Q&A with Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles

28 June 2011

Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . .

Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

I still remember the huge thrill of reading Karleen Koen’s first book, the incredible Through A Glass Darkly – an amazingly rich novel set in the early eighteenth century, where the winsomely lovely heroine Barbara loses then finds herself against the backdrop of George I’s London and the decadent Paris of the Regency, where orgies, duels and dissolute iniquity are very much the order of the day.

I’ve devoured Karleen’s subsequent books – Now Face to Face and then Dark Angels and so was very excited to find out that a fourth book was on the cards: Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV. Dark Angels was set at the court of the young Louis XIV and was a superb evocation of a dazzling and fascinating period in French history so I can’t wait to read more just as soon as I get my mitts on a copy! It’s released today and if it is anything like her previous books then it will be amazing.

I was lucky enough to get a Q&A session with Karleen Koen, where she talks about her books, history and the writing process…

MG. What was the initial inspiration for Through A Glass Darkly?

KK. I had a personal heartbreak; I wanted to convey the emotion of that.

MG. Do you have a favourite character from your books?

KK. That’s a hard question to answer. The Duchess must be very dear to my heart because I’m so involved in writing about her as a young woman right now.

MG What happened to Barbara in the end? Will there be a third book about her at some point?

KK. There will be. I think my imagination just needed time to rest and regroup. Through A Glass Darkly and Now Face to Face are both long and complicated.

MG. I love your descriptions of the Hanoverian court in Britain (a much underused period in history) – did you enjoy writing about that period?

KK. Yes, I did. I didn’t know much about it. As you say, it is rarely used as a background, and so it was fun to learn all the people and events of interest in it. And the South Sea Bubble is so fascinating.

MG. If you had to choose between the two periwigged cousins, which would it be: Louis XIV or Charles II?

KK. Knowing what I know, I wouldn’t take either, but that’s not fair. Both were open-hearted and brave, wonderful young men. I really loved Louis in the time period I wrote about in Before Versailles. I loved him so much he became the main character. And Charles II as Prince of Wales was gallant and dear. Unfortunately, Charles’s time in exile made him cynical, and Louis’s success made him overly proud. 

MG. I’m currently researching a book about Minette, the sister of Charles II and love your depiction of her – what were your impressions of this princess? It’s hard to come out of Margaret Irwin’s shadow isn’t it?

KK. I don’t know Margaret Irwin, but it looks as if I must go and discover her. I found Henriette hard to grasp. I find that very often in researching females in history. They are lightly glossed over by the historians of their time. 

MG. If you could go back to any period in history, just for a brief visit, which would it be?

KK. I’d want to meet young Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley and draw my own conclusions about their relationship. I would want to meet Louis XIV, but only in the early 1660s. I’d loved to have witnessed the relationship between Charles I and his son, Charles II, during the civil war as time and circumstance began to pound them. 

MG. Your books are always filled with magnificent detail but at the same time never shy away from the harrowing and tragic aspects of history (like the fate of Barbara’s siblings, which still makes me well up decades after first reading it). Do you ever hesitate before you write something tragic and think ‘I could make this a happy ending’? I struggle with this one myself, you see and was interested to see if other writers have that moment of ‘I don’t have to guillotine Marie Antoinette – she could escape!’ ;)

KK. I’m really following impulse, instinct, where the story takes me. The heartbreak isn’t deliberate; it’s an innate part of the story. I think I need to lighten up.

MG.  You are equally at home writing about the courts of Paris and London – do you have a preference between them?

KK. English. The French court was in a narrower cage.

MG. My next book is set in 17th century Paris – is there an unmissable spot there that is inspiring and really evokes that period for a writer? When you go there, where is your first port of call?

KK. The Marais district.

MG. Your latest book is about the young Louis XIV – what drew you to the young King and made you decide to write about him?

KK. Actually, I was drawn to Henriette and Louise and their relationship with Louis’s impact on them both. But I ended with Louis as the compelling force. I found I really liked him at age 22, and the decisions he had to make, as I attempted to articulate them, drew me to him.

MG. What other writers have inspired you while on your writing journey?

KK. Winston Graham, Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart.

MG: Other writers do re-enactment or dress in period clothes in order to get a ‘feel’ for the time that they are writing about – do you do anything like that to help you get under the skin of your characters?

KK. I do like to visit an actual location. That gives me a sense of scale and feel. Otherwise, i use whatever knowledge of human nature I’ve acquired and then a bit of the cultural mileau characters would have been in. No dress up, but I like it that others do. Whatever it takes to write……

MG. Do you know what your next book will be about – or is that a secret for now? :)

KK. I think it’s about Alice and Richard again, sort of picking up where Dark Angels left off. It’s barely begun, however, so I really don’t know much about it.

MG. Do you have any advice for budding historical fiction writers out there?

KK. Don’t let the history overwhelm you. Let the story do so.


Thanks so much Karleen for such an interesting interview and hurray, more Barbara and the Duchess to look forward to in the future! Good luck with the book release and I’ll be posting a review just as soon as I have read Before Versailles!

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