Book World Live: Historical Novelist Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory
Thursday, October 9, 2008; 11:00 AM

Philippa Gregory, author of many best-selling works of historical fiction, was online Thursday, October 9 to discuss her latest novel, The Other Queen, which is based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots. The book was reviewed in The Washington Post.

Gregory trained as a journalist, working for the BBC and other media outlets before turning to full-time novel writing. She is the author of more than a dozen novels and is best known for her "Tudor" series, including The Other Boleyn Girl, which was recently made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. Born in Kenya and raised in England, she now lives on a farm in the North of England. Through her charity, "Gardens for the Gambia," she helps supply clean water and irrigation to rural schools in West Africa.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book Worldor in the weekday Style Section.


Philippa Gregory: Thank you for taking the time to join today's discussion. I will try to answer everything today but, if there's anything I cannot, please feel free to write to me at with your questions.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Good Morning,

Who are your favorite historical fiction authors? Did you ever read any of Norah Lofts's work?

Philippa Gregory: I hardly ever read historical fiction now, but when I was young I used to adore the novels of Georgette Heyer and Anya Seton.


Medina, Ohio : I have read all your books and could not put them down. However, this book was really difficult to "get into." Would it have helped with more history of Elizabeth at the beginning ?

Philippa Gregory: I am sorry you found this difficult to get into, - some people have found it very readable. I wanted to focus on Mary, Bess and George, so I think it was right that I started with these snapshots of each of them at Mary's entry into England. I thought her escape from Bolton castle was pretty exciting? And personally I love the first page which I think captures Bess of Hardwick so well.


Other names?: I think I remember reading some of your other books under another name. What other names do you write under? Thank you!

Philippa Gregory: No, I have always published under my own name, Philippa Gregory.


San Diego, Calif.: From the very beginning of the book the Earl of Shrewsbury tells himself that, above all, he is a loyal and honorable man. He prides himself in his loyalty to England, Queen Elizabeth and his wife Bess. Despite his initial efforts, he reluctantly betrays all three in the course of "The Other Queen." Do you think Shrewsbury was a truly honorable man until he met Mary, Queen of Scots, or did he just have the arrogance of a man lucky enough to never have his loyalty tested?

Philippa Gregory: Its an interesting question, I think we are all good people till we are tempted! Clearly, Shrewsbury could not retain his loyalty to Elizabeth in the conflicting world which was presented to him. I think what makes him an honourable man is the struggle that he undertook. he really tried to be faithful both to Bess and Queen Elizabeth, but Mary brought with her both emotional and political complexity.


Alexandria, Va.: Good morning, Ms. Gregory,

Really liked "The Other Boleyn Girl." Fascinating how every move of Anne Boleyn's sister was considered a political move by her family. How did you find all that out?

Philippa Gregory: Good morning!

Discovering the life of Mary Boleyn was very much detective work reading one book after another for a reference to her, and piecing together different accounts. Of course, as a woman who was mistress to the king she had a unique position of political power as well as intimacy, and her family benefited very much from that. I think I was the first person to notice that her family's honours, her father, brother and husband's titles were all given at the time of the birth of her son.


Arlington, Va.: I am so excited you have another book out. Was Mary Queen of Scots really the skank people say she was?

Philippa Gregory: Hi,

I guess 'skank' means a bad person? I have to say I started my research fearing that she was manipulative and overly romanticised by the historical record but the more I found out about her the more I admired her.


Washington, D.C.: I loved "The Other Boleyn Girl." Per the description above, what are the other titles in "The Tudor Series?"

Philippa Gregory: I wrote them out of historical order, but if you read them in historical order they would be:

The Constant Princess

The Other Boleyn Girl

The Boleyn Inheritance

The Queen's Fool

The Virgin's Lover

and now The Other Queen


Greensboro, N.C.: Ms. Gregory, I adore your work.

I am curious about the relationship between Katherine and Arthur in "The Constant Princess." Did you find any evidence that they were as close as you depict in your book? Thank you so much for your wonderfully readable, exciting books -- they take me on a journey every time.

Philippa Gregory: Conventional history books rather underplay the relationship between Katherine and Arthur because they like to believe Katherine's later denial that the marriage was consummated. But the historical record at the time makes it clear that they had a full physical marriage and since they were very young, and isolated in Ludlow Castle I think it very likely that they would have become close or even fallen in love. On a visit to Ludlow Castle I found a drawing which an architect had made when they renovated the royal bedroom, they found a little carving of two hearts and a royal crown: the sweetest thing, on the panelling near to the floor. It was destroyed but we have a drawing. I think it possible that Arthur carved it for Katherine.


