Today we have an interview with the fabulous C.W. Gortner, the author of the The Tudor Conspiracy (the second book in his Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles), which went on sale yesterday! You can see my review by clicking HERE. Among other novels, he’s also the author of The Queen’s Vow, which just went on sale this season in paperback.
We featured Christopher on the site last year with an interview during the first launch of The Queen’s Vow. We’ve taken that interview and UPDATED it for his book tour! Now, we get more in-depth on the Tudors and on his Spymaster series (less for now on Isabella-though that interview is still available on this site and we do still talk about his writing of strong women in history). Enjoy the discussion!
Christopher, THANK YOU so much for joining me on my blog, Oh for the Hook of a Book! I absolutely love your writing and you make historical fiction a joy to read. I am so excited to virtually chat with you about your life as an author, your writing, and your books.
Hi Erin, it’s lovely to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me and for your kind words. I’m honored. 🙂
You’re certainly welcome anytime. Let’s get started then! We’ll brew some tea and have a seat in these comfy chairs….
Q: You’re a historical fiction author, so you must love history. I’ve always loved history myself and really delved into foreign history in college, ultimately then majoring in it out of pure love! That’s my story, but when did you first become fascinated with it and how have you fueled that passion over the years?
A: I’m half-Spanish by birth and was raised near the city of Malaga, which is the site of one of Isabella’s more terrifying experiences in The Queen’s Vow. There was also a ruined castle (now fully restored) close to where I lived, so I basically grew up with history all around me. It wasn’t just in school and in books; I could see its palpable remnants. I was always intrigued by the personalities, too, especially the fascinating women with such controversial reputations. My fascination never abated; throughout my formative years, I read everything I could and became interested in what lies underneath the veneer of what we call ‘fact’; the stories hidden within stories, so to speak. That fueled my desire to both uncover and write these secret stories.
Q: You often write about fabulously strong women from the past such as Catherine de Medici, Juana of Castile, and Elizabeth I. What spurs this interest? What inspires you?
A: I have found that historical women, in particular those I’m attracted to as a novelist, have not had much of a say in how their history was depicted. As I studied history, I began to see a repetitive pattern of stereotyping: Elizabeth I is the virgin; Catherine de Medici the crone; Isabella of Castile the fanatic; and Juana, her daughter, subject of my first novel, the victim; and so on. It was easier— certainly, simpler— to relegate these complex women to clichés. However, the truth is much more interesting. All of these women were fallible, extraordinary, flesh-and-blood human beings. Their motivations aren’t so simply defined; the challenge for me, the inspiration that spurs my writing, is the desire to get underneath their skins and try to discover the actual person they may have been.
Q: How do you decide which women move you enough emotionally in order to write about them? How do you begin your research for your books?
A: She must have a controversial element in her life that captures my attention. I’m not really that interested in straightforward characters: I’m attracted to complexity, contradictions. Inevitably, these women’s lives aren’t easy, in some instances, but they do defy the norm. Research can begin years before, often in preparation for another book. For example, it was while writing The Last Queen, my first novel, about Juana of Castile, that I became engrossed in her mother, Isabella. I portray Isabella’s last twelve years in that novel, so I focused my research on that particular portion of her life; however, I also researched her earlier years, to get a better sense of who she had been and how she developed as a woman and queen. For me, research is ongoing; I gather bits and pieces, tucking away what I don’t need at that moment for possible future use.
Q: Do you have to travel frequently to do your research? If so, what is the best experience you’ve had?
A: Yes, I always travel to the countries and extant places where my characters lived; it’s important to me to get a feel for the landscape and experience it, even if a lot has changed. There really is no substitute for “being there.” One of the best experiences I had was dancing a galliard in the great hall at Hampton Court; I was touring the palace, and was unexpectedly invited to dance with a group who was re-enacting Tudor dances. I took a quick 5-minute lesson and was then led into the dance by a lovely lady with long dark hair, clad in a dark green dress. I have to say, it was amazing to realize I was dancing in the very place where Anne Boleyn must have danced with Henry VIII!
Q: Where would you like to go that you haven’t been to yet? Where do you want to go back to?
A: I’d love to visit Russia. I have a fascination with Russian history. And I’m always happy to return to Rome; it’s one of my favorite cities in the world.
Q: Will you ever write a book following Russian history you think? Catherine the Great was a powerful woman. Have you had other ideas in this vein?
A: I do have some ideas, but I cannot say more right now.
Q: What intrigues you the most about Elizabeth I? Then, what intrigues you most about Mary I? In your research to pen The Spymaster Chronicles, did anything stand out and surprise you?
