In this 5 On interview, Sandra Gulland discusses the delicate process of blending fact and fiction, the allure of unhappy endings, the publishing industry then vs. now, preparation for public readings/signings, and more.
Sandra Gulland (@sandra_gulland) is an internationally bestselling author of biographical historical fiction. She is known for the depth and accuracy of her research, as well as for creating novels that bring history vividly to life. She is published by Simon & Schuster and Doubleday in the US, and HarperCollins in Canada. The popular Josephine B. Trilogy about Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, published in fifteen countries, is under option for a television drama series. Mistress of the Sun and The Shadow Queen, set in the mid-seventeenth-century French court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, are published internationally as well.
Gulland is now writing two young adult novels about Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, for Penguin. A self-confessed “Net nerd,” she has created her own e-book imprint—“Sandra Gulland INK”—in order to ensure that her novels remain available worldwide.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: When you decided you wanted to devote the bulk of your time to writing, you were able to quit your job because, you said, “My husband is my patron. And his business enabled me, at that point in our life, to give up money work.” But you added that publication didn’t necessarily happen right away, and then you made a reference to van Gogh, who “never sold a painting.”
What was the period of writing but not publishing like before your work sold? Were you comfortable with the arrangement, or did you experience any doubts about the decision you’d made? Did you set a deadline (“If I don’t get published in X number of years, I’ll go back to work”)? (I ask this as someone whose spouse has made it possible to stay home and write and who feels like a mooch at least once every other week.)
SANDRA GULLAND: I’d always been self-supporting, and I really disliked being dependent financially, but writing was important to me, so it was worth it. It helped that my husband was supportive, insisting that I write even if I never sold a book.
When I was in the doldrums, despairing about the possibility of ever getting published, he was the one who said, “Think of van Gogh!”
I don’t recall ever having a fallback plan or a deadline. I am compulsively persevering, so I suspect I simply had faith.
In deeply researching a person’s life, it’s fairly easy to uncover the significant threads. The relationships with the people they love, of course. Family. Health is another that is often overlooked—yet it can be central. I find it especially worthwhile to explore a character’s aspirations—her dreams and fantasies. This was key to understanding Napoleon, for example, who was such a dreamer, and Louise de La Vallière (of Mistress of the Sun), who was profoundly religious.
Some subjects, however, simply do not translate into good fiction, and should not be used, even if it is something central to the character. For example, the disastrous inflation in France after the Terror meant that everyone became a scavenger, a wheeler and dealer—including Josephine. I hinted at this in the Trilogy, but I dared not do very much with it. The ups and downs of a national economy do not make for readable fiction.
Ultimately, I’m looking for those threads, those moments, that illuminate the character, that make the story come alive.
You said in a Simon & Schuster discussion, “I am a fan of what I would call literary historical novels—slow, gritty but poetic novels that often end unhappily.” Do the novels you enjoy happen to end unhappily, or do you enjoy the novels in part for their unhappy endings? And, generally, what makes a sad ending appealing to readers, do you think?
As a rule, literary fiction tends to end unhappily, and I like to read literary fiction, so the two go hand in hand. There’s something rather poignant about closing a novel tearfully. That said, I don’t seem to be averse to a happy ending these days. The stories of each of my heroines do not end happily, at least not in the traditional sense, yet they are satisfying.
Creating characters from scratch and plopping them in the past is one thing, but you write about real people with real pasts. Can you describe the process of creating a fictionalized story for someone you’ve thoroughly researched? In your novels, how much is historical fact and how much is fiction, and how do you decide where to veer off?
Like many writers, I find plot difficult, and I mistakenly thought that writing biographical historical fiction would be easy, given that the plot would already exist. How wrong I was! If anything, it’s more of a challenge, because one must create plot within the confines of fact.
I first create a detailed timeline of events. This can run to hundreds of pages.
Then I identify the key events and look for story arcs.
And then the fun begins: sculpting the facts to create story. I’m currently fond of using story beats as outlined by Blake Snyder in Save the Cat, and so I’m identifying the “Catalyst,” the “Promise of the Premise,” and so forth.
In identifying key themes, I must also decide what not to include. The worlds of the past were densely populated, each moment swarming with characters. I must cut, cut, cut!
I think of facts as the bones of the story. When I deviate—as I must, since a compelling story is the goal—I will acknowledge it in the Author’s Note. That said, there is always a great deal that is not known. I like to think that the scenes I create whole cloth could have possibly happened. In fact, I think a writer of fiction can get close to the truth in this way.
