Philippa Gregory Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory

An interview with Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory Answers Questions About Her Life, Her Writing and Specifically about Her Books Depicting the Lives of Henry VIII's Wives.

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; it’s 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?
Jane’s 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 King’s 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 Henry’s 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 Virgin’s Lover.

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 transport…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 can’t judge it, and you certainly can’t 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 a reporter.

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 it.

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 happen…., and I have a very powerful sense sometimes of holiness, especially in places that have long been centres of worship or are very beautiful … So…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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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