Sandra Gulland is the author of the Josephine B. Trilogy, internationally best-selling novels about Josephine Bonaparte which have been published in over seventeen countries. Her fourth novel, Mistress of the Sun and her new novel, The Shadow Queen, are set in the 17th-century French Court of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
Born in Miami, Florida, Sandra lived in Rio de Janeiro, Berkeley and Chicago before immigrating to Canada in 1969 to teach in an Inuit village in northern Labrador for one year. Settling in Toronto, she worked as a book editor for a decade before moving with her husband and two children to a log house in northern Ontario, where, in 1985, she began writing full-time.
Ten years later, the first of the novels in the Josephine B. Trilogy was published and the rest, as they say, is history.
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Sandra Gulland Transcript
Tim Knox: Welcome in to another edition of Interviewing Authors, Tim Knox here. Sandra Gulland is our guest today. Sandra is the author of The Josephine B. Trilogy, internationally bestselling novels about Josephine Bonaparte, been published in 17 countries. Her fourth novel, Mistress of the Sun, and her new novel, Shadow Queen, are also set in the 17th century French court of Louis XIV.
Sandra writes what’s known as biographical historical fiction. She never thought about being a writer then she got interested in the story of Josephine Bonaparte and now three novels, four novels, five novels later she is a master at the craft.
Really good interview. Even if you’re not interested in this kind of work you can learn a lot from this lady. So Sandra Gulland, the author of The Josephine B. Trilogy, The Shadow Queen, Mistress of the Sun and an all-around great interview in any language on today’s Interviewing Authors.
Tim Knox: Sandra Gulland, welcome to the program.
Sandra Gulland: I’m happy to be here, Tim.
Tim Knox: I appreciate you being on the program. You have a fascinating story. We’re going to talk about your work a little more but for folks that aren’t familiar with you if you will just kind of give us a thumbnail of who you are and what you do.
Sandra Gulland: I am, as you said, Sandra Gulland and I write biographical historical fiction. I was born in Miami, I was raised in California and I am aged in Canada.
Tim Knox: Did you say you have aged in Canada?
Sandra Gulland: Yes.
Tim Knox: Well your work is fascinating to me because you are in the genre, tell me again… it’s biographical historical fiction.
Sandra Gulland: Yeah most people would simply say historical fiction but within that genre there are different types of historical fiction and mine is different because it’s biographical. It’s based on fact.
Tim Knox: So you base yours on actual people.
Sandra Gulland: On actual people, yes.
Tim Knox: One of your favorite characters is Josephine Bonaparte.
Sandra Gulland: She has been a big favorite of mine and a big favorite with the readers, yes.
Tim Knox: How did you get interested in her?
Sandra Gulland: Quite by accident. I used to be what is called a sponsoring editor. That’s an editor who develops projects for publication and I worked in education. So I was going to develop a line of biographical fiction for young adults. So I went to the library and got out an example of such a work and it happened to be about Josephine. I was simply blown away. I couldn’t believe her life. I’ve never been or I didn’t use to be a history buff. I didn’t really enjoy history courses in University. I never really understood until I read about Josephine that history happens to people like you and me. She brought history to life and so one thing led to another.
Tim Knox: What’d you find so fascinating about her?
Sandra Gulland: Well what was really a knockout is that well she was raised on the Caribbean island of Martinique. She was the daughter of lower nobility. She was hardly marriageable, much less empress material. A voodoo priestess foretold that she would be Queen of the French, more than a Queen. She also said that she would be married, widowed and all these things came to pass. I’m not a big believer in fortune telling but this really struck me and I was later able to verify that she in fact was told this fortune before at least she became Empress. So it’s documented that this was foretold. That amazed me, plus the arch of her life going from being someone, a fairly wild child on a sugar plantation in Martinique and then going to France. Her first marriage was very unhappy. Her husband was a playboy and endeavored to educate her, which was not a very good process between a husband and wife. She had two children by him. She was always a wonderful mother.
Then he was imprisoned. They were separated and she went into a convent, was ordered into a convent. Then he got into serious trouble during the Revolution. He was first a big hero of the Revolution and then he was imprisoned. Then she was arrested and put in prison and separated from her children. It wasn’t until after she escaped being guillotined; her husband was guillotined. She escaped being guillotined by a matter of a day. Robespierre was killed on the day that she was scheduled to go to the guillotine and then she met Napoleon. She was a single mother, really financially in a very impoverished situation. After the Revolution everything was really in turmoil. She probably thought, oh, here’s a nice man. I’ll settle down and have a regular life. He was a good father to her children and then of course… it’s just such an amazing story.
