Early this week, I reviewed Christopher Gortner's novel The Tudor Secret, which you can read here, and I'm delighted to post this interview between Christopher and I discussing his new book and its inspirations. My thanks to the author.
Gareth: Christopher, what made you decide to write a historical thriller this time, rather than a biographical novel like your previous two novels The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici?
Christopher: I actually wrote The Tudor Secret in between the biographical novels and ended up self publishing it under the title of The Secret Lion. However, about three years later, my agent sold my biographical novels to Ballantine and their success prompted my agent to re-visit the thought of selling my thriller series. I’m very fortunate that my editor at St Martin’s Press loved the idea of a spy story set in Tudor England and bought the first book in a three-book deal. My UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton followed soon after. Though I still intend to write biographical novels, the Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles gives me an opportunity to explore the Tudor period through a fictional protagonist who interacts with real-life people and events. Growing up, I loved the adventure novels of Alexander Dumas and Rafael Sabatini; The Tudor Secret is, in a way, my humble homage to those swashbuckling stories of the past. Thrillers are one of my favorite genres, and writing in this genre exercises an entirely different part of my imagination.
Gareth: Where did the idea for the novel’s hero, Brendan Prescott, come from?
Christopher: When I first stumbled across research about the Tudor espionage system, I was intrigued by the idea of ordinary men and women who risk their lives to defend the monarch. I loved the idea of creating my own spy to serve Elizabeth, but it wasn’t until I started writing the outline for the book that I began to conceive of this young squire, connected to Elizabeth through his master, Robert Dudley, who unwittingly carries his own secret and fosters a lethal rivalry with the future queen’s favorite. I was also fascinated with the idea of playing with time-honored motifs, such as the foundling who doesn’t know who he is but whose secret has the capacity to upend his entire existence.
Gareth: There are many fictitious characters in The Tudor Secret. Were any of them drawn from real life?
Christopher: I researched everything I could about how servants lived in the Tudor era; most of the fictional characters are drawn from composites of servants, whose names are now lost to us. For example, we know the Dudleys had an estate steward but not much else. Out of this meager fact I developed the man who brings Brendan to court, Archie Shelton. And many noble Tudor households had experienced herbalists and housekeepers, so thus was Mistress Alice born. I also read about the orphans in London at the time, many of whom were affected by the closure of the monasteries. Without the charity extended by these houses, many of these children were left to their own wits to survive. Peregrine, Brendan’s stable-hand friend, was inspired by them.
Gareth: How much research did you do on the personalities and politics of 1553 and which books did you find particularly helpful?
Christopher: I did a lot of research, as I always do. I had to steep myself in the era and know far more about the people and events than would ever show in the novel. The books I found most helpful include Joan Glasheen’s The Secret People of the Palace; Alan Haynes’s The Elizabethan Secret Service; and Liza Picard’s Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. I also frequently consulted Derek Wilson’s The Uncrowned Kings of England and Mary M. Luke’s A Crown for Elizabeth, as well as myriad individual biographies and volumes about Tudor England.
Gareth: There’s an old joke in history that no-one is ever a hero to their valet, but I think the opposite was true in Elizabeth I’s case. You certainly captured that element of her personality and explored her relationship with the people who served her. What was it about Elizabeth that made people become so devoted to her?
Christopher: I think the circumstances of her birth, her mother’s terrible demise, and the uncertainty surrounding her as she grew up fostered strong feelings of protectiveness in those that served Elizabeth and, in turn, strong feelings of loyalty in her. That she was precocious and gifted, yet basically deemed a bastard for most of her childhood, presented a set of circumstances only the most hard-hearted could resist. Later, during her perilous adolescence, two of her servants ended up in the Tower for questioning. I find it quite noteworthy that even with her own life at risk her primary concern was for those who’d been taken away because of her. Elizabeth must have been a difficult mistress to serve—her mercurial personality attests to this—but she also must have been worthy of devotion, for many who served her did so for life, often endangering themselves for her sake. Examples of her generosity to those she loved abound.
Gareth: Throughout the novel, people are constantly giving their opinion about which of Elizabeth’s two parents she more resembles – Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn. Obviously, in public, Elizabeth is quick to assert she is “King Harry’s” daughter, but in one moment which I thought was absolutely brilliant, she made a throw-away remark about how she thought the worst bits of her sister Mary’s personality were inherited from their father. Which of Elizabeth’s two parents do you think she resembled more?
Christopher: I think she was the perfect amalgam, in that she inherited Anne Boleyn’s tart wit and intelligence and Henry VIII’s cold-blooded sagacity. However, if I had to pick one, I’d say she was more like her mother, at least in her younger years. I definitely draw upon this supposition in my portrayal of her—she is reckless, defiant, and willful; she will go to any lengths to protect her loved ones and her interests, all qualities she shares with Anne. Physically, she resembled her mother, with her slim build, dark eyes and beautiful hands, but she had her father’s coloring. I find this quite apt. She was Anne’s daughter at heart but at times she could be as formidable as Henry ever was.
Gareth: Your first novel was a dramatisation of the life of Mary Tudor’s aunt and I thought it was great in this novel to see Mary herself characterised fairly. Was there an element of remembering Juana when you were writing about Mary?
Christopher: I did appreciate that like her aunt Juana, Mary Tudor did not have an easy life. To go from being the adored, pampered daughter of loving parents to watching your father fall head-over-heels for another woman and see your own mother ousted in that woman’s favor; to be separated from the life of privilege you cherished and endure the humiliations Mary did, at an age when she was entering adolescence, cannot have done anything other than warp her precarious sense of self-worth. I do not think Mary Tudor was a bad woman; I think the circumstances of her life forced her into decisions she believed were right. Her tragedy is that she did not realize that the life she sought to salvage when she became queen had been lost forever. I do not excuse her worst excesses or condone the persecution she unleashed, but I do understand where these came from.
Gareth: Barring Elizabeth, if you could sit down to have dinner with one of the characters in your novel, who would it be and why?
Christopher: Catherine de Medici (below). I love her pragmatism and self-deprecating humor. While researching her, I discovered a woman with a boundless appetite for the good in life, even though she often faced the most bitter of choices.
Gareth: What is your next project?
Christopher: I just finished a biographical novel about Isabella of Castile, which is currently with my editor at Ballantine Books. While she reads it and provides feedback, I’m writing the second book in the Spymaster Chronicles, tentatively titled The Queen’s Hunt.
Gareth: When can we expect more in the Brendan Prescott series and what stage in sixteenth century history will the story be resuming at, if you don’t mind my asking?
Christopher: I believe the next book in the series will be published in 2012. It begins in the winter of 1554, just a few months after the conclusion of The Tudor Secret, At Cecil’s behest Brendan reluctantly returns to court, where Elizabeth has been residing amidst mounting rumors of hostility with her sister. It is the time leading up to Mary I’s betrothal to Philip II; the queen is keen on returning the realm to Catholicism, and Brendan becomes embroiled in a deadly plot against the princess, concocted by the Imperial ambassador. This time, however, Brendan is savvier and believes he knows what he’s up against. He’s in for some very troubling surprises.
Gareth: Christopher, thank you so much for your time and congratulations again on The Tudor Secret.
Christopher: Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at: http://www.cwgortner.com.
The Tudor Secret is published by Saint Martin's Press in the United States and Hodder & Stoughton in the United Kingdom.