Monday, July 02, 2012

Spanish queens, history, and character: An interview with C.W. Gortner, author of The Queen's Vow

The following interview is based upon a phone conversation I had with novelist C.W. (Christopher) Gortner about his latest biographical novel, The Queen's Vow, which presents a new and eye-opening perspective on Isabella of Castile. 

Readers will remember Isabella for her sponsorship of Christopher Columbus's expedition in 1492 and her role in bringing the Inquisition to Spain.  Although her marriage to King Ferdinand of Aragon (Fernando in the book) is also well known, before reading this book I hadn't known about Isabella's impoverished childhood or her complicated struggle to be proclaimed the heir to her half-brother's throne.

Isabella isn't the author's first royal heroine, although she's cast in a different mold from his earlier protagonists - and one thing I admire is how he aims to stay true to the historical essence of each woman he writes about.  Also, as he grew up in Spain, he provides his views on the country's history and culture and how his background knowledge influenced his character development... among other things.  Christopher is a good friend as well as an excellent writer, and he always has articulate, insightful things to say about history and about writing - as anyone who's seen him on a Historical Novel Society conference panel will know.  Hope you'll enjoy the discussion!

You’ve taken on some tough subjects in your three biographical novels. First in The Last Queen, you have Juana of Castile, with her supposed madness; then later Catherine de Medici, with her ruthlessness and rumors that she might have incited the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Now with The Queen’s Vow, you’ve taken on Isabella, who reestablished the Inquisition and expelled the Jews and Moors from Spain. Which of these women – or situations – did you find most challenging to write about? 
Each one presented its own challenges. With Juana, I had to deal with a character who outwardly appears helpless, a victim, and it’s always challenging in the modern day to write a character like that. We have so many preconceptions now about female empowerment; everyone wants that kick-ass heroine, Lara Croft in a gown. In portraying Juana, the challenge was to show a woman who had a lot of inner courage but none of the benefits of modern-day liberation. It’s hard for us to realize that many women, particularly royal ones, often found themselves in these terrifying situations. I had to figure out how to make Juana accessible to the modern-day reader without making her look like a doormat.

With Catherine de Medici, it was easier in that respect, because she exercised power; she’s no push-over. But then we have the controversy: she’s been segregated into the role of a sexless, reptilian being who rules through her children, without redeeming qualities. It was challenging to reveal the flesh-and-blood woman behind her legend and take the risk of showing some of the things she sacrifices for power. Again, to this day women do this; they give up certain things to have other things, though we’re bombarded by media slogans that promise we can have it all–the high-octane career, the perfect family, eternal beauty, and unending wealth. The media makes it look effortless, but real life, whether in the 21st or the 16th century, doesn’t work that way. Very few of us get to have it all; instead, we get to make choices.

That said, overall Isabella has been the most challenging, because she’s so polarizing. She was both exceptional for her times and a product of her times, and I haven’t written a female character until now with such extreme duality. She’s extraordinary in her vision of a united country, in how she wants women to be educated; and yet, in her religious view, she’s very much of the 15th century. Part of what you must do as a writer is set aside personal preferences as to what you believe a character should be, and search that character for what motivates and moves them. For me, the challenge with Isabella was to be true to her ideology, though I don’t agree with it.  

When I first heard about the novel, I certainly didn’t know anything about – and believe most people won’t know anything about – Isabella’s childhood and the struggles she had to establish herself as queen, and that she was never expected to be queen at all. We only hear about her involvement with Columbus, the Inquisition, and her marriage to Fernando, which united Spain. When did you first hear about her youth? Growing up in Spain, had you learned this about her?

I grew up with the standard story: she conquered Spain and kicked out the Moors. I didn’t hear a lot about the Jews growing up. It was the last years of Franco’s regime and I was educated by Jesuits, so I didn’t learn about that aspect of history; it wasn’t hidden but it wasn’t discussed, either. It wasn’t until I started researching my first novel, The Last Queen, that I discovered the controversy surrounding Isabella. She’s quite a strong character in that book, though I focus on the final years of her reign, as seen through her daughter’s eyes. Isabella has already accomplished her best and her worst.

