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Interview: August 1, 2008

August 1, 2008

Historical fiction author C. W. Gortner follows up his acclaimed debut novel, THE SECRET LION, with the newly released THE LAST QUEEN, which chronicles the rise and fall of Juana of Castile, the last Spanish monarch to inherit her country's throne.

In this interview with's Colleen Quinn, Gortner explains why this legendary figure in Spanish history is hardly known on this side of the Atlantic and elaborates on some of the hardships she endured in her lifetime, including the betrayal of her husband and son, and being labeled as “mad” for not adhering to the accepted conventions of women during that period. He also provides insight into why many strong female political figures in history --- such as Cleopatra and Elizabeth I --- were often portrayed in a negative light and shares details on his upcoming novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, to be released in 2009. Your biography mentions your degree in writing with an emphasis on Renaissance studies. How did you decide to focus on the Renaissance in THE LAST QUEEN?

C. W. Gortner: I've always had a fascination with Juana la Loca. I was raised in southern Spain and am half-Spanish by birth; every school child in Spain learns about Juana. She is legendary there. But outside of Spain, I was surprised to discover she's little more than a footnote in history, though she was Catherine of Aragon's sister and the mother of the Emperor Charles V. Juana is a very significant figure in history, regardless: as the last queen of her medieval Spanish bloodline to inherit the throne, Spain passed into Hapsburg hands with her imprisonment. Eventually, her maternal bloodline died out entirely and the Bourbons (distant French relations) took over. Moreover, she was a sovereign queen, in that, like her mother, she had the right to rule alone, with a power superior to her husband, who was titled king-consort. She shaped Europe for generations to come through her children, and her own life was full of drama and passion --- she seemed to me a remarkable woman for her era and quite contemporary in her struggle to balance life and duty, love and betrayal. The implicit agreement among historians that she was unbalanced and could never have ruled seemed too pat. I figured there had to be more to her story than we’d been told. Also, I felt that Spain as a whole wasn’t as widely recognized in the historical fiction genre as, say, England or France, and Juana truly brings the drama of the Iberian Renaissance to life.

BRC: Queen Juana was known as Juana la Loca. Do you think the label of madness was just a way for others to control her? If so, why was it so successful?

CWG: I believe she was called “mad” because she defied the conventions of her time; she fought against the role expected of women to be a passive vessel and turn over her rights to her husband without demur. What is remarkable about Juana is that she and her sisters were not raised to be sovereign queens. Their mother, Queen Isabel, expected her son to inherit Spain, and so her daughters were educated to become queen-consorts. Juana accepted this role at first. It was only after she became Isabel’s heir that she began to question it. She had a great love for her country and wasn’t about to let the Hapsburgs --- one of Europe’s most rapacious families --- convert Spain into one of their vassal states. She fought for her right to rule; and I believe the epithet of madness was used to both thwart her and justify the actions taken against her. If she was mad, why did her mother implicitly entrust her with the future of Castile, a realm Isabel had devoted her life to? Juana was both passionate and outspoken; she was at times outrageous in her defiance, but we must take into account that she never had enough power on her own to do anything else. Her determination to retain the crown she had rightfully inherited posed a threat to those seeking to dispossess her. Being labeled for all time as the queen who went mad over love is perhaps the greatest injustice perpetrated on her.

BRC: The way we define mental illness is constantly changing. Juana’s main problem seems to be her temper. Do you think she would be considered insane if she were alive today?

CWG: Without a clinical diagnosis, it’s of course impossible to know for sure if she might have suffered from postpartum depression or maybe a tendency to melancholia, but I think she was by no means insane. Much of the alleged evidence of her insanity was in fact propaganda created by her husband to support his cause. Was she jealous? Yes. Did she question his authority over her? Absolutely. Did she love him to such distraction she was willing to sacrifice everything? She must not have, because if she had, then why did they go to such lengths to discredit her? Her obsessive sexuality and wild despair over Philip seem more to me like sensational misogynistic excuses to obscure her real motives. Like most rulers of the time, the Hapsburgs paid chroniclers to record history. It must have been convenient to write, “Oh, she was so in love she went nuts” than tell the truth, which would have been unpleasant for the Hapsburgs, to say the least.

BRC: Juana is constantly at the mercy of other people’s agendas --- first her parents, then her husband. How much power did she actually have?

