Philippa Gregory Answers Questions About Her Life,
Her Writing and Specifically about Her Books Depicting the Lives of Henry VIII's
In your newest novel, The Boleyn Inheritance, you depict the life
of King Henry VIII and his court through the eyes of three very different
characters. Why did you choose to narrate this story through multiple voices and
why these three women in particular?
I have a great liking for the first person narrative because I think it gets
the reader into the head of the character; its a very immediate style. I
realized that I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the three
women who were so intimately involved in the perils of being Queen of England at
this time. Anne of Cleves, the wife that Henry chooses and rejects, Katherine
Howard the girl he adores but who is too young to keep herself safe, and the
woman who advises them both to their great danger: Lady Rochford, Jane Boleyn.
The Boleyn family utilized scheming and jockeying for favor in the court and
in particular, for the favor of King Henry VIII. For Jane Rochford, the last in
the Boleyn family, do you believe she knew her fate, the final fate of the
Boleyn inheritance, when she went back to court?
Janes belief was that the Boleyn inheritance was wealth and fame and she
sacrificed her husband George and her sister in law Anne Boleyn to try to retain
the family name and fortune when they were found guilty of treason. But as the
novel suggests: the Boleyn Inheritance is ultimately the scaffold and death.
Why did Anne of Cleeves survive?
Historians suggest that Anne of Cleves survived by good luck and her own
stupidity. They suggest that she was insensitive to the insult of divorce and
settled down to be the Kings sister so cheerfully that he forgave her the
failure of their marriage. Reading the records with more sympathy, and with a
feminist perspective, I suggest that she knew very well how to manage a domestic
tyrant: having suffered from a drunk and perhaps delusional father and a
powerful brother. I think she understood the dangers of Henrys temperament
before his more familiar court did so. Then, I think she set her sights on
simply surviving the dangers that opened before her. She accepted the divorce
offer without complaint or much resistance, and she accepted the financial
settlement. She was clearly so relieved to be safe and divorced that many
commentators remarked on her blooming looks and health when she came back to
court for her first Christmas in England and was a chosen favourite of the King
and his new Queen: Katherine.
In The Boleyn Inheritance you reintroduce Mary Boleyn and her daughter
to the plot. What ultimately happened to them?
These are the Boleyn heirs who really break the curse. Mary Boleyn died of
natural causes, an Essex landowner, wife and mother. Her daughter Catherine was
a close friend of her cousin (or half-sister) Elizabeth, and went into exile
with her protestant husband Francis Knollys during the years of Queen Mary.
Catherine and her husband and beautiful daughter Laetitia returned to court in
triumph when Elizabeth 1 came to the throne. I describe the scene in The
The Other Boleyn Girl is being made into a film. What is it
like as an author to have the words you wrote on a piece of paper translated
into scenes on a cinema screen? What part do you play in the process of adapting
your novel into a film?
I have been employed as consultant on the film and so I have been closely in
touch with the development of the script. Making a film is such a different
process from writing a novel that I have learned to leave it to the film-makers.
When I first saw the actors on location there was a haunting moment when it
almost seemed as if they were real, really in Tudor England, and we in modern
clothes were the illusion. It is extraordinary to see something that I have
imagined suddenly become solid and real. To see them in costume, performing a
scene, in an ancient setting is almost more powerful than to see them filmed on
the screen. It is a magical moment.
When did you first decide that you wanted to be an author?
I had the great good fortune to decide that I would be a professional author
when my first completed novel was published and enjoyed great success. It was
called Wideacre and is now available in paperback published by Touchstone Books.
Before then, I had written as a journalist and as an historian but I had not
written fiction. Even now, I am still rather surprised to see the course my
career has taken, and am very happy with it.
How do you think being a journalist has helped your fiction writing?
In the early years when it is easy for a new writer to become apprehensive
about the task of writing and the length of the research it was very good to
have had the training as a journalist where you sit down every day whether in
the mood or not and write. Also, my training as a journalist taught me to ask
the awkward questions and this pays dividends in historical research too.
What inspires you to write historical fiction?
I love history. In almost any circumstances I always ask but how did it get
like this? How did it start? These are questions which come naturally and
automatically to an historian and that is what, by instinct and training, I am.
How do you choose your subjects and do research for your books?
