The Washington Post

Princess Fairy Tales, Minus the Fairy: Philippa Gregory, Historical Novelist, Would-Be Explorer

British novelist Philippa Gregory ranks as the reigning monarch of historical fiction. Thanks to her blend of Tudor lore and steamy romance, the author of “The Other Boleyn Girl” boasts more best-sellers than Henry VIII had spouses. Her newest tome, “The Red Queen” ($26, Simon & Schuster) dramatically recounts the life of Henry’s ambitious granny, Margaret Beaufort.

» EXPRESS: Which are you first and foremost: a historian or a novelist?
» GREGORY: I think now I’m about 50/50. I trained initially in my career as a journalist, and then I became a historian. But the more I work on novels, the more I enjoy developing a story. People ask, “Is it history or is it a novel?” I say it’s a historical novel. It’s both; I’m both.

» EXPRESS: What led to your fascination with the Tudor dynasty?
» GREGORY: It was literally discovering the character of Mary Boleyn. I was looking up Tudor naval ships in the library and came across one named Mary Boleyn. Nobody outside of narrow specialists had ever heard of her, but I soon realized an extraordinary life lived on the edge of an incredible court and I thought, “This is such a great story that I have to write it.”

» EXPRESS: Your protagonists often seem like modern, independent women.
» GREGORY: They are independent women, but that doesn’t make them modern. We tend to think that liberation came to women in the 1960s and never before. But there have always been women struggling to find their own way in the world.

» EXPRESS: What can Washington women learn from these monarchs?
» GREGORY: I would say for Washington women there’s the question: How can you be true to yourself as a woman and your own tenderness and passions, and survive in a world where these qualities aren’t always rewarded? What you see with the women I write about is how in their society — which was far more dangerous than ours — how they cope with these challenges.

» EXPRESS: Has your love of the Tudor period added pageantry to your style?
» GREGORY: Oh, you mean my coach and four horses? No! No! Except for anyone who studies the medieval period, it would be hard not to develop a love for color. In my house, I use more fabrics with intricate embroidery than I ever did before.

» EXPRESS: Who are your favorite authors?
» GREGORY: I reread Jane Austen every couple of years. I’ve recently been reading Henry James and George Elliot.

» EXPRESS: Favorite coffee table book?
» GREGORY: Well, I don’t own a coffee table or picture books, but I suppose if I did it would be a history book.

» EXPRESS: If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
» GREGORY: I’m really sorry nobody ever told me I could be a volcanologist. I think that would be enormously good fun. I also wouldn’t have minded being a botanist or some kind of explorer.

Photo by James Stewart

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.



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express · September 2, 2010