A: I’m fascinated by Elizabeth for many of the same reasons that I’m fascinated by Isabella of Castile, whom I depicted in The Queen’s Vow. Though very different in temperament and outlook, each had a difficult youth and challenging rise to power, as no one expected them to rule. Both inherited divided, impoverished kingdoms that they dedicated themselves to strengthening and both made sacrifices for what they believed was the welfare of their subjects. Both also ruled as independent monarchs, though Elizabeth never married and Isabella did, and each gave her name to her reign: Elizabeth’s time is known as the Elizabethan period and Isabella’s as the Epoca Isabellina. These women defined their very eras by their presence, queens who made a lasting impression and transformed their countries.
I’m intrigued by Mary because she is, in truth, a tragic figure who fell prey to her circumstances. Mary Tudor went from being the adored daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife to witnessing the horror of her parents’ separation. Like so many children caught up in acrimonious divorce, she was used as a pawn and marked by it forever. Mary never transcended the trauma she suffered during that time and when she came to power (an event I depict in the first Spymaster novel, The Tudor Secret) she went from being a stalwart, courageous woman to one driven by fear and near-paranoiac hatred. Mary was not born a monster but in time she became one, as she felt compelled to mend the wounds inflicted on England by her father’s break with Rome. It is sadly ironic that she had far more of Henry VIII in her than she cared to admit and that in the end, it destroyed her.
I’m always surprised in my research by how much is known about the Tudor era. I had thought I’d find little, for example, about the brothels of Southwark but instead I discovered a wealth of information that helped me re-create the brothel that Brendan must infiltrate. I’m also often surprised by how little we know about Elizabeth’s motivations during her sister’s reign, which of course only adds to her mystique.
Q: What types of traits do you feel that women from the Renaissance period had that allowed them to overcome the issues of the day? Do women today have the same strengths? Why or why not?
A: I think that all of us, men and women, have the same inner strengths that our antecedents had, only those of us who have the luxury of living in developed countries and cities tend to get indolent; we forget just how fortunate we are in terms of our access to medicine, domestic comforts, food, etc. Women of the Renaissance faced death every day on a very real level: there were no antibiotics and a crude understanding of how disease afflicted the human body: infections, viruses, even childbirth could kill. Women had to be strong and vital to overcome the obstacles of daily life; it was a question of survival, even if you lived in a palace. The wealthiest were as vulnerable as anyone else to catastrophe. It’s the same today, to a certain extent: all it takes is one natural disaster for us to realize just how vulnerable we are. The main difference is, people of the Renaissance knew it all the time. They incorporated mortality into the fabric of their existence, whereas we, as a whole, tend to avoid it.
Q: The first book I ever read by you was The Tudor Secret and I loved it. Now, I was thrilled to continue the journey with The Tudor Conspiracy. Taking place in the time right prior to Queen Elizabeth I’s rise to the throne, it was the tale of a male servant’s role as a spy at court. What made you decide to write a mystery/suspense historical series and what are the future plans for this series?
A: I decided to write The Tudor Secret, really, because no one wanted my stand-alone historical novels! It was written years ago, after both The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici had been rejected by more than 20 publishers. My agent at the time suggested I might have better luck breaking into the market if I wrote a mystery. Of course, I decided instead to do a thriller /adventure about a Tudor spy with a secret of his own, and it didn’t sell, either. So, I self-published it under its original title, “The Secret Lion” and it eventually attracted the attention of my current agent. After she sold my first two books to Random House, an editor at St Martin’s Press, who’d loved my work for years but been unable to acquire it, bought the spy thriller and re-titled it The Tudor Secret. He also wanted two more in the series, which we called the Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles. So, it goes to show, you never know when that door will open.
I love writing the Spymaster books because I get the chance to play with fictional characters, interacting with historical ones. I also like that my lead character, Brendan, is a man of shadows, caught between two opposing world. I hope the series continues to grow and find its readers. THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY takes place a few months after the events in The Tudor Secret. During the harsh winter of 1554, Brendan must return to court, where Mary Tudor is now queen, and go undercover to help save Elizabeth from a treasonous plot in which the princess may be a willing participant. It’s a darker novel than the first one; Brendan has matured and must contend with the consequences of his decision to be a spy.
Q: What feelings did you hope to evoke from your readers with this Spymaster series?
A: These novels are intended to be fast-paced, adventurous, and suspenseful. I hope readers are excited by the ride, so to speak; that they enjoy discovering an alternate world to what we usually find in books set in the Tudor era.
Q: How did you form the character of Brendan in your novel? What is your secret for well-developed characters? Did any of them “speak” to you in a way to get noticed when you least expected it?