The subjects come to me when I am working on other things. So far, they have
always as it were suggested themselves. Their characters strike me or I
learn something interesting about their background that intrigues me, and then I
research them from that point. Most of my research is book based, the Tudors
especially have a huge collection of histories written about them, and I find a
lot of interesting material in very old history books. The Victorians were very
taken with the Tudors and some of their historians look at aspects of their
lives that modern historians neglect. Also, I almost always travel to the sites
I describe and I always find that very inspiring and often moving. I read around
a lot too I like to know the specialized history of the period, not just the
events and the characters. I like to know about coinage and agriculture and
all those things that the reader should not know that I have
researched, but they should feel at home in the detail of the Tudor world.
What tips or advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Never write for the market place, you cant judge it, and you certainly
cant catch up with it. Always write the very best you can about the things that
you feel passionate about. You are your first reader, never write down to
yourself. If you are writing historical fiction then at least half your time and
work should be the research there is nothing more important than the honest
basis of the fiction.
What do you think the impact of book clubs, which are rising in popularity,
is on the sales of fiction?
I have special pleasure in talking about book clubs because my own career
received a tremendous boost from the support of book club readers all around the
country. By recommending my book The Other Boleyn Girl from one group to
another, passing it from one reader to another, from one group to another, they
generated an enormous buzz about the book which turned it from a relatively
small paperback original historical novel into a big publishing sensation. Since
then all of my books have been read in book clubs and the response I get from
book club readers is one of the greatest pleasures for me as an author.
What would be your perfect day?
My perfect day would start waking up with sun on my face, I would ride my
beautiful horse (I never have ridden him by the sea but that would be
perfection) lunch with my family in a wonderful restaurant, some theatre in the
evening and then going salsa dancing with my husband.
What is your greatest extravagance?
My really great and exciting extravagance is that I travel first class even when
I am paying for my own ticket and not on expenses. It has taken twenty years of
success for me to let myself do this and I love it.
What is the most exciting thing you ever received through the post?
A love-letter from my husband.
What's your idea of a perfect meal?
Lots of lovely little dishes -like sushi or tapas. I recently went to Yo
Sushi! with my daughter Victoria and we had the best of times, eyeing up the
revolving dishes and looking forward to the next one.
Do you have a favourite hangover cure?
I used to have more hangovers than I do now, but my favourite in the old
days was to sleep as late as possible, take paracetamol and on waking, lots of
water and vitamin C, and as soon as bearable a high carb meal.
What vehicle, if any, do you own?
I have the most beautiful XK8 jaguar in black with ivory leather upholstery.
It purrs, and so do I.
What was the first job you ever had?
My first job was on The News, Portsmouth, where I was apprenticed as
Do you have any irrational fears?
I have an irrational terror of very loud water in unnatural circumstances
like hydro electric power stations, lock gates, or mill races. Water alone is OK
it is when it is pouring into machinery that I hate the noise and the rush of
What is the oldest item of clothing you still wear?
I have a very old and very beloved waterproof jacket by North Face, that I
bought nearly ten years ago and it is still snowproof and waterproof and
windproof. It's baggy and soft and washes beautifully.
Who do you love?
In alphabetical order (to avoid complaints) my son Adam, my husband Anthony,
my stepson Francis my stepson Marc, my stepson Patrick, my stepdaughter
Samantha, my daughter Victoria and my stepdaughter also Victoria, my sister and
her family, and my friends especially (in alphabetical order) Claire and Tine.
Who, or what, do you hate?
I absolutely refuse to let myself hate anyone, even when I find their
behaviour hateful. I think hate sickens the person who is feeling it, I try to
forgive and if I cannot, then I make myself forget, or at the least I try not to
dwell. The people who are really irritating me at the moment and testing my
forgiveness to its saintly limit, know perfectly well who they are, and what
they are doing, and if they are reading this then they should know that I wish
to God that they would stop doing it and behave like reasonable people.
What newspapers or magazines do you read?
The Times every day, the Sunday Times and the Observer
on Sunday, Private Eye occasionally, Vogue at the hairdressers,
Hello! very rarely, and in bewilderment.
What would be your desert island book?
I'm sorry to be dull but it would be the works of Shakespeare or Tolstoy, it
would be a wonderful opportunity to read from cover to cover.
