You’ve written two best-selling novels about Anne Boleyn. Can you tell us something about your inspiration for them?
I wrote The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn because I thought she was totally misunderstood, especially about her part in the Reformation. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened without Anne Boleyn but it happened when it did in England because of her. And then, too, I was fascinated by the idea of exploring the relationship between Anne and her mother. In the biographies and histories, I never could find more than a couple of sentences about it. And as I started to get older- I didn’t write this book until I was close to fifty–the more I realized that it doesn’t matter how old you are or whether your parents are dead, they continue to have a huge influence in your life. Even if Elizabeth didn’t speak her mother’s name until twenty years after she died and even if she believed the spin around her and all the bad press–that her mother was a whore and a witch, and so forth- even so she would be influenced by her.
And history provides some intriguing hints. We know that very shortly after Elizabeth took the throne, within a couple of years, she started giving honors and grants and lands and titles to the Boleyn relatives who had lived through Henry’s reign. She started wearing a ring (some say a locket) with her mother’s miniature in it. Perhaps, I thought, her attitude toward her mother changed at some point? And if so, what made her change? Did she learn something about her mother? And I thought, well, if she learned the truth about her mother and how strong her mom was, and how false the rumors and the charges were, that would impact Elizabeth’s life.
And, you know, it touched a nerve. The books have been published in fourteen languages.
It seems as though a big reason for its success, besides the fact that it’s a wonderful read, is that it explores an emotional terrain that has deep meaning for most of us.
Right, probably the most important relationship in our lives. And it also “answers” some questions about Elizabeth, because the way I tied it up is that when she learned about the power of men from her mother’s diary, she realized that you needed to hold on to your power when it came to men. That was the reason—a fiction, but something I do believe—that she decided never to marry.
And what about Mademoiselle Boleyn? How did the idea of that come to you?
Actually, I had been doing the research for Signora da Vinci, and when I read that Leonardo was in the French court of Francois I around 1515, it occurred to me that those were the years that Anne and Mary Boleyn were there. I went back to my Boleyn research books and found that it was true. The sisters were very much in the “inner circle” of Francois’ court, and the King considered Leonardo his best friend. He went to visit him every day at a chateau just a couple of hundred yards downriver from Amboise (sometimes using a secret tunnel). I deduced that Anne must of met the Maestro while she was a teenager (and during the time Mary was Francois’ mistress). That was the germ of the idea. Then I realized that no historical fiction had ever shown this period of the Boleyn girls’ lives in any depth. So much happened to Anne. It was the place (and under the tutelage of the King’s sister, the Duchess Margaret D’Alencon) that Anne received her “progressive” religious training, as Margaret was a Lutheran (in a deeply Catholic court). And it was here, I reckoned, that Anne – watching her sister be handed around to all of the courtiers when Francois tired of her – realized she needed to withhold sexual favors (which she did for six years with Henry) if she wanted to keep any control of her life.
What do think fiction can do that non-fiction cannot?
It allows us to do what I call “extrapolation.” I’ll give you an example. Remember the scene when Anne is in the Tower of London after her arrest, and she’s hoping that Henry is going to come and intervene and get her out of this mess–and instead Cranmer shows up? Every book I read took me up to that moment where Cranmer came in to the her tower room with a document that he said Henry wanted Anne to sign, claiming that Elizabeth was a bastard child. But nobody knows what actually happened between them in the tower and it’s especially intriguing because he was a good friend of hers, who shared her religious views and who was seriously shocked when he found out about the charges against her. All we know, though, is that he came in with that document, and walked out with it signed. To me, filling in that chasm of unknowing was one of the greatest challenges, to take everything I’d learned about Cranmer and Anne…and turn it into the drama of that chapter. I still think it is one of the best chapters I have ever written. Is it historically verifiable? No. But it gets us from point A to point B in a way that the actual history can’t. And it was such an important moment because Anne had struggled for all of those years to ensure that Elizabeth was a legitimate princess. She sacrificed a lot and she’d taken a lot of chances. Then with a sweep of the pen, she gave Elizabeth up. She must have done that because she knew it wouldn’t go well for her daughter if she didn’t. Anne was facing her end, but wanted to make sure that Henry didn’t come after Elizabeth. Tragic—and inspiring.
Philippa Gregory, in various interviews and Q and A sessions, has claimed that everything she writes is based on “historical probability.” While she admits to “filling in the gaps”–which seems exactly appropriate for a fiction writer—many would argue that she does much more than this, that she ignores the historical record to create an alternative narrative, which she then passes off as grounded in history. She seems to want to claim for herself both the status of historian and the prerogatives of a fiction writer. Care to comment?
I always feel like I am stepping on eggshells when I talk about Phillipa Gregory because her books have been so wildly successful, and she’s brought many readers who otherwise wouldn’t have read historical fiction to our genre, so it can sound like sour grapes. But the fact is that I find what she has done disturbing. Because of The Other Boleyn Girl, an entire generation of readers, mostly young women, believe that Anne was a horrible, scheming woman who would steal her sister’s child, sleep with her brother, was involved in witchcraft, poisoned people, had a horribly deformed child. It’s just incredible!
