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Interview with C.W. Gortner

Today, I have the privilege of interviewing C.W, Gortner. He is author who first introduced me to historical fiction, and is one of my favorite authors in this genre. He is an international best-selling authors and is recognized as one of the hottest authors in historical fiction. This interview gives an insight to some of his works, namely The Last Queen, Confessions of Catherine de Medici, and The Queen’s Vow. Thank you, Mr. Gortner.

    1. Your books have been about Catherine de Medici, Queen Isabella of Spain, and Juana of Castile.  What drew you to write about these women?

Since childhood, history and women in history, especially those who are maligned or mired in controversy, have fascinated me. Perhaps because I was raised in Spain, where history can be seen everywhere, in a family of strong women, I absorbed early on that even those closest to us can hide secrets. Historical figures are no different; though we think we know everything about them, the truth is they too had intimate lives and were not the iconic portraits that have survived, but rather fallible human beings who strived, much as we do, to find fulfillment. I also tend to balk at the stereotyping of women that we find in history. Women like those I write about are pigeonholed by easy clichés: Catherine de Medici is a power-hungry mother; Isabella of Spain a righteous fanatic; and Juana of Castile a hapless lunatic. Their real stories are so much more complex, however, rife with untold upheaval, triumph and tragedy. They are as much a product of their circumstances and their eras as they are extraordinary in their attempts to defy these. Fictionalizing them, for me, helps unravel their myths and restore their humanity, so we can see them as they may have been. Whether or not we agree with their actions, like or dislike them, they are still flesh and blood.

    2. Because you are a male author, how do you narrate the story from a woman’s perspective so effectively? Did it make you feel uncomfortable or did you feel liberated?

I never thought about it; it seemed natural to me, in that I am a writer, after all, and much like an actor or other creative person who creates character, I have to believe in my personage in order for them to become real to me and to my reader. It did not occur to me that I was doing anything unusual until my first novel, The Last Queen, was published, and suddenly I began hearing from readers that they were so surprised to discover I was male. To me, while gender roles are certainly limiting and imposed on us by society, emotions are not. Regardless of our gender, we all know what it feels like to love and hate, desire, grieve or exult. Gender expectations dictate how we express our emotions, so in order to write as I do, I must transcend my own. I must leave behind everything I am and believe, to become the person who tells you her story. It really is no different from what actor does. To bring an audience into the illusion, they must see the character you are portraying, not you. I find it more unusual that people like me attempt to write historical novels at all. I find it less difficult to shed my gender than my very liberal 21st century mind-set, as the eras I write about are full of things I find deeply disturbing.

    3. In The Last Queen, you portray Juana, the Mad Queen, less as crazy, but misunderstood. If a reader wanted to learn more about the true story of Juana, what sources do you recommend?

There are unfortunately very few. Most of the sources I consulted are either out of print or contemporary documents from her era, which in of themselves contradict the popular myth that she was insane. Certainly, toward the end of her life, she was not well; she may have suffered a predisposition for manic depression, a trait that ran in her maternal bloodline through her grandmother. But I am certain Juana did not start out insane. She was eccentric for her era, but she showed strong abilities and a keen mind; her famous speech in Tordesillas, years after her imprisonment, displays a confused yet able woman attempting to deal with her isolation. I find it rather tragic that she has become this lurid figure dragging a coffin around with her, rather than a woman betrayed by those she should have been able to trust the most, who conspired quite callously to steal her throne.

    4.  In The Last Queen, Juana is portrayed as a victim and a strong woman who fights for the throne of Castile.  Yet, in The Queen’s Vow, she is portrayed as being mad. She cannot bear to be apart from her husband, and does not stay with her mother to learn to learn how to be a great queen. There are two differing takes on her sanity in the different books.  In your personal opinion, what do you think was the real case?  Was she simply misunderstood or insane? Would she really make a good queen for Castile?

Actually, in The Queen’s Vow, we only see Juana as a child and young girl, though she already shows some penchant for eccentricity. The parts cited are all in The Last Queen, told through her voice. Juana and Isabella, however, were antithetical in many ways and life-long misunderstanding complicated their relationship. Isabella demanded unswerving sacrifice to duty, particularly as she grew older; Juana, on the other hand, yearned for what we might call a normal life, with a loving husband and children around her. She never wanted to be queen; and she experienced such resistance to her own power from those she loved, she would have had to possess a far more ruthless personality to overcome it. She had many of her mother’s traits, but she was not Isabella. It is what makes her unique.

