* 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!
* In your historical mystery series with Eric Mayer, beginning with the
novel ONE FOR SORROW and now up to SEVEN FOR A SECRET, John,
lord chamberlain to the emperor Justinian, finds himself investigating a
series of murders. What was it about 6th century Constantinople that
fascinated you enough to make it the setting of a suspense series?
Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Justinian I occupied an uneasy
position between the classical and medieval worlds. The classical world
was, in fact, dying or perhaps metamorphizing into the medieval world,
although the people who lived in the Eastern Roman Empire probably
wouldn't have realized that. They still thought of themselves as, and
referred to themselves as, Romans. Yet this Rome, while retaining the
name and much of the architecture -- the public forums, the baths, the
Hippodrome -- and laws, traditions, and literature of classical Rome, was
fundamentally different in that it was officially Christian rather than
pagan. Nevertheless, the eastern empire preserved much of what we
associate with the early Roman empire for 1,000 years. It seemed a
complex and fascinating setting, one which hasn't been used when
we began writing John's adventures, and one that people generally haven't
heard much about, even though there is a wealth of scholarly material
* Your latest novel SEVEN FOR A SECRET continues to follow John, the
lord chamberlain, as he attempts to solve crimes whilst staying out of
the way of the fearful Empress Theodora. How much is of Theodora's
character is based on fact and how much is fiction?
That probably depends on whether one considers Procopius' Secret History
to be fact or fiction. A great deal of what is known abut Theodora,
particularly with regard to her personality, comes from this notorious
account by her contemporary. Procopius had written the well-regarded
factual A History of the Wars covering the period, and also The
Buildings, a panegyric to Justinian's architectural accomplishments but
his scurrilous Secret History was, not suprisingly, never made public
during his lifetime. It is essentially an extended rant against the
emperor and empress which, among other things, depicts Justinian as a
demon and Theodora as quite thrilled at the prospect of marrying the
King of the Demons.
There remains a lot of debate about how much of the Secret History is
rooted in reality and how much sprang full blown out of Procopius'
apparent hatred of the imperial couple. For dramatic effect, we tend to
adopt Procopius' views.
There is no doubt, however, based on the indisputable historic record,
that Theodora took an unusually large role in governing and so we are
probably safe in depicting her as strong-willed and determined to have
her own way.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 6th century
A law against what we now call stalking appears in Justinian's laws,
one of which deals with infliction of injuries and states generally
speaking this means "anything which is done without any right".
Among examples listed are "constantly following a matron,
or a young boy or girl below the age of puberty..." (1913 translation by
J. B. Moyle at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext04/ijust10.txt )
* In which ways did Empress Theodora defy the conventions of her time?
For one thing former actresses were not supposed to be married to
emperors. In fact, there was a law against such marriages which Emperor
Justin changed, shortly before his death, to allow his nephew and
designated heir Justinian to marry Theodora.
The term actress in those days was more or less synonymous with
prostitute, so Theodora confounded all conventions by rising far above
her proper station. She was the daughter of a bear trainer and mistress
to a wealthy aristocrat before she arrived on Justinian's doorstep.
As if that all wasn't bad enough, she was to all practical purposes
Justinian'sco-ruler. There is some evidence that she involved herself in
machinations behind her husband's back, some even contrary to his
policies, although the pair might have contrived for her to seem to do
this for political reasons. And this in an era when the term power
couple hadn't been invented! Which is not to say it wasn't a love match
as well. Theodora died twenty years before Justinian and he never remarried.
Thank you Mary and Eric! And feel free to visit Mary Reed and Eric
*What are you working on next, and will the ever-resourceful John
continue to be your protagonist?
John will continue to be our protagonist, but in the next book he will
not be Lord Chamberlain since it is a prequel, taking place before he
rose to that position. The story is set during the Nika riots of 532
when angry mobs almost forced Justinian from the throne. It has been
recorded that Theodora convinced him not to flee, thus assuring that all
of Justinian's accomplishments would come to pass, from rebuilding the
Hagia Sophia, completing codification of the laws, and reconquering
Africa and Italy. But, of course, in order for that to happen there is
also the little matter of a murder John has to solve. Procopius somehow
neglected to mention that. Perhaps he had a gripe against John as well.
So we're going to tell that missing part of the story.
Mayer online for more information about their seventh novel Seven for a Secret!