By Tonya Mitchell
Last year I befriended an author who was doing a local book signing in Cincinnati. Her name was Lynn Cullen. While she signed her book for me, I bemoaned the slow work of completing the first draft of my own novel.
Lynn took pity on me and took me under her wing. A few months later, she Skyped with my book club, our discussion centering around her then-newest book, the one she’d signed for me, The Creation of Eve [named among the best fiction books of 2010 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and an April 2010 Indie Next selection].
The book tells the story of Sofonisba Angissola, the first female artist to train under Michelangelo, and what happens when she’s sent to Spain to become painting instructor to the young wife of King Felipe II.
I was delighted when her newest book, Reign of Madness [Putnam] hit the shelves in August. It’s another historical page-turner, this time set during the Golden Age of Spain, and like Eve, beautifully and evocatively told.
The story surrounds Queen Juana of Castile, a woman known throughout history as “Juana the Mad” and explores the very plausible idea that Juana may not have been insane, but a victim of a smear campaign launched by her husband, Philippe the Handsome, so that he could take the throne.
Following is an interview with Lynn, Part I focusing on Reign of Madness, Part II on the craft of writing.
Tonya Mitchell: In Reign of Madness, you take a historical character, Queen Juana of Castile, a woman who’s been known throughout history as “Juana the Mad” and give us a quite different perspective of her character. What is it that drew you to Juana and her story? What elements of her story resonated with you and made you think that Juana may not have been mad, but a victim of rumor, power and court intrigue?
Lynn Cullen: To start with, I was intrigued by the legend of Juana La Loca. According to the legend, she fell so deeply in love with her husband that she went mad with jealousy when she couldn’t possess him entirely. She attacked his lovers and went on wild jealous rants. Only after he died, did she have him to herself. She then traveled around Spain at night, opening his casket to gaze upon his body–hers at last.
But that’s only half of the story. The other half is what made me write about her. I found out that her husband started calling her crazy only after he realized that he could become King of Spain that way. When they married, Juana was not expected to become queen so her husband, Philippe, had no reason to spread the rumor that she was crazy. But after several of Juana’s family members died, suddenly the crown was within her reach. Still, Philippe could only be full King if he proved her unfit to rule. So he set about making her look mad. What kills me is that people actually bought his campaign to ruin Juana when it was so obvious that he was doing it for his own gain. It surprises me that to this day there are those who believe that she was so in love with her husband that she could go insane with jealousy. In my mind, no man, not even one named Philippe the Handsome, is worth going mad over!
T.M.: You mention in the author’s note at the end of the book that many of the people of Tordesillas, the place of Juana’s imprisonment for nearly 50 years, do not believe to this day the tales of Juana’s madness. Are historians divided on the issue of her sanity?
L.C.: Some historians still seem to cling to the myth, although they modernize it by trying to diagnose her illness. Some have even claimed that she’s bi-polar. Bethany Aram, in her book about Juana de Castile, was the first historian I’ve read who wondered if Juana had a reason for allowing herself to be locked up and removed from power. Aram suggested that Juana wanted her son to have her throne. I ran with that idea. Here was her son Charles, born with a deformed jaw that made it difficult for him to eat or speak clearly. As a mother myself, I could believe that she wanted her son to rule so that no one would mock him for his deformities. Also Aram was the first to suggest that readers take the court reports of Juana’s madness with a grain of salt. The courtiers had every reason to report evidence of Juana’s illness–it made them look good to their bosses!
T.M.: Philippe is seemingly affable in the beginning of his marriage to Juana, but as Juana matures, Philippe remains more boy than man, given to excesses and petulance. You foreshadow this early on when Philippe’s grandmother, Margaret of York, says, Philippe is “a man whose appetite grew more voracious from eating.” Explain how this played into your plot.
