Monday, July 21, 2008

Loaded Question Author Interview: CW Gortner Author of The Last Queen

Kelly Hewitt: This book, The Last Queen, had been on my Amazon wish list for quite some time, what can you tell us about the process, or perhaps ordeal is a better word, to get this book published?

C.W. Gortner: I wrote The Last Queen over ten years ago; it was conceived in response to the rejections my first novel about Anne Boleyn had received during submissions in New York. I’d had a very close call with that first novel; a wonderful editor at St Martin’s Press loved the book and wanted to acquire it, but historical fiction was going through what my agent at the time referred to as a “drought” and the editor ended up unable to offer on the book. In his letter to me, he mentioned Anne was a very well known character, and while there hadn’t been any recent fiction published about her he had heard of a novel that had been recently acquired. This turned out to be The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. My agent and I felt it would now be quite difficult, if not impossible, to sell my novel, so I decided to write about a character who was less known. I’d always been fascinated by Juana la Loca since childhood and planned to write about her at some point, so I started my research.

Fast forward two years and I’d just finished my first draft of the manuscript. My agent and I had parted ways by mutual agreement, so I started querying. Any writer who’s queried agents knows how time consuming it can be but I was quickly picked up by an agency in Chicago, where an enterprising junior agent loved the book. She requested changes to enhance the romantic elements of the story. I was reluctant but she reassured me these changes would help its appeal with editors. She started some submissions, and then, as luck would have it, one day out of the blue called to tell me she was leaving the agency. The primary agent there wasn’t interested in historical fiction, so I lost representation.

In frustration, I put the manuscript aside, returned to college to obtain my MFA and started working on a new novel. I also honed my research of agents and located an agency that specialized in historical fiction. I queried them and an agent there expressed keen interest, though she warned me upfront that the market remained dire for debut fiction, particularly historical. She had me send her everything I’d written. She adored THE LAST QUEEN and asked me to reverse the changes the previous agent had done, saying she felt the book was strong enough without the overt romantic tone. Once again it went out for submission. While editors were generous with their praise, no one wanted to take a chance on a story about a relatively obscure Spanish queen. Finally, my agent and I decided to set it aside and try other work. I wrote THE SECRET LION during the four years I was with this agent, and she rallied beyond the call of duty to sell my work, but we didn’t succeed. Eventually she moved on to another agency and it became clear our association had reached an impasse, so we separated.

By this time, I was depressed with publishing and incredibly frustrated. I started looking into self-publishing. I felt I had nothing to lose. I ended up publishing THE SECRET LION through a small start-up press in San Francisco that used a combination of limited print runs and print-on-demand. There was no advance or marketing money. I learned everything I could about publicity and marketing books, and THE SECRET LION started to attract critical praise and word-of-mouth among readers. Within two years, it had sold several thousand copies, mostly online, as we had no bookstore distribution to speak of. Then, the press went belly-up and folded; to keep my book in print, I joined with two colleagues to start our own press, Two Bridges. THE SECRET LION was re-issued with a reading group guide and continued to sell extraordinarily well for a book without a major NY house behind it. The experience was so positive I decided to publish THE LAST QUEEN. Within a month it sold one thousand copies. Then one day my phone rang. It was my now-current agent, Jennifer Weltz, who worked at the last agency where I’d been represented and was familiar with my work. She wanted to know if I had an agent, which I didn’t. The market for historical fiction was excellent, she told me, and once she heard of my recent endeavors she wanted to submit THE LAST QUEEN in New York.

I liked Jennifer instantly; she’s witty, enthusiastic, and no-nonsense. I felt a kinship with her and thought, why not? I was content with my current arrangement, so I didn’t expect anything. As it turned out, for months we got rejections. Then two publishers expressed interest and within days THE LAST QUEEN went into auction. Jennifer was tireless on my behalf. She restored my faith in agents and I could hardly believe that after nearly thirteen years, I was looking at a major sale. My editor Susanna Porter won the auction for the Ballantine Books imprint of Random House in a 2-book deal. She did a thorough revision of the book, and I got the opportunity to explore Juana again under the auspices of a talented editor, which has been a terrific experience. She and my associate editor, Jillian Quint, have helped me shape my work in ways I’d never thought of.

That’s how THE LAST QUEEN got published. Yes, at times it was an ordeal but I learned so much about the business of publishing and my own craft, in a way it’s exactly how it was meant to come about. I feel quite blessed.

Kelly: I recently visited your website and read about your personal history. It almost seems as if you were destined to write a novel about Juana. Not did you grow up in Spain, but you lived near a castle that belonged to Isabella and Ferdinand, visited Juana's grave in Granada where the novel first begins, perhaps most interestingly, your grandmother, a well-known theatre actress named Pilar Gomez del Real, played Juana on stage! I was astounded at all of these connections. I have a bunch of questions about all of this.

First of all, how old were you when you first resolved to write a novel about Juana?

