I’ve been thinking for a while now that when it comes to traveling, a bit like life, we make our own destiny. How do you normally plan your vacations? By asking friends and family for recommendations? Consulting the internet and tour guides? It’s normal when you first arrive at any hotel to ask “what’s good to see here?” Isn’t it? I take a different approach. I let the books and films I experience inspire me and inform my next travel plans. And that’s exactly how I found myself in Ely (pronounced “ee’ lee”) Cambridgeshire meeting my favorite historical novelist Philippa Gregory last night.
About 5 years ago I picked up my first Philippa Gregory book The White Queen which was later made into a successful television series by the same name. I was so in love with the love story of Elizabeth Woodville and King Edward IV that I decided to read all of Philippa’s books on the War of the Roses in chronological order, which in case you’d like to do the same are:
- The Lady of the Rivers
- The White Queen
- The Red Queen
- The Kingmaker’s Daughter
- The White Princess
- The King’s Curse (out today in the UK)
It was through Philippa’s books that I discovered a few important things. Firstly, it was revolutionary to me that historical fiction could be told from the view point of women. After all it’s men who have written the history books up until the 20th Century. Women’s studies as a discipline has barely been around 50 years. Secondly, by reading Philippa’s books I rediscovered my love of history which sparked my curiosity and made me go on to read biographies and histories by David Starkey, Alison Weir, and Mary S Lovell amongst others. Finally, Philippa’s books were subconsciously my inspiration to write tour books on castles because after reading about all of the castles and characters in her books, I wanted to go discover them for myself!
When I read that Philippa Gregory was doing a book tour as part of the launch of her new book The King’s Curse, I was there in a flash. Or rather I was there from London after a one and a half hour train ride from King’s Cross Station. I arrived ridiculously early and plotted my plan of attack. I joined the queue to St Mary’s Church, where the book signing was taking place, and was the fifth person to receive my complimentary glass of wine and purchase my hardcover book (which we got discounted by the price of our admission ticket). I then proceeded to sit in the very front row. I wasn’t going to be satisfied if I couldn’t see Philippa or if she couldn’t see me. Over the next 40 minutes, the church filled up so that there wasn’t a vacant seat in sight.
Finally it was time to start, and I was seriously excited. Philippa spent around an hour explaining about her new book and her views on history and the Tudor times. There were also video segments of her reading from The King’s Curse interspersed through the talk. Her passion for the main character Margaret Pole comes across loud and clear.
Margaret Pole was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, and Lady Isabelle Neville, daughter of the Earl of Warwick “The Kingmaker.” The original title of the book was The Last Rose because Margaret was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty who ruled England until Richard III lost his life at the Battle of Bosworth and the Tudors came to power. However, the title evolved into The King’s Curse because Philippa felt the subject matter of Henry VIII slowly evolving into a tyrant was darker than what she had intended on writing. Symbolically, it’s the only one of her books with a man on the cover (Henry VIII) just to give weight to the impact that his rule had on Margaret’s life.
It was a challenging book for Philippa to write since the Tudors destroyed all of the paper trail that Margaret might have left behind. But what we do know is that Margaret is right there at the centre of things during one of the most turbulent times in English history. She’s cousin to the Queen of England, Elizabeth of York. When a young Henry VIII comes to the throne, Margaret becomes a lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon and witnesses all of the tragic miscarriages and the deterioration in the marriage and Henry’s sanity. The episode of Anne Boleyn plays in the background which was another challenge for Philippa – to write in a time period that she was very familiar with and not rehash the same old stuff.
Q: If you could have dinner with any historical person who would it be?
A: Elizabeth Woodville
Q: Would you go back and rewrite any of your books based on information that is available today that you didn’t have at the time?
A: That would be very difficult indeed. Fortunately with the speed in which new information becomes available every day, I would spend all of my time rewriting books and never writing new ones!
Q: What advice would you give new writers?
A: Don’t do it because I’m not done yet. (Kidding.) Seriously you have to be 100% committed and 100% passionate about it. If there is even a single moment whilst you are writing that’s not fun, just don’t do it. You have to really love the art of constructing a story and honing your craft. It’s not something that’s easy but I wouldn’t be anything else [but a writer.]
Finally it was the moment that I had been waiting for. Time to charge forward onto the stage and get the top spot in the queue for Philippa to sign my book. I got 7th. We were given strict instructions that we’d only get “to name” and her signature on the book and if we wanted pictures or her to sign any other books we’d brought with us that we’d have to wait until everyone had been through the queue once. It seemed like a strict rule at the time but rules are usually there for a reason and within a half hour the few hundred people that had turned up had their copies of the King’s Curse signed. Finally it was my million dollar moment. I approached the table again for my picture.
When I told Philippa that it would be the thrill of a lifetime to have a picture of the two of us holding each others’ books she responded with concern over my need to get a life. Ok, it was a slight hyperbole on my part (for my sins I am actually American-born) but I’m a big fan. I couldn’t help myself. It was an amazing experience getting to meet an author who I feel such a strong connection to. When you’ve read 12 books by the same author you start to feel like you really get to know them.
Meeting Philippa in the flesh was the icing on the cake. It was actually the second time in less than 2 weeks that I had one of those “Wow-I-can’t-believe-this-is-actually-happening” experiences. Although it wasn’t nearly as personal an experience as meeting Philippa, I did see Princes William and Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge at the Tower of London last week. For more on that story you can read it here. What’s your dream travel experience or person that you would like to meet?