INTERVIEW WITH C.W. GORTNER
So many of my readers have told me how much they enjoyed C.W. Gortner’s The Last Queen. I am very happy to report that he has a new novel out, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, one of history’s most controversial and little-known queens. I was fortunate enough to read this book in galley form and I am sure that fans of The Last Queen will find it as compelling and surprising as I did. But before reading the new book, which will be published on May 25th, you’ll want to read the following interview.
Why did you write THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI?
I’ve always been fascinated by Catherine de Medici. Initially, I was attracted to her because of her legend. I figured, if she has such a bad reputation there must be more to her story. I wanted to know more about who she was, to search beyond the lurid hyperbole for the person she may have been. Of Italian birth, Catherine was the last scion of her legitimate Medici blood; she dominated France in the latter half of the 16th century, a contemporary of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Left a widow with small children and confronted by one of the most savage conflicts of the time, she fought to save France and her bloodline from destruction. As I researched her, I realized that, as with most dark legends, there was far more to her than popular history tells us. I thought how interesting it would be if Catherine herself could tell the story of her life. If she had the chance to explain herself, what would she say? I believe that all stories have two sides and Catherine de Medici’s is no exception.
What are some interesting facts you discovered about Catherine that is not widely known?
I found it amazing to discover how much she loved animals. In a time when bear baiting by dogs was a common entertainment, when hunting was a bloody pastime enjoyed by both genders and people rarely kept pets, Catherine was known for caring deeply about the welfare of her own animals and those at court. For example, she had the lion cages at Amboise completely restored, after she discovered how run-down they were; she also insisted that her bears not be used for any baiting and hired special attendants to look after them. When Catherine traveled about France, her bears were often seen lumbering behind her carriage! She also kept a menagerie of parrots, monkeys, and other exotic creatures; this was a time of plunder in Africa, New Guinea, and the Americas, with explorers capturing breeds which were often traumatized and ill equipped to survive transplant from their native habitats. Catherine tried her best to ensure those animals presented to her were treated well, not abused, exploited or killed for their parts - a very common practice in those days. The little dog she has in the book – Muet – is fictional, but represents this little-known aspect of her personality. In reality, Catherine had several lapdogs, in addition to the animals already mentioned.
I was also surprised to find out how religiously tolerant she was, particularly for an era of such savage intolerance and for someone of her fearsome reputation, who allegedly orchestrated a massacre to wipe out her Protestant subjects. This was a time when Catholics and Protestants were engaged in a very brutal conflict that spanned generations and divided families; popular history tends to bundle it under the titles of ‘Reformation’ and ‘Counter Reformation’ but the truth is, thousands of people lost their lives or fled their homes over the issue of faith. Catherine was the product of an ultra-Catholic upbringing; her family was intricately linked to the Vatican and her relative Clement VIII was a pope. She had every reason to fear and even despise Protestants, much as Mary Tudor did; however, Catherine showed a pragmatism toward doctrinal digressions that was actually very enlightened for her times. I do not believe she was a fanatic; I believe she honestly thought that there was a peaceful solution to the conflict tearing her son’s kingdom apart. It was her misfortune that so few around her shared her belief.
What kind of research did you do? Did you take any special trips?
I spent several years on this book to get it into its current form. I had written the original manuscript many years before that and it went through several re-writes before it was sold. Besides the over 40 biographies I read on Catherine and the important people in her life, as well as many other books on her era, I also read contemporary eye-witness accounts of the events that transpired under her reign, some written by her intimates. I don’t read French well and most of these accounts are not translated, so I had to enlist the help of friends who do speak the language. Catherine’s letters, too, provided invaluable insight into her thoughts; while many of these letters are formal in tone, as befits the time, a careful scrutiny of them does offer startling emotional information, such as the time when she wrote: “It is a great suffering to always be fearful.”
I traveled to France several times to see extant places associated with Catherine and to get a sense of the landscape. Though much has changed between now and then, I strongly believe the physical places where our characters lived offer unmatched glimpses into the past that can spark momentous changes in our work and during my first trip to Chenonceau, the chateau that Catherine embellished and loved, it happened to me. I was having trouble getting into Catherine’s “skin”, so to speak. Over half the book was written and I still felt she eluded me; there was something intrinsic missing. While touring this magnificent palace that sits on the river Cher, with its intricate gardens and honey-comb galleries, I understood what eluded me: I had made the mistake that so many of her detractors did: because she was so firmly entrenched in politics, I’d forgotten she was also a woman with a keen appreciation for beauty, a Medici to her fingertips, with all the passion that family had shown for centuries for the arts. This realization helped me immensely to re-cast her in my book, to find that flesh-and-blood person she might have been.
When combining fact with fiction, how do you balance history with story?
Very delicately! I think that as historical fiction novelists, we often walk a fine line between the facts and the fiction, in that we must adhere to the latter while staying true to the former. I always tell readers in my author’s afterword where I’ve altered or re-shaped events to fit the narrative flow; unfortunately, history can be inconvenient for a novelist, in that certain events do not match our story’s timeline and we finds ourselves confronted with editorial constraints, such as word counts, maintaining a manageable cast of characters, keeping up the pace of the story, etc. My golden rule is to never deliberately alter something if I can avoid it, and if I do alter it, make note of it so readers can know.
Do you think issues Catherine faced in her era still resonate today?
Absolutely. Religious divisiveness was a brutal part of life in Catherine’s world, with Catholics and Protestants willing to martyr themselves for their cause. This is something that many of us, much like Catherine, may find difficult to comprehend. Yet that very type of extreme righteousness remains very much a part of our modern landscape, as evidenced by acts of terrorism and genocide in several parts of the world. While we are in many ways a more enlightened society, we still carry vestiges of the past with us, and leaders throughout the world grapple with many of the issues that Catherine did, in terms of placating anger and restoring harmony among people whose lives have been devastated by conflict.
What is one of the secrets that Catherine “confesses” in this novel?
The truth about her relationship with the Protestant leader, Coligny. I find it intriguing that so few of Catherine’s biographers have looked more closely at their enigmatic association. Coligny was at court when Catherine first arrived from Italy as a teenage bride; he was the nephew of the Constable of France, a very important man, and she and Coligny must have met long before they assumed their individual political roles. They were close to each other in age; they probably witnessed to a certain extent each other’s trials and triumphs, before circumstances arose for them to join forces. Coligny and Catherine could not have been more different, both in upbringing and outlook, yet they shared for a time a united response to the upheaval in France and a mutual desire for accord. In my novel, Catherine tells us what brought them together, and what eventually led to the definitive tragedy between them.
Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog, Sharon, and thanks to all your readers for spending this time with me. To find out more about my work, please visit: www.cwgortner.com
Thank you, C.W., for agreeing to do this interview. I am sure that anyone who enjoys well-written historical fiction is going to be facinated by “your” Catherine de Medici.
May 18, 2010