CW: I was in my mid-thirties, as I explained above— but I’ve known about Juana since childhood and it was always in the back of mind that one day I wanted to write about her. As a boy, I took a trip to Granada and visited the Alhambra and the cathedral where Juana and Philip are interred. I remember looking at her stone effigy and wondering if the lurid legend was true. Did she really go mad over love? Was she really so unstable she could never have ruled Spain? It became a secret obsession of mine: I always imagined her as this tragic, enigmatic figure no one understood. As it turned out, my research uncovered much more: I discovered an extraordinary woman of passion, conviction and courage, whose voice had been silenced by men determined to see her forgotten.

Kelly: Do you know that name of the Spanish play in which your grandmother portrayed Juana?

CW: It was called “Loca de Amor”: Mad over Love. A famous film with the same title was made in Spain the 1940s, based, I think, on the play. The film proved immensely popular and swept the Goya Awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards. It essentially follows Juana’s legend—the myth, if you will. My grandmother got excellent reviews: Juana is an actress’s dream role!

Kelly: And lastly, when are you planning on taking me on a guided trip of Spain? Oh, my dear, anytime you’d like! I always like going to Spain. My partner and I hope one day to live six months out of the year there.

Kelly: Speaking of your website, it is beautiful. There is a feature on the main page titled Juana's World which features excerpts from the book as well as wonderful pictures and descriptions of each of the characters in the book, period paintings of the castles and cities where the novel takes place as well as information and portraits of all of Juana's children and photos of Juana's tomb. I could go on and on! Anyone interested in the royal history of Spain will marvel at the information and art work you have put together.

Readers of the book will find it immensely rewarding to actually see the characters and places depicted in the novel. As a reader and fan of historical fiction I have to thank you for this feature. How and why did it come about? Did you put it together yourself?

CW: The idea was suggested to me by my lovely and dedicated publicist, Lisa Barnes. I went to New York after the book sold to meet Jennifer in person and the Ballantine team who would be working with me. They took me out to a wonderful New York lunch, where their passion for books was truly heartwarming, especially for me. I had demonized the industry somewhat because of my past experiences and I now saw that people who work in publishing are by and large ardent bibliophiles like me. Lisa and I were talking about publicity for THE LAST QUEEN and she mentioned how much she liked my website and that she’d love to see pictures of Spain on it, as she’d never been there and I bring the country to life in my book. I went home and thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to combine pictures of Spain with Juana’s story, so readers can get a visual sense of the locales and characters. So, I gathered images and designed the pages that comprise Juana’s World. I built my website on my own, using PhotoShop and a web-building program. I learned to do a lot of things on my own when I was publishing independently, because I couldn’t afford it otherwise. I like working on my website, too: it’s relaxing and creative. I used to paint with oils in my spare time and I’ve discovered a similar affinity for Photoshop.

Kelly: Juana's husband was often referred to as Philip the Fair or Philip the Handsome. In your novel Juana seems to think that Philip lived up to his title. But I want to know what you think, is he all that?

CW: That’s funny! No, by our standards he looks quite petulant, doesn’t he? But the truth is that’s hard to get an accurate sense of how people looked based on these portraits. They were made to depict an ideal rather than reality; in some cases what we see are later copies of originals, which were either lost or altered beyond recognition. We don’t get truly realistic portraits until later in the Renaissance, when Holbein and others of his ilk come to the fore. In Italy, masters like Leonardo da Vinci were already at work, but in early sixteenth century northern Europe and Spain we mostly have stiff idealizations that don’t conform to our modern notions of beauty. Still, all the ambassadorial accounts and letters of the period that I read during my research describe him as a superlative example of masculine beauty, so maybe in real life he was gorgeous. He certainly was athletic and well-built, something the portraits don’t show. We also have to take into account that indefinable quality that is sex appeal, which is usually present only when we see someone in the flesh.

Kelly: This is a bit personal but what does the CW stand for in bestselling author CW Gortner?

CW: They’re my first and second name initials, for Christopher Willis. I didn’t deliberately choose C.W. as an authorial affectation. It came about because when the cover for THE SECRET LION was being designed, the designer couldn’t fit Christopher W. Gortner on it without intruding on the wonderful original illustration of the hand holding the scroll. After several attempts, I suggested we try my initials instead and it worked. So, I became C.W. I prefer being called Christopher by my friends, though J

Kelly: Let’s pretend for a moment that you are alive during the period in which Queen Juana lived. Fill in the blank there's Philip the Handsome, Juana the Mad, Ferdinand the Catholic and you would CW the …

CW: C.W. the Curious. Because I always think there’s more to a story and I always want to know more.

Kelly: While looking at the pictures of children, her two sons Charles and Fernando who grew to become King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor, daughter Eleanor who became Queen of France, Mary who ended up Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Catherine the Queen of Portugal, and finally eldest daughter Isabella who was Queen of Denmark, Sweden and Norway to name a few of her titles. I can't help to think of her as a precursor to Queen Victoria of England, the first grandmother of Europe.

I promise there's a question lurking in my zealous history geekiness.

The birth and subsequent royal marriages and power of her children aside, what do you think Juana's biggest contributions to history is?