L.C.: It was easy to imagine how someone like Philippe could grow cruel over time. His mother had once been the richest woman in the world. But she died when he was four and his father was rarely with him, and all he was left with were tales of the splendor of Burgundy, once a land of boundless wealth. By the time he inherited the title Duke of Burgundy, it was all show. There were very few lands left and no power. So here’s this young man who believes that he’s entitled to fame and glory, and the more he tastes it, the more he hungers for it. His desire for power was growing even as Juana was maturing into her role as mother. I saw their diverging aims as a source of unbearable tension…and we all know that tension is good for a book!
T.M.: And you show the tension so well. Poor Juana had few allies, less and less as the years passed.
L.C.: Her allies definitely abandoned her. The problem was that the Spanish court in which she grew up and Philippe’s Burgundian court were wildly different. Her Spanish courtiers fled the Burgundian Netherlands soon after arriving. They couldn’t stand how hedonistic and decadent the Burgundians were. Being Spanish was all about moderation–the Burgundians took the opposite approach in that they were very hardy partiers. They still have that reputation today in Europe. People of other countries sometimes kid Belgians (where the court of Burgundy reigned) about being “Burgundians.” I saw this myself in Amsterdam when our Dutch waiter teased my Belgian friend for ordering a huge steak and strong drink. He said, “Ah, Burgundy!” and my Belgian friend laughed, understanding the joke.
T.M.: Speaking of Amsterdam, you have the luxury of traveling to many of the places you write about to do your research. What’s it like to follow, many hundreds of year later, in the footsteps of the characters you’re writing about? Any cool stories to share?
L.C.: When I was a kid, I used to pretend I was a pioneer girl when I walked to school. I did that for way longer than I should admit. Now traveling to where my scenes are set, I get to pretend in my mind that I’m someone from long ago again. Spain and Belgium are perfect for this as there are so many little towns that are unchanged in parts since Juana’s time. My favorite moment though was in Tordesillas, Spain. I was in a tiny restaurant that is now where the palace was in which Juana was imprisoned. I was looking out at the Duero River, thinking Juana would have had the same view, when the waitress inexplicably brought me a branch of lilacs. I was stunned. Lilacs are my favorite flower. A bush grew in the yard of my childhood home, so the scent of them instantly brings back bittersweet memories. That this person whom I’d barely spoken to would give me lilacs at that moment brought tears to my eyes. And then I realized how my book would end, with Juana smelling a flower that brought back memories. The scent, the happy tines in her life, were fleeting, yet so sweet.
T.M.: In The Creation of Eve, you also tell the story of a 16th century woman of high birth who, upon marrying, becomes unhappy, yet is bound by duty. You have a knack for digging into history, finding a female character, and taking a different perspective of events than historians have. You explore what might have “really happened.” What do you look for to find these gems? What says to you, ‘Now here’s something to write about, here’s the real story.’ ”
L.C.: I usually have some theme that I’m trying to work out for myself. In Reign of Madness, one of the themes I was interested in exploring was why mothers and grown daughters have such a hard time understanding each other. I thought it would be interesting to see how Juana dealt with trying to see her mother, Isabel, the most powerful woman in the world, as a real person. I came to realize that daughters don’t want to see their mothers as less than perfect–it’s scary that this person you depend upon is actually scared herself of making mistakes! And mothers want to reach out and share what they’ve learned, especially when they see their daughters making the same mistakes they did, but their daughters don’t really want to hear it. Maybe my conclusions don’t apply to all mothers and daughters, but exploring Juana and Isabel’s relationship helped me to think about my relationship with my own three daughters.
T.M.: Juana’s mother, Queen Isabel, is a fascinating character. At times Juana is intimidated by her and even put-off by her mother’s strength and resolve. Yet Juana also seems to be grasping for her acceptance and seems to understand her mother better at the end of the book.
L.C.: I loved writing about Isabel. Such a no-nonsense gal. I shouldn’t admit this, but I cry every time I read the scene where Juana learns that Isabel has died. She’s just begun to understand her mother, and now she’s gone.
