Historical Novels: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Petra Mayer: Thank you,
everyone for coming out today. Gosh, this is such a big crowd. The lights are so bright
I’m sure you’re out there but I can’t really see you. I’m Petra Mayer. I’m the fiction editor
at NPR Books. I’m incredibly excited to be
here today with Margaret George and Philippa Gregory to
talk about their new books, The Splendor Before the Dark, a novel of the emperor
Nero, and Tidelands. So just to kick us off, can
each of you explain a little bit about what your book is about?>>Margaret George:
I’ll go first?>>Petra Mayer: Yeah,
you go first.>>Margaret George: Well actually The Splendor
Before the Dark is the second part. Nero books are two. And the first part
of one was his youth, The Confessions of Young Nero. But it stops right before
the Great Fire of Rome, so the Splendor Before the Dark
is from the most exciting things that happened in his reign,
the Great Fire of Rome and finally his downfall
in the famous death scene. So it covers a lot of the
things that happened in Rome. He was the last of the
dynasty of Julius Cesar. So that’s the fall of
that famous dynasty, that’s why it’s the
Splendor Before the Dark.>>Petra Mayer: Thank you. Philippa?>>Philippa Gregory: Tidelands
is a new departure for me. It’s a new sort of book. I apologize to everyone
who loved the Tudor and the Plantagenet books. I know you wanted another one.>>Petra Mayer: I was going
to ask you about that.>>Philippa Gregory:
[Laughter] I’m sorry. I wanted to write something
completely different and I wanted to set it in
a very different place. I wanted to be away from
the courts and the wealth and the politics, the
big politics, of England. And I wanted to go
to an ordinary family and in particular to
an ordinary woman. And my heroine is a midwife
in 17th Century Sussex. And the land she lives in
is very, very marginal. She lives in a place that’s
tidal, so sometimes it’s land and sometimes it’s sea. And she herself is
marginal to the society. She’s a deserted wife
and a single mother. And as she works as a midwife
and as all those things mean that she’s very much on the
borderline of her community who suspect her of witchcraft,
but at the same time need her for her herbal skills
and her medicinal skills. And she’s on the border of this
great story which is happening in England which is
the English civil war. I always say to American
audiences, the English civil war. [Laughter] We had one.>>Petra Mayer: [Laughter]
We know what cavaliers and roundheads are.>>Philippa Gregory:
We had it first. [Laughter] And ours
was better than yours. [Laughter] Because we
actually beheaded a king and nobody had done
that before then. And we beheaded Charles I. And she’s marginal
to that story as well in that she’s very typical
of so many people at the time that she actually doesn’t really
quite understand what’s going on because there aren’t the
communications at the time. So what I wanted to write was
a woman who was much truer to the history of
most of the people, a history of ordinary
people in England in 1648.>>Petra Mayer: That was one
of the things that I noticed about that book as I read it
was that the story existed kind of in the crevices of
history, at the margins. Is there a freedom that
you have to write there that you don’t have if you’re
writing about historical figures who we all know about?>>Philippa Gregory: There’s a
freedom when you write fiction and this, although it’s
a historical fiction, it’s set in a very clear and
well researched period of time, but it is a fictional character. So I’m free with her in a way
that you simply can’t be free with someone whose
story is on the record. And you’re not even free with the ones whose
story isn’t recorded because you have the sort
of parameters of the reality of their life to work inside. But with a completely
fictional character, I keep her inside
verisimilitude, but I don’t say she’s got to
do– I mean there is no record. There is no written record of a
specific midwife in this period or everything we
have is composite.>>Petra Mayer: I actually
wanted to ask a little bit about that because you
talk about keeping her within the bounds
of verisimilitude. And I was really fascinated
with the worlds that both of you built and I wanted to
ask about your research process. Because that’s my thing. I love world building. So, you know, when I was
reading Tidelands I felt like I could smell the marsh. And when I was reading
Splendor Before the Dark and the confessions of
young Nero, you know, I could see the gauzy draperies
and the light on the marble. So could you each
talk a little bit about how you researched
your books because it must be a much
different process, ancient Rome versus an era when there
are still some records.>>Margaret George: Well,
ancient Rome, of course, parts of it still exist and
someone once said if you want to see what ancient Rome looked
like, come to Washington, D.C. because we have more
buildings in that style than has survived in Rome itself because Rome itself had
the renaissance on top of it and the baroque. And so yes, if you want
to see a lot of beautiful, white buildings with
columns, come here.>>Petra Mayer: Our
forum is better.>>Margaret George: Yeah.>>Philippa Gregory: Hey.>>Margaret George: But I
do think that you have to go to the places where your
character lived outside of Rome. Because, you know, anybody
can go to the coliseum and you don’t have the
experience of what it was like then because for one thing
there are scores of tourists and little ticket
takers everywhere.>>Petra Mayer: And guys
dressed as centurions, yeah.>>Margaret George: Right. But by going to places outside
of Rome, like his birthplace, Antium, and the ruins
of the villa there. And he had another villa
that he was very proud of that he built
up in the hills. And there are ruins
of that up there. And there’s really
nobody around. And so I think that
way you really connect with the character and what
his life was like much more than beyond just the reading. Of course you do have to do the
reading, but I’m a firm believer in the atmosphere
of going to a place.>>Petra Mayer: So you
actually went to the places.>>Margaret George: Yes.>>Petra Mayer: And you
kind of walked in his steps.>>Margaret George: Yes.>>Petra Mayer: What
