We were blessed to be able to interview acclaimed author C. W. Gortner! (To read our reviews of The Romanov Empress, see post here).
twogalsandabook: Did you always want to be an author? How long have you been writing?
C. W. Gortner: I’ve always been a writer. As a child, I used to make up stories and write them in spiral-bound notebooks, then illustrate the covers. I never thought of becoming an “author”, however, as in, a published writer, until my late twenties, when I wrote a full-length novel. Even then, I had a career and making a living on my writing never occurred to me. It was my late father, who read my manuscript and suggested I should try to get published, that kicked off a 13-year journey.
twogalsandabook: Are you an avid reader? If so, have you always been? And, if so, do you feel any books have influenced your writing?
C. W. Gortner: I’ve always been an avid reader and book-obsessed. Growing up in southern Spain in the early 70s, we had little television programming, so I rarely watched TV. I read constantly instead, especially historical novels; even then, I was drawn to stories about the past. A lot of books I read probably did influence me, like novels by Jean Plaidy, Daphne Du Maurier, Frank Yerby, and Rafael Sabantini, to name a few, along with classic such as Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo was, and still is, one of my favorites.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any favorite books/authors/poets?
C. W. Gortner: Too many to list. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a book I love to re-read. Also, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault. I love the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any special place to write, writing rituals, or atmosphere?
C. W. Gortner: I write in my studio at home. I have no rituals other than silence and hot tea; I just sit down every day and write for five to six hours. I don’t believe in writer’s block. To me, there is writer’s exhaustion, but block is more the fear of not being able to write than anything else. I refuse to be intimidated by my fears or flaws. Getting those words out on the page, no matter how awful they are, is the most important part: to finish that first, chaotic draft. The real work then begins with refining, polishing, re-writing and editing.
twogalsandabook: How do you handle negative criticism or reviews?
C. W. Gortner: When I was first published and suddenly realized I had an actual book, distributed for sale and therefore subject to criticism, I must admit, I was hurt by some reader reviews. Negative trade reviews always hurt less; I expect critics to show off their mean-girl side. Critics often feel that unless they say something negative, they’re not being critical enough. But to see actual readers criticize my book for all sorts of affronts, some of which were very subjective to the reader in question – it required a lot of self-control to not engage. I once did engage when a YA blogger posted a snarky review, citing historical errors in one of my books that in fact, weren’t errors at all. I learned my lesson when her followers came after me. It was swift and brutal; I was enshrined in the pantheon of Authors Behaving Badly for defending my research. After that, I’ve never engaged again. I’ve come to peace with the fact that we can’t please everyone, art is by its very nature one person’s cup of tea or another’s poison, and sometimes, negative reviews are valid while other times, it’s someone venting their frustrations on another person’s work.
twogalsandabook: What advice would you give to new authors about writing?
C. W. Gortner: Persevere and practice. Writing is a muscle that must be exercised. It’s also an endless journey; there’s always something new to learn and some new mistake to make. Nothing you write will ever feel perfect, so don’t bang your head against the wall trying to be perfect. Do the best you can and then edit, edit, edit. I can’t emphasize this enough: editing, to me, is the key. You must learn to separate your passion for your words from the ruthless editorial axe. It’s not an easy skill to master, but it’s essential if you want to learn and improve. Never fall so much in love with your writing that you fail to see what needs to be removed.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any advice for new authors in regards to doing research for a book? Any advice for same newbies about getting published?
C. W. Gortner: Research can be a seductive rabbit hole. I don’t have so much advice as experience to impart: after writing ten historical novels, I’ve found you can definitely become entranced by too much research. For me, research is a delicate balancing skill. I need to know enough to start writing and then I continue to research as I go; if I plunge into research too deep at first, I tend to get very distracted – oh, look! An encyclopedia on 16th century fashion! A tome on jewelry! A volume on whatever – and I end up with a million things I want to add to my story that really, shouldn’t be there. Research should be invisible; it should inform the story but never overwhelm it – which is often easier said than done.
As for publishing, it’s a tough business. And it is a business, first and foremost, with narrow profit margins and the need to stay relevant in a world overwhelmed by entertainment options. Self-publishing, or indie publishing, has become a quick fix to bypass the gauntlet that writers must otherwise run to hopefully get an offer from a traditional publisher, and in some cases, it’s the right choice. But in many cases, writers are so eager to see their work in print or are too impatient with the query and submission process, coupled with the affordable accessibility of self-publishing, they rush to it too soon. I self-published my first Tudor mystery before e-books came into being, but only after I’d accumulated over 300 rejections from publishers in New York and been represented by five different agents. At the time, vanity publishing, as it was called, was viewed as the hallmark of writer failure, and though I did it all on my own, even establishing my own publishing entity, and I ended up selling a respectable amount of copies online (Amazon was already in existence) I still longed to see my book in bookstores, to be acquired by a publisher for an advance. I eventually did get acquired by Random House, for two books at auction, once I connected with the right agent (we’re still together). The experience was incredible; that sense of accomplishment when a publisher offers you money for your writing is unforgettable. Publishing is not for the faint-hearted; you’ll get rejected until you think you can’t go on, you’ll despair and think your writing sucks. But if you keep at it, you’ll become thicker-skinned. You’ll learn valuable things about the publishing business and how it works. And you’ll become a better writer because of it.
