A Roundtable Discussion of Gender and the Art of Historical Fiction with Margaret George, C. W. Gortner, and Karen Essex

At the HNS Conference, C. W. Gortner and I caught the great Margaret George red-handed in the bookstore buying our books. We were so thrilled that we had to have the incident preserved for posterity!

KE: At the Historical Novel Society Conference this summer, Margaret George, C. W. (Christopher) Gortner and I answered questions about gender and the art—and marketing—of historical fiction. Margaret’s novel, The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers (1998), is now a beloved classic, and it was written in the voice of a man, about another man, but by a female author (I sound like I’m pitching Victor/Victoria!). Christopher’s new novel, The Last Queen, has received much acclaim, and it is written in the voice Juana “la Loca.” I have written in the male voice, and I feel that two of the most authentic and inspired character portraits I have ever written were Julius Caesar and the eunuch Meleager, both from my Kleopatra series.

I think it’s fair to say that all three of us challenge the notion that one can only write with authenticity in the voice of one’s own sex. If you don’t think that idea is prevalent, you should sit in on classes in academia where these discussions do go on, or in meetings at publishing houses, where suddenly, historical fiction has become bifurcated by sex: men write historical adventure, and women write female driven personal drama. The glory days of Mary Renault and Marguerite Yourcenar, who I daresay influenced all of us, are long behind us!

KE: Chris, Margaret, do you think that this idea of writing according to one’s own sex is reader-driven or publisher-driven? And do you think that this “branding” is constructive in either the marketing sense or the creative sense, or does it limit our creativity? Have you gotten feedback from your readers on these issues?

MG: I think the publishers are responding to what they imagine readers think. This recent distrust of having a narrator who isn’t a member of the group he/she is speaking for may have started with the academic ‘gender studies’ programs that were so fiercely defensive about turf. Women’s Studies in particular seemed angry that men had written in the female voice. They seemed to feel it was another example of being taken over by men, silenced by them, exploited by them. From there it spread out into the idea that no one except a woman had a right to write as a woman. Earlier it had been blacks and whites, gays and straights, and also actors portraying anyone other than their own group that were frowned upon. I was told I couldn’t write about Alexander the Great because I wasn’t gay, but at the time no one objected to my writing as a man, only as a gay man.

KE: I remember having a fierce argument in graduate school with a lecturer who put forth the politically correct argument that one could only write accurately from one’s own gender/race point of view. I stood up and said that I thought that Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary were pretty good portraits of women, though written by men. She actually disagreed. And yet I must say that the lack of women’s stories written in women’s voices throughout history has been a motivating factor in my writing. Margaret, I think we may be two of the only women who have told K(C)leopatra’s story from the female point of view! And that’s in the scope of 2000 years. And our portraits of her definitely rescue her from the old “she was nothing but a seductress” stereotype. So we have to give some validation to the idea of women telling women’s stories (finally!). And yet I would hate to see literature become limited to that construct.

MG: Until recently, the [publishing] industry seemed less defensive about a woman writing as a man, perhaps because men didn’t complain about it. People were more puzzled than anything else that I would want to write as Henry VIII, because they didn’t think we had anything in common. As if being human with human appetites and failings isn’t having something in common! Men have told me they did not have trouble accepting the voice as a man’s, and as Henry’s. I figure, a man would know if I didn’t sound like a man, right?

It certainly isn’t constructive in the creative sense (“stick with your own kind” is pretty restrictive) and it’s a lazy sort of marketing device. But people like brands and want to identify an author with a certain sort of product. I remember when John le Carre wrote a love story. But the readers didn’t want love from le Carre, they wanted spies! And Anne Rice switching from vampires to Jesus…well, it’s unsettling for readers. She probably lost most of her old regulars and picked up a new crowd. I think, compared to switching genres, switching genders (pun unintentional) is a lesser sin in the publishing world.

CWG: I think to a certain extent that both [publishers and readers] are driving the trend. Publishers provide what readers buy, and I have heard throughout the years that some readers prefer books written by their own gender. I think gender interests come into play, as well: men tend to gravitate to the fast-paced thriller / adventure stories and women tend to prefer personalized dramas. However, it is totally without merit to even suggest that this is always true. On the contrary, I think many readers cross over into different genres and often don’t care about the author’s gender as long as the story is well told. However, with the ongoing success of the first-person female POV in historical fiction, now I believe we’re starting to see an emphasis on this POV being required. I think “branding” in this fashion can be very limiting, in that it does curtail the breadth of stories we might want to tell. It basically cancels out the perspective of half the population if you cannot tell a story from, say, the male POV.