did that feel like?>>Margaret George: It was
really exciting because I felt like I had him all to myself. There was no one else
there, so you could kind of commune with the ghosts.>>Petra Mayer: It’s a little
creepy, but also fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit
about your research process?>>Philippa Gregory: I
mean, I agree completely. You have to be there. I always go to everywhere that
I write about, which includes in England, of course, some
really well known places like Hampton Court
and Windsor Castle. And in this case, in the
case of the Tidelands, this is a small harbor on
the English south coast that I knew very well anyway. I lived there for about four
years when I was in my 20s. So there was a very familiar
background for me there. But the research is always, you
know, people often say to me, you know, how do you do it? Is there like a trick? Is there sort of a
hack for research? And for me it’s just
mostly reading. It’s just tons and tons
and tons of reading. And occasionally I’ll
speak to historians of a particular aspect
of the period. And sometimes then I’ll say
like, “What’s the controversy? What’s the thing that
we are quarreling about, we as historians are
quarreling about now?” And that’s always
very interesting because it’s usually the
thing that we can’t agree now, which is the most interesting
part of the story then. But research is partly visits, but more than anything else it’s
reading, which is a good thing to say at a book
festival really. [Laughter] I particularly
like saying it to young students
go like, you know, “Surely you just find
someone who knows about it and they tell you.” You go, “No, you
actually read the book.”>>Petra Mayer: [Laughter]
But now I want to know what was the controversy
that was at the heart of Tidelands when you talk about asking people what
they were quarreling about, what historians were
quarreling about. I mean, I know what
the cavaliers and the roundheads
were quarreling about.>>Philippa Gregory:
Oh the great historian of the civil war said, when
asked what was the result of it, said, “In this century
it’s too early to tell.” But in a sense, many
of the divisions of England even today maybe
you find the divisions in your own society between a
sort of a popular upswelling or sense of injustice and
wanting a fairer share of what we called then the
commons, the common lands, and the sense that the
country was owned by an elite who were running it for
their own satisfaction. There’s a lot of people who
would feel that in England today and would, I think,
probably be right to feel that in England today. We’ve still not resolved
how to run a society for the benefit of many.>>Petra Mayer: Which
leads me to kind of a question for both of you. I read a lot of genre fiction
and what people always say is that it’s a lens
through which we can look at the issues of the present. Were you thinking about
writing books that would be in conversation with
present issues? Or were you just thinking,
“Hey, this is a good story”?>>Margaret George: Well,
probably a little of both. I felt that of all things, Nero was a very oddly
modern character. I was drawn to his
character because he, alone of the roman emperors,
we know a lot about him as a person, but he truly
did want to be an artist. And I’ve known so many
people and I bet everybody in this room knows someone
like this who wanted to be a musician, who
wanted to be a writer, they wanted to be an artist,
but instead they had to go to like pharmacy school or
something to make a living. And I feel like he
had to be emperor. I mean, too many people had died to make him emperor
and it’s not like–>>Petra Mayer: Yeah,
thanks Agrippina.>>Margaret George: It’s
not like he can say, “I don’t want that job. I want to be a musician.” So he had this pull that
so many modern people have and that gave me
real access to him. And I think we never
have really quite solved that because many more
people want to be artists than society can support. And yet, you always need
another accountant somewhere. And so you have to think
of your own livelihood. You have to support yourself and you can’t necessarily
indulge what you would like to do. You have that tension
all the time.>>Philippa Gregory:
I think the present and the past is actually
there in my study. It’s not that I go, “I want to
write a novel which takes issue with some of the
present issues.” It’s I can’t shut
the door on it. My job as a historical
novelist is to enter into a period in the past. But I absolutely know when
I look at my own novels that anybody reading it would
know that I had been educated at Sussex University
sometime in the 1980s. The interest, I mean
just writing about women’s history is an
incredibly time limited thing. You don’t find novels in
which women are real agents of the story and real agents
of the history acknowledged as that any time
before the 1950s. And even then, the
historical novels of the 1950s are
extraordinarily Freudian in their explanation
of what anybody does. [Laughter] So it’s a delight. You pick up any historical novel
and you get two periods of time. You get the period that the
author is trying to immerse you in and you get the
period that they lived in. And you can’t escape
your own consciousness. Even as a writer imagining
that you’re someone else, you’re still yourself imagining
that you’re someone else. So of course, you know, my
novel is about a woman who is at the very limits of
survival in her society. So of course she’s a
woman who is oppressed and challenged almost every
day by her circumstances. And of course that makes
you think about women who, in the modern world,
in our world today, are challenged and oppressed. And of course that
comes into it. That’s part of the
energy of the novel. But I try very hard not to
be anachronistic in any way. I don’t, in a sense,
drag in the politics like a cat bringing
in a dead bird. You know like, “You will
be interested in this because I am interested
in this.” It’s very important
to me that what comes up in the novel is
authentic to that period.>>Margaret George: I think that we can’t help though
revealing what era we’re writing even though we don’t realize it. Like movies, you can date when a historical movie is
made by, you know the 1950s.>>Petra Mayer: By the
