By Wendy J. Dunn
Christopher ( C.W.) Gortner holds an MA in History and a MFA in Writing, with an emphasis on Renaissance History. A life-long historian, he has taught seminars on the 16th century at various institutions, including the New College of California. He resides in San Francisco, California. To learn more about him, visit Leonibus – Discover the Renaissance.
Wendy J. Dunn: The Secret Lion, your first published novel, is set during the reign of Edward VI and I know this novel is only the first of a series placed in Tudor times. Can you tell us how and when you first became interested in this period and why you write historical fiction?
C.W. Gortner: I first became interested in the Tudor period during my childhood in Spain. The southern coast of Spain, where I was raised, is steeped in history: I grew up a stone’s throw away from the ruins of the Catholic Monarchs’ summer palace. I was also exposed to British history through my love of reading, which is how I developed my initial fascination with the Tudor, and the 16th century in general. I went on to earn a Masters in History, with an emphasis on the Renaissance. While in college, I began writing historical fiction out of an insatiable curiosity to delve beyond the facts. For me, historical fiction helps re-create the past in a sensory way.
W.J.D.: Can you tell us about your novel?
C.W.G.: The Secret Lion is a novel of suspense, the first in a projected series called The Spymaster Chronicles. The lead character, Brendan Prescott, comes to Edward VI’s court in the summer of 1553, as a squire to Robert Dudley. A foundling reared in the Dudley household, Brendan has no idea who his parents were. Upon his arrival in London, he witnesses the unexpected entry of the Princess Elizabeth as she steals into the City determined to uncover the truth about her brother the King, whom she has been denied leave to visit. Rumors of Edward’s fatal illness run rampant; and when Lord Robert sends Brendan to the Princess with an illicit message, it plunges him and Elizabeth into danger. As Brendan races to save the Princess from a vengeful opponent intent on her destruction, he begins to unravel the secret of his own mysterious birth.
W.J.D.: Who is your favorite Tudor person and why?
C.W.G.: So many of the Tudors enthrall me. I want to say Elizabeth, because she is so ingrained in my consciousness. But, in my heart, my favorite Tudor person has to be her mother, Anne Boleyn. Anne captured my imagination from the moment I learned of her. My own research into her life has only exalted my admiration for her. I see much of her in her daughter. So, in essence, they are both my favorite persons, twin facets of a like-minded soul.
W.J.D.: If you were given a day to return to Tudor England, what day would you choose and why?
C.W.G.: The day of Elizabeth I’s coronation. After the horrors of Mary I’s reign, to have watched that slim red-haired survivor walk into Westminster and feel the energy and love that surely swelled through London – surely, that was a day no one who was there could ever forget.
W.J.D.: What is more important to you: historical accuracy or writing a good story?
C.W.G.: Both. Historical accuracy is crucial to depicting an era: good story is what keeps readers reading. Certainly, for historical fiction such as Lion , where fictional characters interact with historical ones, and a fictional plotline interweaves with actual events, story can take precedence. But never at the expense of completely dismissing known facts. If a writer must alter things to accommodate the story, it should be done carefully, within “reasonable doubt.” For Lion , I did take liberties, but I also took great care to depict the era as authentically as possible.
On the other hand, in my novel on Juana the Mad of Castile (to be published in 2005) there is no fictional plot. It is based on an actual life, and so I stick to facts while offering an interpretation of Juana. This is where historical fiction can be so amazing. The hearts of these historical persons are, for the most part, unknown to us. We interpret them within known facts, yes, but they also often become mirrors of our own selves.
W.J.D.: What elements do you consider important to your story telling?
C.W.G.: Passion: if you believe it, your reader will believe it. The axiom of so many writing books and programs are: Write what you know. I’d take it one step further and say: Write what you feel. After passion, an excellent grasp of the craft. Novel writing is an art. It must be mastered.
W.J.D.: What authors did you like to read as a child and teenager? Now?
C.W.G.: I’ve mentioned Jean Plaidy. I also read Zoe Oldenbourg, Lawrence Schoonover, Dumas, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Sabatini. Today, I enjoy Sharon Penman, Pauline Gedge, Reay Tannahill, and I’m discovering new authors like yourself. In nonfiction, Antonia Fraser remains, in my opinion, unsurpassed. I am also a devoted fan of Mary M. Luke, who wrote nonfiction books on the Tudor era in the late sixties and early seventies.
W.J.D.: Popular and literary fiction – what do you consider makes a novel, one instead of the other?
C.W.G.: I tend to not categorize; but if I had to, for me literary fiction is a classic, which has withstood the test of time. Popular is just that: books intended for a wide audience. I believe both can be called a “novel”. Again, a novel is just a label. I use it generically, to denote a work of fiction.
W.J.D.: When do you hope to see your next novel published?
C.W.G.: In the early spring of 2005. It’s called Queen of Shadows , about Juana of Castile. ______________________________________________________________
Wendy J. Dunn is the author of Dear Heart, How Like You This? Her book was awarded the ABPA 2003 Glyph for Best Adult Fiction and First Runner Up for Commercial fiction in the 2004 Writer’s Notes Book Awards. You can visit her online at www.wendyjdunn.com .