Tim Knox: It really sounds like a story that almost writes itself. So when you come across something like this and you’re inspired to write fiction about this woman and the people, how do you go about it? What is your process to take what’s already historical and weave that into a fascinating book of fiction?
Sandra Gulland: It’s always a puzzle and I think I like puzzles and I would have to like puzzles to work on biographical historical fiction because I start with a timeline. I do a lot of research, books. Often it has to be not online; it has to be books because these things are often out of print. I construct a timeline and then I look at that life story and look for the arch of that story – the different plot beats for what’s the opening and what are the turning points in a person’s life. A life doesn’t evolve in chapters so you have to find that shape and that’s the challenge.
Tim Knox: Do you look for what we would call milestones in her life, for example, and then you fill in between those milestones with fiction?
Sandra Gulland: Totally, yes. Like in the case of Josephine, her early life, there was not a lot of documentation about it because she wasn’t a notable person until Napoleon kind of took off. You have to imagine… you have just little clues and you can construct quite a bit just on a little clue and imagine what it must have been like. I do a lot of research into the daily life details because that helps fill out the scenes.
Tim Knox: When you write about Josephine, you talk about her almost like she’s a friend. Do you get really connected to your characters when you’re doing this?
Sandra Gulland: Josephine, it was a trilogy. When I started to write about her I thought it would be one book and then page 500 and Napoleon hadn’t showed up yet. So then I thought, okay, this is a two volume story. The publisher, HarperCollins Canada, didn’t like the idea of volumes, of a story in volumes. So that night occurred to me that it was a trilogy. So actually I’d forgotten what your original question was.
Tim Knox: I was asking when you are writing about a character like Josephine, do you become attached? Do they become almost real and you form a bond or a friendship with this character as you write about them?
Sandra Gulland: I become very attached to all my characters, very, very attached, especially Josephine because I was writing about her for over a decade. Three books about Josephine. It was extremely sad for me to finish writing about Josephine. I would say in a way she’s been with me ever since. But all of my books, because The Shadow Queen is now my fifth which astonishes me, I am very attached.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk about your process. Of course you talked about the amount of research that you have to do. From a technical standpoint do you write every day? Do you write on a schedule? Do you lock yourself in the office in the morning and don’t come out until you have a certain number of pages? What is Sandra’s process for writing?
Sandra Gulland: Well I am very disciplined and I think any writer needs to be. When I am writing a draft, especially a first draft, I assign myself so many words that I have to write, move the story forward that day. It’s usually about 1,000. I’ll try to inch it up as I go along. I’ll start off slow because the beginning of a project is always so hard. I’ll say, okay, I’m just going to write 200 words today. That’s all I need to do and then I’ll slowly inch it up as I start to gain momentum. That will be about 1,500 words maybe and then once I hit that mark – and I’ll write it down at the beginning of the day. I’ll write down what my word count and what my word count needs to be before I can say okay, now I can do what I want. I can research, I can revise, all that.
Tim Knox: Do you enjoy the process of writing or does it feel like a chore sometimes?
Sandra Gulland: I love it.
Tim Knox: I can tell. It really comes through, the passion. When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Sandra Gulland: I love books and so I really wanted anything to do with books.
Tim Knox: Always a reader.
Sandra Gulland: I was always a reader. My mother was a reader. My grandmother was a reader. So I wanted to create a book for a long time. I just thought I just want to make one book. When I turned 40 I was very busy. I had two children, a garden, a couple horses, all that, chickens, all the rest of it. When I turned 40 I was reading a self-help book and it was kind of a silly book. It said imagine the words on your tombstone. I thought about that and I was driving along and I realized what the words on my tombstone were apt to be and that was ‘she never got around to it’. I realized if I were going to write a book I had to start so I put it on the front burner and put my paying work on the backburner. Fortunately I had my husband’s encouragement in this endeavor so that was how it began.
Tim Knox: What was the first thing that you wrote that you thought might actually be good enough to be published?
Sandra Gulland: Well it wasn’t until I wrote Josephine and to get to that point I wrote two novels that were un-publishable. I think anyone beginning has to know that you have to create those first practice novels. I’m so fortunate that they weren’t published.
