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Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe: An Interview with the Fabulous Sandra Gulland

You might find this difficult to believe, but I have often been described as verbose.  (Honestly, is it my fault words flow like the Niagara from my head to my tongue?)

So you would think writing an introduction to my interview with historical novelist Sandra Gulland, a writer I admire immensely, would be easy for me.

That's not the case.

I literally agonized over every word I typed.  How does one go about describing Sandra Gulland?  Is it merely enough to say that she wrote three acclaimed, bestselling novels about Josephine Bonaparte and another about Louis XIV's mistress, Louise de la Vallière?  Do I tell readers that she was born in Miami, graduated college with a degree in literature, taught second grade in an Inuit Village, and then worked as a book editor? 

Finally, I decided you, my clever, intelligent readers, would want to know why I was running an interview with Sandra Gulland.  After all, what does Sandra Gulland have to do with the Life, Love and Accidental Adventures of Leah Marie Brown?

Ten years ago, I read the first book in Sandra Gulland's trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte and knew I wanted to write historical fiction.  Her sumptuous novel about one of the more fascinating women in history was so richly woven with setting details and evocative prose, it lit a fire inside my writer's belly.


I had always been fascinated with Marie Antoinette and I had always been a writer, in one form or fashion, but it wasn't until I read Sandra's book I considered combining my two passions.  A year later, after many crack of dawn writing sessions, I completed my first historical novel about Marie Antoinette. Since then, I have written five other historical novels.


My novels have not been published yet, but I know when they finally reach the hands of some smart editor who shares my penchant for the French Revolution, I will have Sandra Gulland to thank for it.  Her novel inspired my novels.


So, without further ado, here is my interview with the fabulous and influential Sandra Gulland.


LMB:  First, let me apologize in advance if the blatant fawning I am about to do over you and your novels causes you any discomfort. As you know (though my readers may not) I have been one of your more ardent devotees for ten years now (since I first discovered the Josephine B. trilogy). Thank you for graciously consenting to my requests for interviews (Ms. Gulland’s previous quotes have appeared in articles I wrote for Writers Digest and Writers Journal). Also, thanks for not misunderstanding my worshipfulness as something creepy. I promise, I am not a stalker!

SG:  Leah, stalk on! I'm flattered. 




I have always known I wanted to be a writer, but I did not know I wanted to write historical fiction until I read Rosalind Laker’s To Dance with Kings and your novel, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. (I guess that means, I have you to blame…I mean, thank, for this alternately agonizing and ecstatic ride down the road to publishing). Which authors have influenced your writing?



SG:  The first historical novel that enchanted me was a slim, spare novel: A Walk with Love and Death by Hans Koning (then Koningberger). I adored this book, and carried it with me always. I still aspire to write a similar work: something short, elegant in every detail, tremendously romantic, yet tragic.



From Koning, I learned that historical fiction did not need to be flowery or long: the novel is only 144 pages long.


Here is the first sentence: "In the spring of that year, 1358, the peasants of northern France did not sow their fields any more."


That's a perfect detail.


In the next paragraph: "The war was in its twentieth year, but I was happy."


That says so much. Koning is a writer who hones every sentence; that's a writer I admire.

I wrote to Hans Koning several time, to let him how much his work meant to me; alas, by the time a letter did get through, he had died.


LMB:  I have met my share of published authors and have found many of them to be rather narcissistic and competitive. One thing that has always impressed me about you is that you mentor new writers. Take your recent blog post, first instance: A reader asked you a question about dialogue and you offered a wonderfully instructive answer. What advice would you give to someone just starting a career in novel writing?

SG:  (Thank you. You are kind.)



1) Understand that you are unlikely to earn money being a writer, and that the only reason to pursue such a vocation is that you're compelled to do so, simply for the love of it.


2) Understand that it takes a very long time to get to the point where you are publishable. (As in years.) It's similar to getting a doctorate.


3) Write, write, write: regardless. Revise. ("Revision" = re-vision.)


4) Understand that this is a craft that must to be learned, so study books on the craft of writing.


5) Read constantly—especially books similar to the ones you aspire to write.


6) Build up a Net 2.0 presence: set up a website, blog, Tweet, Facebook.


7) Don't send your manuscript out for consideration until 5 readers have told you that it's indeed ready to go.


8) Collect rejections: it's rare for a writer to be published without first having a stack of them. It's an important first step. Plus, it proves that you are tough enough to be a writer.


9) Go to readings: observe how it's done. As a writer, you will have a private self as well as a public one. Get comfortable with that.


10) Get to know other writers, on-line, off-line; join the community. Create your tribe.


11) Never give up.


LMB:  Do you belong to any writer’s groups and what are your thoughts on them?



