* In your historical novel THE LAST QUEEN, you write about the
daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella who becomes known as Juana La
Loca . What was it about Juana that compelled you to write her story?
I’ve been fascinated by Juana since childhood. I was raised in Spain, and
her story is woven into the very landscape. Every schoolchild learns about Juana;
we even sing a rather disrespectful rhyme about her. But I had occasion to
play in the ruins of the summer castle her parents once owned, and I used
to think that she must have once stood where I was, looked out at the same
view, touched the same stones. When I first visited the Cathedral in Granada
where she’s buried, I was shocked to see her stone image on her tomb. She
looked so alone. I couldn’t reconcile my vision of a young, vibrant princess with
that effigy of a tired and tormented queen. I wondered what would it be like to
hear her side of the story, which has always frankly maligned her? I wrote my
first short story about her in childhood; years later, when I embarked on my
thesis for my MFA, the nonfiction paper I’d drafted on her and other queens of
her era transformed into the first seeds of the novel.
* How much of THE LAST QUEEN is based on fact and how
much is fiction?
Most of THE LAST QUEEN is based on fact; the fictional part is
how I chose to interpret those facts. It’s like the grout between the bricks:
what holds the facts together is, for me, the essence of historical fiction. I’m a
devoted researcher; I spent nearly six years researching Juana, yet what most
struck me as I compiled piles of documents and books was how singularly
dedicated history seemed to be to promulgating her alleged insanity. It was
almost like a conspiracy. I therefore became a sleuth. Facts are facts; they can’t
be altered, but we all know that life is incredibly complex and often there’s more
than one side to a story.Juana herself has left almost nothing in her own hand.
We know very little about her actual thoughts and emotions; everything she
said and did was channeled via historical accounts by others, mostly men,
whose prejudices reflect their era and the story they were paid to tell (yes,
most historians were hired and paid by the current ruler). I had to take all this
into account. Thus while I strived to stay true to established facts, my novel is
a fictional interpretation of Juana in that she herself gets to tell her side of the
story. Still, for readers who might wonder, the wilder episodes of her life, including
her giving birth to Charles V in a privy closet, her rebellion at La Mota and
attack on Philip’s mistress, her frantic attempt to escape on horseback while
pregnant and opening of the coffin, are corroborated by several contemporary
* Tell us something surprising about women in 15th century Spain.
They had more freedoms than we might suppose. Juana’s mother, Queen
Isabella I, was a feminist to a certain extent. She patronized women teachers
(the first in Europe) at the University of Salamanca and she had more ruling
power as queen than her husband Ferdinand did as king. Because of Spain’s
historical complexity and its divisions under various kingdoms before Isabella
and Ferdinand’s rule, women held complex feudal rights over property and inheritance
that were unknown elsewhere. Husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers could be away
for years fighting the Moors and others; they often died doing so. The medieval Spanish
woman thus became a legal guardian of her estates. It’s interesting to note that during
Isabella’s reign, for example, France prohibited female succession and in England only
one woman had ever held the throne (Maude) and her accession caused a devastating
civil war with her cousin, Stephan. Spain crowned the first female monarch of the 16th century,
and she united a historically fractured and extremely divisive country under one rule.
Her methods have been widely criticized by historians who judge her by today’s standards,
and indeed she did some terrible things, as did many of her male counterparts. Still, she
ruled and she ruled well against many odds – an extraordinary accomplishment not seen
again until Elizabeth I.
* Although Juana was the Queen of Spain with Philip as her consort, her husband retained more power than she did. Why was this?
Actually, it was the opposite. Juana retained more power; in fact, she had all the power and
this was what fueled her battle with Philip. As sovereign queen of Castile, who also stood to
inherit Aragón upon her father Ferdinand’s demise, Juana stepped into her mother’s shoes.
Philip, like Ferdinand before him, held his title as king-consort of Castile only through her.
He could never have been declared king of Spain without Juana as his wife; and he would
never have inherited her crown if she died before him—but, according to Isabella’s codicil
of succession, Juana and Philip’s sons could inherit, as in fact the eldest one, Charles, did,
becoming the Emperor Charles V. What Philip did wield was that he was the Hapsburg
Emperor’s son and heir; he therefore could draw on the Hapsburg resources and alliances,
such as with France, which had the potential to wreak havoc in Spain. The Imperial money
and clout, coupled with France’s ancient enmity toward Spain and his own attack on her
mental ability to rule, were powerful forces he aligned against Juana. It is testament to her
considerable mettle that she didn’t back down, but rather fought him in return with
everything she had.
* Are you working on another historical fiction novel, and if so, who will be
I’ve completed a novel on Catherine de Medici that will be published by Ballantine Books.
She’s another powerful woman in history who’s been unjustly maligned and she proved a
daunting subject, not only in terms of the length and intricacy of her life, but also in understanding someone who’s been accused of some of the 16th century’s most heinous crimes, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew. Her black legend has so obscured her, I had to dig deep to uncover the person she might have been. I discovered she had an astonishing gift for compromise and a sincere desire for peace, even as she labored under constraints that would have felled a lesser queen. She had an amazingly tumultuous life; her relationships with her six surviving children, with the rapacious Guise family and the Huguenot leader, Admiral Coligny; the bizarre trio she unwillingly made with her husband Henri and his mistress Diane de Poitiers— these are fascinating, complex events for an historical fiction writer to explore. Though I’ve had to do a lot of work on this novel, she’s been worth every moment, and I hope I’ve done her some justice.
Thank you, Christopher! And feel free to visit C.W. Gortner online for more information
about his fantastic debut novel The Last Queen!