What is your favourite TV programme?
I'm not very fond of watching television, I used to like Friends and
I quite enjoy Will and Grace but there is nothing that I would change my
plans for. I often enjoy factual programmes or history programmes but I don't
have a viewing schedule.
What was the first record you ever bought?
It was the 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy) on a 45" single.
Where do you go to relax?
I love expensive spas like Grayshott Hall in Surrey, but I like to potter in
my garden and I like to sit in the stable with my horse. He's a very calming
companion. He is so big and so beautiful and so sweet tempered that I can almost
feel his aura enveloping me. I am always happy when I am with him.
What is your most annoying habit?
I don't know
if I did know I would try to stop doing it. I think failing to
shut cupboard doors in the kitchen probably comes pretty high, sometimes I leave
the Marmite out. My children don't like it when I say uh-huh pretending to be
listening, when I am not. I am often distracted because I am thinking about
other things and so I am forgetful of errands I said that I would run. I imagine
that I drive my children mad about my astronomically high standard of table
manners but they are mostly too nice to complain.
What is your favourite journey?
There's a great rail journey along the south coast from Bournemouth to
Cornwall, and I loved the road that goes from San Francisco to Los Angeles, all
the way up that beautiful west coast of America. The drive from Malaga airport
to Granada takes you through some pretty fine countryside too, and I used to
walk a wonderful walk from God's Bridge on the Pennine Way, to the nearest pub.
What is your ultimate ambition?
I should like to achieve a reliable state of serenity.
Which person has most influenced you?
My husband is a constant and powerful influence in my life, but also my
children make a tremendous difference to how I see the world and what I think
and feel. The greatest influence before them was my mother who was a powerful
independent and lovely woman. The very thought of her still makes me smile.
What is your greatest achievement?
More than ten years ago I gave some money (not very much, only £300) to
build a well in a schoolyard in The Gambia, West Africa. It was such a success
in terms of making a market garden from what had been a patch of desert,
producing food that the children could eat at lunchtime, and a surplus that they
could sell for school funds, that I raised money and built 56 other wells. It's
a tiny project (me and my friend in The Gambia) but it has made a tremendous
difference to thousands of children. I'm very proud of it. If you would like to
contribute you can send a cheque to me and I will forward it.
Choose three people, dead or alive, to invite to dinner.
I should like to have dinner with William Cecil (Elizabeth 1st's chief
advisor) he is one of the key characters in my novel The Virgin's Lover,
probably one of the most skilled politicians this country has ever had.
Elizabeth would not have become the Queen she was without him. My second guest
would be Dorothy Parker whose wit was delicious and, I suspect, better at the
dinner table than on the page, and Danny Kaye for humour and charm.
Do you believe in God?
I don't think I can seriously believe in someone who takes an interest in
the world and yet lets it become like it is (yes, I do know the arguments about
free choice - but what sort of stupid deal is the free choice experiment? What
is the point of it?) I am not sure about how the world started, of course, so
that could be a God, and I certainly have an instinctive feeling that someone is
watching over me and hears me when I say, in crisis: Please oh! Please let this
., and I have a very powerful sense sometimes of holiness, especially in
places that have long been centres of worship or are very beautiful
actually I don't know.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
In theory, of course not, nonsense (and so on). In fact, I first met my
husband 22 years ago and I fell in love with him that evening. We were apart for
15 years and married two years ago. I have to believe in love at first sight,
because it happened to me.
Do you know who's number one in the charts?
Not a clue. I don't mind not knowing, either.
Do you support the death penalty?
I don't support the death penalty. I can't help feeling sometimes that some
life sentences are such misery, and such crimes so abhorrent that a death
sentence would be a merciful and just alternative. But that's an emotional
response, not a logical one. I wouldn't vote for the restoration of the death
penalty and I would campaign against it.
Do you understand how to work a video recorder?
Yes. I'm not very technical and I get very quickly irritated by technology,
but if it is something I need then I make myself understand it. And anyway,
they're all a lot easier than they were.
Do you sing in the bath?
Not in the bath, in the shower, and when gardening and pottering about.
What would you like to be your epitaph?
Amazingly fit, incredibly beautiful, beloved by all that knew her, and happy
to the end.