Reston, Va.: I'm only halfway through "The Other Queen," but I'm enjoying it so far!

Since I haven't finished this one, my question is about "The Other Boleyn Girl." I saw the film and thought there was an awful lot missing -- I get that every detail of a novel can't be included in a movie, but it didn't have anywhere near the intrigue and plot developments that your book had. How much input did you have into the film's script and story line?

Thanks for taking the time to do this chat.

Philippa Gregory: I was historical consultant on the project but of course the script writer and the director and the producers control the film. I feel very strongly that the film makers have to produce their work of art, and I produce mine. I think all readers like books better than a film - and if it is your own book of course you like it better! I thought the film was visually very beautiful and strongly emotional - the book more complicated and thoughtful.


Frederick, Md.: Hi Philippa! I hope you enjoyed your visit in D.C. for the National Book Festival. I wasn't able to go that day. I've read 4 of your Tudor novels and own 3 of them. I'm also a regular visitor to the message boards on your website. I have three questions: 1. Why the Lorraine bethrothal contract become such an issue during the divorce? It had long been broken off. 2. What was Duke Wilhelm of Cleeves's official reaction to the divorce? Surely he couldn't been pleased that Anne had been set aside for Katherine Howard, a young maid-of-honor. 3. Will any of your novels be adapted for movies or TV? (I know about "Other Boleyn Girl" and "Respectable Trade")

Philippa Gregory: Wow - this is complicated stuff

1.The Lorraine betrothal contract became the basis for the divorce, Henry's advisors thought he could insist on seeing that the Lorraine betrothal was over and for some reason, Anne's brother was careless at sending it at the right time.

2. He invited his sister back home, he complained very strongly, but Anne insisted that she would prefer to stay in England and asked him not to complain to Henry.

You would think he would have been outraged, but his treatment of Anne throughout the courtship and marriage was hard to explain. Perhaps it is as I suggest that he felt envious and unpleasant towards his sister.

3. The Boleyn Inheritance is to be a film. The Other Queen is in production as a BBC TV special. The Queen's Fool is in production as a US TV drama


Sayre, Okla.: Are you working on another historical novel? Tell us about the subject please.

Philippa Gregory: I have gone back in time to The Plantagenets, the ruling family in England before the Tudors. Its already proving fascinating, they are like the Tudors but much badder, conspiratorial and in constant competition for the throne. I am certain to write a series and have discovered some truly wonderful women behind the men


Harrisburg, Pa.: How did you develop your interest in British history and royalty? Was this an interest from childhood, did you study it in school, and when did you decide you wishes to pursue it so thoroughly and so well?

Philippa Gregory: Funnily enough, I am a republican (in the anti-monarchy sense) so I am not really interested in the royal family. I was not interested in history until I went to university, at the age of 21 - and then I fell in love with it as the explanation of everything. Then I did my PhD in the eighteenth century and wrote my first novel Wideacre.


Mobile, Ala.: Ms. Gregory, thanks for doing this discussion. I have read most of your books, and enjoy them immensely as entertainment. I have wondered, though, what your true thoughts are concerning Anne Boleyn and her daughter. Are your books reflections of how you believe things to have taken place (the suggestion of incest in the case of Anne, and complicity in the death of Amy Robsart in Elizabeth's case), or simply reflections of an "alternative" story? Thanks!

Philippa Gregory: The question of Anne's incest is powerfully suggested by the historical record, she was found guilty of incest and adultery. Perhaps we think now that this was a show trial but people at the time were convinced of her guilt, and the novel is written from the point of view of her sister, who would probably have shared the general fear.

In the case of Amy Dudley (Robsart) we don't know and perhaps we will never know who was her murderer, there are even suggestions that it was a natural death. However, I really think that the person with the greatest motive for her killing is the man I name - (I won't say who to spoil the story!)


Wawatosa, Wisc.: Ms. Gregory, I have long enjoyed your work. Of the people you have written about in your novels, do you have a favorite? Who would you have most liked to have met? Thanks.

Philippa Gregory: I am always very fond of the last character, so I am very attached to Bess of Hardwick - one of the characters in The Other Queen, at the moment. But one of my long term great favourites is Hannah in The Queen's Fool. Her name comes up so often that I know that other people love her too.


Alexandria, Va.: I am a huge fan of Eleanor of Aquitaine and am wondering if you will touch on her at all in your works. She truly broke barriers and managed to infuriate the establishment of her time. My kind of lady.

Philippa Gregory: I know she was a great Queen and I love her life and her time. I am working on the Plantagenets at the moment, but I might get to Eleanor later.


Montclair, N.J.: Ms. Gregory: There are many authors of historical fiction. What attributes do you think account for your great success?

