Sunday, September 7, 2008

Interview with C.W. Gortner

It is good to read a novel about which one can be enthusiastic, and The Last Queen is such a novel. Author Christopher W. Gortner kindly agreed to be interviewed about the mysterious Queen Juana, called "the Mad."

EMV: Christopher, while reading the first few chapters of The Last Queen it became obvious to me that you had lived in Spain. There is a richness in the atmosphere that can only come from having visited the place being described. In writing a historical novel about an actual person, do you think that spending time in the country where that person lived can give a deeper insight into their character?

CWG: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I was raised in Spain and am half Spanish by birth, but I returned to the US in my early teens and so when I began writing The Last Queen, I realized I had to take trips to Spain and other places where Juana had lived in order to experience them as an adult. Of course, I’ve been to Spain many times and having lived there gives me a sensory perception that a limited trip cannot accomplish, but still, spending some time in the places where characters lived does help immensely to gain insight. We are all driven to some extent by our culture, and in the 16th century this trait would have been even more marked. It was not a globalized world; a French queen of the Renaissance would have a different cultural outlook than a Spanish one, and a historical novelist writing about them must understand this difference in order to create accurate psychological portraits.

EMV: I thought that you masterfully captured Juana's fiery and passionate Spanish temperament. Do you think that being a full-blooded Spaniard at the Flemish court added to the misunderstanding of Juana and her increasing sense of alienation?

CWG: Yes, of course. Juana was quintessentially Iberian and sent to a court that espoused French ideals. I think her passionate temperament and unsophisticated outspokenness was mistaken for weakness, which probably made her feel quite alienated. For example, the licentiousness at the Flemish court was not something she would have experienced in Spain. While by all accounts she and Philip enjoyed a robust sexual life in the first years of their marriage, Juana was apparently quite traditional in her outlook on adultery, while in Flanders for a husband to take a mistress was considered quite permissible. Juana's insistence on fidelity was interpreted as jealousy, when in truth I think she was simply not accepting of her husband's philandering. There is a difference between jealousy and pride; but the Flemish court would not have seen her actions that way. Likewise, Juana was politically naïve. She was just sixteen when she went to Flanders and she’d been sheltered in many ways from the harsh realities of court life. At a very young age, she found herself plunged into a cauldron of machinations that she was not equipped to handle at first. I don't think she had the ruthlessness necessary to participate in court intrigues of the time, and this too must have made her feel quite isolated.

EMV: Would you say that Philip ever truly loved Juana, even in the beginning, as much as he was capable of love, that is?

CWG: Yes, I think at first he did love her, as much as he was able. He was crippled emotionally by his upbringing. His education as a prince instilled him an unwavering belief that he must always be in the right, even if deep down there were times when he knew he was not. In some ways, the psychology of princes of this time is more difficult to excuse, because their primary goal was the attainment and preservation of power. Philip was not extraordinary; he merely acted as many princes were expected to act. Love, as we understand it, wasn’t an emotion he knew. I’m not sure he even knew what it was to give unselfishly.

EMV: I have the impression from The Last Queen and other things I have read about Juana that she may have had bi-polar disorder/ manic-depression although it was never been proven conclusively. I am wondering, in spite of having a possible predisposition to such a disorder, if Juana would have been fine if she had had a stable situation and a loving and supportive husband?

CWG: I believe that even if she did have a disorder, a loving environment would have done wonders for her. Despite her occasional erratic patterns, she showed in many instances lucidity and commitment. She was not terminally insane; she could have ruled with a supportive council at her side, even if her husband was not. We must also not discount the effects of prolonged stress and repeated childbearing on her psyche; Juana may have suffered from some form of post-partum depression, which no one at the time would have understood. I think the most telling answer to this question is that when the Comuneros revolted against her son Charles V and made it to Tordesillas, releasing her for a brief time after years of captivity, she demonstrated bewilderment at the changes that had happened in the world but it was the normal perplexity of a woman who’d been left completely unawares. None of the men who met her mentioned that she acted insane. On the contrary, she welcomed them with regality and asked penetrating questions about affairs in Spain; she refused to sign a proclamation against her son because she wanted to first see him personally but not once did she show a lack of reason, though in trusting her son she did make a grave error.

EMV: I am very struck by your portrayal of Juana the mother. So often she is shown as being obsessed with her husband but in reading The Last Queen I gather that Juana's role as a mother, to the Spanish people as well as to her own children, was of highest importance to her and dictated some of her more dramatic actions. Would you agree?

CWG: I do think her love for Spain and for her children, as well as her desire to preserve her dynasty—a quintessential 16th century trait—were paramount to her, even more than her allegedly obsessive love for Philip. It was a trait her mother Queen Isabel would have instilled in her. Isabel raised her children together; she took them with her on crusade. In this, they were very different from other princes in Europe, who often lived in separate households. Juana would have sought to emulate her mother’s actions in this, as well as Isabel’s role as mother to her people. After all, she was Isabel’s heir and Isabel had given herself entirely to her family and to Spain. I do not think, as so many historians have claimed, that Juana and Isabel were antithetical. I think they had more in common than we assume.

EMV: Your re-telling of Juana's story is one which will haunt me for a long time. Do you think that there was anything that she could have done to extricate herself from her disastrous situation?

CWG: Only if she had changed her personality and that was as impossible for her as it was for her sister Catherine of Aragon. These were princesses raised by an indomitable mother, women who in many ways were ahead of their time; their strength and conviction proved unshakeable, even in the face of terrible injustice. Just as Juana refused to give in to Philip’s demands that she sign over her kingdom to him, Catherine refused to concede to Henry VIII that their marriage was invalid. Henry ended up tearing England apart in order to get around Catherine, who would have fared much better if she’d let him have his way. Juana in turn was imprisoned for the rest of her life because she insisted, and rightly so, that she was Spain’s sovereign, when she could have stepped aside and let the Hapsburgs usurp her throne. Both sisters paid a high price for cleaving to their truths; but they couldn’t do anything else. Their lasting appeal rests precisely in that they stood their ground and refused to concede.

Thanks to Christopher for adding to our understanding and appreciation of his magnificent heroine, Juana la Loca. Renaissance scholar Julianne Douglas also has some interesting posts on The Last Queen, here and here.



Anonymous said...

Great interview, EMV! Your questions are so insightful and I enjoy reading Christopher's answers. I look forward to reading this book.

God bless!

C.W. Gortner said...

Thank you so much, Elena, for interviewing me and for your erudite and insightful review. I'll be stopping during the month of September to answer reader comments and questions.

Un abrazo, C.W. Gortner

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for stopping by, C.W. The research that went into the book was really amazing.

Kirt Higdon said...

Thanks for the review and interview. I have begun reading this book and it has caught my interest right away.

Julianne Douglas said...

Great interview, Elena and Christopher! And thanks for the link. :)

papabear said...

Thank you for the interview!

btw, do you think you will be watching The Duchess? I think I'll be able to avoid seeing it, but I would like to read your review if you do go see it.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I am reading the book first and will give my thoughts about both.