makeup and the hairdos?>>Margaret George: Yeah,
the makeup and the hairdos and the attitudes toward,
you know, social things. So even though they’re trying
to be authentic, they really end up revealing, mirroring the
times they’re written in, I mean filmed in. So we probably do more
of it than we’d like to. [Laughter] We probably,
you know, try to get away from it, but it’s hard. It’s very hard.>>Petra Mayer: Well that’s why
historiography is so interesting because I always like
to see what people of different eras think
about the past and how that changes their approach. Nero himself was
sort of a victim of historiography I think.>>Margaret George: Oh yes.>>Petra Mayer: I mean when
we think of Nero we sort of mash him up with
Commodus and Caligula and we think oh he
fiddled while Rome burned. But apparently not.>>Margaret George: Well, yeah,
you know, it’s unfortunate that the surviving of
three main histories about him were hostile to him. It’s sort of as if
it was, you know, reporters that had
it in for him. But also he didn’t
fiddle while Rome burned. The Great Fire of Rome was
a defining thing in his life and he actually wasn’t
even there. It was a terrible fire. It burned for nine days and it
destroyed about most of Rome. It had out of 14
regions only 4 survived. And so I think it was the
greatest urban destruction before World War II
with the bombing. But he did everything
he could afterward for relief for the people. He threw open the palace
grounds and he got food down from other parts of Italy. But he was blamed for it or people started saying he
had fiddled, not at the time, but that he performed his
ode to the fall of Troy. Because he had a
thing about Troy and he had written
an epic about Troy. And it’s true that he
played the cithara, so they assumed the backdrop
was just too good to give up. That he just couldn’t resist it. That he had to get up and play. And that’s all just,
well fake news. [Laughter] But they
had fake news then. I mean, they’ve always
had fake news. It really stuck to him. And I think it really
bothered him because, you know, the truth was the opposite.>>Petra Mayer: Why do you
think he got such a bad rap?>>Margaret George: The
common people loved him. We have to set that straight. Common people loved him
and in fact the emperor who succeeded him said,
“He will always be missed by the riffraff.” He was more at home
with the common people. And the historians reporting
on him were sympathetic to the old republic
and the senate. And so they didn’t understand
even what he was all about, but they also were hostile to
him because he was actually more at home with the common people
than he was with his own class. And that didn’t fly real well.>>Petra Mayer: I feel like
class was kind of the thing that did him in because it
would have been low class for an emperor to go–>>Margaret George:
The class did him in. The chariot racing. Well Tacitus talks about
the wildest improprieties and it turns out to be
chariot racing and acting that were considered just, you
know, too lowly for an emperor.>>Petra Mayer: What
I really want to know though was was
he any good as an artist?>>Margaret George: You know
you’re asking the key question. And one historian
had said the tragedy for him is he would never know. And we can’t know because he
couldn’t get an honest judgment at the time ever. And I think any artist,
any writer, any musician, you do want to know,
you know, are you good? How good are you or whatever? But he could never
get that answer. Only four lines of his poetry
survive and none of his music. The only thing that
survives is the architecture with the Golden House, which
is his magnificent achievement in the middle of Rome;
however, he got blamed for starting the fire
of Rome supposedly so he could build this. So he just couldn’t win. But that’s the only
proof we have of whatever artistic
talent he had. And now people really
appreciate it. They’ve opened it
to the public now after many years of
it being shut up.>>Petra Mayer: I think that was
the most surprising thing to me about reading the book
was that, you know, because I also had had this
sort of standard negative view of him, that he had
this passion for art and that he may have
actually had a talent for it. And one of the things I love
about doing research and digging into stories are the
surprises that come up. This is a question
for both of you, what was the most
surprising thing that you did not expect
you would discover when you were digging
into these worlds?>>Margaret George: Well
that he was athletic. You know, it’s because
of that Peter Ustinov, speaking of the 1950s, the
Peter Ustinov portrayal of him in Quo Vadis. But he really was quite
athletic as a young man. And of course he was
always a young man because he died when he was 30. So, you know, that surprised me because you just don’t
think of Nero competing. You don’t think of
him wrestling. You don’t think of him racing
or any of those things. And so I enjoyed
discovering that. I really did.>>Philippa Gregory:
I was trying to think what was surprising. I mean, in a way the
oppression of women in medieval society
never comes as a surprise because you know that’s
how medieval society runs. But the extent of it
is quite surprising. I suppose the one single
thing really that was news to me was the fact
that Henrietta Maria, who is the Queen of Charles I, who in English school
histories is Catholic and especially Church of
England primary schools tend to rather look down
on Catholics. So, you know, that’s
strike one against her. She was very authoritative
with her husband and bossed him about,
so that’s strike two. Henrietta Maria, we don’t
like bossy little women, which is a pity since
so many of us are. [Laughter] But, you know, she’s
absolutely sort of registered in traditional history
as a poor advisor. And indeed, partly the cause
of the English civil war and certainly the cause
of her husband’s undoing since she urges him to go to
battle and strike his standard and not negotiate with
the houses of parliament. But actually what I didn’t know
about her was that she lands in England under cannon fire
and she gets her troops on land. And then she marches
round the north of England and the midlands as
a queen militant. And I simply didn’t know that
until I came to research it. It’s not very well known. She was actually far more
