Q&A with C.W. Gortner

J.M. Aucoin . Author interviews 1209 No Comments

Christopher W. Gortner is one of the newest historical fiction writers to hit the market and has been quite supportive of my writing as well. He’s an extremely talented writer. He has two books already out — The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici — and his third book, The Tudor Secret, is due out on February 1st.

Tudor Secret differs from his previous two books as it’s a historical spy/thriller novel vs. a straight-up historical fiction novel. He initially self-published the book as The Secret Lion and it helped jump start his professional writing career. He’s now re-publishing the captivating story under a new title, with some slight editorial changes to the original manuscript and with the backing of a major publisher.

I’m personally excited that this series is getting new life. There’s not enough historical adventure, thriller, etc. stories out there, in my opinion. And this is a good one. Be sure to pick it up.

Christopher was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer a few questions. Here’s my Q&A with him. Also, don’t forget to visit his website, http://www.cwgortner.com, and read his historical fiction blog — Historical Boys.

So after two books focusing on famous and maligned women of history, what inspired you to republish The Secret Lion, retitled to The Tudor Secret (which is fantastic, by the way)?

I first independently published The Secret Lion in 2004 and I actually didn’t intend to ever see it re-published. However, as it was never widely available in stores and my other books were doing well, my agent thought it was worth trying to see if another publisher might want to re-issue it. By coincidence, an editor at St Martin’s Press – Charlie Spicer – had read my first unpublished novel over 14 years before and encouraged me to keep writing. He was one of the main reasons I persevered; and when my agent contacted him this time around, he expressed keen interest in the Spymaster series idea and eventually offered a 3-book deal; only a few days later my fantastic UK publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, also made an offer for UK publication rights.

Since then, the manuscript has undergone a revision, editorial clean-up, and I wrote a new scene especially for the new edition. I also love the new title, The Tudor Secret, and of course I’m thrilled the book has a second chance in the marketplace, as well as having the opportunity to explore these characters in future books.

Obviously The Secret Lion/Tudor Secret helped propel you into the world of publishing and professional fiction writing. How excited are you to see The Tudor Secret go from a self-published novel to being picked up by a major publishing company?

Very exciting! It just goes to show that perseverance is key in this unpredictable business. If someone had told me years ago I’d be preparing to see this book launched by a major publisher, I would have laughed in disbelief. I’m also very happy the book is with Charlie and the team at St Martin’s Press, all of whom have done a wonderful job. I just recently learned Target has selected The Tudor Secret as a Bookmarked pick, so I’m hoping it lives up to its potential!

Without giving too much away, what changes are there between The Secret Lion and The Tudor Secret? Are there enough alterations between the two that those of us who own TSL should still go out and get TTS?

Gosh, I hope I’m not disappointing anyone by saying there aren’t that many! I wrote an extra scene with Elizabeth and did an overall edit / polish of the prose. It’s a deceptively complex story and I wanted to revise key scenes, exalting certain aspects. Overall, the changes are subtle and it is by and large the same story. I’d love it, of course, if readers of the first edition wanted to get the new one. 🙂

In my writing classes back in college I was always asked “Why do you write historical stories? Why swashbucklers? Why not something in modern times?” My answer was always “That’s what I love to read.” But I really think, for me, I got into historical fiction because as a child I was a huge Zorro fan and wanted to be Zorro when I grew up (one day… maybe). What made you want to write historical fiction?

The inspiration for me, as I suspect it is for many other writers, was a love of history growing up and endless curiosity about who these people we read about might have actually been. Though nonfiction could provide me with dates, references, even an excellent sense of the era itself and its people, I always felt somewhat removed from history’s emotional immediacy. This is why I fell in love with historical fiction; it focused on the sensory and emotional aspects of being in the past, its sheer physicality. It gave me a body to time-travel with. Eventually, I began to write historical fiction because I wanted to explore my perceptions of the characters I’d come to know, flesh them out in my own unique ways. I also wanted to challenge long-established perceptions about certain people, particularly women, whom I felt had been relegated to one-dimensional interpretations.

You do a lot of traveling. How important or vital is actually seeing the countries, the buildings, etc. to your writing of these stories?

To me, it’s extremely important. While I can do an adequate job based on book and internet research alone, and indeed know writers who do superb jobs this way, I personally must get a physical feel for the places I write about. Again, it goes back to my craving for the sensory aspects of the past. Though much may have changed—indeed, in some cases almost everything—to actually see the places where my characters lived gives me an invaluable sense of confidence. It can alter my writing in unexpected ways, too. For example, I was struggling with my Catherine de Medici book for months before I took a trip to the Loire valley. I felt I didn’t have a strong enough feel for her; she kept eluding me. When I went to visit her chateau at Chenonceau and saw this refuge she had created for herself and her children, I had an epiphany. I realized I’d subconsciously accepted history’s vision of her as the queen in perennial black, rapacious for power, intent on her political schemes – in other words, detached and unemotional.