And you’re right, I think part of the reason why some readers are so annoyed with Ms. Gregory is that when she is questioned she defends the historicity of it.
When TOBG was written, our common editor at Touchstone asked me if I would give the book a blurb because Secret Diary had been published several years before, and it was the only historical novel in quite a while to have tackled Anne Boleyn. Our editor sent me the manuscript and I read it. It was a great read, a page turner, but I was completely appalled at the path she’d taken with Anne. Every false rumor, every nasty thing that anyone had ever said about her, Gregory turned into the truth in her book. This wasn’t a blunder. It was intentional. Clearly she did her research, but then she decided what was going to be most dramatic and entertaining, and that was what she wrote. I’m sure she is a scholar and knows what is truth and what’s not, but what’s going to work in the storyline that will hook the most readers is what seems to matter to her. It’s really hard to fight it, though, because when you are that successful, publishers don’t care. And you can argue that she has every right, because she’s a historical fiction author. The upshot for me was that when I was asked to blurb the book, I said no. I refused the blurb on principle. I had come to love the person that Anne Boleyn was. I deeply respected her. I felt she had stood up to a half-mad male despot and lost her life for her courage and convictions. I thought The Other Bolyen Girl was an unnecessary smear-job. A poke at a long-dead woman who couldn’t defend herself. I hope people will read Secret Diary so they can see the other perspective, and let them decide for themselves what kind of person Anne was.
Along the same lines, Some defenders of Philippa Gregory have argued that “all history is interpretation anyway.” This was said, for example, by Natalie Portman, who played Anne in “the Other Boleyn Girl.” Neither she nor Scarlet Johansen nor Eric Bana did much research beyond readed PG’s novel, and seemed to think that getting the costuming and accents right was sufficient, because “all you got from historians was competing views, anyway.” Care to comment?
As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding. It was a great cast but a bad movie. There was no chemistry between any of the characters, and the story (unbeliebably) was forgettable. How could THAT story be forgettable?
What did you think of “The Tudors”?
I was addicted to the show. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I didn’t like “Elizabeth,” the movie that Michael Hirst did, and of course he wasn’t completely sticking to facts with The Tudors, either, but I thought his portrayal of Anne was pretty darn decent. I mean I loved Genevieve Bujold in “Anne of a Thousand Days”, but that whole movie in retrospect, as wonderful as it was, gave all of the credit for the Protestant Reformation to the men. I think Natalie Dormer was fantastic. I think she is the best of the lot of actresses who’ve played Anne. Of course, having such an extended series, not having to squeeze everything into a two hours movie, helped as well. I actually thought it was especially good as far as Anne’s potrayal was concerned.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Well, I am working with an Australian producer on developing The Wild Irish and the Queen’s Bastard as a cable series. I’ll co-produce, and I will be one of the main writers, as I’ve adapted a number of my novels into screenplays. I was actually a screenwriter long before I started writing novels. The Wild Irish (the fourth in my Elizabethan Quartet) show Elizabeth in her later years – after she went from being her mother’s daughter (audacious, courageous) to her father’s daughter (manipulative and murderous). She basically killed half the population of Ireland in trying to colonize the country and subjugate the people, Where she had been a heroine in the first three books of the quartet, she became the villain in the fourth. The heroine was Grace O’Malley, who was brought up by her father on a pirate ship and became a female “Braveheart” and the Mother of the Irish Rebellion against England. In the midst of the revolt, when Grace would have been considered a traitor, she sailed her ship up the Thames, parked in front of Greenwich Castle, marched in and demanded an audience with Elizabeth–which she got–and in front of the whole court made three huge demands on Elizabeth. One, to release her son, who was also an Irish rebel, from the English prison in Ireland. Two, to remove a particularly brutal captain that was ravaging Western Ireland, and three, she demanded a pension from Elizabeth. Elizabeth granted all of her demands!
In The Secret Diary, the book was prompted by a question – Why did Elizabeth change her mind about her mother? In The Wild Irish, the question was – why did Elizabeth grant Grace O’Malley her three demands? If you like Anne Boleyn you will love Grace O’Malley!
My next novel – it won’t be published till September 2012, is JANE: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan. It’s set in 1912 and it’s fiction, so I suppose it could be considered historical fiction. But it was written (with the full authorization and support of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate) as a Tarzan classic. It’s the first novel in the ERB Tarzan franchise to be penned by a woman, and the first of the series written from Jane’s point of view. It crosses several genres (adventure, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and women’s literature), but at its heart it is, like all my other books, the story of a strong, fabulous woman who stands tall under extraordinary circumstances.
Any final words for our readers?
I’m constantly aware that if it hadn’t been for Anne Boleyn and her extraordinary life I never would have had this career. So I feel like I have a very personal relationship with her. It was because of her that my husband, Max, and I were able to move out of LA, and now own 22 acres in a high desert paradise. It’s extraordinary. For years after we bought the property, and sometimes even now, we come in through the gates, and we cannot believe what we have, and we say “Thank you Anne”, “Thank you Henry.” It’s bittersweet. Sometimes I think: the tragedy of her life…it made my career. Thank you, Anne Boleyn, thank you!