A: I read a lot of historical mystery series before I began to work on the Spymaster novels and decided I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create a fictional character who becomes a reluctant spy in Elizabeth’s secret service, which was one of history’s first sophisticated spy networks. The idea gave me so much to work with, the opportunity to blend fiction with history, real characters with imaginary ones, and to explore the crevices of history, those empty spaces between major events when so much could have happened that we don’t know about and affected how those major events came to pass.
For me, a well-developed character is one we can relate to, no matter how different we are. Brendan is an ordinary person who yearns for an ordinary life; he must work to survive and hasn’t been given much privilege. Yet he carries a secret that could be his undoing and separates him from everyone he loves. We all know what it’s like to hide something that makes us vulnerable, to find ourselves trapped in situations beyond our control. Brendan is an everyman who must become more than he wants to be.
All of my characters must speak to me in unexpected ways in order to become real on the page. I never feel as if I’ve truly found a character’s voice until he or she does something I did not anticipate. When that happens, I know the character has come to life and claimed their personality. There were several instances while writing THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY when something happened that was driven by the character’s decision to act or not act in a certain way; that is one of the mysteries and joys of being a novelist. It feels as though you are simply writing a story that your characters are living inside your head.
Q: How do you train your mind to creatively write in a voice from the time period you are working in? How do you make it sound so authentic and not forced?
A: It’s truly a matter of silencing my ego and perceptions of the world, of disappearing into the time period and people I’m evoking. I undertake massive research when I first prepare to write a novel; I read all the extant documentation of the era I can find, as well as biographies, social histories, specialized books on fashion, furniture, weaponry, etc. I have to become fluent in the language of the era for it to become natural to me, yet not grow so rigid in my authenticity that I lose the ability to make the past understandable to modern-day readers. It’s a delicate balance, finding that common thread between us and them. The process is almost impossible to describe. A historical novelist is part-scholar, actor, sleuth and investigator. After all the facts are learned and research is done, we must employ our imagination to breathe life into the past without making it seem stilted or overdone.
Q: People seem to love mystery and intrigue, so I am not surprised why this type of novel might work, especially during a time period that seemed to be drenched in espionage. How do you break past the barrier of it being a Tudor-era novel to sell it as a spy thriller anyone can enjoy?
A: Well, I can’t completely break past that barrier because it is, after all, a Tudor-era story. But readers who know little or nothing about history can enjoy these books without feeling swamped by facts, while readers who know a lot will find something unique about how I interpret characters and events. Above all else, I try to sell these books as stories that everyone can enjoy, full of twists and thrills.
Q: What other historical time periods or people intrigue you? Why?
A: I’ve mentioned Russia. I’m also intrigued by ancient Egypt, and the early medieval era in Europe. I like Edwardian and Victorian England, too.
Q: How do you keep your writing voice flowing so well? You seem to write non-stop and are very successful at turning out books each year. What is your recipe?
A: I’m disciplined, even when I’m not inspired. Writing is my job. I write for pleasure too, naturally, but not every day is a party at the keyboard. Like everyone else, there are days when I’d rather go shopping. But I write 5 days a week, regardless. I’m under contract; I’ve been given a portion of an advance and I have a daily word-count to meet. And I’ve learned that even if what I write is awful at first –and it often is – it can always be improved during revision. The tough part is just getting that first draft out. Everything can be fixed, except a blank page.
Q: Do you have any advice for other aspiring authors about how to manage time and balance life with writing and research?
A: Persevere. Publishing is a tough business and is in transition; though there are more options than ever before, with each option comes the responsibility of being true to your vision for your work. No one can say which way is best: you have to decide that for yourself. Whatever you do, give it your all and write the very best book you can. Write every day, even if it’s only a paragraph; stay in touch with the nuts-and-bolts of the craft itself. Have a life, as well: know when to stop and let things steep. Writing benefits from time away to gain perspective, especially when the going gets rough. With research, remember it is a master seducer. We can research for years, without ever actually writing a word of the book. Learn only what you need to know to get writing and pick up the rest as you go.
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed working on a writing project for charity with you. I know that charity work with animals is near and dear to your heart (a compassionate heart by the way). What types of animal protection issues do you feel are important currently? How do you feel people can assist more in environmental and animal security?
A: We all need to be more conscious of how we, as a species, impact life on our increasingly fragile planet. We share our mother earth with beautiful, irreplaceable animals that cannot defend themselves against our relentless encroachment and consumption of resources. A little change can go a long way: don’t buy or wear any type of fur. Know where your food comes from, to the best of your ability. Get involved in local charities and protect wildlife in your area. Likewise, please adopt all pets, and of course, make sure they are spayed or neutered. Thousands of dogs and cats are euthanized every single day because of overpopulation and irresponsible breeding. An animal has the same noble heart, whether purebred or mixed. My cats are rescues; if everyone adopted a rescue animal, shelters wouldn’t be overcrowded or desperate for funds. And if you can’t adopt, foster, volunteer time, donate money and supplies. Get involved.
