Thursday, May 27, 2010

An interview with C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

I'm pleased to welcome historical novelist C.W. Gortner to the blog. His most recent work of fiction, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, looks beyond the villainous legends surrounding his protagonist to reveal an intelligent, responsible woman determined to do right by her family and country. Here she reveals her own life story from orphaned Florentine heiress to neglected Queen and wife through the time she finally comes into her own as powerful Queen Mother to a land torn apart by religious turmoil. It's a novel that will have you rethinking all you've been told about Catherine and the infamous Medici legacy.

A regular visitor to Reading the Past, Christopher is a good friend as well as a fantastic writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed his dramatic yet intimate and very human portrait of Catherine's life and times. I'm happy he agreed to be interviewed for Reading the Past, especially given his busy schedule these days! In addition to promoting his new book release, he's also working hard on his next historical novels, The Princess Isabella — which will look at the early life of the well-known Spanish queen — and The Tudor Secret, an Elizabethan-era historical thriller.

Why are you drawn to rulers who have been maligned by history, particularly Renaissance-era women?

Ever since I can remember, I've been attracted to the dark horses of history; my reasoning is, if someone lived a life that was so controversial as to sow a black legend, then there must be more to them than history tells us. And usually, once I start researching, I find there is.

Legends are by their nature simplistic: Catherine de Medici was evil; Juana of Castile was crazy; Anne Boleyn was a home wrecker; Henry VIII was a monster. It's how we pigeonhole complex beings into identifiable stereotypes, and sometimes this has its uses. For me as a novelist, the legend's usefulness is establishing where it started and how it developed; often, what I find out doesn't even make it into the novel itself but rather assists me to understand the psychological and social underpinnings that led up to the blackening or distortion of the person in question, as in Catherine was at the center of a massacre of Protestants and accused of instigating it, ergo, she was portrayed by most Protestant chroniclers as evil. I then research events prior to and after that defining event, because of course the reality is rarely black and white.

As for the Renaissance-era women, I have a degree in Renaissance Studies and have been captivated by the era for as long as I can remember; by lucky coincidence, quite a few famous women of the time have engendered black legends.

Catherine's life has strange similarities to Juana's. Both are strong-minded women with the potential to rule wisely if given the chance; both work tirelessly to ensure their dynasty and country survive; and eerily enough, both find themselves imprisoned by Charles V at different points in their lives. On the other hand, Catherine makes it clear that France and Spain are very different countries with different customs. Did you deliberately try to draw parallels and, later, distinctions between your two heroines?

I actually didn't deliberately seek to draw parallels but I find it fascinating they exist. I hadn't even thought about them both being imprisoned by Charles V! As a writer, I tend to fall in love with my characters as individuals; it's what I most seek as I begin the process of writing, to discover their unique voice. Juana and Catherine challenged me in very different ways. I also have the iron-clad rule that once I start a new book I have to quite literally erase the previous one from my writing consciousness. I know this sounds weird but as a writer, if I carry one book with me into the new one, the new characters suffer as a result. Still, your assessments are very astute: Catherine and Juana do indeed share these qualities while being quite distinct in others.

Your Diane de Poitiers is quite the ice queen! She's beautiful but cold, calculating, and serpentine, though Henri certainly found her alluring (and her experience in the bedroom certainly comes in handy...) Most modern novelists have depicted her relationship with Catherine's husband as an enduring star-crossed romance, though Catherine herself certainly wouldn't see it that way. Do you share Catherine's opinion of Diane?

My sincere apologies to all her fans, for I know she has many, but after my research, I must say I do share Catherine's opinion of her. Given the choice, I'd rather have been Catherine's friend.

I loved reading about all the fashions of the period; the descriptions of Catherine's jewel-encrusted brocade gowns, among others, were absolutely sumptuous. Do you credit your past interest in/experience with the fashion industry for your ability to recreate, in fiction, the costumes of past times?