It was while writing that book, however, that I discovered the relatively unknown story of Isabella’s tumultuous ascent to the throne and struggle to assert herself as queen. I remember thinking, Wow. She had such a difficult path. So, when I decided to write The Queen’s Vow I returned to the original sources and then to some newer ones; that’s how I discovered, for example, that she’d had such a rudimentary education. Comparing her education to that of Elizabeth I, for example, the contrast is marked. People may not have believed Elizabeth would ever rule but she was certainly prepared as if she might be. On the other hand, Isabella had only the basics. She was literate but she didn’t even speak Latin, which was the language of diplomacy at the time, and the emphasis was on her preparation for being a wife, a consort.

The more I discovered about the challenges that she faced not only politically and dynastically but also personally, I realized I had a great story. And unlike the deeds she’s so well-known for—Columbus, the Inquisition, the conquest of Granada—her youth is something we rarely hear about. We always imagine her somber and ordering people about, dressed in dour clothes. We don’t get a sense of who she was before. I wanted to explore how she became the queen and woman we all think we know.  

Let me ask about transitioning between The Last Queen and The Queen’s Vow. Neither is a sequel to the other – they both stand alone – but at the same time, I’d think you’d have to establish a kind of continuity between them to keep the characters consistent. Did you come across any special challenges, especially with regard to Fernando?

Part of the great thing about writing The Last Queen first was that I had the opportunity to write Isabella and Fernando as older characters. I didn’t want to repeat the same events from that book, so having already established this part of their lives freed me to focus on the story I wanted to tell. The Queen’s Vow covers Isabella’s life up to the pivotal year of 1492; in a sense, it backs into The Last Queen and her last twelve years. As I’d developed her in my first novel as the older queen it informed my depiction of her as the younger one, and more importantly, as the beleaguered princess. None of us are born fully developed; we are shaped by our experiences. In The Last Queen, Isabella has been transformed by personal tragedy, by loss and responsibility and declining health. She is not the woman we meet in The Queen’s Vow, and yet the seeds of who she will become are there. It was wonderful, actually, because I had the vision of this character firmly in my head.

Much the same happened with Juana. In The Last Queen, we hear her story from her point of view. But in The Queen’s Vow, we see her as child through Isabella’s eyes. It was fun to play with these different portrayals of her, for the way Isabella interprets her daughter is very different from how Juana will interpret herself.

In The Last Queen, Fernando is the older king; sly, duplicitous, a man who many believe was the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince. In The Queen’s Vow, he too carries these seeds of who he will eventually become, but again, his experiences shape him. I loved portraying him as a young, brash prince, who knows he’s considered his wife’s inferior as far as power and the size of his kingdom are concerned. He’s out to prove himself. He loves Isabella but also wrestles with his sense of inadequacy. I also discovered that in the early years of their marriage, he was very much the spur behind Isabella’s caution. Her experiences taught her to weigh all the odds before acting; she wasn’t an impulsive decision-maker. Fernando goaded her for both bad and good. So, it wasn’t challenging in the sense that I had to remember to stay true to his character; I had the advantage that I’d met him before, as I had Isabella, and so things just clicked as I wrote. Also, in this novel, we get to see how he and Isabella started their marriage; it weathered trials and became one of mutual passion and understanding, a rarity for the era.  

That’s interesting – it sounds like it gave you a good opportunity to explore their motivations, to see how they became that way.

Yes, it actually worked in reverse. Fernando turned out to be something of a revelation because the man he became at the end of his life is quite different than the man he started out as, though when we go back and trace his experiences, we can see exactly how and why the changes occur. He’s the most transformative of my characters, while Isabella stays consistent for the most part. She has a steadfast personality, even as she turns more and more to her faith as she suffers losses; she also loses some of her spontaneity and innocence, but the moments that shape her are all there.

With regard to the shaping of Isabella’s character, there’s one point in the book where she muses on Spain’s history. She remembers that there had been other female rulers of Castile, but that they’d “encountered relentless opposition” and that “none had lived a happy life.” Who were some of them, and what lessons would they have taught Isabella?  