CWG: Not much, unfortunately. Spanish monarchs required investment by the Cortes, a Parliamentary body composed of nobles and elected representatives who had to approve and sanction a coronation or change in the succession. The Cortes at the time of Isabel’s death were in chaos; most of the nobles of Castile saw an opportunity to throw off the legal restrictions Isabel and Ferdinand had imposed and seize back their feudal rights, so they accepted Hapsburg bribes to rally against Juana. It’s easy in retrospect to say she should have called in troops, but she lacked both the money and legal recognition as queen to do so. Moreover, she lacked the crucial support she should have had from her own nobility, who preferred to see Spain plundered by the Hapsburgs than submit themselves to another sovereign queen.

BRC: Juana’s mother was the formidable Queen Isabel, who succeeded in uniting Aragon and Castile and held onto power all her life, whereas Juana could not even manage to get coronated. Why did Juana have such a different experience?

CWG: Isabel united Aragon with Castile through her marriage to Fernando, who was heir of Aragon. The marriage was deliberately dynastic on both their parts: a move to solidify Isabel’s claim in return for her promise to support Aragon’s independence. Fernando helped Isabel win Castile with his own troops; without his support, she might have failed, for she had tremendous forces aligned against her. She also had support from within the nobility, who were always eager to throw off a weak king and thought Isabel would make an equally weak queen. Juana, on the other hand, did not have her husband’s support; on the contrary, he worked against her together with the nobility. This is why she had such a different experience. If Philip had supported his wife as Fernando did his, Juana’s life would have been quite different.

BRC: Philip the Fair turned out to be anything but. A philanderer, a schemer and a liar, wasn’t he as much a product of his time as Juana? Would his father, the Holy Roman Emperor, or his subjects have respected him if he hadn’t claimed his wife’s kingdom?

CWG: He was a product of his upbringing, certainly. As we see in the novel, his father wasn’t exactly warm. Philip was raised by his governors; he lacked parental affection and any sense that he was important other than as a prince. I can’t excuse his behavior on that point, nor can I say his father the Emperor would have disrespected him if he hadn’t done what he did to try and claim Juana’s realm. The truth is, the Emperor said very little about his son’s actions at the time, which may signify approval or mere indifference. The sad fact is that if Philip had united with Juana, she would have willingly given him what he desired. She loved him; she wanted to share Castile with him. In my opinion, her tragedy was that she was the more mature of the two.

BRC: Of all the heartbreaks and betrayals Juana endured, the cruelest came from her son, Charles. He owed his throne to her sacrifices, yet he would not free her. Why did Charles abandon his mother?

CWG: Put simply, because he too was raised as a Hapsburg, and to free her would have been to admit that his father had acted in the wrong; that the Hapsburgs had conspired to imprison Spain’s rightful queen. Upon his grandfather the Emperor’s death, Charles inherited the Hapsburg Empire and became one of 16th-century Europe’s most powerful rulers. He owed much of his wealth to Spain’s conquests in the Americas, as well as Spain’s vast interior wealth, from which he could draw on rents on lands and men for his armies. He wasn’t about to surrender all this merely to right a wrong done to a mother he didn’t remember well, as he’d been left behind in his aunt’s care while still a boy when his parents went to Spain. I also wonder if he wasn’t subtly poisoned against her by the rumors that she was mad, if in time and with enough repetition he came to believe them.

BRC: “History may not forgive, but I must,” Queen Juana writes on the first page. Do you think she ever really forgave her family?

CWG: She certainly had a big heart. Maybe she did find peace with the betrayal, in the end. I’d like to think she did, because the alternative is unthinkable.

BRC: THE LAST QUEEN features an incredible amount of historical detail. Where were you able to find all this info?

CWG: I spent six years researching and writing, including various drafts before the novel reached its present form. My research methods are varied: I make it a point of traveling to as many of the places I write about as I can. I also look at primary sources, such as chronicles, letters, ambassadorial accounts, etc. of the era itself. These are usually found in libraries or archives like those in Simancas. Unfortunately, much, if not all, of this material reflects the writer’s viewpoint, and in Juana’s case, very few spoke for her. Of all the official documentation of the time, only the Admiral of Castile’s speech before the Cortes in Valladolid (recorded in their annals) was in her defense. So, with primary sources, I was careful to examine what was being said by whom, and whether or not that person had a bias. I also read a vast list of secondary sources, such as biographies, historical studies, etc. I even looked at 16th-century architectural planning, as the house where Juana lodged in Burgos has been converted into a bank and I had to recreate the interior from plans of similar period structures. Lastly, I studied costuming and customs, so I could recreate the details of the time. I even tried on a 16th-century Spanish gown, loaned to me by a Renaissance faire re-enactor, so I could feel the weight of it and know what Juana faced when trying to, for example, escape on horseback! And no, I didn’t take pictures!