Thank you! I do love the fashions of the time, too. It's one of the aspects of the Renaissance that first enthralled me growing up: those incredibly elaborate clothes. My interest in fashion is life-long, and so perhaps my studies when I was getting my fashion marketing degree have helped me to recreate the era's apparel in my writing. I took an entire semester of courses in historical costume and had to learn about how clothes of the past were constructed, fastened together on the body, taken apart and recycled (yes, they did recycle: when sleeves wore out, for example, they tore out the usable fabric and used it to make new sleeves).

I thought you did an excellent job portraying Catherine's mystical interests without going over the top. How much of this her visions of the future, for example, as well as those of Nostradamus was taken from the historical record?

Several of Catherine's intimates and her children, including Margot, mention her gift of prophecy or second sight. According to them, she did foresee most of the events I describe in the book, as did Nostradamus those attributed to him.

For research into this rather obscure area, I consulted several psychics, to find out what they see when they enter a state of trance or foresight. I found that many experience their visions as dream-like sequences, often lacking vital sensory data; such as, they'll see a place but not hear any surrounding sounds that might identify it. Their work is often piece-meal, hard to decipher without accompanying training and rigid self-discipline. Nostradamus did train himself and saw many of his visions in water; he wrote them down as verses. To this day, scholars offer different interpretations of what he wrote.

Catherine was an untrained psychic, for lack of a better word; she certainly delved into the occult obsession of the age, as did many well-to-do people of her era, but I do not believe she was a mistress of the occult in any sense of the term. That's part of her legend. Only one of her visions in my book is fictional, though she did make mention of a presentiment leading up to the event's occurrence. All others are based on accounts of people who knew her in life, as well as her own letters. Her meetings with Nostradamus are all drawn from record, too; however, one of his prophecies as quoted in the novel is my invention.

Catherine shows an amazing capability for religious tolerance, one that's remarkable for her time. Yet in history, her accomplishments in this respect have been overshadowed by rumor that infers the opposite. Do you feel her gender is to blame for this to some degree?

Absolutely. Women were seen as the weaker sex, with all the baggage that label implies. Women were by nature considered to be more emotional, more apt to act vengefully or without forethought, more prone to unreasonable passions — in short, unable to withstand life's vicissitudes with equanimity and logic. Of course, this is horse droppings, as we all know, but for centuries after Catherine's death, despite advances made in women's rights and the fact that women had been ruling since the time of pharaohs and before, these strange notions on the temperament of the sexes, which mirror the outdated medical notion of humors, prevailed. Tolerance wasn't a fashionable sentiment in the 16th century; some might say it still isn't! And religious tolerance in a woman would have been seen as a weakness, another sign of her natural inferiority or defect. That Catherine's innate dislike of the senselessness of religious prejudice has been distorted is both a testament to gender bias and to her accomplishments. She's been made into an intolerant harpy dead-set on destroying her religious opponents, when in reality she was the opposite.

While Catherine's years as Henri II's queen showed how her character developed, she doesn't truly come into her own until after his death; she's far more powerful and influential as a mother than as a wife. How do you think Catherine's three sons would have fared as kings, had she not been around to provide guidance?

Historians are divided on important aspects of this particular issue; for example, we hear from one that Catherine's eldest son was a weakling from birth, from others that he was made weak by Catherine's over protectiveness after her husband's death; still from others that Diane de Poitier's dominance over the nurseries while she held sway at court gravely delayed the children's ability to mature. Likewise, there is divided opinion on the sanity of her son Charles and to some extent her favorite son, Henri.

Given the horrifying religious chaos that ensued after Henri II's accident, the constant predations of powerful nobles like the Guises, I'd venture to say that Catherine's sons would have fared much worse had she not been there to guide them. They grew up amongst the carnage of war and the vicious intrigue of the court; they could not help but have been deeply affected, even warped, by what they experienced. She was the sole force in their lives which, for better or worse, always sought to protect them. She made mistakes; what mother does not? But I believe she always meant to do her best.

Ironically, of all her children, the one who was most like her in strength and therefore antithetical to her in personality was Margot. Now, the mind just goes wild imagining what France might have been like had Salic Law prohibiting female succession not been in effect and Margot had had the chance to become a reigning queen of France!

