Today, I’m delighted to have Christopher Gortner — C.W. — to bring his perspective on writing historical fiction. I’ve just finished MARLENE, his novel based on the life of Marlene Dietrich – what a fascinating woman! I was particularly drawn to her experiences during WWII. Without further ado, here’s Christopher.
How did you get started writing historical fiction?
Since childhood, I’ve always loved history. I was drawn to the past, so turning to historical fiction felt like a natural progression of this fascination. I wanted to uncover the emotions behind the facts, the flesh-and-blood people who lived the events. History can teach us so many things about who we were and where we may be headed; but the inner lives of those who came before us aren’t easy to decipher, particularly if they’ve left scarce evidence of their personal thoughts. Historical fiction, when well researched, can help bridge the divide between what facts tell us and what the people who lived through those facts may have felt. Writing historical fiction gives me the means to meld my obsession with history and my desire to interpret it through the eyes of the personalities who shaped it.
How would you describe the historical fiction you write? Has this changed over time?
I began my career as an historical novelist writing first-person accounts of famous women of the Renaissance, an era that’s always held immense attraction for me. Recently, I’ve branched out to depict women of the 19thand 20thcenturies; I could say it was market-driven, as interest in Tudor-era stories waned, but in truth, it was more that my own promiscuity expanded. My first novel not set in the 16thcentury was MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, about fashion designer Coco Chanel. I wrote it entirely on spec (without an initial publishing contract) because one of my other passions in life is fashion; I used to work in the field eons ago, and it occurred to me, out of the blue, that Chanel’s tumultuous life would be ideal for a novel. However, because I’d established myself with novels about Renaissance queens, I decided to write Chanel under the table, so to speak, because I wasn’t sure I could do it. Once my agent sold the book, however, it proved very successful, so I felt at liberty to pursue other eras. As a writer, I relish the freedom of exploring disparate time periods. It keeps the oft-arduous process of writing a novel exciting; there’s always something new to discover, if you’re moving around and not staying in one place.
What themes appeal to you? What themes resonate with readers?
I’m fascinated by how history shapes us. Obviously, I gravitate to famous women in particular because women of the past have largely been relegated to clichés, though they were instrumental in shaping their worlds. Whether I’m exploring Isabella of Castile’s Reconquest or Marlene Dietrich’s career in Hollywood, their lives illuminate aspects we can all relate to, such as love of country or the quest for fulfillment. The obstacles they faced might not be the same as ours— few of us must unite a fractured realm or get caught up in a world war started by our fascist nation— but their humanity is universal. My characters contend with tragedy and triumph, twists of fate that willingly and unwillingly mold them into the person they become. I think these themes are what most of us look for in historical fiction, to delve beyond the façade into the inner life and discover something we can see in ourselves. My characters are never infallible; they overcome tremendous challenges and make catastrophic mistakes. This is what captures my interest: the duality between strength and weakness.
What have you learned over the years?
As a writer, I’ve learned that writing is something you never truly master. Every book brings unique challenges and every character will test your skills, if you’re not resting on your laurels. Writing historical fiction demands that you constantly remain open to learning something new and constantly question what purports to be fact, because there are always two sides to history. It can be frustrating at times when sources fail to agree, or if you fail to agree with sources, but that’s also part of the fun: you’re taking on a subject where prior opinions are cemented. Your job is to develop your own opinion, by sifting through reams of research to discover your character. As a published novelist, I’ve learned that no matter how hard we try, we can never satisfy everyone. Each reader will come to our work with their own preconceptions, their desire on how they wish see a character, especially if that character is well-known. All we can do is stay true to our vision and accept that there will be some, or many, who’ll disagree with our interpretation. I strive to maintain humility in this regard: just because I believe Isabella of Castile’s label as a fanatic fails to take into account the prevailing beliefs of her era or that Lucrezia Borgia’s reputation as a man-eating poisoner is unwarranted doesn’t mean I’m right.
What do you consider the purpose/value of historical fiction?
I write novels; my ultimate goal is to entertain. I hold a degree in Renaissance History, but that’s beside the point: in the end, my books are fiction, not biographies. That said, I hope my novels encourage readers to see my characters in a different light, to find empathy with what these women went through in their lives. I don’t care if you dislike her, but I want you to understand her, even if you don’t agree with her behavior. Empathy is a gift that few of us exercise; our first impulse is to rush to judgment based on personal experience. But if we can move past it and understand that most of us think we’re doing right at the time, even when we’re not, then we can find empathy. We may not agree with Catherine de Medici’s role in a massacre or Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna’s dislike of her daughter-in-law or Chanel sleeping with a Nazi, and that’s okay. I often don’t agree with my characters either. But I always set personal judgment aside when I slip into my character’s skin; the moment I start judging her, the novel becomes about my feelings toward her, rather than her feelings toward herself. I practice empathy when I write because I seek to understand why. If I can uncover her motivations, that’s the key to unlocking her heart. In final say, for me the value of historical fiction is developing empathy between how these women are viewed today and how they may have seen themselves.
How do you choose the stories you tell?
