C. W. Gortner Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

C. W. Gortner
Photo: Stephanie Mohan

C. W. Gortner

An interview with C. W. Gortner

In two separate interviews (video and text) C.W. Gortner talks about his novel, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, in which he explores the real person behind the lurid accusations and hyperbole that have painted her as the evil queen who poisoned her enemies and orchestrated a massacre.


A video interview with C.W. Gortner about his 2010 historical novel, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici




A conversation with C. W. Gortner about his novel, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Anyone with an interest in famous women of history will have heard of Catherine de Medici: She's the evil queen who allegedly poisoned her enemies and orchestrated a massacre. Or so the legend says. Of Italian birth, Catherine was the last scion of her legitimate Medici blood; she dominated France in the latter half of the sixteenth century, a contemporary of Elizabeth I of England and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Left a widow with small children and confronted by one of the most savage conflicts of her time, she fought to save France and her bloodline from destruction.

Why did you decide to write about her?

Initially, I was attracted to Catherine because of her legend. I figured that when someone has garnered such a reputation there has to be more to the story. I wanted to know who Catherine de Medici truly was, to search beyond the lurid accusations and hyperbole for the person she may have been. When I researched her, I found that my instincts were correct: As with most dark legends, there was far more to her than popular history tells us. I thought, how interesting it would be if Catherine herself could tell the story of her life. If she had the chance to explain herself, what would she say?

How long did it take you to write this book and what special research was involved?

It took about two years to write this book in its present form. The research itself began several years before that; I actually first began researching Catherine de Medici while in college, as she was part of my master's thesis on women of power. For the novel, I took several trips to France, including one during which I visited the beautiful Loire Valley châteaux where Catherine resided and I re-created the two-year progress she undertook to visit her eldest daughter on the border with Spain (though I did my trip by rail and car!). A friend of mine in Paris also guided me on marvelous evening walks through the city, showing me specific sites associated with Catherine, including a lone tower she built as an observatory. I also read her volumes of letters, contemporary accounts of her and her court, and memoirs written by several of her associates and intimates, including the fanciful memoirs of her daughter, Marguerite, better known to history as la reine Margot.

What did Catherine's letters reveal?

Catherine's surviving letters constitute one of those rare treasure troves for a novelist. Letters offer an invaluable glimpse into a person's thoughts and personality, and I found some of Catherine's letters to be particularly poignant. Her unassailable love for her children, her despair over the chaos wrought by war, her pragmatism and her discomfort with overt fanaticism, as well as her compassion for animals—unusual for her time—all point to a woman who was very different from the archetypal Medici queen with her arsenal of poisons. Her letters helped me to envision the flesh-and-blood woman behind the legend and understand the challenges she faced as a person and a ruler.

What is one of the greatest misconceptions about Catherine de Medici?

Without doubt, it has to be the accusation that she nurtured a "passion for power." Catherine was not raised to be a queen, true, and she did in fact rule as regent for her sons until they came of age; but it is unfair to accuse her of a ruthless drive to retain power at any cost. She faced a unique set of circumstances that would have challenged even the most skilled ruler: underage children to protect and a kingdom being torn apart, literally, by the nobility. The clash between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation became especially intense in France; it was Catherine's great misfortune to be caught up in it. Her alleged passion for power was in truth an attempt to retain control over the destiny of her adopted realm and safeguard the throne—both of which may have suffered far more had she not been there. I find it quite sad that to this day Catherine remains tainted by actions that in essence she did not take of her own volition. She made serious errors in judgment, without a doubt, but she was motivated most often by the urgent need to salvage a crisis rather than by some cold-blooded urge to eliminate those who stood in her way.

How do you strike a balance between depicting the reality of the times and modern-day sensibilities?

The balance is always a fine one. It can become even more tenuous when you are confronting issues of religion, race, sexuality and gender. That said, I always consider the needs of my reader to be engaged by the story. While historical accuracy remains a primary obligation—in that the writer should not deliberately alter or distort known facts or have characters behave in an overtly modernized way—I do sanitize certain aspects of the reality of life in the sixteenth century. We tend to romanticize the past; we forget about the lack of adequate hygiene, antibiotics, etc. While I strive to retain the flavor of the past in my work and avoid the tendency to convert a brutal, quixotic era into a costume drama, my books are novels; their principal function is to entertain.

Do you think issues Catherine faced in her era still resonate today?

Many of the freedoms we take for granted today were unknown to people in the sixteenth century. Religious divisiveness in particular was a brutal part of daily life during Catherine's time; Catholics and Protestants were willing to martyr themselves for their cause, destroying countless others in the process. This is something that many of us, much like Catherine, may find difficult to comprehend. Yet that type of extreme righteousness remains very much a part of our modern landscape, as evidenced by acts of terrorism and genocide in several parts of the world. While we are in many ways a more enlightened society, we still carry vestiges of the past with us, and leaders throughout the world grapple with some of the same issues that Catherine did, in terms of placating anger and restoring harmony among people whose lives have been affected by war.

What is one of the secrets that Catherine "confesses" in this novel?

For one, the truth behind her relationship with the Protestant leader Admiral Coligny. I have always found it intriguing that so few of Catherine's biographers have examined more closely this most enigmatic of friendships. Coligny was at court when Catherine arrived from Italy as a teenage bride; he was the nephew of the Constable of France, a powerful and important man, and therefore she and Coligny must have met long before they assumed their respective political roles. They were close to each other in age; they shared a history, as Coligny later served her husband, King Henri II; they probably witnessed to a certain extent each other's trials and triumphs, before circumstances arose for them to join forces during the Wars of Religion. Coligny and Catherine could not have been more different, in both upbringing and outlook, yet for a time they shared a united response to the conflict threatening France and a mutual desire for accord. In her confessions, Catherine tells us what brought them together, and what led to the definitive tragedy between them.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

I seek to reveal secret histories and in some small way restore humanity to people whose legends have overshadowed them. I also hope readers will come away from my work with the experience that they've been on an emotional journey. I want them to feel the way these people lived, their hardships and joys, and differences from and similarities to us. Though a Renaissance queen faced issues we don't, love, hatred, power, intolerance, passion, and the quest for personal liberty remain universal themes.

What is your latest project?

I'm currently writing a historical novel about Isabella of Castile, tracing her life from her dramatic youth to her accession as queen of Castile and the early years of her controversial reign. I covered the latter years of Isabella's life in my previous novel The Last Queen, which is about her daughter Juana; while researching that book, however, I realized I had a solid grounding in the facts of Isabella's life but had not truly considered how she evolved as a monarch and a woman. She's been lauded as a saint by some and labeled a fanatic by others; she set in motion the horrors of the Inquisition yet also financed Columbus's voyages and united Spain after centuries of internal strife. Isabella is truly the first queen of the Renaissance, a ruler who was more powerful than her husband; yet few people know the incredible story of her tumultuous rise to the throne, her forbidden love with Fernando of Aragón, or the events that led to that most climactic of years—1492. Isabella was fallible and, like so many controversial figures in history, often misunderstood. I hope to bring to life for readers her incredible will, vision, and strength, as well as shed light on some of her less comprehensible actions.

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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