Au­thor in­ter­view: his­tor­i­cal fiction queen Philippa Gre­gory

With her lat­est tale from Tu­dor times now grac­ing our book stores, Philippa Gre­gory talks to Ni­cola Rus­sell about how she dis­cov­ered the love of his­tory that led to her be­com­ing one of the world’s most pop­u­lar nov­el­ists.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

She’s the Queen of his­tor­i­cal fiction, with 30 books penned and mil­lions of copies of her nov­els sold around the world. Best known for her work about the Tu­dors, Philippa Gre­gory’s lat­est novel Three Sis­ters, Three Queens, is an­other story from the pe­riod, this one told from the per­spec­tive of Henry the VIII’s sis­ter, Mar­garet Tu­dor, but set in Scot­land – new ter­ri­tory for Philippa.

“It was ex­cit­ing to do be­cause ge­o­graph­i­cally it is very dif­fer­ent,” the au­thor says from her home in York’s coun­try­side. “There aren’t many his­tor­i­cal nov­els set in Scot­land, and noth­ing very much writ­ten about Mar­garet, so it was in­ter­est­ing to go to a new place with a new char­ac­ter.”

Mar­garet Tu­dor has been on Philippa’s radar for decades. “She was a woman in power dur­ing a pe­riod when women didn’t have very much power, and what she did with it is com­pletely fas­ci­nat­ing. She ruled Scot­land as Re­gent while her son was grow­ing up, but that led her into con­flict with the Scots lords.

“She leads a phys­i­cally ad­ven­tur­ous and dan­ger­ous life and di­vorces her second hus­band before Henry has di­vorced Kather­ine of Aragon – so she brings to Henry’s at­ten­tion fe­male sex­u­al­ity and de­mands for au­ton­omy.”

“Henry is in­cred­i­bly against her be­ing di­vorced and tells her she isn’t fit to rule, isn’t fit to be his sis­ter and she will go to hell. Then 10 years later he is do­ing ex­actly the same thing. So she is a very in­ter­est­ing coun­ter­point to Henry VIII’s life.”

Philippa’s re­search took her to Scot­land, where she fa­mil­iarised her­self with Scone Palace and Stir­ling Cas­tle, and spoke to Scot­tish his­to­ri­ans. “It took about 18 months to feel con­fi­dent enough to start writ­ing, and I wrote the novel over­lap­ping the re­search time, as I al­ways do, which took about a year.”

It is part of the rules Philippa, 62, has for writ­ing her books. “There are some cri­te­ria I al­ways meet – I al­ways make sure I am ab­so­lutely con­fi­dent that I un­der­stand all of the re­search ma­te­rial when I start, so I have a very clear idea of the events. I never im­prove the his­tory to suit the story and if the his­tory is un­known then I go for the most likely op­tion.”

She has re­ceived some crit­i­cism for fac­tual in­ac­cu­ra­cies in her nov­els, but Philippa says much of that comes from a lack of un­der­stand­ing of what his­tor­i­cal fiction is. “I am ac­cu­rate to the his­tor­i­cal event [as it is] known at the time I am writ­ing. I re­ally can’t be blamed for what his­to­ri­ans are go­ing to dis­cover af­ter­wards. When I make a change to the known his­tory it is gen­uinely be­cause I think the known his­tory needs up­dat­ing.

“Some of the crit­i­cisms I got for The Other Bo­leyn Girl cen­tre around the date of birth of Anne Bo­leyn, which when I was writ­ing the novel wasn’t es­tab­lished and is now al­most cer­tainly dif­fer­ent than what I gave her. But it

would be ridicu­lous for me to go back and change a novel on the ba­sis that his­tory has changed since I wrote it.”

She says the process for writ­ing each novel dif­fers greatly and there is no spe­cific for­mula.

“I do re­ally seek the psy­cho­log­i­cal truth about the char­ac­ters as well as the his­tor­i­cal truth about their ac­tions, and that of course de­pends upon my ideas of what is the truth of peo­ple. So it’s very au­thored and in that sense can’t be for­mu­laic.”

The process also de­pends on the amount of re­search that has al­ready been done by oth­ers.

“Some sto­ries are very well told and so easy to ac­cess, so re­search­ing a well-known char­ac­ter is re­ally easy.

The dif­fi­culty is prob­a­bly the vol­ume of ma­te­rial – you could read lit­er­ally hun­dreds of books.”

She says re­search­ing Mar­garet Tu­dor was much harder. “There are only two or three bi­ogra­phies about her, and some of the early Vic­to­rian his­tory is very neg­a­tive to­wards her so you have to read through it.”

Her re­search in­volved read­ing orig­i­nal let­ters be­tween Henry and his sis­ter. “You are work­ing with doc­u­ments as old as the peo­ple them­selves – in this case 500 years old – to find out where Mar­garet is and what she is do­ing. Even then you have to read them with a pinch of salt be­cause they might be ly­ing. You have re­ally got to un­der­stand the peo­ple who are writ­ing the let­ters.”

It’s some­thing that has be­come eas­ier with each novel she writes. “As I go on, it is not just a story about the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter; I un­der­stand who all the other peo­ple are that I meet again and again in dif­fer­ent books. More and more I un­der­stand it is a com­pany pro­duc­tion, not a solo script.”

Philippa writes wher­ever she is at the time – at home or while trav­el­ling. “At home I have a study which is filled with books and maps and notes and pic­tures. When I am away, I have learnt to write any­where. If I am in an air­port lounge and my flight is de­layed I will sit down and write.

“My daugh­ter has a young fam­ily, and they live two hours away from me, so I travel to them overnight once a week or so and take my lap­top,” says the mother-of-one.

Philippa first re­alised the ex­tent of her love for lit­er­a­ture at jour­nal­ism col­lege, where she would read English lit­er­a­ture in the li­brary ev­ery lunchtime. “I went, ‘This is ridicu­lous – if you are this in­ter­ested in lit­er­a­ture you should have gone to uni­ver­sity,’” she re­calls.

At 21 she was in­deed ac­cepted to Sus­sex Uni­ver­sity, where she be­gan to study English Lit­er­a­ture. As part of the de­gree she was re­quired to take two other hu­man­i­ties pa­pers, so she took a his­tory class.

“I had the im­mense good for­tune to study with an in­cred­i­bly in­spir­ing his­to­rian, Mau­rice Hutt. The minute I took his course I re­alised that was the only thing I wanted to do. From that mo­ment un­til now, I have been a full-time stu­dent of his­tory.”

From there she went on to do a PhD at Ed­in­burgh Uni­ver­sity, in­tend­ing to teach as a his­to­rian. But with no posts avail­able at that time, she in­stead wrote her first novel, Wideacre, which be­came a world­wide best­seller. A con­tract for three books fol­lowed.

“I thought when I’d writ­ten them I would go back to uni­ver­sity and teach, but I found that writ­ing his­tor­i­cal nov­els, par­tic­u­larly those about un­known women, was a com­pletely sat­is­fy­ing way of study­ing his­tory.”

There’s no doubt it was the right choice for Philippa, who has sold more than 10 mil­lion copies of her books. “The feed­back I get from read­ers is so pos­i­tive and so mov­ing and often very personal. I meet a lot of peo­ple who fall in love with his­tory through my nov­els. Some of them ac­tu­ally go on to study his­tory, par­tic­u­larly read­ers who come to me quite young. That’s an ex­traor­di­nary thing, that you can in­flu­ence some­one in terms of their work and life choices – it’s huge.

“For some women it is an ex­pe­ri­ence of em­pow­er­ment to read about these women who took on so much.”

The lead in her lat­est novel is a prime ex­am­ple of a brave woman over­com­ing ad­ver­sity. “Phys­i­cally and men­tally, Mar­garet is very strong, and she does a long jour­ney from Ed­in­burgh to Ber­wick in flight from an in­vad­ing army when she is heav­ily preg­nant. She sur­vives five or six child­births and lives a full life to her last days.”

In fact, Gre­gory says Three sis­ters, Three Queens – like The Other Bo­leyn Girl, which had two movie adap­ta­tions – has all the in­gre­di­ents for a film.

“This book has ev­ery­thing you would want in a movie. It has val­our and bat­tles and love af­fairs and a fan­tas­tic cen­tral char­ac­ter charg­ing around Scot­land in amaz­ing scenery – I mean, what is not to like re­ally?”

She ad­mits, how­ever, that the thought does make her ner­vous. The his­to­rian ex­plains that while she does her ut­most to re­flect known his­tory in her nov­els, once she sells the film rights, she has no con­trol over the treat­ment. “As the writer of the orig­i­nal ma­te­rial you are very, very far down the peck­ing or­der and so, alas for me, they do what they want for the film. Some­times that is way too far from the orig­i­nal novel for my lik­ing.”

But there is lit­tle time to con­cern her­self with that. Philippa is cur­rently tour­ing her lat­est book and while she trav­els she is re­search­ing her next. “At the mo­ment I am think­ing about Jane Grey. She is an ex­traor­di­nary char­ac­ter – a gen­uine Protes­tant mar­tyred for her faith, a young girl re­tain­ing to the gal­lows her ver­sion of what mat­tered.


“I meet a lot of peo­ple who fall in love with his­tory through my nov­els.”

Three Sis­ters, Three Queens by Philippa Gre­gory, pub­lished by Si­mon & Schus­ter, is avail­able now.

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