Q & A with C.W. Gortner

C.W. Gortner

What inspired you to write The Last Queen?

I’ve been fascinated by Juana since I was a child. Outside of Spain, she’s hardly mentioned except as the sister of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and as the mother of the Emperor Charles V. Yet her life was full of drama, intrigue and passion, certainly a subject worthy of a novel. I grew up in Spain and hearing her legend, I thought she was captivating, weird, different; I always wanted to know more about her. Later on in life, I visited many of the places associated with her, so when I decided to write about her I set out to uncover the secret behind the myth. I am drawn to secret histories; after all, what we call history is a mixture of opinions and facts. There are always those tales that don’t get told or are altered to suit preconceived notions. In addition, women in history often suffer from the biased viewpoints of male contemporaries, who chronicled their lives and the events of the era. Juana, for me, is one of those women. There is much more to her story than we’ve been told. This was my primary reason for writing about her. I thought it was time she told her side of the story.

Why is Juana of Castile such a fascinating subject?

Juana followed in the footsteps of her warrior mother, Isabella of Castile. She had a lot to live up to, but she was not raised or trained to be a ruling queen. Like her sisters, Juana was expected to marry and become a consort who championed Spain’s interests in a foreign court; it was circumstances beyond her control which thrust her into the limelight as Isabella’s heir. She fascinates because she never aspired to the role she had to accept; here was this proud, loving woman who really only wanted to be a wife and mother yet found herself engaged in a life-and-death battle against those around her for her right to inherit the throne that her dying mother bequeathed her. And unlike later queens, Juana had only her strength and her determination to draw upon. Her bravura astonishes; she never gave up, no matter what.

It has been suggested that Philip of Burgundy (Juana’s husband) was poisoned by Ferdinand II. What is your opinion on the matter?

I think Ferdinand was capable of it, no question about that. I toy with this very concept in The Last Queen, giving it a unique twist. Of course, poison was often suspected when a young, otherwise healthy royal suddenly died under suspicious circumstances. And it’s important to note that at the time of his demise, there was a severe outbreak of plague in the vicinity and it is also quite possible that Philip died of the sickness. Ferdinand was not even in the country, either, so if he did it, he had help. After so many years, it’s impossible to know for sure, which of course is what makes historical fiction so exciting. We can explore the nooks and crannies of history.

Whilst reading your novel I wondered whether Catherine of Aragon knew of the great injustices befalling her sister and whether she corresponded with her or indeed ever saw her during her reign. Have you come across anything in your research?

I found no evidence that Catherine and Juana corresponded directly after their meeting in England, which I detail in the book and did in fact occur. They certainly never met again. But it is possible letters were exchanged from time to time; many of the letters that people of the past exchanged have been sadly lost with the passage of time, and Catherine herself was known to be a regular correspondent. However, her primary goal was to advance Spanish interests in England and so I think she probably accepted the premise that her sister had gone off the proverbial deep end and turned her focus toward cultivating a strong relationship with her nephew, Juana’s son, the Emperor Charles V.

Your novel is rich in detail and meticulously researched. Could you share with us the process you undertook when researching it.

It took five years to write the first draft and another ten years for it to reach its current incarnation and find a publisher. I took various trips to Spain in that time, including one in which I undertook the very journey Juana makes from Burgos to Toro with the coffin.  I visited the Alhambra and all the castles associated with her life, and read every contemporary account about her that I could find, including letters from her custodians to Charles V, which are currently archived in Simancas.

It is interesting to note that during General Franco’s dictatorship (the last years of which I experienced as a child in Spain), some of the documents in the Simancas were restricted to scholars who required special permission to access them.  The documents pertaining to Juana were included in these restrictions.  I found it particularly fascinating that hundreds of years after her death the government still found it necessary to “hide” certain evidence about her.  However, by the time I was researching, the documents were available and they provided an invaluable, if at times chilling, framework for the novel in terms of which parts of her life I wanted to focus on.

As far as embodying Juana herself, I found that once I got past my own misgivings about writing as a woman she came to me quite easily. At moments, it almost felt as if she was whispering in my ear. I discovered that I understood her passion, her courage, her deep sense of betrayal and her rage.

Have you visited places connected to Juana? If so, do you have a favourite location?

I’ve visited all the places connected with her, including the palaces in Flanders (now modern-day Belgium). I must say, the castle of La Mota in Spain, where Juana throws her epic rage, is truly an incredible place—austere, it rises off the plain like a brooding stone eagle. You can almost feel her desperation, her sense of encroaching entrapment there.

But for sheer beauty, nothing can compare with the Alhambra in Granada. Though she spent only a few summers there, and the palace itself holds no record of her, it is indeed one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Standing in those delicate, alabaster courtyards, it’s not hard to envision an adolescent Juana’s fascination and awe with this vanquished world her parents had conquered.

Is it true that you have written a book about Anne Boleyn? Could you tell us a little about it?