courageous and enterprising than the history books allow. And it is, as usual,
that the heroism of women is seen as
them interfering. And the heroism of men
is praised to the skies. But it’s a very interesting
example of the way that the slight bias of history through the generations
absolutely obscures some really interesting women.>>Petra Mayer: I actually
had no idea about that either. I mean, she’s always
kind of portrayed as this little mousy
person in the background.>>Philippa Gregory: Yeah.>>Petra Mayer: You
have written so much about royalty in the past. What made you decide that it
was time to write about somebody who was distinctly not royal?>>Philippa Gregory: I wrote about royalty very
much as an accident. And I wrote about royalty
because what I was interested in was women of history. And the only way you could find
out really easily about anything about women in history is if
they are related to someone who is so important that
his movements are recorded. And then at least you’ve
got a fighting chance of knowing where they were. I mean, it’s really striking. We don’t even know the
birth date of Anne Boleyn and you would think we know
so much about Anne Boleyn. We don’t even know when she was
born because when she was born, she was just another Tudor
girl of not much interest or importance to anybody. And after she rose to be queen,
nobody bothered to really look up and find out her
date of birth. So there are so many women of
such huge interest who play such a big part in
English history that we simply don’t know
the first things about. And the only way to find
anything about them was if, in the case of someone
like Elizabeth Woodville, when she married Edward IV, from then on her
movements are recorded because she’s mostly
with the king. Or in the case of poor
Elizabeth Woodville, pregnant. So you know where she
is for most of the time because you know where
the babies are born. So that’s really the way that
I got into the royal women. I started with Anne
Boleyn and her sister, the other Boleyn girl Mary
Boleyn, and they lead me from just an absolute
interest in their world to Catherine of Aragon. And that lead me out of an
interest in her mother-in-law to Henry Tudor’s wife,
Elizabeth, and from her to Elizabeth Woodville. You can see that just from
one character to another, all of them women, their stories
lead you to another story until at the end of it I
come up 20 years later, and realize that I’ve become a
specialist of English royalty. [Laughter] Which is a bit
unfortunate because I am by nature and spirit
anti-monarchy. [Laughter] So, you know, and
in the meantime people ask me to comment on royal
weddings and talk about them. And they are the most boring
people [laughter] in England. I’m continually saying, “I
have no interest in them. I’m only interested
in Terrence really.” [Laughter] So I’m interested in
the Boleyns and I’m interested in the Plantagenets and I’m
interested in the Tudors, but when you get to the
Windsors it’s hardly worth it. [Laughter] It’s really
not worth the trouble. However, it always was women. And so when I decided that
I would take a major change, I went this at last gives me the
chance to look at common women. And although I know I’m
not going to be able to find a single
woman’s story to follow through the historical record,
what I can do is I can look at something like a
woman who is a midwife because I can follow
the stories of midwives through the multiple
records, most of them criminal because most of them come
out of witchcraft trials. So there’s a lot of recordings about what men think
women were doing when they think they
were witches, which is of no use historically
because it’s all imaginary. However, it does tell you a lot
about what the women were doing in their normal lives. So it says that on
such and such a day, Goodie whatever her name is came
to the rich man’s gate and asked if she could borrow
a quart of milk. And when he said no and
she went away and she said under her breath,
“Well, damn you.” And he then says that’s a curse. She’s a witch. And then she’s on trial. So although all of the evidence at the trial is truly male
sexual fantasy and fiction, the events running up to the
trial often give you a real insight into these poor women who were subsequently
trapped and burned.>>Petra Mayer: And those two
things are really intersecting in your book, the changing
nature of poverty in England at that time and
the growing fear of witchcraft and women’s power. And they really sort of come
together in the character of Eleanor I think, the way she
is very luminal in her village. I don’t want to give too
much of the plot away. Can you tell us, besides what
was going on with the civil war, what are the other social issues
that are at play in her world?>>Philippa Gregory: Well
in England as in Europe at this time, there is a sort
of desire, especially in England because of Protestantism,
there’s a desire to make the management
of poverty more regular. And there’s an anxiety
about the unruly poor. And so the idea that women
can be in harvesting gangs as they were in the Elizabethan
period where scores of women at a time would travel the
country as a gleaning gang or a harvesting gang
and get drunk and behave badly
and have parties. I mean it sounds
really good fun.>>Petra Mayer: It does sound
fun [laughter] honestly.>>Philippa Gregory: Well,
that had to stop obviously. We can’t have that. So there’s a whole degree
of control which bears down upon women through
the medieval period where they are increasingly made
responsible for interior work. They’re increasingly enclosed
for the benefit of the ambition of men and the safety
of the streets. At the same time as
you’ve got this going on, you’ve got the idea that
poverty is something which should be resolved
not by individual gifts to your neighbors, but it should
be something which is organized and there should be
a parish overseer. Which means that the poor now
have to apply for poor relief. You can’t just turn up at your
neighbor’s door and ask them to help you out anymore. So it’s a very alienating
experience and it’s part of
the class divide. So the wealthy retreat more and
more behind their park gates, which later on in the next
century will become grander and more enclosed and
