Thursday, February 14, 2008

Blast from the Past: Loaded Questions with author Margaret George

I have been doing
this interview thing for quite awhile now. I realized the other day that some of my earliest interviews aren't even linked on this blog as they were posted at where I began doing author interviews. I want to share these interviews with you! And so I have created this new feature, Blast From the Past in which I will repost previous interviews for your reading pleasure.

This first interview is especially important to m
e. I discovered my love of fiction in my early teens and knew right away that I loved history and historical fiction. Margaret George, author of a number of books about the lives of famous monarchs around the world, was my role model. A lot of the history that I soaked up in these books remain with me and are helpful as I finish up work on my Masters in English History. When I first emailed Margaret George I was just sure that she wouldn't have time to respond. She did and perhaps even more astonishingly, her publicist sent me a copy of her newest novel Helen of Troy. I was amazed and delighted to have the chance to chat with someone who influenced who I am as a reader and as a historian as well.

author of: The Autobiography of Henry VIII; The Memoirs of Cleopatra; Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles; Mary, Called Magdalene; and Helen of Troy

Kelly Hewitt: So, how does a girl born in Nashville, Tennessee end up being a world-traveling best-selling author of novels about fascinating European monarchs and historical women of great significance?

Margaret George
: I think the question is better asked how m
y father, who was born in a small town in Mississippi, got a PhD in English literature at the age of 22 and became a diplomat in the U.S. foreign service? He was the greatest influence on me and made it seem natural to be able to write about royalty and such. He is the greatest argument in favor of Shakespeare from Stratford actually being the author of Shakespeare, when people say how could a guy from Stratford know all that stuff...? Well, how could a boy from Mantee, Mississippi, know all the stuff my father did? Answer: he read a lot. Obviously Shakespeare did, too.

I went to a British school from ages 7-9 and everything was king, queen, empire, farthings, shillings and pounds, so I think I was steeped in it very thoroughly when very young. I also lived in the Middle east and visited Egypt when I was 9 (see the photo on the jacket of the hardcover Cleopatra) so all that history seemed very 'normal' and real to me, too.

Kelly: Speaking of travels, I am fascinated with European monarchical history and will be spending some time there this summer -- are there particular locations you find the most inspiring or historically significant?

: Inspiring locations: the ones away fr
om a lot of people give you the best feeling for the past, because there are no modern people in the picture to distract you. Places in Sweden and Norway are very evocative. I spent some time in Voss, Norway, and could almost see the Vikings walking around. Also, Orkney islands in the north of Scotland, with their rings of standing stones. The vast open landscape of Scotland. The Great Hall of Eltham Palace in London, where the young Henry VIII spent time. Hatfield Palace outside London, home to the young Elizabeth I (although it can get crowded)---they have a Tudor dinner there that is fun to go to in the winter (when not too crowded). Kelly: On your website you write a bit about the research that you did for Helen of Troy. Where you actually writing the book at that time or just soaking in everything?

: I went to Greece several times while writing Helen of Troy. Usually I prefer to go to a place last, after I have already done all the reading, but I had an opportunity to go fairly early in the process this time. It did give me a good feel for the landscape and mood of the places where Helen lived, which helped illuminate the reading.

: Helen of Troy is 600 pages plus. Looking at my shelf I can easily see that none of your other books could ever be categorized as dainty. I personally enjoy the length of your novels but I have noticed that some reviewers make special note of their length.
What gives? Is it that you're a wordy and detailed writer or does it have more to do with the fact that you deal with historical figures that are complicated and warrant a hefty book in order to cover everything?

: My long books---both things are true. I tend to take a long time to say something ---I don't think I pad things but my natural way of expression tends to be long. I've had good editors but they cannot change the basic structure of the way I express myself. Then, compounding the tendency, is, as you say, the fact that these are historical figures that a lot happened to, and I choose, so that the reader can really understand the psychology, to treat the person's whole life. That makes for a mighty long tale. Most of these characters have suffered from superficial portrayals in movies and books---often because of time constraints. (The new PBS "Six Wives of Henry VIII" was only half the length of the 1970 BBC production, and it was choppy and rushed and simplistic.) You can only cut/compress the material so much.

Having said that, I am trying a new thing with my next book, the one on Elizabeth I. It is NOT to be her entire life, only the latter part of it. Her long life and reign were too much for one book, even for me!

Kelly: I just read that your next book will have to do with Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare, and the New World! I am already ready to run out and buy it. I know these things take time and research but when can we expect to go out and buy it? Is there anything else that you can tell us about the next novel?

: I expect you can look for it at the bookstore sometime in 2010. (That sounds so far away, but really, it isn't.) I want to concentrate on her mind and her fight against time and aging. (A contemporary described her as "a lady whom time surprised." Early in her reign she had said that time had brought her there, but later, time becomes her enemy.) Elizabeth is an elusive character and does not reveal much and to write about her requires becoming a detective and looking for little clues about her motives. She was a supreme strategist and no one ever put anything over on her---except her cousin Lettice Knollys, who made off with her soul mate Leicester. I think in some ways Lettice is a mirror of Elizabeth; they even looked very much alike.

: You said in an interview during your book tour for "Memoirs of Cleopatra" that you were thinking about writing a book about Nero. You've since published historical novels about Mary Magdelene and now Helen of Troy. Is Nero still someone you're considering?

: Oh, yes, Nero is still very much on my mind. I just bought 2 books about him, including "The Madness of Nero." (Although I'm not sure he was really 'mad'). I hope to be able to do a book on him after Elizabeth I.

: You've become one of my most favorite historical fiction authors of all time. Are there any historical fiction authors of late that you enjoy?

: Historical writers 'of late' that I enjoy...I wish I had the time to explore all the new writers. Reading is still my favorite activity, but now I have to spend so much time on non-fiction research type books I can't indulge myself as much as I'd like. I still think Gore Vidal's "Julian", (1964) about the Roman emperor who tried to turn back Christianity in the 4th century, is my favorite historical novel. More recently, I enjoy Susan Vreeland's novels about artists, especially "The Passion of Artemisia," about a 16th century Italian woman painter. She has a new book coming out in May about Renoir, and earlier had one on Emily Carr, the Canadian nature painter, called "The Forest Lover."
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