twogalsandabook: Would you care to share anything about yourself aside from your writing?
C. W. Gortner: I love fashion. And good bread. And animals. I’m very dedicated to animal rights.
twogalsandabook: How historically accurate is “The Romanov Empress’?
C. W. Gortner: Very. But it’s still a novel. I always want to make that clear. I have a history degree, but I never call myself an historian. My books are fiction, based on fact. I try my utmost to not make historical errors (though I’ve made errors and no doubt will again) or distort the recorded personalities of my subjects, but history can be open to interpretation and sometimes, even facts from different sources don’t agree. As an historical novelist, I must fill in the blank: the emotions, the sensation of living in that time and in my character’s skin. It’s my interpretation of her, the result of a lot of research both into what is known about her life and her psychology. But it remains, in the final say, my fictional interpretation of a real-life character.
twogalsandabook: Was much research necessary to write the book?
C. W. Gortner: Over 150 books and other sources. It was a very intense and exciting book to research.
twogalsandabook: How did you decide what historical information to include and what to fictionalize?
C. W. Gortner: For me, the most difficult choice is what not to include. A life is composed of millions of moments. A novel is a finite amount of words. I have to search through those moments to find the ones that shed light on my character, to present her in both her strengths and weaknesses to readers who may not know anything about her. I have to stay true to who she was, even if I don’t personally agree with her (and I often don’t). It must be her voice, not mine. As for fictionalizing, when I decide on the moments to include, I research them as thoroughly as I can to try and gain an understanding of how my character may have felt in that moment. I must uncover her emotion within a moment that’s often just a recorded fact.
twogalsandabook: How long did it take you to write “The Romanov Empress” from conception until finished?
C. W. Gortner: Three years to actually write, and I’d been researching the Romanovs for much longer.
twogalsandabook: What was the hardest part of writing the book?
C. W. Gortner: What I said above. And dealing with the knowledge that the Romanovs are highly romanticized, because of the splendor of their era, their physical beauty, their lavish lifestyle, and how they died. They are, in many ways, now seen more as icons than flesh-and-blood. That was something I wanted to avoid. They were human beings—complicated and fallible. That’s what makes writing historical fiction so interesting: to discover the humanity within the history.
twogalsandabook: Did you ever hit a snag while writing the story?
C. W. Gortner: Of course. But I keep going. Snags can be corrected when you edit. That’s the marvelous thing about writing: Until it’s published, nothing is set in stone.
twogalsandabook: Was there anything that you originally wanted as part of the book but ended up leaving out?
C. W. Gortner: I would have liked to spend more time on Maria’s tenure as empress, to explore more in-depth her experiences during her husband’s reign. But I had a story to tell: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This relates to what I’ve said earlier: You can’t include everything. You must choose the moments.
twogalsandabook: What specifically attracted you to the story of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna to write about her?
C. W. Gortner: I think she attracted me because she’s not often mentioned as a player in the Romanov tragedy. Because she survived and went into exile. To me, she had such a fascinating perspective, however, on what came before and how it ended. She spoke to me. I thought, here is a woman who lived through it all, who witnessed and participated in it, for better and for worse. Here is a voice we rarely hear.
twogalsandabook: Did Maria really smoke?
C. W. Gortner: Yes. I laugh when I see readers question it. Minnie smoked secretly for many years and she was a lifelong smoker, like her son, Nicholas. At the time, smoking was coming into vogue and people thought it was actually healthy! She smoked in private and her family knew it; later on, she was less careful about hiding it, but as far as I know, she never smoked in public. Ladies didn’t smoke in public. The Cartier cigarette case I describe, a gift to her from Miechen, actually existed.
twogalsandabook: Did you find learning Russian titles of nobility a daunting task?
C. W. Gortner: I found all of it daunting. It was an entirely new world for me. But I thrive on challenge in my writing. If I’m not challenged, I’m bored.
twogalsandabook: In retrospect, do you think the Russian Revolution could have been prevented? Why or why not?