KE: I know! The only objection I have to my book covers is that they are so darned “pretty” and so strongly marketed to women that no man would be caught dead carrying one up to the cashier at a bookstore. And yet men always like my books because they are full of two things that men generally like—sex and history!

CWG: I recently had this discussion with another author; I mentioned a book I wanted to write about feuding medieval kings who were half-brothers and the immediate response was: “Do you have a female POV to tell it through?” It’s becoming the rule, rather than the method you as the author arrive at as the best way to tell your story. I believe that the story should dictate the POV or gender in which you choose to write. As writers we should be invisible; that’s one of the marvels of our craft: to become our characters and lose ourselves. Even more so than actors, as we can, by writing, be of another gender or even a different species. Sharon Penman, one of my new writer friends and an amazing talent, summed it up quite nicely this way: Imagine if editors had told Richard Adams, “But you’re not a rabbit! How can you write from an animal’s perspective?” We would never have had WATERSHIP DOWN.

What I mostly get as feedback from my readers is praise that they couldn’t tell a man had written THE LAST QUEEN. I’ve also had a few tell me they knew at once and I got it all wrong, but that’s to be expected. You can’t please everyone.

KE: Well having read your book, I can tell you that you didn’t get anything “wrong!” It was amazing, and it haunted me for weeks. When I am writing in the male voice, I do try to put on a man’s thinking cap. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to understand men that I feel I have a right to write from their points of view! And I do try to apply what I have learned. Men are much more direct than women, and they do tend to literally mean what they say (exception: when trying to get a woman into bed). Women tend to be more indirect and begin sentences with “I think” and “Maybe.” We are also more cunning. So that when I write male and female dialogue, I am coming from different perspectives. Do either of you have special techniques that you use, or things that you keep in mind, or do special research when you write in a voice that is the “other” gender?

MG: I try to really get inside their heads and think as they think; their slant due to their gender is part of that. If I know their actions then sometimes they fit into a pattern common to that gender, sometimes not. For example, I’m not sure about the ‘never asking for directions’ earmark of being male. Henry VIII didn’t seem to mind asking for directions, but then he didn’t feel obligated to follow them. Was that a ‘male’ trait, or was it a ‘royal’ trait? In his case it was often hard to tell. And of course all these characters have their own idiosyncrasies that may vary from the regular sex stereotypes. Henry really liked to dress up; he was totally into clothes. (Female?) On the other hand, he was also into technology. (Male?)

CWG: I employ basic acting techniques in which I focus on divesting myself of my conscious self, my ego, in order to “inhabit” my character. It can take time, and several drafts, before I find that space or voice; but I have found that with effort I can usually “become” the character I’m writing and see the world through her eyes. What I’m always very careful about is not to inject my personal sensibilities or reactions into my character, but rather allow her to react as she should, according to who she is. There were instances, for example, in THE LAST QUEEN when I didn’t necessarily agree with the way Juana handled herself; nevertheless, she did behave as she was envisioned as a character. It sounds complicated when I try to explain it, but in truth the process itself can be very organic and natural to me as a writer.

KE: I think that’s a very important point. So often we, the authors, do not approve of what a character is doing or wants to do, but if we impose our own value system on them, they cease to be who they are and just become less interesting mini-me’s.I’m dealing now with a protagonist who insisted on starting out much more conservative than I wanted her to be. What can you do but listen to them?

CWG: As far as special research goes, there are certain aspects of being a woman I did have to talk to girlfriends about: the feeling of being pregnant, for one, as well as the sensations of giving birth. I also, for THE LAST QUEEN, did some “field research:’ I borrowed a Renaissance gown from a friend who performs re-enactment and tried it on for an hour or so, to get a feel for its weight and how the body feels when covered by such heavy layers of fabric. I discovered your movements become more slow and cautious, thereby revealing the vaunted elegance of Renaissance women, which was something I wouldn’t have necessarily known had I not worn the dress.

KE: While we are talking about limits, can we also talk about locale? Many writers of historical fiction get branded not only by gender, but by period and location. Writers are advised to stick with one period and one country. Is this marketing, or is this because readers have very specific interests and obsessions?

MG: I would say “both.” After Henry VIII, I had wanted to do Cleopatra and was told by a publisher, “Oh no, that’s not your period!” That struck me as odd because I had only written one book. They went on to warn me that writing about different periods or settings would dilute my ‘brand’ and if I wrote about too many of them, I’d have no ‘brand’ at all.

