Philippa Gregory, author of the bestselling Wideacre trilogy and other celebrated historical novels, holds a B.A. in history and a Ph.D. in 18th-century literature. In her youth, however, the meticulous writer-researcher almost skipped going to university (she was, as she put it, "a bit of a rebel at school"). When she finally did enroll at Sussex University, she took a course taught by the historian Maurice Hutt, and the rest is -- what else? -- history.
"It was such a powerful experience that, really, it transformed my life," she explained in an interview with The Guardian. "I was looking for something that would explain everything -- I was that kind of earnest young woman! -- and history seemed to be able to do that."
Gregory earned her degree from Sussex, then traveled to Edinburgh to research 18th-century popular novels. The research spawned both a Ph.D. thesis and Gregory's first novel, Wideacre, which was a New York Times bestseller. It came, Gregory pointed out in a Barnes and Noble interview, "at a time when people wanted a new sort of historical fiction: more realistic, more radical, more sexy, and harder edged. That's how I see the world, so I never wrote for a market, I always wrote to reflect my own view of the period, and it has been phenomenally successful."
After extending Wideacre into a trilogy, Gregory continued to write fiction, delving into 16th-century witchcraft , 17th-century political turmoil, and 18th-century slave trading, as well as exploring contemporary life.
But while Gregory -- in her own view and in the views of many critics -- continued to improve as a writer, none of her books matched the popular success of Wideacre until she wrote The Other Boleyn Girl, a provocative tale of sexual politics in the court of Henry VIII, and The Queen's Fool, the story of a 14-year-old Jewish girl brought to the court of Queen Mary. Both novels became bestsellers and widely acclaimed storytelling tour de forces.
Gregory continues to mine the territory of Tudor England for stories -- and she continues with her historical research, building up an ever more dazzling, daring and complete picture of the period. "Accuracy is very important to me because I have a total commitment to history," Gregory told The Guardian. "It answered my deepest questions, of which, I suppose, the most profound is: ‘Why am I here?' Understanding your history can tell you that. It's how I understand who I am and where I came from. I would never lie to anyone about history."
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In our interview, Gregory shared some fascinating and fun facts about herself:
"I have an enormous horse whom I absolutely adore, and I keep playing hooky from writing to ride him."
"I went to The Gambia on holiday and gave a rural schoolmaster money for a well in the school garden to teach the children how to farm with irrigation, and to grow crops for them to eat at dinnertime. The project took off, and he and I have built more than 50 wells in The Gambia together, and we are still digging! Each well costs only £250, so I ask friends for money and I give my lecture fees towards it. It is one of the greatest achievements of my life and makes a real difference to the poorest people in Africa."
"Although some people think I am a romantic novelist I have always thought of myself as a rather gritty radical historian. For instance, I have never believed that there is only one person for each person in the world. It doesn't make the least sense to me. However, in reality, I fell in love at 45 and I am absolutely certain that my now husband is the only man in the world for me, a truth I find both ridiculous and uplifting."
"I love reading and I love thinking -- the reason that I love my books so much is that in order to write them I have to read and to think for years at a time about the same period of time. By the time I settle down to write I have to know fairly intensely about the characters, the period, and the issues. I always get interested in some of the side issues -- like the currency or the change of agriculture."
"I have a great passion for the countryside and I can't be happy unless I am walking in the country or riding once or twice a week. When we go on author tour my husband always makes sure that we have walking breaks to keep me sane!"
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In the winter of 2004, Philippa Gregory took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I couldn't name any single book as a unique influence. As a child I read Alison Goudge's The Little White Horse, and the combination of historical fiction and gothic was very powerful for me.
I read all of Jane Austen's novels very early on and learned to love her economy of style and precision. She still seems to me the finest writer in the English language. But I am a very big enthusiast for the works of E. M. Forster, who seems to me to be able to take ideas of the greatest seriousness and incorporate them into a novel that's fluent and realistic -- and even funny.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
As well as the above, Nigel Balchin's Mine Own Executioner -- a powerful description of the time, and of a man in complete contradiction with himself.
Another novel about struggling to understand oneself is William Golding's Pincher Martin, which is a work of genius, and one that no one ever agrees about!
I love the novels of Iris Murdoch -- though sometimes they feel a bit same-y. My favorite is The Sandcastle, which is Murdoch at her finest, a mix of magic and the absolutely prosaic.