more beautiful parkland. And the poor are more
and more confined to poverty stricken areas, which
as it will come as no surprise to anybody, isn’t very
beneficial for them but is part of, in a sense,
the organizing of England into a very stratified society.>>Petra Mayer: And
the Tidelands is such an interesting place. Did the character come first, the story come first,
or the setting? Because the setting
is so luminal. The character is so luminal. They’re all of a piece almost.>>Philippa Gregory: As I was
writing the setting of it, I realized that I was
describing a landscape. It’s a landscape
that I really love, but the landscape itself
was almost a character. So the sea comes in and out
every day and the rhythm of everybody’s life
is based upon the sea. There’s a tide mill
which is a construction. I don’t know, do you
have them in America?>>Petra Mayer: I
don’t think so. We don’t really have tidelands.>>Philippa Gregory: Oh you do.>>Petra Mayer: Correct
me if I’m wrong.>>Philippa Gregory:
Oh you have tidelands.>>Yes.>>Petra Mayer: Oh
I am totally wrong. Thank you for correcting me.>>Philippa Gregory:
Well, I know you do because I have American
readers saying, “I know the sort of countryside you’re talking about because it’s
outside my window.” So I do know that.>>Petra Mayer: I’m from here. We don’t have tidelands
in D.C. so there. I’m right about that.>>Philippa Gregory:
I’m glad we got that. [Laughter] A tide mill is a
mill which operates exactly like a watermill except the
mill pond is filled by the tide. So when the tide comes in,
it flows into the pond, the slues gates close,
the tide recedes, and then the miller opens
the slues to the mill and the water flows out
of the tide mill pond, turns the wheel,
and grinds the corn. So there used to be hundreds
of tide mills in the UK, it being a very coastal area. And now there’s only two working
mills in the whole of England. And I went to one of them and
met the miller and had one of the most comical
conversations of historical research
I’ve ever had. So I said to him, first of all
I didn’t want to offend him. He’s a very, very devoted miller
working the only working tide mill in the UK. So this is a key
element in my research. So I talked to him about the
water filling up in the pond and the fact that you have to
mill whenever the tide is low, even if it’s in the
middle of the night. So he sometimes comes to the
mill and mills flour at night. And we went up to the top of
the mill and down to the bottom until I understood all of the
levers and the pulleys and that. And then we went
outside and we looked at this huge rather
ominous weedy green wheel and the great big deep ditch
that it turns in for the water. And I said to him, “If you
were going to put a woman on the wheel to, as it
were, drown her [laughter], how would you do that?” [Laughter] And he looked at me
in utter horror and he said, “Nobody in my dozens of years of being a miller has
asked me such a thing. This is a tide mill.” And I said, “Yeah, I
know but say you were.” [Laughter] And he said,
“Well, how heavy is she?” [Laughter] So we then
had a conversation about how you would dip a woman
on a tide mill, which again not to give away too
much but you will see that it was time well spent.>>Margaret George: [Laughter]
How many customers does this man have? Does he actually mill
enough to keep himself–>>Philippa Gregory:
Oh well he’s kind of a curator of this
mill museum.>>Margaret George:
Uh-huh, I see.>>Philippa Gregory: And
you can buy flour there and he does buy flour there,
but he’s going to have more.>>Petra Mayer: [Laughter]
I hope nobody asks him about drowning anybody on
the water wheel anymore. I do want to sort of continue on
the theme of writing about women because when I was reading
the Nero books I felt like the one real driver of
who he became, both as a man and as a myth, is
his mom, Agrippina.>>Margaret George: Yes. You know, also in his life,
women were very important. And I only realized that the
other day when I was sort of compiling a list
of the people close. So there’s his mother, Agrippina
of course who was, you know, the ambitious woman who saw that her only son could
become emperor and brought it about through all of her
various schemes and so on, which included marrying
her uncle Claudius and then poisoning
him and so on. But one of his rebellious things
as a teen is he did fall in love with this freed woman,
a former slave, and he wanted to marry her. And at that point he didn’t
have the political savvy that he later grew up to have
where he could’ve married her. But they stayed very
close his whole life and in fact he willed
some things to her. I went to an interesting exhibit
that had things from her. He set her up in business and she had a tile
factory and other things. And she was the one
who buried him. She was the one who
gave him his funeral. She was older than he was. Then his wife, Poppaea, she
was also older than he was.>>Petra Mayer: There’s
a pattern here.>>Margaret George: She
was also very bossy. And you wonder, you
know, he liked older, strong women obviously. And his last wife
was the same way. And yes, I think that she
obviously was the most dominant influence on his whole life,
but he had this love hate thing with her because she was
so overbearing and again, would want him to be
something he didn’t want to be. But she was a very magnetic,
strong personality, very clever. They say, actually speaking
of women and their roles is that of course in Rome women
had no political office. They could not hold
a political office, so you get these strong women
kind of behind the scenes, but they were not allowed a
part really in public life. And so you get people
like Agrippina and Livia who were very influential, but
frustrated because they had to work through their sons or
their husbands all the time.>>Petra Mayer: I almost
sometime think she’s the villain of the story in a way because
you talk about sort of, I mean it’s not a spoiler. We all know Nero bumped
his mom off, right? That’s not a spoiler. But you talk about that event
as bringing forth dark Nero.>>Margaret George:
Yeah, the dark Nero.>>Petra Mayer: Tell us a
little bit about the dark Nero.>>Margaret George: Well,
you know, it was like he had that side of him that he had
to let exist so he could exist. Because if he didn’t have
