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Tuesday 21st of November 2017
Kelly Rummel 13th of November 2012 by editor 13th of November 2012
Philippa Gregory (Photo by James Stewart).
The novel queen

Famed historical fiction author Philippa Gregory attended the recent Hay Festival in Segovia. InMadrid’s Kelly Rummel soaks up her 60-minute presentation in the wonderful location of the 11th-century San Juan de los Cabelleros church

Philippa Gregory’s visit to the Hay Festival is ostensibly taking place to discuss her latest novel to be released in Spain, The Red Queen. It’s the second instalment of The Cousins’ War trilogy, but the discussion encompasses a range of topics, from Gregory’s start as a novelist, her relationship with history, her writing process, and speculation on the seemingly never-ending worldwide obsession with the Tudor dynasty.

 

First love

Gregory began her career as a historian and decided to write her PhD dissertation on obscure 17th-century novels. After four years of reading, researching and writing she found herself unable to get a job. “The dissertation was unbelievably dull!” she smiles. “So, just for my own amusement, I started writing a novel. Once I’d started, I discovered there was nothing I loved more. I was genuinely excited and enchanted by writing.”

            Having finished the book, after a considerable struggle she managed to find an agent and publisher, since which time she has never looked back. “Since that first novel, I’ve written one a year,” she says, seeming equally proud and humbled by accomplishing such a feat. When asked if it is difficult to write such a staggering amount she explains, “Editing, and publishing a book per year, with tours and talks, is hard work. Writing and research is easy.” The joy she finds in writing is evident by her enthusiasm and sparkle when talking about it.

 

Female focus

The conversation veers into a discussion of history and fiction, and why the two seem so suited for one another. Gregory illuminates the subject saying, “Of course, we get our history from fiction—history by itself can be dusty and dull. With fiction there is the excitement and magic of being able to actually take someone into the past.” As for why so much historical fiction is written by women and features female heroines, she believes, “History is documented by men doing things—military, religious, political things.” Because women are not traditionally represented, and because, as Gregory puts it, “women are better at the inner, emotional life”, it makes sense for women to be writing about women.

            “A good novel is about development of consciousness and emotions; events have to do something to the character which in turn does something to the reader,” she says. Her own methods—why and how she makes her creative decisions, and her process of planning and writing—are peppered with what she calls ‘bus stops’. “I create a timeline, putting in the weather conditions, marriages, conceptions, births, with my fictional characters doing everything their true characters did. They have to stop at each ‘bus stop’, and the gaps in the timeline give me freedom to create and develop them as people. There can be a record of what people did, but you have to imagine what they thought, and that creates what sort of person they were.”

            She further explains the advantage of writing her novels in the first person, present tense, which she almost always chooses to use: “[writing that way] denies history—it’s you walking into a banquet, you having a discussion, and it’s you learning things as they happen—history becomes present."

 

Tudor tales

As the presentation progresses, Gregory chats about her latest book, The Red Queen, and the world’s obsession with the Tudors. “What’s the attraction of the Tudors? The Protestant faith, the break from Europe, banking, document keeping—almost everything about the modern world starts with them,” she comments. Of course, the royal madness and violence certainly doesn’t diminish the intrigue.

            The Red Queen tells the story of the capable and determined child-bride of Edmund Tudor, Margaret Beaufort. Margaret capitalises on her intelligence and determination to infiltrate the House of York and subvert the support of Richard III, ultimately ensuring that her only son, Henry Tudor, triumphs as King of England. She negotiates a marriage for Henry that ends the Cousins’ War once and for all, and founds the Tudor dynasty. “She was a very capable woman, and even at such a young age [13], she knew, after a traumatic birthing, to name her son Henry, a royal name.” Margaret’s keen decision-making skills only grow from there. Very excitingly, Gregory reveals that a ten-episode series of The Cousins’ War is currently in production by the BBC and will hopefully hit screens come April 2013.

            Her charm and enthusiasm in speaking about history and fiction are truly infectious, and she is writing just as speedily as she was twenty-four novels ago, with no intention of slowing down. “I’m leaving Segovia for London this evening and I’ll be writing on the plane,” she grins. It’s hard not to want to go with her, someone for whom the past is always alive, and well, and present.

The RedQueen is published by Grupo Planeta in Spain, and Simon& Schuster in the UK, and is available now.

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