I often feel the stories I tell choose me, which sounds airy-fairy, even if I’m the least airy-fairy person on the planet. Chanel burst upon me out of nowhere one night as I was debating what to write next; I started hearing her in my head and sat down at the computer. The first chapter poured out of me; it was instinctual. And during the entire process of writing MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, she never deserted me. She drove me crazy sometimes because I’d be at my computer for hours on end, exhausted and famished, and she kept right on rattling in my ear so that I feared leaving the keyboard lest she turned her back. With other characters I’ve wanted to write but had to abandon, she refused to collaborate. Again, this sounds airy-fairy because it’s so hard to describe. I must feel as if the character invites me in. I’m a dude writing in the voice of these women, so I have to feel her permission to tell her story. I must hear her voice. To cite an example: THE ROMANOV EMPRESS was originally designed to be about Tsarina Alexandra. I spent well over a year researching and thought I’d found that empathic thread needed to portray her, but then I struggled for months to craft her voice. She didn’t care to participate—I now smile as I recall this, because given her personality, it shouldn’t have surprised me. However, whenever her mother-in-law the Dowager Empress strolled into the room, my writing leapt to life. Eventually, I switched my approach, though it required massive upheaval because I had to go back to square one to depict Maria Feodorovna. But hers was the story I was meant to tell. More generally, I think I choose characters who are difficult to pin down because I relish upending legends. None of my characters are macaroons, crusty on the outside and sweet on the inside; they’re deceptive, intriguing, complex, seductive, treacherous, and ornery. I prefer women with rough edges.
What would you do differently if you could start again? What advice do you have for new authors?
I combined these two questions because both speak to the same issue for me. I’d lower my expectations when it comes to publishing. I had a full-time job I enjoyed and never thought of making my living as a writer until my father read one of my manuscripts and suggested I find an agent. He told me, I had talent. Well. That set me off on a 13-year crusade to get a publishing deal, through six agents, over 300 rejections, and no end of cul-de-sac byways and heaps of despair. The more I heard no, the more I resolved to obtain that elusive yes, until I finally got it: a huge yes, with an auction sale to a major publisher. However, during this journey, I forgot the writing itself is what fills me with joy, that I’ve always written for pleasure. Publishing can alter that. You become embroiled in market trends, sales, reviews, your marketing, or lack thereof, your ambition to be a New York Times bestseller (or at least, I did). If things don’t turn out as hoped—and in publishing, they rarely do—you can end up dejected. Publishing is paved in disappointment. You must retain a safe space that nothing can touch in order to write, but I neglected to do that, thinking I’d finally reached author Valhalla. I had a rough time motivating myself to stay the course once I realized some of my books won’t sell as well as others, some reviews will be nasty, etc. Today, writers command less clout and books are subjected to our internet free-for-all of public opinion. Historical fiction especially seems to attract rabid clans of self-anointed experts eager to criticize everything. It can be distracting to our creativity and damaging to our confidence. Lowering our expectations by understanding that while writing is an art, publishing is a business, and not predictable at that, will help mitigate the inevitable rollercoaster of being an author. Oh, and set aside at least 15% of your advance for marketing because you’re going to need it.
What are you working on now?
My new novel THE FIRST ACTRESS, about French theater star and our first international celebrity, Sarah Bernhardt, is coming out on May 26. Sarah is one of my ladies with rough edges and inhabiting her was a tremendously gratifying experience. She lived a very extravagant life. I also recently sold a proposal about Jennie Jerome, Lady Randolph, the American mother of Winston Churchill. At the moment, I’m neck-deep in research and writing the first draft, which is always tough for me. Once I have this disaster of a first draft finished, I’ll slip into my editorial couture and refine it into the novel I envision. I’m in my safe space, so it’s all good.
Do you have an interesting story to share about your writing?
I’m published in 28 languages and keep an open-door policy, so you can imagine the influx of stuff I get. Everything from requests to date me (really?) to long-winded suggestions of subjects I should write about, never mind that no publisher is interested in a novel about an unknown queen in Mesopotamia (they should be, but they aren’t). I try to answer every e-mail I receive, except the dating requests. One day, an e-mail came in from a lady who lived 45 minutes away by car; she’d read my book and claimed she had known Chanel personally. Trust me, I get so many of these—once, someone wrote to tell me a psychic had informed her she was the reincarnation of Lucrezia Borgia—I ignored the e-mail until the lady contacted my agent. Turned out, she’s the daughter of Marion Pike, a portrait artist who met Chanel in the 1960s, painted her several times, and became a lifelong friend. We arranged to meet for lunch and she had all these amazing stories I’d never heard about Chanel, making me quake in fear that I’d gotten it all wrong. But when I finally dared to ask, she said, “I can’t believe you never met her. There were so many moments reading your book when I could actually hear her. How did you do it?” It goes to show, you never know whom your books might reach.
Many thanks, Christopher. Wonderful insights – love your perspective on inhabiting your characters as well as your thoughts on the challenging world of publishing.
I’ve read quite a few of Christopher’s novels: The Last Queen, The Queen’s Vow, Mademoiselle Chanel, The Romanov Empress, and now, Marlene. Highly recommended. C.W. Gortner was also on the blog in 2012 (!!) after being chosen by readers as a top historical fiction author in that year’s survey (and in subsequent years, I might add.)
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.