that for self protection, he would’ve been doomed. But I don’t think he liked it,
but on the other hand it was like people that
hire the godfather. There’s that side that he had to
keep live but he kind of wanted to put it in the closet
when he didn’t need it.>>Petra Mayer: Very good
at compartmentalizing.>>Margaret George: Yeah.>>Petra Mayer: Because
he did do some things that were objectively
fairly monstrous.>>Margaret George: Yes. Yes. Yes.>>Petra Mayer: When you talk
about how you think he wanted to keep that separate and wanted
to hide it, is there anything in the historical
record about that or is that just your feeling
about the character?>>Margaret George: It was my
feeling about the character that there were really
three of him. There was the son of Augustus,
who was the daylight emperor, but he started out as a
young emperor, you know, and he wore the Augustus
haircut. As he got older, he
ditched the Augustus haircut and grew his hair long. But he for a while would
do his daylight duties. He was very dutiful. Then there was the
artistic one that wanted to be an artist and
have long hair. And then there was the dark
one who kind of was the person who made the other two possible. And he wasn’t actually a split
personality, but they all kind of coexisted together
and he had favorites. I think we have favorite
sides and sides that we wish we didn’t have. But I think he came to accept that they all three
were necessary.>>Petra Mayer: How much
is left of his actual life? Of his saying, of his words? Is it just the four
lines of poetry?>>Margaret George: The
four lines of poetry, which aren’t even
from the same poem.>>Petra Mayer: Oh gosh.>>Margaret George: So
you can’t judge them because there’s no context. One thing is that the coinage
under his reign was the highest that Rome ever achieved,
beautiful coins that are prized by collectors. And the other thing about
him that’s odd is he just let himself be portrayed as he was. As he got heavier, because he
was very stunningly good looking as a young– well he was
always young as I said, but he put on weight and he got
a double chin and everything and the coins show this. And you can tell almost, if you
didn’t even have the date on it, you could tell when
they were minted. And those are beautiful
though, all those coins, including huge Sesterties,
which are beautifully done. So I would say the
Golden House, the artistry of the Golden House, the coins,
and those are really the things of him that remain
that you can judge now. You’re not seeing it
through the lenses of someone else’s judgment.>>Petra Mayer: Because of
course that’s how we mostly see him now. When we were emailing back and
forth before this conversation, you said something about how you
thought he was just out of time and he was in the wrong time.>>Margaret George: Yeah. It’s like some of the
things he was condemned for, the emperor Hadrian did. I mean, the emperor Hadrian
was a great lover of Greece. He also was a lover of art. He wore long hair and
he had a male lover. But we love Hadrian. Everybody loves Hadrian. But that was 50, 60
years after Nero. And so I just think that some of
the things he was condemned for, well especially the artistry,
nobody would bat an eye about it, you know,
60 years later.>>Petra Mayer: What
do you think changed? Just time passed?>>Margaret George: I just
think fashions change, like they do with us, you know. You think about how in the
last, you know, 20 years. Think about same sex marriage. Think about the fact
that we’re talking a lot about race now and slavery. Many things, you know, in just
that small amount of time, not to mention women’s
role in things. It’s amazing how things
can change not overnight but fairly fast when
they start to change. Don’t you think?>>Philippa Gregory: Mm-hmm.>>Petra Mayer: I’m being told
that we have 15 minutes left, so I would like to ask
you both one last question and then maybe we can get some
questions from the audience. And this is something I
like to ask all authors. What do you want people to
come away from your book with? How do you want them to feel? What do you want them to think?>>Margaret George:
You go first.>>Philippa Gregory:
[Laughter] Well, I never write a book wanting
to tell anybody anything. And a tremendous
number of people, and it makes me very happy,
read the books and then go on to read the historical
background or go on to read history
itself as a subject. And indeed, I have a growing
number of people who have gone to university having been
inspired by my books. And they come up to me at the
signings and it’s so lovely. I actually feel like I have
my own little university and I should be graduating them. [Laughter] But really
I’ve just spent, you know, usually when I come to
a book I’ve spent two or three years trying to
write a really good novel. And all I want them to do is
to close the book and go like, “That was a really good novel. I really enjoyed that.” If they felt that it was
superbly well written, that would be nice. [Laughter] But, you
know, and if they feel like that they have seen a
reflection of human nature, that they have got to
some kind of truth. I mean a lot of people seem
to read the books and reflect on their own lives when
they look at the survival and the courage of
women of the past. And that’s very rewarding
for me also. But really I just want them
to feel they’ve, you know, read a good book and
they’ll buy the next one.>>Petra Mayer: [Laughter]
Fair enough.>>Margaret George:
I think I wanted to portray his life almost
like a Shakespearean tragedy. And they say that at the end
of a tragedy you’re supposed to be left with a sense
of woe and wonder. And if I’ve succeeded
in doing that, that’s what I was trying to do.>>Petra Mayer: I think you did.>>Margaret George: Thank you.>>Petra Mayer: I mean,
I had no idea he was such a tragic, frustrated
artist. All right, well are there any–
there are some microphones here in each aisle if
people want to come up and ask a couple of questions. Now is the time. Come on y’all, do my job for me.>>The microphones,
where are they?>>Petra Mayer: They’re
right back there in the middle of each aisle. I see you right there. Hi.>>Hi. Thank you for
spending some time with us. Writing historical fiction,
do you find more challenges when you are trying to put