Catherine's life has been subject to a lot of lurid speculation - that she poisoned her enemies (including Jeanne of Navarre), that she was the primary instigator for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, that she dabbled (perhaps more than dabbled) in witchcraft, devil worship and other assorted nastiness. Given that over four centuries have passed since then, how did you go about separating the facts from the myth? What sources proved most helpful?

I must say, my primary helpful source was common sense. This was a woman facing a barrage of serious ideological and social issues, any one of which might explode at any moment and overturn the precarious seat of the monarchy, upon which her sons perched. We tend to see poisoning as a Hollywood convenience item when we envision the era, when in fact it wasn't nearly as easy or common as we think. Poison was notoriously hard to manipulate and more detectable than we assume; physicians of the era were often versed in particular poisons and their accompanying symptoms.

A woman in Catherine's position, facing the challenges she did, would have been reckless, if not downright stupid, to poison someone with as high a profile as Jeanne de Navarre, and on the very fortnight of the wedding between Jeanne's son and Catherine's daughter, no less! Catherine was neither stupid nor particularly reckless. In my novel, I used a theory of why the St Bartholomew's Massacre took place upheld by several leading scholars of the period; and I show her interest in the occult for what I believe it actually was. Even if she had the inclination, Catherine didn't have time to obsessively spend her days studying witchcraft; her life, especially during her older years, is peppered with ceaseless travel, personal worry and crisis.

I found contemporary sources, in particular letters and journals of her contemporaries, quite revealing because they're not subject to the sensationalistic propaganda of later historians seeking to re-create Catherine to suit their agendas. I also found several modern biographies, in particular Leonie Frieda's and Irene Mahoney's masterful works, quite helpful in shedding much-needed light on Catherine from a female perspective. Lastly, Catherine's own letters are telling in that they show a woman of intelligence, perseverance and emotional fortitude, who is nonetheless very Italian at moments in her sense of the dramatic and unswerving loyalty to those she loved. I don't think she ever set out to murder anyone, save for one man - and by the standards of the time and definitions of treason, he merited death. Elizabeth I certainly wouldn't have suffered his mischief for as long as Catherine did; she would have arrested and executed him. It was Catherine's misfortune that she could not, that she was forced to resort to the sneaky back-alley attempt that turned Paris into a slaughterhouse and branded her forever as a callous killer.

Obviously you weren't able to use all of the material you accumulated while researching Catherine. What were some interesting or unique facts you uncovered that didn't make it into the book?

She loved animals. I show this through her relationship with Muet, the long-lived little dog given to her by her daughter Elisabeth, but in reality Catherine kept a menagerie of creatures with her, from parrots to monkeys to dancing bears that followed her coach when she went on progress. Her household accounts show copious and significant sums paid out for the upkeep of her animals, as well as for the lions of Amboise, whose housing facility she did in fact have restored and modernized, after years of serious neglect under Francois I.

I also discovered that Catherine brought several items we use today to France for the first time, including artichokes and a first modern version of the side-saddle. She believed brewed tobacco could cure certain ailments and sometimes smoked it; and she's credited for introducing the use of female underpants to the French court. I have no idea what the fine ladies wore before she arrived; one assumes they went commando :)

How was the writing process for this novel different than that for The Last Queen, given that the latter book was independently published before getting picked up by Ballantine?

Like Last Queen, Confessions was written years before it was acquired. In fact, had my fabulous agent Jennifer Weltz not rescued me and sold the books at auction, I was going to independently publish Confessions next. The press even had a cover designed and layout started. And as with Last Queen, I had to do revisions under the guidance of my editor Susanna Porter to get the novel into shape for publication by Ballantine.

However, while I revised many of the scenes in Last Queen and added a few new ones, Confessions required a more extensive effort. My first draft started out being over 1,000 pages long, if you can imagine (those were the days when I was a naive aspiring author who thought word counts really didn't matter:) I then cut it back to 800 several years later, did another revision a year after that, which took it back up to 826 pages, and then cut it back to 500-something for delivery to Ballantine. Naturally, once she read it Susanna saw a lot that needed addressing, so I can fairly say this was my most challenging book to date, because of the amount of re-working involved.