Nevertheless, I think she may have been a good queen, if she had had the support she needed. We must remember, Juana was not raised to inherit the throne, much like her mother before her. While Isabella had to learn through the hard path of experience, because she had no other choice, Juana was sheltered, reared in a caring family and groomed to be queen-consort, like her sisters. She was therefore not equipped to rule after Isabella yet clearly her mother thought she could, for Isabella named Juana her successor. It is tantalizing to wonder how the history of Spain may have proceeded had Juana actually been allowed to rule, but unfortunately all we can offer now is conjecture.

    5. In Confessions of Catherine de Medici, I liked how you had intimacy between Catherine de Medici and Admiral Coligny. What inspired you about these two famous enemies?

It was how their relationship evolved while writing the novel; some things are organic, in that they occur naturally, without advance planning. This was one of those things. It became clear through my research that there was more to their relationship than has been recorded, that the ardent support Coligny received from Catherine de Medici denigrated into a murderous hatred over more than differences in politics or religion. Is my supposition true? Who can say? There is no basis in the facts as we know them, but as it began to simmer during the writing, I found it irresistible. Catherine was certainly a passionate woman who had known Coligny for years; in turn, he had a sick wife and was often far from home, absorbed in Catherine’s struggles. She had a chance when Coligny himself was implicated in a high-profile assassination—a deed he certainly countenanced, if not actively designed—to be rid of him, yet she set her own court against her to exonerate him. To me, she acted like someone with more at stake than political expediency, for were that the case, executing him would have saved her a lot of grief later.
    6. What can Queen Isabella of Spain, Catherine de Medici, and Juana of Castile tell us about women in the Renaissance era?

I think they shine a light on our own perceptions of what being a queen entailed. These women had to fight to secure their positions, against the fervent belief that, as the so-called weaker sex, they could never wield power like a man. Though we hear, and see, a lot about fabulous queens of the past in their gorgeous gowns and jewels, romping through court without a care in the world, the reality is that life in the Renaissance was harsh and often cruel, obliging these women to walk a razor’s edge between success and doom. It makes their accomplishments all the more extraordinary, if we explore them through the prism of the lives they led, instead of some romantic notion of who we want them to be. I like to think that they become more real to us by relieving them of their legends.

    7. What can we learn from these women, and why do they appeal to you?

 Again, it goes back to stereotypes. Growing up and reading history, I always wondered if what I was discovering was the entire truth. Of course, it is not. We can never know the entire truth, hundreds of years later. These women appeal to me precisely because I felt there were unexplored secrets in their lives, places where no one ventured. I could not accomplish what I sought through nonfiction, because what I sought was a story beyond the facts. I wanted to strip away the myth and find the human being underneath it, in all her strength and weakness. I find these women exceptional in both their tenacity and their vulnerability; I believe they can teach us that reality is more complicated than we imagine and we all carry hidden burdens; it is the price of being human.

    8. On a lighthearted note, the women on the cover of your books are portrayed from the neck down, with their heads cut out of the picture.  Is that some sort of statement, or is it something your publishing company came up with?

It is always the publisher’s decision. While authors have some input into cover design, we are not the deciding factor. Many considerations come into play that readers are unaware of, including how the publisher seeks to position the book within its genre; how major accounts like Barnes & Noble see the cover (yes, they can and have on occasion vetoed covers, obliging the publisher to design a new one); and how to appeal to a certain audience within the crowded marketplace. The trend towards “headless women in gowns” on historical novels is partly an attempt to attract a potential reader to the mystique of the era, without inducing caution that the story might be too heavy or “historical” for those who do not regularly read the genre. It is also based on market evidence that as people, we react to faces instinctually: we see faces we like and those we don’t. This makes it difficult to market books to a wide readership. So, publishers focus instead on atmosphere, the “look” of the figure itself, while removing our subjective reaction to a face. Not surprisingly, it has proven effective, which is why we see so many covers in this style. It is not just historical novels; browse any bookstore and see how many actual faces you find on fiction covers. You’ll discover that while human figures abound, rarely is a full face featured.

Thank you for spending this time with me. To find out more about my work or invite me to speak at your book club, please visit me at:

C.W. Gortner has gained international praise for his historical novels, which have been translated into fourteen languages. He divides his time between Northern California and Antigua, Guatemala.

Check out my reviews of C.W. Gortner's novels:

The Queen's Vow

The Last Queen


  1. I absolutely LOVE his novels! Such a great author!

  2. I do too! I've been reading his books since I was a teen.

  3. Nice interview! You had good questions and great answers!


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