BRC: Where did you visit during the course of your research? Are there any landmarks from Queen Juana’s time still around for readers to visit?

CWG: I visited all the places mentioned in the book. The Alhambra in Granada is in pristine condition, though the adjacent palace later built by Charles V didn’t exist in Juana’s youth, nor was the cathedral in its present shape. Juana and Philip, and Isabel and Fernando, are entombed in the cathedral. The cities of Valladolid and Burgos are full of 16th-century streets, homes and churches that Juana would have seen; the house where she stayed in Burgos, called the Casa del Cordon, is now a bank, as I mentioned, but the exterior retains its façade with the knotted cords. The Cathedral where Juana first defied Philip on Spanish soil is still much as it was in her day, as is the monastery of Miraflores outside the city. Toledo remains one of the jewels of Castile, and well worth a visit (it’s near Madrid), and Segovia boasts one of Europe’s most photographed castles. In modern-day Belgium, Bruges and Lierre there are countless glimpses into the Hapsburg past, and of course Windsor Castle is one of England’s prime destinations.

BRC: Outside of Spain, Queen Juana’s story is not commonly known. Why hasn’t her story resonated?

CWG: I really think it’s because no one has thought to see it from another viewpoint than the official one. The last English-language novel on her was published in the 1950s, and it cleaves to the mad queen legend. We know about Juana’s sister, Catherine of Aragon, because she married Henry VIII, and we know her mother, Queen Isabel, because she financed Columbus. But Juana as an individual has largely been forgotten. This, of course, is what her opponents wanted: for everyone to forget her; and for the most part, they succeeded. No one questioned the legend of the mad queen, and so she faded into the past, a quintessential Spanish tragedy. I was certainly very surprised to discover her humanity and her complexity, and I think readers will be, as well.

BRC: Do you think there is an industry bias toward characters of either gender?

CWG: To a certain extent, yes, in that women comprise the majority of the book-buying public and publishers believe, with cause, that women want to read about female characters. I also think that women in history haven’t benefited from the same interpretive flexibility as men. Just look at older versions of Elizabeth I on film and you’ll see that, until recently, it was felt the queen had to be shown as brusque and border-line hysterical, a woman deprived of sexual gratification who felt she had to act as a man. Or Cleopatra, who until recently was depicted as a slinky vamp who wielded sex as a weapon to ensnare unsuspecting men. Elizabeth was actually quite feminine and flirtatious, and Cleopatra a canny politician, but we assign artificial stereotypes to them and others because society, particularly in the past, created specific roles for women and didn’t allow for individuality. I think some of today’s writers of historical fiction are trying to amend and reinvent the ways women are depicted.

BRC: According to your blog, you are working on a novel about Catherine de Medici. What draws you to strong historical women?

CWG: I was raised in a household of strong women, so while growing up I was surrounded by women who refused to conform, and I think that has informed my writing. I’m also drawn to dark horses in history, the ones who suffer from a questionable reputation. Catherine de Medici has been accused of heinous acts; yet if you start to delve beyond the Dumas stereotype of her, you’ll find that much of what has been written until recently is unfounded. She wasn’t the evil queen of legend. Like Juana, she defied convention and sought her own path. She made some terrible mistakes, but it’s her flaws that interest me. I have a fascination with certain kings, too, who challenged conventional beliefs. For me, the secrets hidden within history yield the best stories.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?

CWG: I’m currently finishing up my editor’s requested revisions to my Catherine de Medici novel and outlining a new novel set in Italy during the time of the Borgias. Ballantine Books will publish my next book, tentatively titled THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, in 2009.

Thank you so much for taking this time with me. I hope readers will enjoy reading THE LAST QUEEN as much as I enjoyed writing it. To learn more about my work or to correspond with me, please visit my website at: