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.
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.