National Book Festival: Philippa Gregory and the Love of History

Philippa Gregory. Photo from: Simon and Schuster.

Philippa Gregory is the author of 39 books, most of them works of historical fiction. Many of them have been international bestsellers and several have been turned into films. She lives in Yorkshire where, she happily notes on her website, she keeps horses, hens and ducks.  She graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in History, and received a doctorate in 18th century literature from the University of Edinburgh, where she is now a regent. Her most recent novel is “Tidelands.”

Your doctoral dissertation was on 18th century novels, and you read roughly 200 novels from that period in your research. If you hadn’t done that, do you think you’d have been able to write the novels that you have?

My Ph.D. was undoubtedly the perfect author’s apprenticeship. Not only did I read 200 novels, I analysed them all, which meant I learned about structure, characterization and tempo. But more importantly, I learned about the craft of novel writing at the very time novels were being invented. My studies also taught me the discipline of reading and study – and I was lucky to have some remarkable tutors along the way.

You once mentioned that, back in the old days, you went around the U.K. to libraries to read rare books that you needed. The internet has made much of that obsolete, but do you still rely on libraries for your research? 

I’m a member of The London Library and I still use local libraries and local records during my research – local historians very often have the best research notes. But I do love what the internet has done for research.  To be able to look things up and read sections from books and journals within a few moments is wonderful.

Do you have bright lines of fictionalizing real people’s lives that you won’t cross? Policy, in other words? That you might create scenes, but not alter the historical record, etc.?

The first rule I apply when writing a historical novel is that it has to work as a novel, as well as be absolutely based on the history. The broad narrative of the history imposes the story of the novel, all I can choose is when to start and stop. The only time I invent an occasion in the life of an historical character is when we simply don’t know what they were doing – and then I choose the most likely explanation.

How do you get your characters’ speech patterns? 

 Many years ago, I made a conscious decision to use modern speech to make my novels easier to read. I want readers to feel as though they were there, and that they know these people like old friends, and I don’t want them slowed up by an unfamiliar language. I am careful with the accuracy of phrases, so I’d never say “her touch was electric” or refer to things that had not yet been invented or discovered.

Michael Connelly, the crime writer, once told me that the hardest thing about writing for him was “the getting and keeping of momentum.” What are the most difficult things for you? Plotting? Endings? The time in between books?

For me, the researching and the writing is the easy part, but the long process of editing, publishing and promoting does not come naturally to me.

Having one’s book (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) filmed with a cast of Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Mark Rylance sounds like a dream come true. Was it?

When I write and love a book, sometimes working on it for years – the book is always going to be my favorite medium. When I have to open it up to allow a huge team of writers, actors, directors and producers to work on it too, it’s always a disturbing process. But, TV and film can also do things that the books can’t, for instance, the beauty of the landscapes and the clothes have more impact on screen than they do on the page, and the performances of great actors can be transformational for a character. I love also how when I see something on screen it’s like the first time – I too can get caught up in the magic of the story.

Most irritating thing(s) you see in historical fiction? What can make you drop a book on the spot?

I rarely read historical fiction but if I do, I’m always disappointed with novels that start at birth and end at death. As a writer of fiction, we get to choose when to start and end the story

And lastly: What are you working on now?

“Tidelands” is the first book in a series, so I am already working on book two. The novels will trace one family’s rise from harsh poverty, through the opportunities of the 18th century, to their prosperity in Victorian times. If I can, I might even take the story on to modern times, reflecting my deep interest in the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times. At the same time, I am writing non-fiction, a history book, on women’s history and already I am finding that my thoughts about one are informing the other.

Gregory will be on the Genre Fiction Stage at 4 p.m., in conversation with fellow author Margaret George and moderator Petra Mayer of National Public Radio.

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