the words in the mouths of historical individuals or in composite fictionalized
individuals in the books that you create?>>Margaret George: Is
that for both of us?>>Yeah. Well you
both have both. You both have actual
historical figures and you have composite
fictionalized characters as well.>>Margaret George: I think
it’s probably easier to put them in the mouths of a real person
because that person already kind of has a track record
of what they say. And you already know what
the character is like, so it’s easier to imagine what
else they might say on a topic. I think doing it from
the fictional person, you’re creating it from
the beginning and you have to get the feel for it. Wouldn’t you say?>>Philippa Gregory: For me,
I think it’s a discovery. It’s a process of a discovery. To get a character’s voice
is probably the biggest thing that I have to do. When it’s a known
character, you have sometimes, hardly ever for women, but
sometimes you have a note of what they actually say. And that’s really
lovely to weave into their speech if you can. And I always feel like if
someone knows the history and they recognize it, then
that’s really good fun. But if they don’t, then
it shouldn’t hold them up. It should be seamless. Thank you.>>Petra Mayer: Thank you. I see somebody over there. Yeah.>>Hi. You both write
about characters that are relatively
well known, even famous. Do you ever start to
look at a person and say, “People are too invested
in this person. They feel like they know
them too well for me to try to take them on.”?>>Philippa Gregory: I’ve never
because I write about women. I’ve never, except possibly
Elizabeth I and Mary I. They’re the only ones that
people, Mary Queen of Scots, they’re the only ones that people really
think they know about. And most of what people think
they know about those women is, I think, incorrect because
there’ve been a tremendous number of hagiographers
and not histories. They’re just fan letters really. So it’s always a
pleasure actually to take on someone who’s quite
well known and see if you can see another
aspect of their lives.>>Margaret George:
Yeah, I’d agree. I’d say the same. I’d say the fun is finding
that they’re different from what people think. And you discover new things and maybe you can bring
new things out about them.>>Petra Mayer: Thank
you very much. Let’s go back to the
other side over there. If you want to ask a question, come up to the mic
otherwise we can’t hear you.>>So how do you guys
feel with portraying queer or LGBT characters
in your writing? For example, the one time Nero
kidnapped a guy and forced him to dress up as his
wife because he looked like his wife who had just died. Okay yeah, I’m good.>>Margaret George: Well, I
think it was also a grief. It was he wanted to
recreate his wife again so it’s probably a little
close to necrophilia, I hate to say it, but
anyway, than it was, you know, a same sex thing. It was much more
accepted then anyway. I think what people thought was
odd about it was that he tried to make the person into
his wife, which was sort of like vertigo and which
he tried even called him by his wife’s name and you know. So I think that was
the kinky part, which it still would
be today I think.>>Philippa Gregory: I
think the issue about queer and LGBTQ characters generally
is that there isn’t, for me, enough historical
research done yet. Thankfully it’s being done. People are working
on it all the time. But particularly lesbianism is
almost invisible in the history because you then get
into the fascinating, but I’m sure we don’t
have time for it here, question of what is lesbian
behavior in a historical context when women are sleeping together
and it’s not even questioned. You know, Jane Austen’s heroines who are clearly what
people say lesbian like. So they’re physically,
tremendously physically intimate but we don’t know whether
intercourse takes place. And then you go like, “Well,
why should intercourse, which we usually
understand as being a sort of traditionally a male-female
choreographed experience, why should that be the defining
activity for two women?” So that’s complicated and
also early in the day. [Laughter] But I think
the question of lesbianism and the LGBTQ in historical
fiction is really going to have to wait until it’s more
understood in history.>>Petra Mayer: Thank
you for the question. You guys are up next.>>Good afternoon
and welcome to D.C.>>Philippa Gregory: Thank you.>>My question refers to the actual historical
research involved and how do you address
your critics that tell you you got it
historically inaccurate?>>Petra Mayer: Because
there’s always somebody.>>There’s always somebody.>>Margaret George: I
think you just try to do, as Philippa was saying, you do a
lot of research in your reading and you try to use the sources
that are the most reliable. And that’s as far as you can go. And if someone disagrees, at
least you can say to yourself and to them too that
you certainly turned over every stone that
you could pretty much and you didn’t really
overlook much. So I think there’s a kind of
a security blanket in that.>>Philippa Gregory: When
somebody writes to me and says that I got something
wrong, if I did get it wrong and if it’s something like where
somebody landed on a voyage, I alter it in the next edition because I’d rather
be right than wrong. And I actually don’t go
mad but I often send them like a signed book to say
thank you because it’s helpful. When somebody says
that something’s wrong when actually it’s right,
I just grind my teeth.>>Petra Mayer: [Laughter]
Thank you. Next, you guys.>>Yes, this is for
both authors, but I know your side
characters specifically, well not side characters
but your non-historically like significant characters
like in Tidelands [inaudible], as well as also in the Queens
Fool is one that particularly, how do you choose the
characters to create the story around where they are
in historical context, but are not necessarily
written about? How do you select those
characters and build the story?>>Philippa Gregory: The
fictional characters, sometimes in the case of the
Queen’s Fool, there was a fool, a female fool who
worked in the places that my fictional
character worked. So she was really the
starting point for me because I didn’t realize