Yes, my very first novel is about Anne Boleyn. She’s always been a favorite of mine and I felt at the time that no one had truly explored her life or her downfall in depth, looking past the accepted conventions. I wanted to write a big novel about her, from her time in Flanders and France, to her return to England and her rise to power. I wanted to show her influence on the Reformation, her intelligence, her burning bright wit and ambition, and the tragedy that ensued. I was also fascinated by the idea that her fall was the result of a socio-political conspiracy devised by Cromwell, and that many of the men who died with her were in fact targeted specifically.

My first draft was over 1000 pages! I got so involved, everyone became major players. I painstakingly cut it to 700 pages and gave it to my father. He read it and suggested to me that I try to get it published. I hadn’t even thought of that; I was just writing the kind of book about Anne I’d always wanted to read! But I learned how to contact an agent and eventually, after many, many rejections, one signed me. She told me I had ‘raw talent’ and politely suggested I hire a freelance editor to get my manuscript into shape before we went out on submissions. She was right, I desperately needed one, and this marvelous editor helped me prune the manuscript to a more manageable size of 550 pages. It went out, and an editor at St Martin’s Press loved it. He tried to acquire it but ultimately could not. However, he encouraged me to keep writing and so I did. Thirteen years later, that very same editor recently acquired three books in my Tudor spy series. So, in a strange way, Anne Boleyn helped me become a writer. I cut my teeth on her story.  I’d still love to reshape the manuscript again and see it published. Maybe one day . . . .

Are you interested in any other Tudor personalities?

Of course! The Tudor era is an especially dynamic place for a novelist, in that within a relatively short span of time so much happened and the Tudors themselves are larger than life. I’ve always been fascinated with Elizabeth I but I also feel she has been very well covered in fiction and I wanted to explore a different side to her life and reign. By coincidence, during my studies of the period I learned that William Cecil and Francis Walsingham developed one of the most sophisticated intelligence systems in the world on behalf of the queen, who faced many Catholic enemies both in England and abroad for most of her long reign. But I’d never stopped to consider the details of what being a Tudor spy might entail or what that service might have looked like before Elizabeth assumed her throne. While the Tudors have been covered from nearly every angle, nothing I’d read explored the possibility that Elizabeth may have had her own spy, someone devoted to her special interests—and someone who ended up becoming her close friend. I began to draft the outline for a novel featuring a spy who becomes the secret confidant and protector of Elizabeth, rousing the enmity of her lover, Robert Dudley. That book is the first in my new Tudor spy series, The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles; called THE TUDOR SECRET, it will be published in the US and the UK on February 1, 2011.

Are you currently working on any new novels?

I’m always writing, yes. I’m currently completing a novel about Isabella of Castile that will be published  by Ballantine Books in 2012, and I’m working on the second book in Spymaster Chronicles, which will be set during Bloody Mary’s reign.

What book/s do you recommend for people wanting to learn more about the life of Juana of Castile?

Unfortunately, there is only one nonfiction book in English in print at this time, Bethany Aran’s Juana of Castile. However, I understand the biographer Julia Fox will be publishing a dual biography of Juana and Catherine of Aragón in 2011, and there are many books available on Juana in Spanish, including Manuel Fernandez Alvarez’s masterful biography of her.

If you could ask any historical personality a question, who would it be and what would you ask?

That’s a tough question! It’s almost impossible to pick just one. But if I had to, I think I’d like ask Catherine de Medici how she introduced underpants to the French court.  It would be fascinating to know just how she managed it J.

Thanks so much for inviting me, Natalie. Readers can visit me at http://www.cwgortner.com to learn more about my books and to schedule book group chats.



  1. Fabulous interview !!!!
    CJ, i have both your books on Juana and Catherine de Medici (Both next on my reading pile) From friends who admire you, they tell me your “female voice” is so spot on. Its not always an easy task for a male writer to pull off. How do you do it ?
    I truly hope your Anne gets published some day very soon !!!
    Best of luck with The Tudor Secret. I will be buying this for sure !!!

  2. So sorry, i meant CW. 🙂

    • Hi Kate, Sorry it’s taken me so long to answer this. I’m not sure how I manage to handle the female voice; I did hang out a lot with women in my childhood – grandmother, aunts, cousins, mom – so maybe I just absorbed the emotional cadence of their thoughts? In any event, it’s always a honor to hear. I hope you enjoy the books!

  3. WilesWales says:

    I sarted reading your books with “The Confessions of Catherine de Medici,” and found it both a page turner, historically accurate, and with your insight into Catherine’s thoughts, etc. Then I want on to “The Last Queen.” I have ordered all of your books now, and am eagerly awaiting the June 2012, book on the confessions of Isabella of Castille, of which I have pre-ordered! It did surprise me that on the cover of “The Confesions of Catherine de Medici” that “Booklist” reads, “Alison Weir and Phillipa Gregory fans will devour this.” Not only does it do that, but how can they even dare compare you with Phillipa Gregory? She is a “wannabe,” and writes what cannot be called historical fiction, an expert from Tudor England to Georgian England, etc. We who know the periods of history of which we are qualified, and write about those. You spent 10 years researching “The Last Queen,” etc. In short Phillipa is a fake, but most don’t realize this. I will be most upset when you don’t have another to read, as the research you put into each are so cumbersome. You are an historical fiction expert, to say the very least! Thank you! WilesWales

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