After six books, written in two time periods, (ancient and Tudor) I’d say that you can do two and maybe three, but if you try to do more you will be perceived as not having much expertise in any of them, more like a journalist who flits from the Kennedys to the Great Wall of China to the Inquisition without much depth. The faster the books are written, and the closer together they are published, the stronger this impression will be, for it takes time to master material in any meaningful way.

I was also warned that you don’t necessarily carry your readers with you when you change time periods. I think that’s true to some extent. There are readers who are loyal to one time period but don’t have much interest in others. At the same time it’s fun to meet a new population of readers. The “Helen of Troy” crowd was different from the “Henry VIII” crowd, although there was some overlap.

CWG: I think in the US in particular there is a significant emphasis on England and the Tudor / Plantagenet eras. I think marketing does come into play: readers get excited to discover a certain time period through a particular author and will want to read more, explore more deeply, along with that writer. However, certain time periods can become oversaturated (see “Tudors”) and while I understand there is tremendous interest in the era, I for one start to get impatient if that is all that’s being offered to me as a reader. I’m by nature very interested in world history and there are so many fantastic places and characters to write about, I just can’t see myself being limited to one. For now, my focus is on the later medieval and renaissance periods, but I want to be able to wander if I find a story that compels me. Certain writers “branded” themselves in one era, and do it splendidly, book after book. Personally, I would find it confining as a writer, though from the publishing perspective I can see how this branding can help build a career.

KE: I, too, would find it confining. I know that as an author, it is equally important to keep myself entertained as it is to entertain the reader. I practically get a Ph.D in every period I write about, but that is because the research is truly edifying for me. On some days I wish I could be the sort who takes one period and writes 25 books about it. Oh, how much easier my life would be! On the other hand, I think we have to follow our own creative drives and desires or what we produce will not be exciting to either us or to the readers.

KE: Margaret, you pioneered the Tudor craze in historical fiction with your book about Henry and Mary Queen of Scotland & The Isles (1997). Now it’s the most popular period for readers of historical fiction. After digressing to Egypt, Israel, and Troy, you are returning to it with your new book about Elizabeth I, which you’ve just finished. What made you return to the Tudors?

MG: Elizabeth was always ‘the elephant in the room’ in my mind, the remaining legendary Tudor who needed to join the others on my bookshelf. But—hence the elephant analogy—she was so big. Not actually, but historically. She was such an icon, in some ways appearing not even human, with her gigantic ruffs and stiff, galleon-like bejeweled costumes that transformed her into an idol for public appearances. She reigned for so long—44 years—and so much happened during her reign. I just didn’t see how it was possible to encompass all that within a book that didn’t need a wheelbarrow to carry. Publishers are more and more concerned about length, and readers want shorter books as well. That seemed a contradiction in terms with Elizabeth.

Finally I realized that I had already covered her childhood in The Autobiography of Henry VIII and her middle years in Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. So I could start after that, in 1587, and go forward. This still made for a regular-sized book. The later part of her life is what we think of when we hear the word “Elizabethan”: the Armada, the Tilbury Speech (“ I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England, too”), Shakespeare, the Earl of Essex, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Ralegh’s Virginia colony, and so on.

KE: I know that for myself, when I get an idea for a novel, it starts to literally heat up inside me like some kind of electricity. It’s a force and an energy that I couldn’t stop if I wanted to because its locale isn’t my “brand.” I’m leaping into the late Victorian period and into the gothic and the occult for my next book, but it’s because I literally couldn’t stop myself from writing the story. It’s in a female voice and it’s an historical novel, but still, it’s a departure for me. Luckily, I have an amazing publisher who says, “you go, girl.” And I hope that readers will follow. I think that every artist throughout time has had to balance creative instincts with the marketplace. It’s nothing new!

KE: Christopher, you are half-Spanish and completely bi-lingual, not to mention schooled in Spanish history. But your next novel is about Catherine de Medici. Tell us a little bit about your leap to another country, and also, if you are planning to return to telling a Spain-based story any time soon?

CWG: As I said before, I do like to wander. After 16th century France and Catherine de Medici, I’m hoping to write about a woman in early 15th century Italy during the rise of the Borgias, then, if I’m lucky, I’d like to return to Spain, but in the latter-half of the 16th century Spain, in the court of Philip II. After that, who knows? I’ve always had a hankering for ancient Egypt . . .

KE: Which brings you around to turf that Margaret and I have already trodden upon, so that seems a great full-circle sort of place to end our discussion. Thanks a million to both of you for joining in.