Tim Knox: I had someone the other day I was interviewing and they were talking about their practice novels. They said the same exact thing. They just thank God that they wrote those before the internet came out because they don’t want any record of them anywhere. I think that’s kind of funny. Now, once you wrote Josephine how’d you go about getting published? Did you get an agent? Did you go the traditional route? Talk to us about when you finished the manuscript from the time you did that until the time you actually got it published, what was that process?
Sandra Gulland: I queried an agent in Toronto and she was interested. I was very lucky because she had just started her practice with an agency and she was looking for clients and there I was. The thing that she made me do was rewrite the manuscript about three times. This is I think one of the most important roles of an agent is to just… when you write a novel you’re exhausted. You say it’s finished. I want it to be finished. The last thing I want to do is rewrite it. So you send it to an agent and then say, no, it’s not quite there. It has to go through the process a few more times before the agent’s going to send it out. Then the agent does send it out and the editor, if it’s accepted, will have you rewrite it several times again. Fortunately I had been an editor and I really believe in the editorial process so I knew that what I considered the end of the process was really in fact just the beginning.
Tim Knox: How did you take that when the agent came back and said, look, we’ve got to rewrite this? Were you receptive or were you initially insulted that someone wanted to change your work?
Sandra Gulland: No, I’ve never been insulted. I always very much value a reader’s opinion. If it doesn’t work with the reader it doesn’t work.
Tim Knox: Right and I think that’s one mistake a lot of authors, especially new authors, make is they write the book and they think okay that’s it. I’m done. It’s as good as it can be. You need to go through the editing process. I think that’s really good exercise for any author to have their work come back and say, okay, you need to do this, this and this. It really gets them thinking and of course the goal is to make a better book.
Sandra Gulland: Exactly. It’s the book that’s important, not the author’s ego.
Tim Knox: You might want to repeat that loudly. Let’s talk a little about character development because you do write about people that actually existed. I would expect that you do fill in the holes with other characters that perhaps are just there to help move the story along. If you will talk about character development, not only from a standpoint of someone like a Josephine who was an actual person but those insularly characters. How do you go about developing a character?
Sandra Gulland: Well first of all I gather all the information I can about them. I look at all the various descriptions of them that come from different sources and that’s always enlightening. You can build a lot just on one tiny detail. Then I will do all the things that any novelist will do in developing character. I will interview them imaginatively, I will put together a dossier about them, I will live with them for a period of time. Also I should say they come to life in the manuscript itself. You don’t have to have this done before you write the book. In the evolution over the drafts, the character comes more and more to life. So that’s a process as well.
Tim Knox: Do you feel sometimes that the character moves the story in a direction that you didn’t expect it to go?
Sandra Gulland: You know, I often have been a little puzzled about when writers claim that the story writes itself because it seems to me that there’s an awful lot of work actually involved in constructing a story. I have myself gone off in a direction with the story and it hasn’t worked and I cut massive amounts. The cut file is equal in length to the book itself.
Tim Knox: Right, you have to be able to edit yourself. Again, one of the issues that a lot of writers have is they love the sound of their own voice and they love the look of their own words so doing the self-editing – myself included – is really kind of painful. Do you have an issue with that, cutting down the words?
Sandra Gulland: I love cutting. This is almost a sickness with me. I really love it. The first time with Josephine, I remember the moment that I cut my favorite chapter. This was a chapter I was very attached to and I walked into the living room and I announced it to my husband. I felt like this was an important milestone for me in becoming a professional writer that I was able to cut a massive piece of writing that was my favorite. It wasn’t right for the book. Yes, you have to learn to be able to do that.
Tim Knox: Again, how painful was it? If it was a chapter especially that you were very fond of and you thought was good but you realized it wasn’t moving the story along, it had to be quite a decision to just take it out.
Sandra Gulland: Well I read a manuscript so many times over and I realized, okay, that really is slowing it down. It had to go. So once I saw how the story moved better without it I was fine with cutting it. You become engaged in the bigger work.
Tim Knox: Let’s talk about your latest book. It’s called The Shadow Queen. Tell us about it.
Sandra Gulland: Well it’s an unusual character insofar as Claude, or her nickname is Claudette, was a maid. So there are very few maids who are known historically. She wasn’t nobility at all. Her background, she was part of a theatrical family. They were initially roving theatrical family during the wars in 17th century France. So of course I had very little to go on but fortunately one of her biographies was written by a very good French historian so I had solid material to go off.