Queen Urraca [1079-1126] was one of the most famous Castilian queens. Castile was divided; it and León were separate kingdoms for a long historical period. In my novels, I don’t mention León because by then it’s been incorporated into Castile. Urraca’s reign straddled both kingdoms. She faced incredible opposition as a female ruler, and because of the division in the country as a whole. The Moors were also much stronger during her era; they held almost all of southern Spain. She had the constant challenge of pacifying and solidifying Castile and León while dealing with the Moors and her treacherous nobles. Some readers may be surprised that the Reconquest didn’t begin with Isabella and Fernando; they completed the task but every Christian ruler before them had taken it up and pushed the Moors further back, so that by Isabella and Fernando’s reign, the Moors held a small corner of their previous domain: the kingdom of Granada. Urraca managed to overcome these challenges to a certain extent, but she didn’t have a happy ending. Another later queen, Maria de Molina [1265-1321], served as a regent for her son and dealt with tremendous upheaval. Like Isabella, these ladies faced the prejudice of being a sovereign queen. Castile didn’t abide by Salic Law, but misogyny was alive and well.

Their examples probably taught Isabella what not to do. She grew up in a rural environment with a mother who was delusional (probably a manic depressive); she lacked education and training, but she showed an early interest in history. She must have realized at some point that in order to rule successfully, she would need a supportive king at her side. I think she had this innate sense of what Fernando could bring the table. She might also have been motivated by a romantic angle; we know, for example, that she asked for portraits of Fernando. Their first meeting in the book, in Segovia, is fictional, because I had to establish them as characters earlier, before the night of their wedding. But she’d been watching him for years and they’d been betrothed in early childhood for a time; he was not a complete stranger to her. It is possible they met before and it wasn’t recorded it because no one thought it important. Isabella had a very Spanish aversion to marrying a foreigner. She wanted someone of her caliber, who understood her world. She couldn’t imagine leaving Spain and that’s something about her that I really responded to.  

This was actually one of the questions I meant to ask later on – what are some of the things that, to you, make a character quintessentially Spanish?

author C.W. Gortner
It’s something you feel, deep inside, when you’re from Spain. It’s not something you can get from just visiting the country or reading books about it. You have to know that Spaniards – we have this deep attachment to our land. Most the Spaniards I’ve met in the United States have either eventually returned home or re-created a piece of Spain here, even if they’ve been away for years. You can curse the country to high heaven, criticize it, swear up and down that you’ll never live there again, that there are so many things that are wrong and you don’t like, and yet…

The other thing that makes a character quintessentially Spanish is this ingrained duality. Some of the most famous characters in Spanish history, they’re both deeply religious and highly motivated by acquisition, always seeking to expand the boundaries of their kingdom. Isabella, Charles V, Philip II: these are imperialistic rulers. Some would also say they’re fanatics. This contrast between nobility and brutality, between faith and beauty: I find it to be uniquely Spanish. To me, it’s embodied in bullfighting – the painstaking ritual, the costume, the drama: these are all beautiful, and yet the act itself is savage.

In your bibliography at the end, I noticed that half of your resources are in Spanish, and you’ve alerted readers to this, too. What were some things you wouldn’t have known otherwise, if you weren’t able to read Spanish? 

I wouldn’t have understood the complexity of some of the deliberations around the establishment of the Inquisition. Many of the reports that went back and forth between Isabella and the Ecumenical Council that she organized dealt with entwined socio-cultural, political, and religious issues unique to the time. When Isabella came to the throne, the Spanish Church was in shambles. We can sort of compare it to what [Thomas] Cromwell said he unearthed in the monasteries in England; we don’t find strict Catholicism being practiced, but rather a curious, almost hybridization of Spain’s three prevailing faiths: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. We also see blatant simony, bribery, the selling of favors and indulgences: all the usual stuff. These reports that were forwarded to Isabella also cited that in one out of every two parishes, the priest had a concubine living with him. They called these women ‘barrangas.’ I didn’t even know what the term meant at first!