However, anyone fortunate enough to experience the uniquely feminine beauty of her palace on the Cher River will realize that a deeply humanistic spirit, a truly Renaissance one, must have dwelled there. Chenonceau reflects the secret Catherine few ever get to see and the hours I spent wandering her home changed both my perception of her and the book I was writing.

How do you choose your topics/plots for your books?

I like to reveal secret stories, so I’m attracted to topics which contain controversy or are ‘black legends.’ I tend to want to write about people who’ve led challenging lives and are not easily defined. I’m fascinated by how our own internal mysteries drive and define us. The Renaissance is also an era I’m deeply attracted to: it was a time of great tumult and discovery, when we challenged our place in the world and let loose a series of cataclysmic upheavals. It’s also a time of great brutality and innocence—an incredibly compelling combination for a writer to explore. Some of the most gifted and monstrous people in history strode the stage of the 16th century; you’re never at a loss for drama when you set a book in this time period.

What do you find to be the hardest part of writing historical fiction?

Balancing the need to keep the reader engaged and entertained with the often complex and inconvenient truths of history. It’s never an easy task, and far more challenging than many imagine. I’ve had people say to me: “It must be easy to write your kinds of books. The story is already made for you, by history.” But anyone who has researched in depth knows history can contradict itself or remain maddeningly opaque. Likewise, it can be quite tough to read about a certain character or event over and over while doing research and retain a fresh approach. You must keep reminding yourself that while history has rendered a verdict, it may not necessarily be the right one. That is where the ‘fiction’ is born: in seeking your story within the unresolved crevices and twisting labyrinths of the so-called established facts.

Is it difficult being a male historical fiction writer? It seems to be a more “female heavy” genre.

I think it’s more challenging to: a) get published; and b) build an audience. I think at first, we all have a tendency to pigeonhole writers according to gender, both from a readership and publishing standpoint. Ergo, women write ‘love’ stories while men write ‘adventures.’ Or, women write emotion, while men write the physical. It plays out in the marketplace, too, to a certain extent: the majority of novelists writing the type of books I do are women because these are personality driven stories, focusing on the emotional / internal lives of characters. But men can do these types of stories equally well. Just fewer of them do, for a variety of reasons. And the same applies vice versa.

So far you’re books have revolved around the Renaissance/Tudor-era. Any plans on moving a bit forward or backward in time?

I’d love to try both, actually. I have several ideas set in early medieval times and one or two set much later, toward the turn of the century. We’ll see how it goes. For now, my primary focus is the 16th century because it’s where I’m most comfortable.

Can you tell us what you’re currently working on? Another Spymaster series title or a stand-alone? Or do you need to be hush-hush for the time being?

I just finished a stand-alone novel about Isabella of Castile, which is currently with my editor at Ballantine Books. While she reads it and provides feedback, I’m working on the second book in the Spymaster series, which takes Brendan back to court, this time in the months before Mary Tudor’s marriage to Philip II, and embroils him in another deadly plot against Elizabeth. This time, however, Brendan is savvier and believes he knows what he’s up against. He’s in for a very troubling surprise.

Anything else you’d like to throw out there for the readers?

Thank you so much for spending this time with me, and thank you, Justin, for inviting me. I love interacting with readers and hope you enjoy my books. You can always find out more about me and my work at: www.cwgortner.com. I’ll also be on a blog tour for The Tudor Secret and you can catch up with me during the tour by following my stops on my own blog at: http://historicalboys.blogspot.com/

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J.M. Aucoin

Author. Fencer. Sometimes actor. Full-time nerd. I write swashbucklers & historical adventure novels.
  • Sue Gilot

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    Great Q&A Justin! Mr. Gortner is one of my new favorite authors. His stories are riveting and really make you feel like you are there. I’m a huge fan of Medieval/Renaissance mysteries and have many different series started. I enjoy writing myself, I just don’t have the courage to put myself out there! Go for it my friend, you will go places!
    See you at the CT Renaissance Faire in the fall!
    Best to you always!
    Sue

    Reply

  • Dawn

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    Great interview! I hope Christopher’s success will help pave the way for more male writers to find room on the HF shelves. We readers can help this to happen, by being open minded to not stereotype an author’s work based on their sex. My husband and I both read and share favorite books/authors, like C. C. Humphreys (thanks to Gortner’s blog), James McGee and Arturo Perez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste series, I think this makes us more accepting of judging a book by its writing, not its writer. Even with that, I admit I am guilty of slipping into sexists, biased judgments. Last summer a blog did a month long tribute to Georgette Heyer, an author I had shied away from thinking they were standard formulaic romances, which was my first error. My second was in writing a comment thanking all the ladies who had contributed to the event and to changing my misconceptions about Heyer. A very gracious, long time Heyer reader said to please not overlook the men who enjoyed her witty prose, as he did. This showed me I needed to make a much better effort.

    I wish you the best of luck in your writing.
    Dawn

    Reply

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