CW: Juana precedes the reigns of such sovereign queens as Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. Like her mother before her, she inherited Castile as sole heir. She could have ruled independent of any spouse had she been given the chance. It is fascinating to conjecture what her reign might have been like, had she ruled as queen. As for her biggest contribution I think that sadly it is the legend she left behind, the personification of Iberian tragedy. She is mythical in Spain, famous for her wild passion. But I would like to think that eventually her contribution will be that she stood alone for Spain in a time when everyone around her save for a precious few were willing to sell the country wholesale to the Hapsburgs.

Kelly: Your first novel The Secret Lion, which follows the secret machinations of Brendan Prescott, was also well received. Some of the fans of that book and your central character have called for more novels based around Prescott. One cannot help but notice the subtitle, The Spymaster Chronicles, Book I, when can your readers expect another Spymaster Chronicle book and will Prescott still be the central character?

CW: Oh, I do hope soon! I actually get quite a bit of reader mail asking this question and I wish I could be more specific. I conceived the Spymaster Chronicles as a series: the idea was to explore the rise of a fictional spy in Elizabeth I’s service and entwine his personal life and trials with his attempts to keep Elizabeth safe. I see Brendan traveling throughout Europe at Master Walsingham’s behest, caught up in much derring-do. When I first published the book, I immediately started working on the second one, which takes place during Mary Tudor’s reign. I wrote the first few chapters and had the entire book outlined when my deal with Ballantine happened – not that I’m complaining! Between edits to THE LAST QUEEN and finishing my next novel for them, I simply haven’t had the time to return to the second Spymaster installment. I still hold a full-time job; I’m wary of being a full time writer until I know how I’ll do in the bigger commercial arena, so I write at night and on weekends. There’s also the added factor that my agent has expressed the possibility of submitting the series to a larger publisher, which would be terrific if it happened, because then I’d have the financial support I need to actually write full time. But there’s no time table for the moment, and so I’m hoping to find some time this coming winter to return to the Spymaster book. I have so many ideas for the series and I don’t want to disappoint my readers! I’m so appreciative and honored by the incredible reception THE SECRET LION has received and promise that I’m doing my utmost to get another book out as soon as I possibly can.

Kelly: I think I remember reading once that you already have some completed novels waiting to be published. Am I correct in remember that or have I simply done too many author interviews?

CW: You’re correct. I have one other completed novel, the one I wrote on Anne Boleyn. When I first wrote it, like I said, there was nothing recent about her and now of course she’s the poster girl for historical fiction. Still, I think I bring something unique to my interpretation and perhaps I’ll get it published some day. I also have several chapters of a projected novel set in 15th century Spain and a novel in the Italy of the Borgias, which I hope to focus on after my upcoming book on Catherine de Medici.

Kelly: Speaking of author interviews, you do quite a few of your own on your blog, Historical Boys which features interviews with historical fiction authors, now with both boys and girls. What author interview has been your favorite so far?

I honestly can’t say. I’ve enjoyed them all for different reasons. I must admit, it was thrilling to meet Robin Maxwell. We had this six degrees of separation thing with Anne Boleyn and I’d read and liked all her books. When I finally spoke with her via e-mail, I was delighted to discover that she’s so friendly and open. I also adore Judith Merkle Riley, whom I met at the first annual Historical Novel Society’s US conference, and have become friends with; I also like talking to new writers in the genre, like the very talented Sarah Bryant, the sublime Sarah Bower, and charismatic Russell Whitfield. And interviewing Steven Saylor was a true honor: he’s a marvelous writer and has been an idol of mine for years.

Kelly: If you could interview one living author who would it be?

CW: That’s easy: Sharon Kay Penman. I’m a devoted fan and very excited to read Devil’s Brood!

Thank you for taking this time with me, Kelly, and thank you for everything you do to help writers promote their work! I hope your readers enjoy THE LAST QUEEN as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I welcome visitors at and answer all e-mails sent to me.


Marg said...

Thanks so much for another fascinating interview. I can't wait to read this!

Amanda said...

Wow! What a rocky road to publication! Isn't it also great to read about why authors choose to write about the characters they do? Catherine de Medici is another great choice of a character.

Amanda said...

Wow! What a rocky road to publication! Isn't it also great to read about why authors choose to write about the characters they do? Catherine de Medici is another great choice of a character.

Shana said...

Kelly & Mr. Gortner: I really enjoyed this interview and cannot wait to read the book!

It's amazing to know that at one time the market for both historical fiction and debut novels was so dismal. Both seem to be hot trends now.

I'm in awe of the struggle the author went through to have his books published and how he stayed with the process until he finally found success. Very inspiring!


heather (errantdreams) said...

This road-to-publication tale is amazing. I'm glad the author stuck it out, and I think many budding writers should hear this kind of story. Both as a shot of reality, and as encouragement---to help them realize that it won't necessarily happen right away, but that even if it doesn't, it can still happen.

C.W. Gortner said...

Thank you all for stopping in! I'm so happy you liked the interview and hope you'll enjoy the book.

Cheryl said...

Excellent interview! My Christmas wish list is growing very quickly. I need to add this book to it too.

Best of luck with the virtual book tour.


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