When a book is completed, or at least the way I write, it's like a tapestry, with every thread contributing to the whole. Start snipping a thread here and re-weaving one there, and suddenly you have a tangled mess on your hands. By the time I was done with this book, I was exhausted and in a daze. I had no idea what I'd done because I felt as though I'd been working on it for years - which, in essence, I had. Susanna, my assistant editor Jillian Quint, and Jennifer contributed enormously to the book's shape and kept me afloat. Catherine's overly eventful life makes her a tough subject for any novelist; the sheer number of personalities and issues are daunting. I do hope I've done it, and her, justice. She certainly drove me with her characteristic tirelessness.

On a personal note, I want to thank you for inviting me here today, Sarah. You've been an important friend and mentor to me since I first began publishing, and a true champion of the genre.

Thanks very much, Christopher... I appreciate your taking the time to respond to questions for this interview!

C.W. Gortner's The Confessions of Catherine de Medici was published by Ballantine on May 25th at $25.00 ($29.95 in Canada). For more information, visit his website at as well as his historical fiction blog, Historical Boys.


  1. Great interview! Looking forward to picking up my copy this weekend.

  2. Great questions--and fascinating answers! Thanks!

  3. I can't wait to read this book. I've always been fascinated by Catherine de Medici ever since I read Jean Plaidy's trilogy back in high school.

  4. Fantastic interview! I really enjoyed it very much. This is novel I will definitely have to read (the Last Queen looks very interesting too), as I have read Leonie Frieda's biography a few years back and I loved it.

  5. Thanks, all!

    It's been years since I've read Jean Plaidy's take on Catherine de Medici though I seem to remember she showed her darker side in those books.

  6. Thanks to all for your comments and a very special thank you to Sarah for hosting me, and for everything she does for our genre. She is a tireless champion :)

  7. Great interview! And CW's answers want to follow up with further questioning for my own interview. :)

  8. Sorry for the garbled syntax of my last comment, folks, but you get the idea...

  9. What a great blog site.
    Kelly Bookend Diaries

  10. Great interview. And I must agree with Christoper's interpretation of Diane de Poitiers. Henri, having suffered the terrible neglect and emotional deprivation of his childhood imprisonment in Spain, was an easy target for a woman who aspired to ultimate power. Asking her to help "civilize" Henri upon his return from Spain (if that story is true) was one of François I's greatest mistakes.

    I've always taken Catherine's side in that tangled affair. And I love that CW has allowed Catherine to dabble in the occult without turning her into a full-blown witch.

  11. Thanks, Catherine, Kelly, and Julianne! I appreciated how we got to see the character of Diane in a new light, as I never felt that Catherine was fairly treated in other depictions of Henry and Diane's longstanding affair.

  12. Great interview- I think CW could probably have written a Catherine trilogy à la Plaidy with all the information he had at hand :)

    I was just recently investigating the development of the side-saddle- I hadn't realised till then the significance of Catherine's influence in its design. CW"s next subject, Isabella of Castille, was also noted as a rigorous and intrepid horsewoman.
    There's an interesting article here which also mentions Elizabeth I of England as being a horsewoman of such daring that her Councillors lived in terror of her breaking her neck. It seems that her dear companion and Master of Horse, Robert Dudley, was the only one able to keep up with her.

    And the underpants! I had the idea that women's underdrawers weren't introduced until the flimsy Regency fashions of the early 19th century made them advisable (unless you were the outrageous sort who wore nothing at all under her damped-down muslin) The things you learn :)

  13. Annis, what a great article! Actually very helpful for my current writing project; thank you!

  14. You're welcome, CW, glad to be of help :) Is this the Tudor project or the Spanish one?

    What struck me was the will and physical vigor of these women - they were no wusses, that's for sure!

    Talk of underpants reminded me of Thomas Rowlandson's rather naughty cartoon, The Exhibition Stare Case, which demonstrates the perils of life for women in times when underpants weren't worn.