Philippa Gregory: Thank you for this - it's hard to answer without sounding boastful, but I think I tell a well known story from a different perspective, sometimes with entirely new research and people find that exciting, it makes the story new again. The literary technique I have pioneered of writing in the first person present tense gives a tremendous immediacy. And my politics which are pro-women and pro=the common people means that I write novels which are not stuffy or snobbish but engage with real people's difficulties in a very difficult world


Washington, D.C.: You said you're starting to write about the Plantangenets. Talk about your research process. I would guess by now you are so familiar with the Tudors, that you could write with one hand tied behind your back. For the Plantagenets, I would guess original sources might be difficult to find.

Philippa Gregory: You're quite right - some documents are destroyed by the long war, some of them are just missing. However there are some good histories and my interest in particular are the women who stand behind the great men of the period and as usual, their history has to be reconstructed by sifting through the conventional records and looking out for them. Especially I am working on Elizabeth Woodville who was the mother of the princes in the tower and one of the skills I bring to this is a bit of commonsense - can I really believe that with one son in the Tower of London she would give her second son up to her enemy? I can't - so I start to read the record very critically to see what else might have happened in this mystery.


Washington, D.C.: Good morning. Have loved reading your books for many years, and look forward to reading this one. Will get it today.

I have found the life of Mary fascinating. Some authors portray her as scheming but more often than not, I find her portrayed others as naive and frankly, stupid.

Mary had expected to remain in France as queen for her life didn't she? Do you think it was her insulated childhood in France which left her unable to deal with the situation in Scotland when she was forced to return and take up the throne? If she, as she was growing up, or the members of her family (more than just her mother) had taken a greater hand in securing her position with the Scots, and Catholicism with the Scots subjects, would there have been such a great religious crisis?

Thanks very much. Keep writing; I'll keep reading.

Philippa Gregory: Thank you for this and I am glad you are looking forward to reading The Other Queen.

I agree absolutely with you that Mary has been treated very badly by the historical record, largely, I think because of the prejudices of male historians against women in power.

Mary certainly expected to be Queen of France and was raised to be a competent Queen of that country. I think no-one could have made her position safe in Scotland, though her mother did her best and even coached Mary in how to manage sending her political analysis and character descriptions of the men she would have to deal with.

I think the religious crisis was perhaps inevitable given her half brother's determination to dominate her, and his disloyalty to her.

This is the background to The Other Queen - I'll be interested to know what you think of it.


Alexandria, Va.: Are you able to do your research in other languages? If not, do you find this to be a barrier?

Philippa Gregory: No, I am so sorry that I can speak French enough to muddle through but I am not good at reading, and I cannot read any other European languages at all.

Fortunately all the Tudor documents are translated into English and published in full by the Victorian historians and I can read them, but it does mean that I don't really dare to work on the history of other countries.


Albuquerque, N.M.: Hi,

Where do you stand on Richard III? Sharon Kay Penman's "The Sunne in Splendour" is an example of Richard III revisionism. I thought it'd be interesting to read a modern novel that takes the more traditional historical line: Richard as the opportunistic murderer. Not the cartoon villain of Shakespeare, of course. Just curious what your thoughts were.

Philippa Gregory: Where you stand on Richard is becoming the key question for me for the next few years - my feeling is that he probably did not murder his nephews - for it seems to me that everything he wanted in terms of getting them marginalised and himself crowned was achieved by the summer. I agree it is always a pity when a view of a historical character becomes the standard, but I cannot really accuse Richard on the evidence I have...


Claverack, N.Y.: There is a certain human tendency when reading historical fiction to view it as actual history. What do you feel is your responsibility as an artist to be true to your vision while not leaving certain readers with a misconception of what really happened and what is just conjecture?

Philippa Gregory: This is an interesting and important question - I feel very strongly that as an historian it is my task to represent the history as accurately as I can. But as a novelist it is my job to make the story come alive. Also, when writing in first person present tense I don't have the luxury (as I would writing as an historian) to say - on the one hand, this, on the other hand, that - perhaps this is what happened. I have to write ' this happens to me this morning '. To make sure that I am responsible with the historical facts I now always include a book list for readers to do their own research, I post a note on research and historical facts on my Web page , and I am even considering an annotated edition so people could see exactly what facts are sourced from history and what are speculation.

Do you think readers would buy such a thing?


Plantagenets: Are you inclined toward the view set out in "The Daughter of Time" that Richard III was maligned? Or do you know yet what you think?

Philippa Gregory: I SO know what I think! But I have carefully not read Sharon Penman nor any historical fiction so as not to be influenced in any way other than by the historical records which I am consulting.