Isabella requested that this Council investigate corruption in the church, as it was deemed, as well as reports of non-conformity among conversos – Jews who’d converted to Christianity, most of them under duress during an intense period of persecution in the medieval era. She was troubled by ongoing rumors that many conversos were practicing Christianity at face-value or combining Judaism with Christian practices. Some, it was said, hadn’t really converted at all. To Isabella, this would have been gravely disturbing. The souls of her subjects, the very spiritual health of her kingdom, were at risk. Yet again, at first caution overrode even her piety. It took her almost four years to implement the papal bull that granted her permission to authorize the Inquisition’s revival. She instituted a program of spiritual education, dispatching trained priests to guide her subjects back to the ‘proper’ way of worship; it failed, but I did not make this up. If I hadn’t seen those reports in Spanish, I wouldn’t have understood the complexity of what she faced. I’m not condoning her role in the Inquisition, of course; I think she made a horrifying mistake that unleashed a monstrous wave of terror and suffering, but I do believe she agonized over her decision. I think she believed she had done everything she could to avoid persecution.

I can see that, and like you said, these are things people just don’t know. And I understand that you can’t include every little fact into the book. 

Fernando and Isabella, wedding portrait
Yes, you have to choose how much to impart. Also, Isabella wasn’t being naïve when she turned to this council for advice; it’s what rulers did, and still do. They seek experts to guide them; they set up meetings; they have people who report to people who report back to them. It’s misguided to think she sat down with a fully formed plan to implement the Inquisition. That would have been contrary to her nature, both as a person and queen. In the end, she felt the church was so corrupted there was no other way to tackle the problem of non-conformity. I think she was naïve, however, in her belief that she could control it. And there is evidence to suggest that Fernando pushed hard for the Inquisition, that he wanted it set up sooner than she did, because of the revolt of the Moors in Granada. He used the start of the crusade as justification to compel Isabella to say yes, because they would be away from Castile for long stretches of time and who knew what those conversos might get up to in their absence?

I’ve read – and based on my knowledge of the field, this is true – that The Queen’s Vow is the first English-language novel about Isabella in about 40 years, just as The Last Queen was the first novel about Juana in some time.

Yes, Jean Plaidy wrote a trilogy of novels on Isabella and her daughters; and Lawrence Schoonover wrote a novel called The Queen’s Cross. Also, Norah Lofts wrote Crown of Aloes.  

All of my copies of those are out-of-print ratty paperbacks! In many ways, then, your novels will be English-language readers’ first full introductions to these women. Did you feel pressured in any way while you were writing, knowing you would be representing them to the reading public?

No, not really. I didn’t feel any specific pressure because of the length of time between a past novel and mine. My pressure stemmed from my desire to portray these women as true to their era, true to what is known about them, while recreating their hidden sides, who they may have been, so readers would understand both what they faced and why they acted as they did. I wanted to describe their unique set of circumstances and that of the times, to give an accurate and fair portrayal of their struggles and triumphs. In the end, I do write fiction. These are novels, not biographies. My primary function is to entertain, but I still take the task of bringing these women to life seriously. I don’t want to defame them.

Thank you so much for having me, Sarah. It’s always an honor to visit your blog. I hope your readers enjoy The Queen’s Vow. To find out more about me and my work, please visit

For other stops on C.W. Gortner's virtual tour, see the tour scheduleThe Queen's Vow was published in June by Ballantine in hardcover ($25.00, 400pp).


  1. Glad you liked it, Elena!

  2. I have read both The Last Queen and The Queen's Vow so hearing Christopher's comments is a real treat and answered a few questions I had. Both are wonderful stories, compellingly told. At times I cheered each queen and at other times wanted to shout at them - every novel should inspire such emotion. Only terrific writers do so.

  3. That idea of ingrained duality makes me think of Quixote and Sancho.

  4. Marvelous, as always, to be here. A huge thank you to Sarah for inviting me!

  5. Kristin Gleeson7:11 AM

    Great interview. This post restores my hope that there are still some good royal court centered historical novels out there. I was beginning to despair after reading some dreadful offerings lately. Kristin Gleeson

  6. Sarah, thanks for posting such an informative interview with Gortner. I've enjoyed several of his novels and it's nice to get some inside info on his writings.