Philippa Gregory

Posted by Goodreads on August 23, 2014
Historian Philippa Gregory's 2001 novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, was a bestselling tale about Mary Boleyn, Henry VIII's mistress. Throughout her career, she's written dozens of books illuminating the untold stories behind the events that have shaped the course of history, but with her YA series, Order of Darkness, the British author brings in mystical elements like werewolves, alchemists, and witches. The third installment, Fools' Gold, comes out this month. Set in romantic Venice, Italy, it follows young adventurers Luca and Isolde, who race to uncover a terrible secret while falling ever more deeply in love.

Read on as Philippa answers your questions about being a teenager in Tudor times, her writing rituals, and her favorite little-known fact about the British monarchy!

Nadia: Can you tell us something about your writing journey, like how did you get your first book published? How tough or easy was it for you to find a publisher?

I was ridiculously fortunate with the publication of my first book. I had written it during the research for my PhD, which was on 18th-century novels, so I had been thinking about novels nonstop for four years. I think this meant that almost unconsciously the structure and the pace of the novel was right for publication. I sent it to a couple of agents, and one of them liked it very much, held an auction in the UK and another auction in the U.S., and in both countries several publishers bid for it. It was an extraordinary experience for a first-time novelist, very unusual if not unique.

Sam: What was your favorite part about writing Fools' Gold?

This was such a wonderful book to write, it's hard to pick out the best moments. One highlight was going alone to Venice at Carnival time and wearing a costume and walking in a mask around the streets and looking at the wonderful buildings and the marvelous costumes, traveling in a gondola at night and having dinner in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. I went on a research trip to Ravenna and Rimini as well; the journey was really beautiful. The research by reading books was inspiring, too. I read a lot about alchemy and medieval Venice, and the writing was a joy. I love the characters so much, and this was like watching their story move along.

J.A. McLachlan: I'd be interested in knowing how writing YA novels differed from writing adult historical fiction. Sylvia Patience also wonders: What inspired you, after writing very successful adult fiction, to begin writing for young adults?

I was invited to write a different sort of book, less grounded in real people and real events for a younger audience, and I thought that I would find it enjoyable—and so I have done! I am surprised that I end up doing a lot of research for each book, but it is research into the times, events, and superstitions—not work on individuals—so it is a very different sort of work. In terms of writing for young adults rather than an adult audience, I don't think it makes much difference to me at all. I am aware that some concepts might be new to a young adult readership Fools' Gold is quite a lot about the collapse of a highly speculative, debt-fueled market), but clearly a lot of adults are not aware of the long history of speculation or how badly it plays out even today. I describe scenes of sex and violence when appropriate to the story as clearly as I would for an adult readership. So I don't think it makes a lot of difference to me.

Cassie: You manage to take an otherwise boring history lesson and turn it into an elegant story that you can't put down. What books would you recommend for a high schooler to learn and begin writing in such a beautiful way as yours?

You're very kind. I start by not finding the history boring, so it's not such a big jump for me to write about it as if I am deeply interested, because I am. I care very much about how the writing sounds and how it appears on the page, and I learned the rules of grammar as a schoolgirl from my English teachers but work on them all the time with the guidance of editors and by reading other novels. I take great care to read the classics of English literature and think about how they tell a story. Someone like Jane Austen is beautifully simple and clear. I take care to avoid clichés, which are a particular abomination of mine, and try to really think about what I am describing so that the image and the words are immediately connected—it's not gone through the bypass of how it is usually described. This is hard to do consistently, and I am sure you could find places where I have failed to be original. We are accustomed to hackneyed phrases, and one of the ways to train yourself to think for yourself is by reading authors who are original thinkers. I read E.M. Forster, Edith Wharton, and Henry James for pleasure as well as to keep my head clear.

At the masked ball in Venice.
Emma Hunter: How on earth do you get such amazing characterization? Do you have some kind of trick that you use to 'become' the character or something?

I start by reading everything I can find about the person, and then I think for a long time about the events of their life and how they behave under pressure. That brings me to an understanding of the sort of person that they are, and then I think about them for a long time, almost as if I was thinking about an absent friend. Usually I come to like them very much. Some of the people I describe are really courageous and interesting women; it's not hard to describe them with enthusiasm.

Reneé Lasswell: I particularly enjoy your historical fiction work and that you focus on women protagonists, such as the women surrounding Henry VIII and the War of the Roses. I am wondering if you plan to write about royalty in other countries (Sweden, Germany, or Croatia) or even other time periods (Greek history, Egyptian history, etc.). Ben adds, "Why do you focus primarily on female characters?"

I focus on women characters because they are hugely interesting in their own right, and because history prior to the interest in women's history (which happened about 1960) was all focused on men. Many of these women are barely recorded, and so researching them and bringing them to a wider readership is particularly interesting. Also, I am a feminist, and I am interested in how different the known events appear if we ask ourselves the question, 'And what were the women doing during that time?' By posing this question I have been able to discover some typical women's history—conceptions, births, deaths, and domestic work—but also some conspiracies and secret plotting, which has been overlooked by traditional historians or attributed to male protagonists. I have so many women in English history to write about that I cannot imagine going overseas, and also it is really important to me that I can read documents and secondary materials, and I don't have a good second language.

Jennifer: It seems like being a teenager in the time of the Tudor Court must have been really different from being a teenager today. Can you tell us some interesting ways that they differ?

