as writers, I think we always bring our own perspectives to our characters. We can strive to stay as true as we can to documented facts and recorded personalities, but in the end, we interpret them through our particular impressions. Of course, my research about who these women were in real life affects my perception; my characters don’t do nice things at times. They behave in ways I never would, and I have to honour that. What I try to do is to actually not let strong personal feelings influence how I portray them, because the moment I start doing that, the novel becomes about me, not them. As soon as I start judging a character or taking sides, it’s no longer her story. Rather, I seek to subdue how I feel about her entirely. My books aren’t about me. My character is telling you her story. Is she sometimes embellishing or misleading you? Maybe. But if that is how she was in real life, then that’s part of who she is. I don’t want to fall so in love with my character that I fail to see her flaws. She might not see them, yet I must. However, I do want to give her the chance to explain herself. Very few of us act badly and know we are doing so in the moment. We behave based on a complex set of instincts and perceptions, and we rarely think, “Wow. I’m being a monster right now.” What’s always fascinating and challenging for me is to allow my character to find her own voice through me. I know the writing is working when I cease to hear myself and the only one who speaks is her. Conversely, I know it’s not working when she refuses to cooperate. That said, I have been accused of “whitewashing” some of my characters. I find that ironic, considering how hard I work to not do that. But how I write and how my books are read are very different animals. Part of being a novelist with a public readership is letting go. Once my novel is published, it belongs to the reader. I may not agree with some of the criticism, but I have to respect it. Readers bring their own perceptions to these characters, too. I’ve gotten hate mail from some readers because they despise Isabella as a fanatic or Chanel as a selfish woman, a Nazi collaborator, and how dare I turn them into heroines. What’s interesting is that to me, they are never “heroines.” They are flawed and fallible human beings who made awful decisions. I don’t approve; it’s not my job to approve. My job is to try to find a plausible reason for why they behaved as they did. I could be very wrong in my interpretations, but I never enter into them lightly or without serious consideration of the available facts.
Your comment about readers being displeased about your characterisation of Chanel, for example, is interesting – on one hand, she is a character in your novel. On the other hand, though, she is a historical figure, and I suppose people have ‘facts’ they think they know about historical figures (like whether or not Chanel was a Nazi sympathiser). Coming up against and then navigating that sea of (often disputed amongst historians) ‘facts’, is an experience unique to historical fiction writing.
When writing (not only characters) your historical fiction, how do you like to approach the line between fiction and non-fiction? Is it the same approach for every novel?
I always try to respect recorded facts. Not that these are uniform. In my research, I can discover that while one source says one thing, another says something quite different. I have to then find a middle ground or decide which source seems most reliable; it can often come down to how I believe the character was most apt to behave. It’s never easy to draw the line between accuracy and narrative vision; staying true to the character to the best of my abilities, in both her strengths and weaknesses, must be my guiding rule. Instinct also comes into play. If I read a historical “fact” that sounds off to me, I always do more digging. Sometimes, I find that alleged fact is just a rumour. Other times, I find that fact is often repeated as gospel and might be true, but cannot be verified, so I have to decide if it makes sense. Research involves diligence, a scholarly approach, but also a healthy dose of scepticism. Not everything “factual” is substantiated. The fun, for me, is finding the crevices between the facts into which I can build my story. Most importantly, I never want my historical novels to be mired in “Look how much I know!” I want to entertain readers by immersing them in my character’s mind and emotions; I want them to see her world through her eyes. In the final say, I’m not imparting a history lesson. I’m writing fictional interpretations of historical figures.
In trying to get some info on the protagonist of your novel Marlene, the actress Marlene Dietrich, I did a quick Google search. I turned up 486,000 results! How do you know when and where to start researching your novels and their characters?
Characters choose me. I know that sounds fey, but it’s how it feels. Of course, there are certain women in history who fascinate me and I want to write about them, but that doesn’t translate into being able to sell a novel about them. I’ve had ideas that I loved turned down by publishers. On the other hand, sometimes a character just appears. In Marlene Dietrich’s case, I wrote a scene in Mademoiselle Chanel where Chanel meets Marlene during a visit to Hollywood. The scene ended up getting cut during the editorial revisions, but when the time came to propose a new project, my editor mentioned that deleted scene and suggested I consider writing about Marlene herself. I knew little about her personal life, so I read a few biographies first to determine if she might be a character I could inhabit. Once I did, I realized she was indeed perfect for me: ahead of her times, unconventional and controversial, Marlene launched her career during an era I’d explored previously with Chanel, only this time, in Berlin before and after the rise of the Nazis, as well as the golden age of Hollywood. Since childhood, I’ve been an old movie fan; and Dietrich led an incredible life, both as a woman and an actress.