SG:  I belong to two writer's groups—one back home in Canada, and another one south, at our winter home in Mexico. Both are very small and have mostly to do with emotional support. I rarely show work from a novel I'm in the process of writing: I think it's hard to evaluate a bit of a novel out of context. When a work is ready to show — a 3rd or 4th or 5th draft — I'll get them to read it.  


LMB:  How do you organize your notes before writing your first draft? Do you use note cards, a detailed outline, storyboards, bulletin boards?


SG:  It seems to differ with each novel. For the one I'm writing now, I started with an outline—or, rather, a long list of scenes. The outline was based on an intricate timeline I keep on a computer file. The scene-by-scene outline was 30 to 40 pages long and I took it through 3 drafts. It was a tremendous help when writing the first draft. By the third draft, of course, everything had changed. 


LMB:  Your first three novels were written in the first person while your fourth novel was in third person POV. Which do you prefer to write in and why?



SG:  I find the third person point-of-view challenging, but now I'm more comfortable with it. If you can "hear" the voice of your narrator, then the first person is a natural choice. 


LMB:  What are the benefits and drawbacks of writing in first person POV?


SG:  The main benefit of the first person voice is that it's easier for the reader to connect with the narrator. The drawback is that you are limited when it comes to describing things—especially the narrator herself. (This is one reason the Trilogy includes letters: these provide another point-of-view.)



The language of the narrator can be a problem, depending on the character. If you are writing a mystery, the first person could be a drawback, as well. When I write third person, I tend to stick very close to the narrator: close third, it's called.



LMB:  You skillfully weave historical details throughout your novels (like one character’s use of Compound Spirit of Lavender to restore her flagging spirits and another’s liberal use of Spanish Red). Do you have a card catalog for a brain or do you keep all of these fantastic little details in a notebook or computer file?


SG:  I note everything down. (I use an outline program called Notebook, and the database programs EverNote and DevonThink.) With Kindle, now, my highlighted passages and notes are automatically saved onto computer. This saves a great deal of time. 

LMB:  And what’s your trick to keep your novels from reading like history books? How do you weave those things in there so deftly and naturally?


SG:  Thank you! I think it's simply a matter of rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. When something bores me or feels sluggish, out it goes.

LMB:  What’s your best tip or technique for “getting into the head” of a character?


SG:  It takes time, so I guess my best tip is to have patience. I do all the usual things—create a bio, a horoscope, imagine an interview with them—but even so, it takes many, many drafts for characters to emerge.  

LMB:  Method actors talk about getting deep into character to help them pull off a better, more believable role. What do you do to really bring your characters to life, particularly when writing dialogue?
Gulland in character
SG:  Again, for me, it all happens on the page. It does help to have been to their homes, to have dressed in their clothes; I can better imagine them as they move through their world. I'll go through on-line photographs, looking for their face: this helps a lot. I have an extensive questionnaire I fill out about them. Even so, for me, characters come to life on the page and nowhere else. 


LMB:  Your first three novels were about Josephine Bonaparte. Your fourth novel was about Louise de la Vallière, beloved mistress of the prodigiously sexual and rarely satiated Louis XIV. Both of these women were attached to powerful men who ultimately cast them aside. What is it about these women that aroused your sympathies?

SG:  Each was different. What interested me about Josephine was that her amazing life was foretold. I find this astonishing. For Louise, I was curious about her extraordinary horsemanship. Clearly, she couldn't have been a passive young lady—and yet that's how she has been portrayed. For each, it was curiosity that drew me to them. For the novel I'm writing now, my main character was part of the theatrical world before joining the Court: that interests me greatly. 

LMB:  Perhaps, I have made an erroneous assumption. Was it your sympathy for Louise and Josephine that prompted you to write your novels or did you just think their lives would translate into riveting novels?


SG:  For both Josephine and Louise, I was personally compelled by their story as well as by them as individuals. I was fascinated enough to want to spend almost a decade with each of them. I had to trust that at the end of that long process, I would have a story that interested others as well. It was not too much of a gamble, however. Whenever there's a wow-factor in a life, there's sure to be a good novel in it. 



LMB:  Do you think a historical novelist should be sympathetic or unbiased? Is it possible to be both?

SG:  I'm not sure it's possible to be unbiased, and if it were possible, I'm not sure it would result in an emotionally moving novel. For me, I'm entirely biased according to my point-of-view character. The novel I'm writing now does not see Louise de la Vallière in a good light, for example, because the story is told from another point-of-view. 


LMB:  I think you have read my blog, so you must know that I like to ask a few odd ball questions during my interviews. I am sorry to say, even though I am in awe of your mad writing skills, I can’t repress the desire to ask you a few. So, here they are:

If you woke tomorrow and found yourself a guest at Josephine’s Malmaison, what’s the first thing you would do?

