Author Interviews

Phillipa Gregory: “To combine the truth of an historical record with the truth that can be told in a novel is, I think a great challenge and a great pleasure”.

Philippa Gregory – English novelist, broadcaster and newspaper reviewer, was born 9th January 1954 in Kenya (a bit far from the UK we know!) Her family moved to England when she was two years old. As a young adult, Philippa attended the University of Sussex, and afterwards worked with BBC radio for two years, until going on to study for her doctorate in 17th-century literature at the University of Edinburgh.

As an established historian and writer, Philippa explored and demonstrated her love of the Tudors in her debut novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, which was consequently made into a TV drama, and a film (starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Banner). After six novels all detailing the Tudor heritage, Philippa has since worked on retelling the story of the family that preceded the Tudors, the Plantaganets. As well as writing, Philippa has taught at the University of Durham, Teesside, and the Open University, and has also been made a fellow of Kingston University in 1994. Philippa spends a lot of her time working and raising funds for her charity, Gardens for The Gambia, that helps to pay for wells and gardening lessons in schools throughout the poorer parts of Gambia. Philippa now lives on a farm in Yorkshire with her family.

Phillipa Gregory

Phillipa Gregory

Hi Philippa,

Thank you so much for agreeing to chat to us today, here at World of Books we’re huge fans of your work, knowing that they’re a dead cert for a good read. With your most recent book The Lady of the Rivers released on 15th September, we’re very lucky to have caught a moment with you!

Q: Ok, so as we’ve already mentioned, The Other Boleyn Girl was made into a film in 2008. Your novel tells the story of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s younger sister, who was first seduced by Henry VIII before her sister came

The Other Boleyn Girl

The Other Boleyn Girl

into his interest, and who in the novel bore two of his illegitimate children, including the much longed-for son that Anne and Henry failed to have together. Unlike Anne who, through her courtship with the King set events in motion that saw Henry excommunicated from the Catholic Church, and consequently become head of the Church of England (the main English national religion to this day), Mary did not become Queen of England, instead, she was the only Boleyn sibling to survive the King’s wrath when the fateful year of 1536 occurred, and Anne and her brother were beheaded. Why did you choose to write the story from Mary’s point of view? And were you pleased with the film when it was released?  

– I wrote the novel from Mary’s viewpoint because it was so fresh and because the events of her life were almost unknown and she was not regarded as an historical character. The story of a sister who bore two royal bastards had nowhere been described, I thought it was a deeply interesting human story as well as an untold historical story. I am interested generally in either women whose stories are not told at all – like Mary Boleyn – or women whose stories are told with great prejudice – like for instance Anne of Cleves in my novel The Boleyn Inheritance. In the case of Anne our understanding of her, in the traditional histories, is based on the word of her divorcing husband – of course he calls her coarse and smelly and fat, he wants to justify abandoning her. His courtiers took his word for it because they did not dare to disagree, and this slur on this woman has gone into the historical record.

As to the film, I enjoyed it very much, I thought it was particularly beautiful and the performances were exceptionally good. Like most bookish people, I prefer the form of the book best though!

Q: So far most of your books have been historical fiction. What is it about the past that interests you? And at any point in the future, would you write in another genre?

– Actually I have written contemporary fiction, and contemporary satire, and children’s books, and I am working now on a Young Adult series. I love historical fiction and I think it is a most interesting literary form. To combine the truth of an historical record with the truth that can be told in a novel is, I think a great challenge and a great pleasure. I love reading history and I love basing my novels in a convincing historical past.

Q: Your newest book, The Lady of The Rivers, was released in September. It tells the story of the Plantaganet family (in Henry VI’s reign), and their constant struggle for success and recognition within the volatile court system of the era. What are your feelings about this book? And what can we expect from Jacquetta, the mother of The White Queen?  

– This book was a real challenge to write as there was nothing written specifically about Jacquetta, either at the time of her life or later, so I had to track her down through the histories of others. She was at the very centre of the Lancaster court while it was defending itself against attack from the House of York, and then, when the Lancastrians were defeated and her friend the Queen, Margaret of Anjou went into exile – Jacquetta’s daughter married the young king: the victorious Edward IV and Jacquetta found herself at the heart of the House of York, first lady at court again. So there are many occasions where Jacquetta was present, or where I can reconstruct her time and be certain that she was there.

She is a really wonderful character for a novel. She has all the ambition and determination of Margaret Beaufort in my novel, The Red Queen, and she has this extraordinary inheritance of magic and myth from her family which includes a water goddess in their family tree. She was a passionate woman, she married for love – a very unusual thing to do in those times –  and a loyal and courageous woman. She’s a real heroine that has been forgotten by history, it has been a privilege to write about her both in the novel The Lady of the Rivers and in a history book The Women of the Cousins’ War.

Q: How long does it take you to research for your books?

-It usually takes about a year. This one took longer because it was so hard to find traces of Jacquetta.

Q: How vividly do your characters come to life whilst you’re writing? Do you find it hard sharing them when a book is due to be published?

– No, I am always really keen to know what readers think of them, and I read what people write about them with great excitement and pleasure. I love to bring these characters to a wider audience. By the time I publish I have lived with them and spent more time with them than most of the people in the real world. I will write and read about a character for perhaps four to six hours a day – and I don’t spend that amount of time with many modern day people! I am intensely interested and involved with them for a year or more and then it is a real wrench when I finish the novel and don’t have to think about them anymore.

Q: World of Books knows how proud you are of your charity, Gardens for the Gambia. What can you tell our readers about this organisation? And how can they get involved?  