History, in particular any dramatic telling of it, is undeniably alluring. It’s almost impossible to not be drawn to the mystery of a time we can never experience in any way but through storytelling. But the people who were alive in what’s now to us a historical period were no more interesting to themselves than we are to ourselves: getting up in the morning, putting on the clothes that were fashionable (or not so fashionable) at the time, taking or avoiding appointment cards.… Who from our time do you think will inspire historical fiction writers in a hundred years, and what seemingly mundane details of our daily lives do you think will be interesting to future readers?
I think that the types of daily life details that will be of interest to writers in the future will be the things we now find interesting about the past: how long it takes to get from one place to another; the way we are divided into small “enclaves” (i.e. countries); the curious types of food we eat; our short lifespan; our barbaric medical practices; our bizarre beliefs. The things that they may well neglect to convey might be the annoyance of having to crawl under desks to connect wires and the variety of cellphone ring tones.
5 on Publishing
I thought I had it tough, from a publishing and readership standpoint, as someone who enjoyed writing literary-ish fiction. But this genre popularity chart created by creative search agency Mediaworks shows historical fiction sells even less than literary fiction. Obviously, a relevant question is whether how many people buy historical fiction has to do with how much historical fiction is available compared to the other genres, but that’s for another time. (It just needed saying.)
To the question: Do you write the way you want to write and you’re fortunate that readers love your natural style, or while writing do you have to consider the business end of the work, think about what will likely attract readers, and then write to that attraction?
It has always been discouraging to look at publishing statistics. There are no guarantees; there is no crystal ball. Nobody really knows.
When my agent began looking for a US publisher for my Josephine B. Trilogy, the “publishing wisdom” was that historical fiction simply did not sell, so I was roundly rejected everywhere. And then, much to everyone’s surprise, came the 1997 runaway bestseller Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, and suddenly historical fiction was hot. I doubt that I would have been published in the US had it not been for the success of Cold Mountain. Too, the Trilogy was rejected by all the big publishers in Europe and the UK, until a German publisher bought it, and then suddenly everyone wanted it. Publishing is much more emotional than scientific, and as maddening as that can be, I think it’s a good thing.
But to answer your question: writing a novel is such a big commitment, I have to be compelled to do it from passion or interest or compulsive curiosity, and preferably all three. Writing for potential sales does not work for me, and in any case, I very much doubt that such a work would sell.
That said, some very good writers have come to their best work in seeking a popular audience—Elmore Leonard, for example. Whatever motivates one to write can be a good thing.
Why historical fiction? I simply got hooked on Josephine’s story and one thing led to another. I think readers enjoy learning something while being under the enchantment of a story. I certainly do.
I aim to write accessible literary fiction—which I think of as Lite Lit, a term only I find amusing, apparently.
What helped the Josephine B. Trilogy sell so well was, simply, Josephine. Hers is a marquee name, and that helps when writing biographical historical fiction. Not only is Josephine known to virtually everyone, but she is a very sympathetic heroine and her life was astonishingly romantic and dramatic. All the high-concept story elements are there.
My two novels since Josephine—Mistress of the Sun and The Shadow Queen—are not about marquee historical characters, and their stories, although compelling, don’t have the epic arc of Josephine’s life, and hence have not enjoyed broad popular appeal. If commercial success was what motivated me, I would have to seek out only marquee subjects. (Unfortunately, this is more important for writers of historical fiction now than in the past.) I very much enjoy having a wide and enthusiastic readership, but that is not what motivates me.
A reading, you’ve said, is more like a talk, an opportunity for the author to engage with the audience. What five pieces of advice would you give authors about to deliver their first reading/talk?
Most writers are introverts and find public speaking daunting. Take heart! Introverts are, as a rule, excellent public speakers, but only because they prepare like crazy.
Here is my process:
WRITE. Put a lot of time into writing a good talk. Write out every word of your presentation. Aim for only about five to ten minutes of reading, and the rest of it talk, leaving time for about fifteen minutes of Q&A at the end. Type the sections of your book you plan to read into your speech.
In general, people love to laugh, and self-deprecating humor goes over well. Remember that you are there to entertain. Readers enjoy personal accounts about the process of creation.
People like to be participants, so ask questions: engage the audience.