C. W. Gortner: That’s a complex question. I think, in hindsight, knowing what we do, if Minnie’s father-in-law Tsar Alexander III had succeeded in making the monarchy constitutional and been able to implement his plan to curtail royal privilege, then, yes, perhaps the revolution could have been prevented. But it would have required the impossible, because so few supported his aspirations. People don’t like change, as he tells Minnie in the novel, especially when they see no benefit in change for them. It would have required altering centuries of a royal lifestyle, of an established hierarchy, and sacrifice on the part of the rich to improve the lot of the poor. Which, as we know, wasn’t something the aristocracy had any interest in doing. Charity was fine for galas, but no one was willing to give up their palace for it.
twogalsandabook: Was the real-life Tsar Alexander planning to write a new Russian Constitution prior to his death? If so, do you think his real desire was to make Russia a democracy a little more like America, or something entirely different?
C. W. Gortner: Yes, it’s true. And his intent was to establish a constitutional monarchy, with a parliament and prime minister to oversee the government, as in Great Britain. Nicholas II did in fact implement this, but he did it too late. Tsar Alexander wasn’t a democrat as we understand the term, but he did see an urgent need for change. By this time in history, the Romanovs were one of the few remaining autocratic royal dynasties; he realized if it didn’t change, the dynasty could face annihilation. And he was right.
twogalsandabook: If Alexander had survived the attack and had been able to implement his Constitution and other progressive plans, how drastically do you think it would have altered the course of history?
C. W. Gortner: Immensely. It makes my mind spin. No Russian Revolution? No Lenin or Stalin? Imagine it.
twogalsandabook: In your opinion, who was the better ruler: Alexander, Sasha, or Nicholas? Do you think Vladimir would have made a better Tsar?
C. W. Gortner: I think Alexander was the most progressive of the three, the one who recognized he had millions of people suffering under his rule. Sasha reacted to the threat of assassination and revolt after the murder of his father: he was an autocrat, prejudiced and intolerant, but determined to exalt Russia’s international standing. Nicholas may have meant well, but he was a very ineffective ruler. Vladimir was a wild card; I’m not certain if he would have made a good tsar. His opinions on reform did not match his father’s and were more in line with Sasha’s. Vladimir also was very angry when Sasha did mandate changes in the hierarchy, to control the excess. As a Romanov and the son of a tsar, Vladimir upheld the notion that he was inherently superior.
twogalsandabook: Do you think Rasputin was a true but misunderstood holy man, a charlatan masquerading as the above but really a wolf hungry for power, or a lunatic? Or would you characterize him totally different with other motives? Do you think there was an affair going on there?
C. W. Gortner: I don’t believe there was ever a physical affair between Alexandra and Rasputin. Her surviving letters to him are very florid and suggestive, but that was the style, or rather, her style. I think there was, however, an affair of the spirit. The tsarina needed someone to give her hope and she saw him as divinely gifted, the savior she’d prayed for to help her son. She fell in love with the promise Rasputin presented, as any mother would under her circumstances. I also think he had a gift, a hypnotic way of soothing Alexei that lowered the boy’s blood-pressure and eased his hemophiliac attacks. By recommending to Alexandra that she not give Alexei any medicine, Rasputin actually did ease the attacks by default; Alexandra used an early form of aspirin for her lumbago (sciatica) and aspirin is a blood thinner. Giving it to Alexei, as instructed by the physicians for his pain, actually made his attacks worse, as thinning the blood increased the agonizing swelling that he experienced. I think Rasputin was ambitious and had a definite talent for working a crowd; but I don’t think he was a charlatan, because he truly believed what he preached. Charlatans know they’re liars. Rasputin never thought he was lying. He thought God spoke and acted through him. It’s what made him so convincing.
twogalsandabook: Have you been able to see any of the paintings by Grand Duchess Olga? If so, do you have a favorite?
C. W. Gortner: I’ve seen only a few in museums in Europe. I love her painting of her mother outside, on the patio.
twogalsandabook: How do you pronounce Feodoronova, Miechen, Tikhon, Djulbar, Ai-Todor, and Hvidore?
C. W. Gortner: You can Google it. There are online pronunciation applications that I consulted.
twogalsandabook: Do you notice any ripple effects today in Russia resulting from the upheaval of the era in “The Romanov Empress”?
C. W. Gortner: I think Russia is always experiencing ripple effects from its slaughtered royal past. It was once a great empire, the wealthiest in the world, ruled by a fabled and powerful three-hundred-year-old dynasty. The Soviets turned that past into terrifying repression and expanded their dominion into other countries. I believe the current man in power in Russia would love to do that again. He’s a former KGB agent, after all.
twogalsandabook: Did you read any Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy before writing the book? If so, did they influence your perspective?