that it was possible to have a female fool. So that was like a real
breakthrough moment for me and just in so many ways so
inspiring to have a woman that close to power who is
sanctioned to speak out. I mean, that’s an extraordinary
role for a woman to play in the medieval world. And my character Eleanor in
Tidelands, in a way she too is, although she’s a
composite character, she’s slightly outside
her society, which of course makes
her interesting. Thank you.>>Petra Mayer: Did you have
anything to add Margaret? I didn’t want to move on
until you’d had your say.>>Margaret George:
I don’t think that I really use many
characters that didn’t exist. I know in Mary Queen of Scots
I think I had 4 out of 200. And in Nero I made up the names
of three senators who exist only to present a bill to somebody. Generally they are
real characters.>>Petra Mayer: So we have
about five minutes left. I think we can take a
couple more questions. How about you there?>>Two of the authors today
talked about their research or their work and laying
out literally pieces of it on the floor and reorganizing
to be able to write their books. I’m curious about how you
dealt with all of your research and then organized it
into the book itself.>>Margaret George: I
think you’re talking about David Brooks. I think we heard the
same talk this morning.>>He’s one.>>Margaret George. Well, I don’t do that. I actually take notes
in a notebook by hand and I also use 4×6
cards, very old fashioned, but somehow the act of writing
it, it enters your brain. And, of course, I
have a structure because I have the
chronology that I kind of do have to stick to. Like you said, there are things that happened and
you have to have. But again, of course the point
of view and the structure and the way that you organize
it is how you tell the story. And that’s the hardest part,
I think, the structure. How are you going to
present these things? You now know these facts, but how are you going
to structure them? They’re like screenplays. You’ve got to have a
certain cohesiveness, but there’s also people
can move chronology around to make it
more interesting. I think that’s the hardest. Once you have that, it’s
much easier to flow.>>Philippa Gregory:
I think also, especially writing historical
fiction, I have the sense that I have enormous files
of material and I have books and books and books all
around me, but it’s the stuff that sticks in my mind that
I remember that’s going to be the valuable
stuff in the story. And how important it is when
writing historical fiction not to gift the reader your
many hours of tedious study. [Laughter] They don’t want that. If they wanted many
hours of tedious study, they could do it
themselves directly. I think as a novelist
it’s really important that it works as a novel.>>Petra Mayer: Thank you.>>Philippa Gregory: Thanks.>>Petra Mayer: One
more question I guess.>>Okay. My question I
guess is for both of you. When you decided to
write historical fiction, did your love of history
come first or did you love of writing come first? And would you guys ever
branch out into other genres?>>Margaret George: Oh okay. Well, I always loved history,
but I was more fascinated, my first book was
about King Henry VIII. And I was fascinated
by this character. So I wanted to explore, actually
I wanted to do all six wives and then I realized I would
be duplicating material all the time. So I think that, but I’m
interested in other genres. I’d be interested
in writing plays. I’ve studied screenwriting. I would not ever write
short stories though. It’s just not in my genes. I can’t write anything
that short. [Laughter] So I think
it’s fun to explore. I’m starting to play
with some other genres, but I think my natural is
a really long narrative.>>Philippa Gregory: I think
I’m a storyteller absolutely in my sort of genes. And I observe that I like
to tell stories and I like people to tell me stories. So I like the narrative
circle of a well told story. But I have an absolute
passion for history. And I’m very blessed that
there is a form, an art form, which combines both
things equally. And that’s where
I’ve spent my life and I can’t imagine doing one
with the exclusion of the other. Thank you.>>Petra Mayer: Thank you. Do we have time for one more
question nice time keeper lady or are we done?>>One more.>>Petra Mayer: One more. Okay. One more. You there.>>So when you’re
doing your research, if it’s a well known historical
figure, do you find it necessary to go back into the
historical records yourself? Or do you get the information
you need from biographies that are already there?>>Margaret George: Well
that’s the difference between primary research
and secondary research. And I can’t do primary research because I’m not trained
to do that. It does take a special
kind of training. And so I rely on other
historians, real historians, what they publish in
academia and I use their work. I try to have a wide
variety of it so I get a lot of different opinions,
but I’m just not qualified to do primary research.>>Philippa Gregory: And for me, it depends very much
what I’m working on. Sometimes the material is
there and it’s been published for example, material
about the Tudors. People have been working
on the Tudors almost since they were themselves. Certainly the Victorians
were Tudor mad, so there’s a whole load
of Victorian writing about the Tudors who
bring to the Tudors all of their Victorian prejudices. So you have to read through what
they say about the characters. And sometimes I do have
to go to people’s letters, especially the archives of
sometimes the royal letters, Henry letters, or
papers of state because sometimes you get
an impression from that. I wrote a novel called
Three Sisters, Three Queens about in particular
Margaret of Scotland, Queen Margaret of Scotland. And there in the archives are
the letters that her brother, Henry, wrote to her and about
her and her replies to him. There’s something
incredibly powerful when you can get somebody’s
own words to read them. So that’s pretty exciting. But most of the time,
secondary material is enough for the work I’m doing. Yeah.>>Petra Mayer: Thank you. And I want to say thank
you to Margaret George and Philippa Gregory for being with us today and
thank all of you. [ Applause ] Oh thank you.

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