Q: You also enjoy art. What are some of your favorite artistic flavors or pieces of work from the time periods you write about?
A: I love the works of Leonardo da Vinci and portraiture of the Renaissance, especially paintings of people by Hans Holbein and the French court painter, Clouet. The portraits of people who actually lived in the eras I write about— their clothing, poses, and expressions— inspire me. I often find my character’s voices when I look at portraits, as if the paintings themselves could speak.
Q: What other books are you working on currently? What is the idea behind them and what made you choose the topic?
A: I’ve just finished an historical novel about Lucrezia Borgia’s Vatican years. Thrust into notoriety as the pope’s daughter, Lucrezia had to embark on a savage struggle against her family’s ambitions. Once again, I found myself drawn to a woman who’s been vilified by history; I was completely enthralled by Lucrezia and her world, as I hope readers will be.
Q: Do you have any future historical figures in mind to make come alive on the page for your readers?
A: I do, but it’s a secret! 🙂
Q: And the most important question of the day, your favorite ethnic dish?
A: Fried plantain.
Q: Where can readers find your books?
A: Of course, in most physical bookstores. If they don’t have the book in stock, they can always order it. Please buy via independent stores online here: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780345523969
Or via the usual online suspects:
Q: What is the best way for readers to connect to you? List all you would like.
A: Via my website here: http://www.cwgortner.com/contact.html
Erin: Always a pleasure to discuss your work with you, Christopher. I love your novels and they are always the ones I look forward to the most. Best wishes for much future success with all your writing.
Christopher: It’s always a delight to be here. Thank you for hosting me and I hope your readers will enjoy THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY.
THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, Synopsis~
St. Martin’s Griffin
For those needing the UK Version:
UK Publication Date: July 18, 2013
Hodder & Stoughton
Hunted by a shadowy foe in Bloody Mary’s court, Brendan Prescott plunges into London’s treacherous underworld to unravel a dark conspiracy that could make Elizabeth queen—or send her to her death in C.W. Gortner’s The Tudor Conspiracy
England, 1553: Harsh winter encroaches upon the realm. Mary Tudor has become queen to popular acclaim and her enemies are imprisoned in the Tower. But when she’s betrothed to Philip, Catholic prince of Spain, putting her Protestant subjects in peril, rumors of a plot to depose her swirl around the one person whom many consider to be England’s heir and only hope—the queen’s half-sister, Princess Elizabeth.
Haunted by his past, Brendan Prescott lives far from the intrigues of court. But his time of refuge comes to an end when his foe and mentor, the spymaster Cecil, brings him disquieting news that sends him on a dangerous mission. Elizabeth is held captive at court, the target of the Spanish ambassador, who seeks her demise. Obliged to return to the palace where he almost lost his life, Brendan finds himself working as a double-agent for Queen Mary herself, who orders Brendan to secure proof that will be his cherished Elizabeth’s undoing.
Plunged into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a mysterious opponent who hides a terrifying secret, Brendan races against time to retrieve a cache of the princess’s private letters, even as he begins to realize that in this dark world of betrayal and deceit, where power is supreme and sister can turn against sister, nothing—and no one—is what it seems.
Praise for The Tudor Conspiracy
“The Tudor Conspiracy weaves a suspenseful, tangled skein of intrigue. It is a vibrant historical mystery and crime-thriller with an A-list cast of characters. Here are Elizabeth Tudor and her Robert Dudley in a light you’ve seldom seen them. —Margaret George, author of Elizabeth I
“C.W. Gortner has done it again! Intrigue at the Tudor court never looked more lethal than in his capable hands, as forbidden desires and deadly rivalries turn sister against sister and plunge our bold hero into a labyrinth of deceit. Full of breathtaking action, dark twists and unexpected revelations, this is an unputdownable read!” —Michelle Moran, author of Nefertiti
“In C.W. Gortner’s skillful hands, the plots and counterplots come to seething life, with Brendan using every ounce of his brains and courage to protect those he loves while struggling to stay alive. . . . Lovers of Tudor history and suspense fiction will be riveted by this swift-paced, sexy, enthralling novel.” —Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown
Author C.W. Gortner, Biography~
Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thetudorconspiracyvirtualtour/
Twitter Hashtag: #TudorConspiracyTour