LOS ANGELES—Gruesome it may be to ponder, but it is a matter of fact that Mary, Queen of Scots, lost her head on Feb. 8, 1587.
When Philippa Gregory is writing one of her historical novels, she can’t afford to do so.
“The history always comes first,” Gregory said in an interview during a recent visit to America to promote “The Other Queen.” “The story is set for me by the historical record.”
Make no mistake: The author of “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Constant Princess” loves being a storyteller. But Gregory, who lives in Yorkshire, England, also holds a doctorate in literature from the University of Edinburgh and takes a scholarly approach to researching her novels.
The latest, “The Other Queen,” focuses on the social, political and religious turmoil surrounding Elizabeth I and Mary. The latter was a Catholic when it was not exactly good to be a Catholic on English soil. Mary also was accused, perhaps falsely, of being involved in assassination plots against Elizabeth.
So how does a clear-eyed writer, faithful to history, find her way into the fiction side of the equation?
“One of the things about the Tudors is that they didn’t (engage in) self-reflection,” Gregory said. “You never get a diary which tells you about someone’s inner life or thoughts or feelings; you only ever get a diary which tells you about events. So in a sense I have to analyze these people. I look at what they do, their published letters, and sometimes if I’m lucky I get their prayers; if they’ve written a prayer book, I know what they prayed. From that, I create a fictional character who I think is as close as I can get to the person from the past.”
It must work: In the United States alone, Gregory has 6 million readers. I asked her, though, if her fans’ enthusiasm ever intimidates or stymies her as a writer.
“No. I make a very clear distinction in my mind between the marketing of the object which is for sale, the book, and my job when I’m alone in my study, which is to create a work of art. When I’m at my work, a spinner at the loom, I don’t think about anybody else—the market, the editors, the fans or anybody. I’ve got enough to worry about. It has to be absolutely accurate historically, beautifully written enough to satisfy me, the best book I’ve ever written. That’s plenty. I can’t be worrying about how it’s going to go down.”
Gregory’s work has considerable range; some of her novels have focused on the 18th century. Of late, though, she has concerned herself with the Tudors—the fractious royal bloodline that lasted more than a century, from 1485 to 1603, and included Henry VIII, the oft-married monarch who broke with Catholicism and established the Church of England.
Elizabeth I was daughter to Henry and one of his wives, Anne Boleyn. Mary was of a different line, the Stuarts, and was cousin to Elizabeth. Yet at one time under English law, Mary had a strong claim to the English throne. Henry’s will, though, declared that no Stuart could ascend.
Add the religious tension of the Catholic/Protestant schism and the usual machinations surrounding the English monarchy before it became largely symbolic, and you get the tumultuous stage on which Gregory’s “The Other Queen” takes place.
“The Tudor period is really interesting. From Henry VII right up to Elizabeth I, you really have the formation of England—we come out of being an island off medieval Europe and start to be a country with various satellite countries around us. It’s the period when empire starts, when global trade starts. That all happens during the time of the Tudors—the increase in prosperity as a country that in time will lead to the Industrial Revolution.
“And the birth of Protestantism in England changes people’s consciousness of themselves in the world, in relation to God and each other, forever. It’s a revolutionary time. A lot of what happened then made us.”
At 54, with more than two dozen books to her credit when one includes her works for children, Gregory radiates energy and confidence in her work. Fans will be happy to know she’s already plotting her next move. If all goes well, “The White Queen” will see print in 2010.
“I’m starting on the Plantagenets now, so I’m looking at the Wars of the Roses. That’s a period which is not nearly as well known as the Tudors, so it’s going to be interesting to see if the readers will step back (further) in time with me. At the moment, I think the Plantagenets were everything the Tudors were—only more violent, more amoral, more dangerous. I think it’s going to be a great book.”
While she was in the Golden State, Gregory got herself a great souvenir.
“When I got to California, I didn’t have a hat. So I went into a store, and I wanted a red hat. I don’t know any of the sports teams in America. I’m an Englishwoman; what would I know? So I found a really lovely red hat, and I put it on. I came out of the store and went for a training run with a personal trainer, and he said, ‘So, are you a Chiefs supporter?’”
Gregory laughs and adds that she also visited an “incredibly upmarket spa, and they called me ‘Kansas’ all week!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her the Chiefs play in Missouri.