– Gardens for The Gambia is a tiny charity – just myself and a colleague in The Gambia which digs wells in the schoolyards of schools so the children can have fresh water to drink during the day, and so that they can grow vegetable crops in the school yard to eat at midday. Without these wells the children have to carry their drinking water into school, and they often go hungry all day. We dug our first well at a school in the village of Sika where my colleague Ismaila Sisay was headmaster. It was so successful that the next door school asked him to ask me to give the money for them to dig one too. The cost is very small $700 – when you consider that this turns the school into a small economic unit, feeding itself and sometimes selling the produce so that they can buy books, paper and pens. It is a very poor country and our wells have made a tremendous difference. We now offer training programmes and also bee keeping, and we do an annual seed and tools distribution. We have become the biggest well digger in the country (just the two of us!) and have done nearly 200 wells. Since The Gambia has only 250 primary schools it is my intention to put a well in every schoolyard, and I would welcome anyone’s help in doing this. You can find out about my work at my site, and you can donate funds. All this work is done with money given by strangers, out of their generosity, and directly by me. I am so grateful when people will help.

I have another great interest at the moment in my work as patron for the UK CHAGOS Association. I am appealing to the US government to allow the Chagos people to return to their home in the Indian Ocean. Let me explain:

In 1968, 1500 Chagos people were removed from their islands by the British government to leave Diego Garcia empty for the construction of the US military base.  Their pet dogs were gassed and they were forced onto crowded ferries and dumped by the British government in Mauritius and the Seychelles where they have attempted to scrape a living ever since. Some have managed to get to the UK where they are very poor and still homesick. These are the dispossessed; they are innocent, of anything but being in the way of US and UK policy. I think these are people for whom you would feel compassion.

Chagos Islands

Chagos Islands

Working with them, I am trying to negotiate with the British government a plan for their future; there are now about 4000 of them. They should be paid compensation, and they want the right to return to their islands. The seas around their islands are now declared a Marine Protected Area and the advice of the scientists is that the best place for their return would be the areas that the US does not use on Diego Garcia.

The proposal is for a science base station for research into the precious reef, and a small eco-village where Chagos people could visit and some could stay. The older Chagos women in particular say that they want to see their homeland before they die. You know the stubborn courage of women like these, and yet they cry when they tell you that they miss their home.

Everyone tells me that the Americans would never allow the return of these people to Diego Garcia but I wonder if we might consider it? It would break a stalemate between the Chagos people and the UK government. The British Foreign Secretary tells me that the Chagos people cannot go home, as the Americans want the islands to be kept empty. If the American people could ask their government to change policy on this, there would be 4000 people who would feel that they had been shown justice at last.

If they are not allowed to return to Diego Garcia could they return to the other islands of the Chagos reef? The nearest is 140 miles from Diego Garcia and cannot be seen as a security risk. The US accepted this once before, when the Chagos people won the right to return in 2002, only to lose it again when the Foreign office had the decision reversed. This is now the subject of a court case at the European Court of Human Rights.

I believe that my government has not asked the American government if these people may return to Diego Garcia. I fear that they are using the American base as an excuse to say ‘no’ once again, to these homeless people. I wish so much that we could at least talk about this?

Q: Over your twenty years of writing, what has been the strangest/most surprising reaction to your work that you have experienced?

– The strangest experience – and a powerfully emotional story – was told to me by a woman reader whose husband was in a coma after a traffic accident and the doctors told her to talk to him, as he might be able to hear her voice and would find it stimulating. She felt so frustrated and embarrassed as she had nothing to say – she was so anxious and grieved and shocked she could not chatter – so she read to him instead, and she read him The Other Boleyn Girl. He came round after a few days of this and the first thing he said to her was ‘go on, I want to know what happens’. This seems to me both really very funny and really very touching.

Q: If you could be any of the women in your novels, who would you be?

– All of the women in my novels, with the exception of Queen Elizabeth, have to struggle for recognition, for their safety and for any

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I

control of their lives at all. Even Elizabeth as a Princess faces death if she practises her religion or tries to secure her inheritance. I would never be a woman before women have the vote and the right to keep their own property, the chance of an education and work for equal pay.

Q: What advice would you give to any aspiring writer?  

– Read good quality fiction, read books that you admire and that puzzle you as to how they do what they do, read till you understand how one author’s voice is quite unlike another and how they have achieved that. And then write the very best that you can, in your own voice, not thinking about the market or your hopes of an audience – write the best book that you can do…. And then rewrite.

Q; And last but not least, World of Books is dedicated to providing good-quality second-hand books to the public. In a world with an ever-growing digital media base, and increasing environmental concerns, do you believe in the importance of giving each physical book the chance of a new home?

– I practice this too – I love reading second-hand books and of course, most of my research is done in old documents. Books are precious objects to me, yet I would rather they were recycled than damage the planet as landfill.

Now you’ve read this, we can bet you’re desperate to re-read all of Philippa’s books! Why not visit World of Books and have a browse? And don’t forget, Philippa’s new novel, The Lady of The Rivers is out in stores now! Visit Phillipa’s website here.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Loretta Marie November 6, 2011 at 11:53 pm

    didn;t you once told some stories about the family the Borgia’s where Lucreticia murdered her lovers family in cold blood? I have seen one of my great grandmothers bible stating that this happened, and one time I saw it in your writing, but I can not find it in anyone of you books, is there a way that you can tell me. I am related to the borgia family 5th generation to them thank you;

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