How did the idea for THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI originate?
Anyone with an interest in famous women of history will have heard of Catherine de Medici: she’s that evil queen who allegedly poisoned her enemies and orchestrated a massacre. Or so the legend says. Initially, I was attracted to her because of her legend. I figured, when someone has garnered such a reputation there has to be more to their story. I wanted to know who Catherine de Medici truly was, to search beyond the lurid accusations and hyperbole for the person she may have been. Of Italian birth, Catherine was the last scion of her legitimate Medici blood; she dominated France in the latter half of the 16th century, a contemporary of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Left a widow with small children and confronted by one of the most savage conflicts of the time, she fought to save France and her bloodline from destruction. As I researched her, I realized that, as with most dark legends, there was far more to her than popular history tells us. I thought how interesting it would be if Catherine herself could tell the story of her life. If she had the chance to explain herself, what would she say? All stories have two sides; and Catherine’s is no exception.
How long did it take you to write, and what special research was involved?
It took about two years to write THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI. The research itself began several years before that; I actually first began researching Catherine de Medici while still in college, as she was part of my Master’s thesis. For the novel itself, I took several trips to France, including one in which I visited the beautiful Loire Valley châteaux where Catherine resided and followed in her footsteps on the long progress she undertook to visit her eldest daughter on the border with Spain (though of course I did my trip by rail and car!) A friend of mine in Paris guided me on marvelous evening walks through the City, showing me specific sites associated with Catherine, including a lone tower that she evidently built as an observatory. I also read her letters, many accounts of her and her court, and the memoirs written by several of her contemporaries, including the fanciful memoirs of her daughter, Marguerite, known to history as Queen Margot.
Catherine’s surviving letters constitute one of those rare treasure troves for the novelist. Letters offer an invaluable glimpse into the person’s thoughts and personality and I found some of Catherine’s letters to be particularly poignant: her impeachable love for her children, her despair over the chaos wrought by war, her pragmatism and discomfort with overt fanaticism, as well as her compassion for animals—unusual for her time—all point to a woman who was very different from the archetypal Medici queen with her arsenal of poisons. Her letters helped me to envision the flesh-and-blood woman behind the legend and understand the challenges she faced both as a person and a queen.
What is one of the greatest misconceptions about Catherine de Medici?
Without doubt, it has to be the accusation that she nurtured a “passion for power.” Catherine was not raised to be a queen, true, and she did in fact rule as regent for her sons until they came of age; but it is unfair to accuse her of a ruthless drive to retain her power at any cost. Catherine faced a unique set of circumstances that would have challenged even the most skilled of rulers: she had under-age children to protect and a kingdom being torn apart, literally, by the nobility. The clashes between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation became especially intense in France; it was Catherine’s great misfortune to be caught up in them. Her alleged passion for power was in truth an attempt to retain control over the destiny of her adopted realm and safeguard the throne—both of which may have suffered far more, had she not been there. I find it quite sad that to this day, Catherine remains tainted by actions that in essence she did not take of her own volition. She made several serious errors in judgment, without a doubt, but she was motivated most often by the urgent need to salvage a crisis, rather than some coldblooded urge to eliminate those who stood in her way.
How do you strike a balance between depicting the reality of the times with modern day sensibilities? Do you think issues Catherine faced in her era still resonate today?
The balance is always a fine one to tread. It can even become tenuous, in particular when you are confronting issues of religion, race, sexuality, and gender. Many of the freedoms we take for granted today were unknown to people in the 16th century. Religious divisiveness in particular was a brutal part of daily life during Catherine’s time; Catholics and Protestants were willing to martyr themselves for their cause, destroying countless others in the process. This is something that many of us, much like Catherine, may find difficult to comprehend. Yet that type of extreme righteousness remains very much a part of our modern landscape, as evidenced by acts of terrorism and genocide in several parts of the world. While we are in many ways a more enlightened society, we still carry vestiges of the past with us, and leaders throughout the world grapple with some of the same issues that Catherine did, in terms of placating anger and restoring harmony among people whose lives have been affected by war.
That said, I always consider the needs of my reader to be engaged by my story. While historical accuracy remains a primary obligation—in that the writer should not deliberately alter or distort known facts or have characters behave in an overtly modernized way—I do sanitize certain aspects of the reality of life in the 16th century. We tend to romanticize the past; we forget the lack of adequate hygiene, running water, antibiotics, etc. While I strive to retain the flavor of the past in my work and avoid the tendency to convert a brutal, quixotic era into a “costume drama”, it is necessary to remember that we can only take so much of the less savory aspects of 16th century life in novelized form. In the final say, I write fiction. My principal function is to entertain.
What is one of the secrets that Catherine “confesses” in this novel?
For one, the truth about her relationship with the Protestant leader, Coligny. I find it intriguing that so few of Catherine’s biographers have looked more closely at this most enigmatic of friendships. Coligny was at court when Catherine first arrived from Italy as a teenage bride; he was the nephew of the Constable of France, a very important man, and therefore she and Coligny must have met long before they assumed their political roles. They were close to each other in age; they shared a history, as Coligny later served her husband, King Henri II; they probably witnessed to a certain extent each other’s trials and triumphs, before circumstances arose for them to join forces. Coligny and Catherine could not have been more different, both in upbringing and outlook, yet they shared for a time a united response to the conflict threatening France and a mutual desire to seek accord. In this novel, Catherine tells us what brought them together, and what led to that definitive, tragic moment between them.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
I seek to reveal secret histories, and in some small way restore humanity to people whose legends have overshadowed them. I also hope readers will come away from my work with the experience that they’ve been on an emotional journey. I want them to feel the way these people lived, their hardships and joys, and differences and similarities with us. Though a Renaissance queen faced issues we don’t, love, hatred, power, intolerance, passion, and the quest for personal liberty remain universal themes.
What is your latest project? Thank you, C. W.! And feel free to visit C. W. Gortner online for more information about his amazing new novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI.
I am currently working on a historical novel about Isabella of Castile, tracing her life from her uncertain youth to her triumphant accession as queen of Castile and the first twelve years of her controversial reign. I covered the latter years of Isabella’s life in my previous novel THE LAST QUEEN, which is about her daughter, Juana; while researching that book, I realized I had a solid grounding in the facts of Isabella’s life but had not truly considered who she was as a person. She’s been lauded as a saint by some and a fanatic by others; she set in motion the horrors of the Inquisition yet she also financed Columbus’s vision of a new world and united Spain after centuries of internal strife. Isabella is truly the first queen of the Renaissance; yet few people know the incredible true story of her tumultuous rise to the throne, her love affair with her husband, or of the events that led to the most climatic of years: 1492. Isabella was fallible, and, like so many controversial figures in history, misunderstood. I hope to bring to life her incredible vision and strength, as well as illuminate her intentions.