Waldorf, Md.: Ms. Gregory, I was first introduced to you back in college (2003) and got started on "The Other Boleyn Girl", a fascinating story and so well written! I am also a huge fan of Showtime's series "The Tutors", are you familiar with the series? I know in terms of historical accuracy it falls short, but I think that like you it bring to life the real issues of the time and what women had to endure.

Philippa Gregory: I have only seen a few episodes of the Tudors and I agree with you that it is a lively show - I am troubled by the continuing slimness and good looks of Henry but I think we have to expect television to be entertaining and not necessarily accurate.


Fotheringay?: Just wondering if you were familiar with the Sandy Denny song "Fotheringay" (later the name of her band) about Mary?

Philippa Gregory: No I am not, but I will check it out, thank you.

It's a beautiful house, still standing today, and it features in another novel of mine, "The Queen's Fool."


Washington, D.C.: I loved "The Other Boleyn Girl" and am halfway through "The Boleyn Inheritance" right now. (And was just thinking last night that I need to read the whole series!)

My question is about Henry: With all your research, could you give a diagnosis of his mental state? Did he have a strong self-image that simply morphed into narcissism? Or was he narcissistic to begin with? How much was nature versus nurture?

Was he brilliant? A strategist? Or just born at the right place at the right time and simply taller than everyone else?

Philippa Gregory: This is so interesting.

I think he was born a much loved second son and rather spoiled as they thought he would go into the church and did not need the discipline of kingship. Then I think he was an agreeable young man (though vain and silly in an appropriate way) and was much in love and a good husband to Katherine of Aragon. His health declined dramatically after he was wounded in the leg jousting and this ulcer never healed. It caused him constant pain and may have poisoned his system, he was afraid that it would kill him, and did indeed, slip into unconsciousness twice which was blamed on the poisons mounting to his brain.

He also had a big fall and a concussion which may have caused some brain damage. The influence of Anne was dangerous both in aggrandising his view of himself - as fit to take the power of the Pope, and when he wanted her executed he discovered that nobody would stand against him. In that sense he learned tyranny.

His subsequent career taught him that he could execute people who displeased him and that nobody would stand against him effectively, and at the same time his health deteriorated terribly. He looks as if he was diabetic, he was certainly morbidly obese, and he may have had Cushings Disease which is a disease of the liver which can bring paranoid fantasies - which he certainly had by the end of his life.

Altogether, a bit of nurture and some ill health made him, I believe, a tyrant and a madman.


Montauk, N.Y.: Is this LIVE now? Is it like live chat in that you are interacting among the participants via the keyboard in real time? Advise please. I know it's not on audio.

Philippa Gregory: hey I am right here now!


Woodbridge, Va.: Philippa! I just wanted to tell you how much I LOVE YOUR BOOKS! I have read every one and I am so excited to read "The Other Queen." I am off for a few days next week and I can't wait to read it! I have also told everyone I know about them and have formed a little local "fan club" of your books.

Philippa Gregory: I am so pleased to hear this - please visit my website with your club, sign up for my newsletter for news of tours and new publications, and I am hoping to prepare a DVD as a readers guide for people like yourselves. Thank you for your enthusiasm!


Anchorage, Alaska: Hello,

Do you think that you will write about other countries' monarchies in the future? Have there been specific ones that tempt you?

Thank you

Philippa Gregory: No, I really don't dare to write about countries that are not wholly familiar and in languages that are not my own. I am very tempted by the early history of the US and in particular the native American peoples.


Munich, Germany: In your historical novels, do you ever run into difficulties or conflicts when trying to retain the language of the period while presenting a clear dialogue for modern readers?

Philippa Gregory: No, I took a decision in my first novel that I would always write as clearly and simply as possible. I looked at Jane Austen and though she is writing in the (18th you never read anything that sounds like self-conscious (18th writing. She is just beautifully clear. So I always try to write clearly, and sometimes I find I can cite original documents, or even a line of Shakespeare and it fits in without awkwardness.


Young, NSW, Australia: The fans at your own message board would love to have you check in there and give some feedback/answers to questions. Why didn't anyone from your PR team bother to post some information about this session on your message board? It was just luck that someone stumbled across it and posted about it. Thanks.

Philippa Gregory: My PR team numbers Zahra and myself, and we are on tour of the US at the moment, and this was arranged just a few days ago. I am so glad to welcome you to this discussion Monica.


Philippa Gregory: We have just a few moments left and I am anxious that we don't get all of the questions answered. If any of you would like to write into me at I will do my best to respond to you as soon as we finish the tour.

It has been a real pleasure to talk to all of you.

Philippa G


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company