Prepare a few funny questions to suggest at the end, should your audience be shy to speak up during the Q&A.
Your entire talk/reading should be about thirty to forty minutes.
EDIT. Read your talk out loud slowly. Edit the passages you are going to read from your book to make them easy for you to read, as well as easy for listeners to understand. Change words you find difficult to pronounce or stumble over. Think of this as theater. A passage read out loud comes across differently from a passage one reads to oneself silently, so adjustments must be made.
PREPARE. Convert your talk to large bold print, and break each paragraph into sentences. Print out your talk and assemble it in a binder. Dog-ear each page so that the pages are easy to turn.
If the group is going to be at all large, ask to have a mic. This allows you more emotional range in your reading.
REHEARSE. A natural, relaxed presentation is achieved with lots of preparation. A few days before your talk, read in front of a mirror, sweeping up from the page with each sentence to meet your own eyes. The day of the talk, do this two or three times. Slow down as you read—don’t race through it.
Try on what you’re planning to wear—is it comfortable? Flattering?
PRESENT. Getting comfortable with public speaking comes with practice.
When I was first published, I read and was greatly helped by Never be Nervous Again, by Dorothy Sarnoff, who advises speakers to think of the following mantra before a talk: “I’m glad I’m here, I’m glad you’re here, and I know what I know.” Try it!
Plan what you will do in case only one or two people show up. Consider this your rite of passage: every author goes through it.
In the 1970s you were a book editor for a Toronto-based publisher, and now you’re on the author side of things. How would you characterize the publishing industry then vs. now?
Now most everything is done on computer, of course. Every time I publish a book I need to learn new vocabulary and procedures.
The biggest difference is that today your entire career depends on the sale of your most recent book, which can now be tracked. The big-box bookstores, which control the industry by virtue of their size, will place an order in line with the sales of your last book. Period. This means that authors and publishers don’t dare take risks, and that there is ever more pressure to write for sales. It also means that publishers are not likely to invest in an author’s career over time. A well-published mid-list author may have to change his or her name in order to be published as a debut novelist if his or her last book had disappointing sales. This is scary stuff!
And then, of course, there is the phenomenal rise of ebooks and online venues, principally Amazon. This has had a negative effect on brick-and-mortar bookstores, especially the independent bookstores. (I would very much like to see the model adopted in Germany and France, where independent bookstores thrive because discounting is against the law.)
All this is sad and doesn’t bode well for a healthy literary environment.
There is an upside, however: it is now also possible to respectably self-publish.
How often do you think about whether, or how well, your books are selling, or whether your next book will succeed or flop? Or is there a point at which such concerns fade and you’re able to go from one project to the next with a healthy amount of confidence?
I am long past retirement age, and I fortunately don’t depend on book sales to pay the rent, but by the same token I don’t want my “team”—my agent, editors, and publishers—to lose money. They have invested in me, after all. Before I even begin a novel, I chat about it with my agent and editors. Some subjects have failed to get a green light. These I may pursue in the future, for my own sake—and self-publish, if need be.
Once I begin, I feel the weight of trying to get the WIP to work as a novel, but I don’t think about whether or not it will succeed commercially. This has never been a concern while writing. Instead, I’m focused on the page.
That said, once my novel is finished to my liking (and this takes years), I’m very concerned about whether or not my agent and editors like it, and then—my biggest hurdle—whether or not my beta readers give it a thumbs-up. Once I’ve satisfied all these gatekeepers, I feel that I can safely assume a modicum of commercial success.
What is your writer to agented-writer story? How long did it take you to find an agent, what was the querying process like for you (How many queries sent? How many times did you revise and send different versions of the same query? Did you have an easy time or a hard time writing queries?), and what do you think resulted in that first contract: was it a perfected query letter, the right manuscript, or coming across the right person?
I’ve always thought that I was simply lucky in getting an agent because I was quickly taken on by someone who was new to the profession and needed to build up a list.
Looking back, however, I realize that I was more persevering than lucky. I’d been pestering this particular agency with a proposal every year. Publishing is in my bones, and I was determined to be published come hell or high water! (Fortunately, these early proposals were rejected.)
Ultimately, for me, it was the right manuscript plus the right person at the right time.
Napoleon, when interviewing generals, would ask, “Are you lucky?” He believed that you created your luck, and I think there is some truth in this. Perseverance is key.
Thank you, Sandra.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.