(Read Part 11 here
Christopher Gortner is the author of The Last Queen which is set in early 16th century Spain, Belgium, France, and England. This book is his debut, and promises much for the future about the past.
MJR: How do you delve into a historical past you cannot yourself remember ? yet you somehow manage to write about so well?
Gortner: For me, it's part instinct (which I talk about more in the next question) and part research. I write novels based on people who actually lived, so it's always a challenge because my imagination is constrained by fact. For example, I can't change the ending, even if it ends badly. I'm obsessive about research; I have to find out everything I can, and that means getting in contact with libraries and archives, finding out-of-print books, setting up meetings with experts in certain areas, etc.
For The Last Queen, I read over 50 books about Juana of Castile and her world; I also took several trips to Spain and other parts of Europe to trace her footsteps and view the places where she lived. I even tried on a 16th-century Spanish gown so I could feel its weight and get a feel for how women moved in such ornate, heavy clothes. As a historical fiction writer, I also become a psychological sleuth. Facts are facts, but there's always more than one side to a story. Juana herself left almost nothing in her own hand; much of what she said and did was channeled via accounts written by men whose prejudices reflect the era and the version they were paid to tell (as most historians were hired by the current ruler). This is where instinct comes in. I have to get to know my character as well as I know myself. I must understand her actions, her beliefs, her fears; what motivates her, what repels her. I can't afford ambiguity; I must become the person I'm writing about and still remain true to the facts of her life, even if she does something that I would not do. It's a matter of perception; by learning to see the world as she experienced it, that world becomes my reality.
MJR: Do you believe at all in a collective unconscious and that you are pulling from memory, or is your ability to write about a past you cannot have lived just a testament to your creativity?
Gortner: I do know that, for me, writing about the past feels instinctual. As long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with the Renaissance. In my mid 20s, I went for a psychic reading and the woman told me she saw two different past lives of mine, both of which had taken place during the Renaissance. It was eerie, as I'd said nothing about myself! Of course, she might have assessed my gothic way of dressing at the time and drawn reasonable conclusions. A man who wears a cape in broad daylight would probably like the Renaissance, right?
Still, it often feels as though I've been there and my fascination is some type of emotional coping mechanism. I'm rarely as content as I am when I'm writing about the 16th century. The book may present a thousand challenges, but the scents, the tastes, the textures, and hues of the time are always familiar to me. I've had occasions when I couldn't find a specific detail when writing and simply made a guess, making a note in the manuscript to return to it later and research it more; and when I do, more often than not I find my guess was accurate.
I do hold a degree in Renaissance studies, and I have read tons of books about the time period, but honestly there are moments when I feel as though I know things about the era that I didn't know I knew. Is that "pulling from memory"? Perhaps. Certainly, it feels like more than creativity. After the research is done, and the writing begins, something stronger takes over and perhaps that is, in fact, a collective unconscious of the past. While I'm on the fence when it comes to reincarnation, I believe that as human beings we all carry echoes of the past within us. Mine just happen to reverberate more strongly with one era.