I was astounded at how completely C.W. Gortner inhabited the mind of Juana la Loca in his novel, The Last Queen. So I asked him to visit me here and give me some insight into how he wrote this beautiful historical novel.
I’m often asked how I became interested in Juana la Loca. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I was raised in Spain and am half Spanish by birth. My maternal grandfather, Tomás Blanco, was a famous film actor in Spain whose career spanned from the early 40s well into the 70s; and my grandmother Pilar Gomez del Real was a well-known theater actress who portrayed Juana on stage. I lived near a castle that had belonged to Juana’s parents, Isabella and Ferdinand. Clambering to its highest tower, I knew Juana had touched these same stones, perhaps marveled, as I did, at the landscape’s beauty.
During a school trip to Granada, where Juana is buried, I found myself entranced by the marble effigy of this woman, whose face is turned away from the figure of her dead husband beside her. I immediately wanted to know more. What was she like in real life? Did she really pull her husband’s bier behind her throughout the country, venerating his corpse? What happened to her to plunge her into such despair? And what if her legend only tells half the tale? My vision of this vibrant princess who became the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne was at odds with the bereft queen of legend, so I set out to discover if what I suspected about her was true because I felt she deserved a chance to tell her side of the story.
It’s always a challenge to write a novel based on a real person because imagination is constrained by fact. For example, I can’t change the ending, even if it ends badly. There’s also the challenge of undertaking factual research. I’m obsessive about this part; I have to find out everything I can, and that means getting in contact with libraries and archives, finding out-of-print books, setting up meetings with experts in certain areas, etc.
For THE LAST QUEEN, I read over fifty books about Juana and her world. I took several trips to Spain and other parts of Europe to trace her footsteps and view all the places where she lived. I even tried on a 16th century Spanish gown so I could feel its weight and get a feel for how women moved in these ornate, heavy clothes. As a historical fiction writer, I also have to become a psychological sleuth. Facts are facts, but there’s always more than one side of a story. Juana herself left almost nothing in her own hand; much of what she said and did was channeled via accounts written men whose prejudices reflect the era and the version they were paid to tell (most historians were hired and paid by the current ruler). This is where the fictional research comes in and that can be as challenging as factual research. I have to know my interpretation of my character almost as well as I know myself; I must understand her actions and what motivates her. I can’t afford to be ambiguous: I must become the person I’m writing about and yet stay true to the facts of her life, even if she does something that I, as myself, would not do. The fun part is that in becoming my character, I see her life through her eyes and that often changes everything. It’s a matter of perception.
I actually enjoyed the challenge of telling Juana’s story in the first person. My first drafts were in third person and something elusive was missing. It was only after I allowed myself to slip into Juana’s skin, so to speak, that I began to experience her emotional complexity. There’s a general fallacy that men cannot write women as well as women can. I disagree, just as I disagree that women cannot write from the male perspective. Writers must inhabit their characters in order to bring them to life. We are not limited by gender or appearance. We are invisible. There are no limits other than our imagination.