Tim Knox: Is Claudette, was she an actual person as well?
Sandra Gulland: Oh yes. This is what’s so unusual about her is to have a woman who is a maid, who became a maid. She became maid to Athenais, Madame de Montspan, the second official mistress of the Sun King. Also Claudette had two children by the king, which was a very interesting relationship that she would have with her employer who was the king’s lover. So there were many things about Claudette that intrigued me – her theatrical background, her mother was rather like the Meryl Streep of her day. She was a tremendously popular dramatic star. The playwright, Pierre Corneille, wrote parts just for her mother. Claudette was part of this world that included all these great writers of French theatre – Corneille, Moliere, Racine. So she was in the thick of this world and then she became lady’s maid to the Sun King’s mistress and was in the thick of the Court. The reason we know about her life is because she was involved in the Affair of the Poisons, which was this terrible revelation of all these people who were using – mostly women – who were using poison to kill off husbands, using witchcraft and poisons.
So Claudette, as a maid, had been the go-between between Athenais, her employer, and the witch. So she was implicated in the Affair of the Poisons. She was called in for questioning. So that’s why we know about her.
Tim Knox: That’s so fascinating. I’ve always thought that true stories or real life is much more fascinating than fiction. When you take someone like Claudette and Josephine and you craft these stories around them, I just think it’s fascinating. Is there any plan in the works to turn any of your work into movies or film?
Sandra Gulland: There have been several plans and the latest plan I am very sorry to say has not long ago fallen through. It was going to be a TV drama series about Josephine’s life, which I think is such a natural. Michael Hurst, who is one of the UK screenwriters, script writers, had written the season one and outlined season two. So it was all very, very exciting but I’m afraid like most things involved with TV or movies, it doesn’t always come to pass. It’s very easy for these projects to fall apart.
Tim Knox: Well I hope maybe perhaps someone might pick it up because I think it would make a great series. Do you ever think about writing outside of this genre?
Sandra Gulland: Right now I am writing a young adult historical fiction. It’s a different slant on the genre. I’m not sure I would venture out of historical. I find the research just so fascinating. It’s irresistible.
Tim Knox: As you described though these women and what they do you can almost set that in any age really. When you were telling me about Josephine I’m like, wow, if this was today the paparazzi would be all over Josephine. It’s just a great story.
Sandra Gulland: And they would have taken advantage of it. They were the first marketers. Josephine and Napoleon were a really modern couple. They were your original power couple and such a love story, such a wonderful love story.
Tim Knox: They were the Brad and Angelina of their time, if Brad was shorter. Well really quickly before I let you go let’s talk a little about marketing because I think that’s one thing that every author has on their mind. How do I market this book? I’ve got it written, edited, I’ve got a publisher here and I think a lot of authors make the mistake of thinking once they’ve done the writing, their job is actually over. That’s just not the case. Talk about how you market your books and how important that is really to your brand overall.
Sandra Gulland: It is so important today, regretfully in some respects because marketing requires time and time is always something a writer’s always fighting for. I happen to really enjoy it. I’m a bit of net nerd. I love writing a blog. For me it’s a similar process to any kind of writing. I have a research blog as well and that helps me work out my thoughts and my research, pull it together. I’m addicted to Twitter and Facebook. I really enjoy Facebook. So these are I think – the blog, Twitter and Facebook – those are the cornerstones that every writer really needs to get involved in unless they really just dislike it. If they dislike it they can’t really do it because their feelings would show.
Tim Knox: Right, I think you have to enjoy the process. Sandra Gulland, this has been wonderful. Sandra is the author of The Josephine B. Trilogy, Mistress of the Sun, the latest book Shadow Queen. I might have to read these. I just might have to. Sandra, talk about where they can find you. What’s your website, Facebook and that sort of thing?
Sandra Gulland: I’m SandraGulland.com and all my links can be found on my website. Twitter, I think I’m @Sandra_Gulland. Facebook I think all they have to do is search Sandra Gulland.
Tim Knox: Super. We will put links to all of these on the webpage as well. Sandra, it’s been a pleasure. I wish you continued success. I can’t wait to see what you do next.
Sandra Gulland: Thank you. This has been a pleasure talking to you, Tim.
Tim Knox: Thank you, talk to you soon.
Sandra Gulland: Bye-bye.