SG:  (I love odd-ball questions.) If I woke up at Malmaison, I think I'd take an early morning walk in Josephine's gardens. It would be lovely if I happened upon Napoleon and Josephine there. 

LMB:  What burning question would ask her?

SG:  I would ask her a very rude question: I would want to know what exactly was her relationship with Captain Charles. Were they lovers? Friends? Was it strictly a business relationship? All these are possible, and only Josephine and Charles know.  

LMB:  Fab question!  Now, let’s be honest, we have all pinched a towel or a bar of soap from a hotel room. What item would you pinch before being whisked from Malmaison back to your home in Canada?


SG:  Roses, which I would then dry—and treasure.  

LMB:  Which of Josephine’s lovers or associates do you think you would fancy the most? And why? (Just so you don’t think I am unfair in asking you to expose yourself in such a manner, I will confess my secret historical crush. I dig Napoleon. It’s true. I know he was brusque and domineering but I find his intensity and audaciousness attractive.)

SG:  I'd love to hang out with Bonaparte. I've a crush on him too. Whenever I used to see a painting or statue of him, I'd think: Hi, little sweetie. (Poor Bonaparte: that's so undignified!)


LMB:  And finally, assuming reincarnation is possible; who do you think you were in a previous life?


SG:  In the Napoleonic era: Aunt Fanny! (Editor's Note:  For those of you unfamiliar with the people of that era, Fanny de Beauharnais was Josephine Bonaparte's aunt.  It was because of Aunt Fanny's ministrations that Josephine travelled from Martinique to France and married Eugene de Beauharnais, who eventually died at the guillotine)   At the court of the Sun King, maybe Clorine, Louise de la Vallière's maid. I love the wacky characters best. 

LMB:  That’s it for the odd ball questions. Thank you for indulging me.


I know that you like to travel to the settings of your novels, can you tell me about your most memorable trip in preparing to write the Josephine B. series?
SG:  The research trip I will never forget was the first, of course. I'd never been to Paris: I was enchanted, literally. The year before, I'd had the good fortune of consulting with Jane Urquhart, the Writer in Residence at the University of Ottawa. I took her the manuscript of what was to become the Josephine B. Trilogy. She told me, "You have to go to Paris." And so I did. 
Josephine's bed
LMB: Which of Josephine’s treasures has titillated you the most (an object you have seen in a museum or at Malmaison)?


SG:  I longed to try on her crown (also to stretch out on her bed). If only! 

LMB:  I know that Louise de la Vallière was an accomplished equestrian. I also know that you took a tour of the Loire Valley on horseback. How did that trip give help you to write Mistress of the Sun?


SG:  An "experiential" research trip such as this one gave me a visceral sense of 17th century travel: the slow pace of moving through a landscape on horseback, the sound of the horses' hooves cantering into a palace courtyard, the daily routine of getting on and off a horse, the smell, the sweat, the sores. It's an experience I will never forget. You can't get that through books.



LMB:  Which books are on your nightstand?

SG:  How quickly things have changed: the only "book" on my nightstand is my iPad, but it's full of titles. Right now I'm reading Kate Atkinson's newest novel, Started Early, Took My Dog. I find her delightful. I'm also reading How to Write a Sentence; And How to Read One by Stanley Fish, as well as Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, by the wonderful Holly Tucker.  Next up: Parisians; An Adventure History of Paris by Graham Robb, a great writer, and, for fiction, The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain. You can see that I'm longing for Paris! 



LMB: I have had a lot of serendipitious moments while researching and writing my novels, some of which I have shared on my blog.  Have you had anything odd happen while you were writing your books – anything that made you wonder if a higher power was nudging you along the path?

SG:  It's true that when you ask "the universe"—that is, open yourself up to the questions—answers appear. I personally don't attribute it to a higher power, although it's certainly possible.    


LMB:  Will you tell us a little about your WIP?

SG:  My next novel is, again, biographical historical fiction. It is set in the 17th century French court of the Sun King—the same time and place as Mistress of the Sun. While the theme of Mistress was horsemanship, the theme of this novel is the theatrical world of that period. The novel is based on the real-life story of Claude des Oeillets, daughter of a theatrical diva. As waiting-maid to Madame de Montespan—the King's ultimate "power" mistress—she becomes involved in witchcraft and has a child by the King herself. Yes, a complex story! 


LMB:  Merci beaucoup, Madame Gulland. I appreciate you taking time out of your busy life to answer the questions of this humble journalist.


To my readers, if you enjoyed reading this interview, please click FOLLOW THIS BLOG in the right-hand sidebar.  Thank you.


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