C. W. Gortner: I’d read them in my teens, so no, not while writing this book. I was too engrossed in reading research books and diaries of people who lived at the Romanov court during the time, of which there are several.
twogalsandabook: Do you have any favorite Russian classic literature? Are there any modern Russian literary artists you would recommend?
C. W. Gortner: I enjoy Tolstoy. And Solzhenitsyn, an immensely talented and insightful writer. I own a signed original lithograph by the Russian-born artist, Mihail Mikhailovich Chemiakin. I love his work.
twogalsandabook: If you were sent back to the Russian Revolution (or any other war or era), where would you go and what would you do?
C. W. Gortner: I wouldn’t go. I really like dry cleaning, antibiotics, and the freedom to live and love as I choose.
twogalsandabook: If you could be any of the characters in “The Romanov Empress”, who would it be?
C. W. Gortner: Prince Felix Yussupov. Not for the murder of Rasputin (I’m not an aspiring killer, LOL!) but for his eccentricity, his courage under pressure, his determination to survive, and his refusal to give a damn about what anyone, save for perhaps Minnie, thought of him.
twogalsandabook: Has a trailer been made for “The Romanov Empress”?
C. W. Gortner: No.
twogalsandabook: If “The Romanov Empress” were made into a t.v. series or movie, who can you see playing the main characters?
C. W. Gortner: I’d love to see Rachel Weisz play Minnie. I haven’t thought much about it, however. I have two other books under option for film, and it’s dangerous to speculate. Talk about a seductive rabbit hole!
twogalsandabook: Are there any books, other than your own, that you would recommend about Russian nobility, the Revolution, or Russia in general?
C. W. Gortner: There are many. I’ve listed the sources I consulted most often in the acknowledgments of my novel. I think Greg King’s nonfiction accounts of the Romanovs are marvelous, as are Robert K. Massie’s books.
twogalsandabook: What other books have you written?
C. W. Gortner: Ten novels, including my most recent, THE ROMANOV EMPRESS. I’ve also written a trilogy about a fictional spy for Elizabeth I – THE TUDOR SECRET, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY and THE TUDOR VENDETTA. My stand-alone historical novels are, in order of publication: THE LAST QUEEN, about Queen Juana the Mad of Spain. THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, about the queen-mother of the last Valois of France. THE QUEEN’S VOW, about Queen Isabella of Castile, known as Isabel the Catholic. MADEMOISELLE CHANEL, about the fashion designer Coco Chanel. THE VATICAN PRINCESS, about Lucrezia Borgia. MARLENE, about the German-born 1930s Hollywood movie star, Marlene Dietrich.
twogalsandabook: Are you working on anything now? Can we expect to see anything in the near future?
C. W. Gortner: I just delivered my new novel to my editor, about the rise to fame of the French theater actress, Sarah Bernhardt, set in 19th century Paris. It’s scheduled to be published in the summer of 2020. Sarah was a fascinating, talented, and unusual woman, who began her career as a courtesan.
twogalsandabook: Have you considered branching out into other genre(s), or will you stick with historical fiction?
C. W. Gortner: I’d love to branch out. I enjoy scary novels, fantasy, and science fiction. I’ve written manuscripts in these genres but haven’t submitted them to any publishers yet.
twogalsandabook: If you were to write an autobiography, what would you call it?
C. W. Gortner: I Did It My Way, Even Though Everybody Told Me I Couldn’t.
twogalsandabook: Are there any social media platforms readers can connect with you on?
twogalsandabook: Is there anything you would like to share that we have not discussed?
C. W. Gortner: Thank you for inviting me!
twogalsandabook: To close, just for fun, here are 5 fast questions:
What is your favorite color?
Dream vacation destination?
The Count of Monte Cristo.
If you could have any super power to change anything in the world, what would it be?
The power to make humans realize we are only one of thousands of species on this fragile planet and we don’t have the right to destroy it, but rather to exist in harmony and protect our fellow animals.
Twogalsandabook.com would like to thank C. W. Gortner for chatting with us, and generously offering a book for the cool giveaway below!
Bestselling author C.W. Gortner holds an MFA in Writing, with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies. Raised in Spain and half Spanish by birth, he currently lives in Northern California. His books have been translated in over 20 languages to date.
He welcomes readers and is always available for reader group chats. Please visit him at www.cwgortner.com for more information.
Other Books By C. W. Gortner:
C. W. Gortner is offering 1 winner a physical copy of winner’s choice of any of the books he has written (see above). (Depending on title, book maybe paperback, or British edition). Open to US residents only, please! (Sorry international readers!)
Bookish thought: “Truly each new book is as a ship that bears us away from the fixity of our limitations into the movement and splendor of life’s infinite ocean.” — Helen Keller