A short but sweet interview with Sandra Gulland

6 July 2010

Today on Madame Guillotine, I am very thrilled to present an interview with one of my all time favourite writers, Sandra Gulland, authoress of the simply brilliant Joséphine B trilogy and Mistress of the Sun, a novel about Louise de la Vallière.

I can’t think of many other novelists, in any genre, who are so thrilled to hear from fans and, moreover, take the time to personally reply to their emails, even the ones from historical fiction wannabes like myself. Sandra’s best known books are probably the Joséphine B trilogy about the amazing life and times of Joséphine de Beauharnais, who was to become the Empress Joséphine. I remember absolutely devouring them all when they came out, thrilled by the detailed descriptions of late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century French life, by the absorbing personal dramas of the heroine and, overall, by her enchanting and fresh turn of phrase.

The books are written in the first person and form a series of diaries, kept by Joséphine from the days just before her first marriage to the pompous, arrogant social climber Alexandre de Beauharnais to the very end of her days when middle aged, exiled at Malmaison and surrounded by the turmoil of Napoléon’s defeat, she was still able to enchant the Tsar of Russia, only to catch pneumonia while showing him her roses while wearing a skimpy muslin dress. Sandra Gulland has clearly done an enormous amount of research (which is detailed in her website – she wears period clothes in order to get a feel for them and also researched and wrote a massive time line for Joséphine which is now in a university library) but it never once causes the story to stall or become bogged down.

It is Joséphine’s own voice, however, that makes the trilogy so superb. She is arch, seductive, kittenish, good humoured, kindly and impulsive. In summary, she is everything that is charming and just as you would imagine her to have been. They really are magnificent, triumphant books and cannot be recommended enough.

Sandra’s fourth book was a bit of a departure in more ways than one: it tells the story of Louise de la Vallière, the first mistress of Louis XIV. Louise has come down in history as a bit of a wishy washy character who spent a lot of time crying, repenting and pretending to run away to convents in the hopes that Louis would beg her to come back to court again. However, every so often you get a glimpse of someone far steelier and courageous: it is well known that she was a superb horsewoman, who was able to stand on a horse’s back as it trotted around the ring.

Again, Sandra captures Louise’s voice perfectly and you find yourself being sucked into her story with all of its twists and turns. There is an element of magic there as well, which fans of Philippa Gregory will appreciate and enjoy. I expected to be irritated by Louise’s character as she could easily be depicted as overly docile, sweet and too good to be true but that didn’t happen at all and instead I found myself admiring her and cheering her on. Poor Louise, she always comes off slightly worse in the ongoing rivalry with Athénaïs but here she is a worthy heroine in her own right.

Anyway, on with the interview!

MG: What first drew you towards French history? Did it begin with a passion of France or did the interest in its history come first?

I’ve been a Francophile since my teen years, beginning with a love for French literature and film. My love of French history began with Josephine. Until then, I had no interest in history at all. Once I began reading about French history, I was hooked!

MG: What sparked your initial interest in the Empress Joséphine?

SG: As an editor for an educational publishing house, I was exploring the possibility of developing a line of biographies written for young adults. I began by reading one: it happened to be about Josephine. And thus, my entire life changed.
MG: Are there any other personages are you drawn to and maybe considering writing about?

SG: I have quite a list! Most are of the 17th century. I doubt that I will ever write about the 18th century again.
MG: I’m amazed by the amount of research you do – what do you enjoy most: the research or the writing?

SG: The research is fun and not as challenging as writing, but without writing, why research? The two go hand-in-hand.
MG: What do you do when you get pesky, annoying writer’s block?

SG: Research!
MG: Which authors do you enjoy reading?

SG: The author I most enjoy reading wrote the book that happens to be on my bedside table at any given moment. I tend to read a wide variety of authors, and rarely more than one novel by any one author in particular. Jane Smiley is an exception: I’ve read quite a few of her novels. Carol Shields is another. Alice Munroe. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was a stunning novel, a knock-out, but so good I’m almost afraid to read anything else by her for fear of being disappointed.
MG: What drew you to the character of Louise de la Vallière?

SG: I was intrigued by a puzzle: she is described as a timid wall-flower, yet she could out-ride and out-hunt the king and his men. She was devout, yet the king’s official mistress. It was a puzzle I wanted to work out.
MG: If you had to choose, which one would it be: Louis XIV or Napoleon?

SG: What an interesting question! I think Napoleon. Louis was a good man, and certainly better looking than Napoleon, but he was emotionally remote, I suspect. Napoleon’s emotions were always out front.
MG: Marry, date, avoid – Louise de la Valliere, Athenais de Montespan or Francoise de Maintenon.

SG: Marry Louise, date Françoise, avoid Athénaïs. Louise was loyal, Françoise was an intellect, a very interesting woman to converse with, and although Athénaïs was the life of a party, she could be a mean drunk, I suspect.
MG: If you could back to any period in history (and be rich and well dressed!) which one would you pick?

SG: (Could I be rich and well-dressed now, please?) Okay, a period in history: I’d say the mid- to late-17th-century in France, the period of France’s cultural flowering. Food, style, culture! It was an extremely exciting time.
Thank you so much to Sandra for agreeing to do this interview – she is currently very busy writing her fifth book, this time revolving around Athénaïs de Montespan, Louise’s successor. I am not sure of the details but I think that the main character is not Athénaïs herself but rather her maid, Mademoiselle d’Oeillets (spelling police!) who becomes embroiled in the affair of the poisons. I am sure that it will be fabulous!
Sandra has a website, research blog and also a general blog, all of which I very much recommend to anyone interested in seventeenth century French history. I still really want to write about Henriette, Duchesse d’Orléans one day but I feel frankly daunted as Sandra and Karleen Koen have both set the bar for writing about that period really, really high!

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