Oh! This is a huge question. For a start, in Tudor times there's no such thing as a 'teenager.' You are a child until about six years old and then you are dressed in adult clothing and expected to make a contribution. There's no idea of a stage when you grow up and learn things. There's no concept of childhood innocence, which must be preserved, so a child could be betrothed in the cradle and the marriage consummated as soon as it was legal—usually around 12. If your parents were dead, you would have a guardian until you were legally old enough—say, 21—but until then you were a 'ward,' not a teenager. There were no clothes or fashions or occupations for young people. You lived a full adult life from about 12 years old, taking full legal and moral responsibility for your actions. If you were a girl, then you were under the control of your father until you were married, and then you were under the control of your husband, who had a legal right to have sex with you and to beat you with moderate force. If you were a boy, then you were expected to be obedient to your father all your life, but you left his legal control at about 12. If you were in the upper class, you would be married to whomever your parents or guardians chose for you; you might, if they were very kind to you, have the right to refuse. But you would be unlikely to be able to choose your partner.

Philippa with one of her horses.
Michele Gwynn: What is the most interesting/fun fact you unearthed when researching the British monarchy that you did NOT include in your books based on the subject?

I did include it, but I didn't stress it: a fact about inheritance. The royal/ducal family of Luxembourg trace their family tree back to the water goddess Melusina, who appears in many myths around Europe and even in the Middle and Far East. They are related to the Tudors by way of Elizabeth of York (Henry VII's wife), her mother Elizabeth Woodville (Edward IV's wife), and her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. Thus the Protestant-educated Elizabeth I was related to a water goddess!

LucyL: What are the books that you loved to read when you were young?

As a teenager, I loved the historical fiction of Georgette Heyer. When I was younger, I read Alison Uttley, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling and his other children's books, and I loved the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis.

Cklevorn: Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write using a computer/laptop, pencil, ballpoint, or rollerball pen?

I used to switch to longhand—Biro on a notebook—when I got stuck, but luckily these days I rarely get stuck and I work directly on a laptop, which I take with me everywhere: to bed, on holiday, on journeys. If I am writing something with a lot of research in it, then I like to be in my study with all the books I am going to consult spread out around me, and my notes to hand, and often lots of pictures and maps posted up on the walls. I often answer my emails before I start writing, to warm up the fingers and the brain, but in general I write anywhere and at any time.

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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message 1: by Raine (new)

Raine Whitehouse Hi Philippa,

I am a huge fan of your work. Thanks so much for giving voices to the voiceless.I think I read one of your first books when I was about 15. I am delighted to see you are so young! (I think in my mind, you would have been around 80 by now... Thank goodness for the internet!)Here is to many more years of writing and more books. Thanks again,


message 2: by Keyana (last edited Feb 12, 2014 03:13PM) (new)

Keyana Hello Mrs.Gregory,

I share your amount of love for historical monarchies as well. I find is so very interesting to read about them. The first book I read by you was The Other Boleyn Girl and I absolutely love anything having to do with the Tudors and the Bourbons. Another one of your works that I'm reading right now is The Virgin's Lover and I am loving it. You are so great and I love that you love historical royals as much as I do. I was wondering how did you get into loving the royals? I would love to know


Elizabeth Raabe Hi Philippa: I love all of your books that you wrote that are about the Tudor Line as well as the "War of the Roses". I am reading "The White Princess" now, and I really like it a lot. Are you going to write any other books about Queen Elizabeth I who was the daughter of Henry VIII, the grandson of "The Red Queen"? Margaret Beaufort is my ancestor, and her relationship to "The White Queen" - Elizabeth Woodville, is something else. Hope you write more books about the Royals. Fun and interesting to read, and very fascinating too. Thanks so much.

message 4: by Lacrecia (new)

Lacrecia Dear Ms. Gregory: Thank you for such a wonderful enlightening interview. I recently took a course through Coursera on Historical Fiction with Prof. Bruce Holsinger (A GoodReads author), and part of the curriculum was interviews with authors. I enjoyed those interviews very much and wished there could be more of them. Your interview has satisfied my craving for more a little bit. Thanks for your honesty and forthrightness. I look forward to reading some of your work.

message 5: by Purabi (new)

Purabi Hi Philippa, I love history and I love your historical novels. Your portrayal of royal lives is so fascinating that I always find myself reading late into the night. Even I, as a young girl, read the historical fiction by Georgette Heyer and who can forget Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. Thank you so much for giving your readers such wonderful books to read.
Best wishes,

message 6: by Agnes (last edited Mar 19, 2014 03:19AM) (new)

Agnes Dear Ms. Gregory, that's perfect interview! I wish I could interview with you to make your Polish readers happy. Now I am reading "The wise woman". I like it very much. In Poland you are very popular. I don't know if you'll read my comment but I would like to ask you for the on-line interview for your Polish readers. Would you agree to answer a few questions of mine, please? Thanks for all your books.

Best wishes,

message 7: by Emily (new)

Emily I have so thoroughly enjoyed the Cousins' War books that I can't get enough. I wonder if you might ever write from the viewpoint of Duchess Cecily, the York brothers' mother. She is a piece of work. How did she come to be that way? Lady of the Rivers is my current favorite. Also, I listen to all your books on audio rather than read them. Bianca Amato is brilliant! Thanks for all the hours of entertainment.

message 8: by Marita (new)

Marita I have just finished reading Fool's Gold. I can not wait for book 4! thanks you

message 9: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Wild I stumbled across Gregory by pure accident. I live on a Navy ship and some of the girls were going through our bookshelf. They said no non navy material. I grabbed as many books as I could save and "The Kingmaker's Daughter" was the first one I found. Read it, found the others now I'm hooked. Finally on the White Princess, but Anne shall always be my favorite. Makes it a little hard to like Elizabeth of York tho ;)

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