I don't read historical novels, which often surprises people, but I find the genre very patchy. The greatest historical novelist in my opinion was Georgette Heyer -- her book on the Peninsular War, The Spanish Bride, is brilliant.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I adored Shakespeare in Love because of the wit of the script and the richness of the panoramic filming. The story is the most delicious tosh, but it makes me laugh and cry. I love Gone with the Wind, probably for many of the same reasons.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music while I am writing because I find it too overpowering. It would make me write in the emotion of the music, rather than in the emotion of the story. I like soul to dance to, and blues and jazz to get mournfully drunk to, old songs like Cole Porter to sing along to, and classical music to read to and drive to.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
If I had a book club it would read the books that I lack the energy and discipline to read alone. We would start with Plato and work through the philosophy of the Western world. I feel terribly guilty that I know nothing about Wittgenstein.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I'm ashamed to say I like silly books for gifts because I would never buy them for myself. I like the cartoonist Gary Larson, and I adore James Thurber. I like books that aren't even for reading, like books on gardens.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have a mess on my desk, but the main thing is that all the things I need are near to hand, so I have a big ring-bound file of my notes, and my walls are covered with pictures of my characters and maps of the towns they live in and sometimes plans of their houses.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
The extraordinary part of my story is that I was an overnight success with my very first novel. Wideacre. I think the reason that the book was so successful was that I wrote it during my work on my Ph.D., so I was absolutely absorbed and even overwhelmed with information about the 18th century, and I had been studying 18th-century novels solidly for four years. It meant the book was powerfully researched with the information in my head rather than in my notes, and the structure of the novel was part of the way I thought. Having said that, it was at a time when people wanted a new sort of historical fiction: more realistic, more radical, more sexy, and harder edged. That's how I see the world, so I never wrote for a market, I always wrote to reflect my own view of the period, and it has been phenomenally successful.
What one has to admit is that I have carried on writing in this way through the years of the historical novel's decline that happened in the ‘90s. It was very disconcerting and very disheartening to be certain that I was writing better than I had written before and yet experiencing stable if not falling sales. I knew I could do nothing except continue to write as well as I could and hope for a change in the marketplace. That has now come, with readers discovering an enthusiasm for the new historical fiction which I and a very few other modern writers do.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Never write for the marketplace; you can't judge it, and you certainly can't catch up with it. Always write the very best you can about the things that you feel passionate about. You are your first reader -- never write down to yourself.
In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Philippa Gregory had to say:
Iris Murdoch, The Sandcastle -- This is a lovely moody book with lots of English weather and it starts in a heatwave, perfect for summer reading. It is a story of desire and English snobbery and the control of a wife over her
husband, it is a fascinating study of a marriage.
Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger -- A powerful nostalgic look at a haunting love
over a lifetime by one of the most thoughtful of English writers.
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own -- This gives you such prestige on the
beach! And it is such a powerful examination of the obstacles that face women in achieving success -- I always think of it as a summer read because I
took it with me on holiday to Scotland one summer and my copy is battered by me hitting midges and re-reading.
Charles Dickens, Hard Times -- This is a great novel for taking the romance out of the past. Dickens writes of an England which is realistic and bitterly hard for the striking workers and he writes without sentimentality. It is also a great picture of England in the middle of change.
Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd -- The film of this novel was so good
that it is great to re-read the novel again and see how much depth and wisdom there is in the original.
D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love -- Again, wonderful English weather, in this book. There is an English house party in midsummer which has to be read in full sunshine to be fully enjoyed. It is a wonderful novel by a writer who
created his own narrative voice.
Mary Renault, The Bull from the Sea -- I just recommended this to a friend of mine who is going to Crete for her summer holiday. It is a most powerful and evocative conjurorings of the ancient greek world. Myth rewritten as a novel -- wonderful!
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice -- It always bears another reading, and I think in many ways it is a perfect rendition of the novel form.
Nigel Balchin, Mine Own Executioner -- This was a hugely popular novel at the time but is sadly out of print now. If you can find a second hand edition I think it is a haunting story of love and the price that good men pay in wartime.
William Golding, Pincher Martin -- When I first read this novel I thought that Golding was the finest writer in the English language. The years have barely reduced my admiration for what he does here. It is not so much a novel as an
extended short story, it has only one character and he is quite alone. You would not think it would be riveting, but it is!
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