T.M.: Can you give us a hint what’s coming up next? What are you working on now?
L.C.: I’ve written a book about Rembrandt as an old man [I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, a young adult novel which was a 2007 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008]. Now I’m working on a story about the young, sexy Rembrandt and Judith Leyster, the first woman to have her own painting workshop in Europe.
T.M.: What’s a “typical” writing day like for you? How many hours do you work?
L.C.: Typical day? I spend at least 6 hours trying to write. About 3 of them are actually fruitful. The other three I’m just trying to get into the story. If I’m lucky, I write a page a day. Sad, isn’t it? I should add that I often work more than 8 hours a day. Still don’t produce more than a couple pages even on the best days.
T.M.: How complete is your research when you begin to write?
L.C.: If I’ve been to the place where my scenes are set, I will start writing just a few weeks after I’ve started reading about my subject. I don’t have the whole book in mind, just an ending. I keep reading as I write, and when the first draft is nearly done, will go on location to see if I’m getting things right. The research doesn’t end until the book is in print.
T.M.: Do you write with an outline or is it more nebulous than that?
L.C.: Much more nebulous! I write with Post-it Notes stuck to my desks, my books, my nightstand, etc.
T.M.: Do you ever have to overcome writer’s block? If so, how?
L.C.: I have writer’s block from time to time. It means that something is wrong with the story. I read other authors I adore, like Ian McEwan and Penelope Lively, just to hear my idea of a perfect storyteller’s voice, and go back to my research books. Then I go back to the last point where the story was working and try to start from there again.
T.M.: Your research was extensive for Reign of Madness. What is your process?
L.C.: I buy tons of books, not just about my characters, but about the history of the country, customs, wildlife, artists from the period, etc., and then buy tons of books that I’ve found in the bibliographies of those books. Travel to the scenes is really important. Before I go, I comb through travel books. I love the travel books that combine history with travel like those by Rick Steves and Lonely Planet.
T.M.: Writing fiction based on history must be a slippery slope. How do you decide when to take creative license? Is it a matter of filling in the gaps or re-working events to make the story more compelling?
L.C.: Filling in the gaps, for sure. It’s my game to write a story that fits within the known historical events. Everything that happens in my books could have happened.
T.M.: How have recent changes in the publishing world (Borders bankruptcy, the introduction of e-readers) affected you as a writer?
L.C.: As a writer, I keep on doing what I’ve always done. But I feel bad for the people who are losing their jobs at bookstores and for bookstore owners. The publishing industry is a mess. But I keep on writing. It’s my therapy.
T.M.: Let’s talk platform – Facebook, website stuff, blogging. What is your advice for new authors in building one?
L.C.: First, you had better absolutely love your subject because as a novelist you’re going to be spending several years of your life on each book. I don’t have any pearls of wisdom (about platforms) other than to do them. My agent told me, though, writers don’t necessarily have to have their own blog. It’s not time-effective.
T.M.: If you could give just one pearl of wisdom to an aspiring author, what would it be?
L.C.: Don’t ever stop listening and learning. Writing is not a craft that can be learned overnight, so one should be prepared to work and to be in it for the long haul. You have to love the work. But having those magic moments when everything comes together on the page are definitely worth the effort.
For more on Lynn Cullen and her books, see Lynn’s website.
Tonya Mitchell’s stories have appeared in The Front Porch Review, The Copperfield Review, and firstwriter magazine, as well as in the anthologies Welcome to Elsewhere, and Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems. She lives with her husband and three boys in Mason, Ohio, a quiet little suburb of Cincinnati, and is editor of Rough Draft, the newsletter for a motley group of writers who call themselves the Cincinnati Writers Project. From time to time, ideas for short stories come to mind and pester her, temporarily stalling progress on the first draft of her novel. She writes them anyway, to get the monkey off her back. “Writing is a form of salvation,” she says. “Sometimes it feels like an escape from the world, but at its best moments, it’s an act of rescue.” You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.