My research process is dictated by the subject, to a certain extent. I must inevitably read many books on the character and the era—my bibliographies can include over a hundred books for each novel— travel to the places where she lived, and access archives for deeper research. For The Vatican Princess, I researched for two weeks in Rome. For Marlene, the research involved all the above, plus watching her films and numerous documentaries on her era. I love researching because I never know where it’ll take me. I look forward to it.
What is the strangest thing you have ever done ‘in the name of research’?
I strapped on a plastic “pregnancy” belly under a damask Renaissance gown and rode a horse to feel how it was like to be a woman in a gown, six months pregnant and escaping her captors. This was for The Last Queen. Enough said.
Incredible! That approach makes me think of ‘method actors’ and their approach to ‘getting into character’. Would you consider yourself a ‘method author’?
In some ways, perhaps. I do tend to live and breathe my characters when in the throes of writing, but I also know when it’s time to put them in their quiet place so I can resume my life. I am quite diligent about how I approach my work; I must spend quality time with my character every day while I’m writing and let her dominate the conversation. But creating a healthy balance is vital to my sanity. I can’t live in her shoes constantly until the book is finished. Unlike method actors, who can stay in character for three to five months of shooting a film, writing a book can take a year or more. I’d be a basket case if I remained fully in character for all that time.
The time periods you’ve researched and written about (the Renaissance, the ‘Roaring Twenties’) are often imagined particularly romantically. What is your opinion on the ‘Golden Era’ phenomenon, when people idealise a particular period as almost magical, and see ‘the now’ as lacking by comparison.
Part of the appeal of historical fiction is the romance of it. The beautiful clothes and the ambiance, the sense that we were not overwhelmed by technology and three thousand television channels, evokes our longing for a simpler life. It wasn’t simpler, not really. It had its own horrors and pitfalls. Humanity has never been better off than our current time period, and conversely we’ve never been more threatened by each other or threatening to our environment. But when people ask me, “Wouldn’t you have loved to live in the Renaissance?” my answer is, “No antibiotics. No human or animal rights. No washing machines. No decent sanitation. Are you kidding me?” We’re attracted to these eras because of how we perceive and romanticize them, but the reality was much of the past is not lovely frocks and candle-lit parties. I do try to bring that sense of reality into my novels, but even I must be judicious. If we had time machines and could transport ourselves to the past, we’d be appalled by what we find.
Your personal history and your path to becoming an author is a fascinating one. Would you ever delve into a memoir? Or does this genre not interest you?
I have no interest in writing about myself. I like reading memoirs but I relish my privacy. And really, my life isn’t all that interesting, or at least not to me. I also tend to be forward-thinking and delving into my own past just doesn’t appeal. I do, of course, delve into my own past when I write my novels. In order to understand the overwhelming grief Chanel felt at the death of her lover or Marlene Dietrich’s outrage over Nazi intolerance or Lucrezia Borgia’s desperate need to escape a dysfunctional family, I must find parallels in my own life to create the emotion of it. I have felt those emotions, too. The context was different, but the emotion is the same. There’s always something of me in my novels. It’s just hidden within my character.
Just to finish, have you any advice for would-be historical fiction authors that may be reading this journal?
I’ve said this before in other interviews, so I’ll quote myself: Persevere. This is a tough business and it’s not getting any easier. I had more than 350 rejections over thirteen years before a publisher made an offer. Write the very best manuscript you can, revise, revise, and then revise some more, and go out there like a warrior. Every rejection is a chance to improve your prose and your stamina. We all dream of being that author who made it – a perfect manuscript, submitted by our first agent and selling for millions at auction – but the reality is that success for most authors is built in increments, book by book, and reader by reader.
I think that to want to be a writer isn’t enough anymore: You have to want to be a writer more than anything else, and know you’ll be absolutely miserable if you’re not. Publication might be the bed you want to make, but the writing itself must be your lover. If you’re not in love with writing, find something else. There are a lot of wonderful things to do in this world; and writing can be a lonely, demanding profession that will keep you up at night. If you don’t mind the occasional craziness of thinking your manuscript is the only thing that matters, then join the club. I highly recommend it (I think).
ABOUT C.W. GORTNER:
C.W. Gortner is the internationally bestselling author of nine novels, including his most recent releases Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich, and The Vatican Princess. He 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.
After an eleven year-long career in fashion, C.W. devoted the next twelve years to the public health sector in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 2012, he became a full-time writer, following the international success of his novels.
In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard at Hampton Court, learned about organic gardening at Chenoceaux, and spent a chilly night in a ruined Spanish castle. His books have garnered widespread acclaim and been translated into twenty-six languages to date. 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.
C.W. is currently writing his tenth novel for Ballantine Books, about Empress Maria Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II, scheduled for publication in 2018.
He lives in Northern California with his husband and two very spoiled rescue cats.