In the second part of her interview with Philippa Gregory, Hazel Gaynor finds out about the screen adaptations of Philippa’s novels and her intriguing path to publication. Philippa also shares some great advice for aspiring authors. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
The more you talk to Philippa Gregory, the more you see the absolute passion she has for history and for the subjects of her novels. Mediaeval women fascinate her – fact! It is also lovely to see the sparkle in her eyes when she tells me more about the recent announcement of the BBC’s serialisation of the first three books in the Cousins’ War Series. ‘There will be ten episodes,’ she says, beaming. ‘They’ll be screened on the BBC on Sunday evenings, starting next spring. These will cover the first three books: The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, taking us from Elizabeth Woodville meeting Edward and ending the night before the Battle of Bosworth. It’s so exciting!’
The cast list is certainly impressive, with Rebecca Ferguson playing the part of Elizabeth Woodville and Max Irons taking the role of Edward IV. Amanda Hale will play Margaret Beaufort and Faye Marsay will take the role of Anne Neville. Having just seen the rushes from filming in Bruges, Philippa is very excited about the whole project, for which she is Executive Producer. ‘I don’t write the screenplay because I’m a novelist – I’m not a script writer – it is a completely different form. I polish the script and discuss it with the Director, giving him notes about historical fact. After you’ve worked in this period of history for a long time you get a sense of what’s around; what it is like. My job is to write that and make sure it is in the script to convey it accurately and make sure the viewer gets the same sense of authentic history and amazing drama played out in an authentic historical way.’
So, what does it feel like when you see a Director’s interpretation of your characters and your words on screen? ‘You have your own picture in your head and then you see someone else’s picture and your mind has to do a bit of a shift. For example, I now have two pictures of Mary Boleyn: one is the girl I imagined and the other is Scarlet Johansson!’
With so many novels and such huge success behind her, it is hard to imagine that Philippa was once sending out her manuscript to agents, only to have it returned with a polite rejection letter. So, how exactly did it all start? ‘I wrote my first novel after I finished my PhD and when my daughter was born. I look back and am not quite sure how that worked out! I think if you don’t have much time you tend to get on, you don’t mess about. It’s a very powerful motivator.’
Interestingly, Philippa never set out to be an author. ‘I wasn’t really ambitious to be a published writer. I never said, ‘I want to be a writer… ‘ or, ‘My life will be …’ etc. I actually wanted to be an academic historian!’ Nevertheless, having studied popular fiction of the eighteenth century for her PhD, which saw her reading two hundred eighteenth century novels over three years (wow!), Philippa was well placed to understand what makes a good novel. ‘I hadn’t intended to write a novel,’ she explains, ‘but when I did, I realised that I had served a sort of apprenticeship. I had studied the novel in great detail – the emergence of the novel; what makes a novel as opposed to a long story. I was absolutely up to my eyes with fiction!’ As a result, she wrote a novel which she realised was ‘very publishable and readable. I was very confident about it.’
And yet it wasn’t an entirely smooth path to publication. ‘I sent the manuscript off to an agent, who sent it back. I then sent it to another, who sent it back and after a while I asked an agent for advice and discovered that I had been sending the novel to the wrong agents for my genre. Eventually, I sent it to the right agent, who liked it! Then I moved house, put the manuscript in a box and forgot about it. It was only when I eventually unpacked it that I went – ‘oh yes, that was a great idea,’ and started writing it again.’ Wideacre was published to worldwide success and Philippa’s writing career was born.
And, what of the agent who first rejected it? ‘Her staff laminated the rejection letter she sent to me. Now, when she is about to reject something they think is really good, they put the letter on her desk, as a reminder! The agent herself told me that story and she admits that rejecting Wideacre is one of her lasting regrets!’
Publishing a novel a year means a phenomenal work rate with a two-yearly cycle of research, writing the first draft, re-writes, editorial process and publication publicity. Philippa’s novels are published annually, so having just published The Kingmaker’s Daughter she is now working on her first big re-write of the next title in the Cousins’ War Series, The White Princess. ‘The White Princess comes out next year. It is written and currently being re-written. There was only one year when I didn’t publish at all and that was the year when The Other Boleyn Girl movie came out. Nobody needed a book that year as the film came out and the book would sell that year. I took that year as an extra research year, when I was beginning to move into the Plantagenets.’
This year, Philippa has also published her first YA novel Changeling which is the first title in The Order of Darkness series. ‘I loved writing it. It was a really fast process and by writing fictional characters and a fictional storyline it was very liberating – absolutely thrilling and quite different.’ With the focus of Changeling more on fiction than on history we will watch, with interest, to see what influence the process of writing further novels in The Order of Darkness series may have on Philippa’s writing for adults.
With so many fascinating subjects already covered in her novels, is there a stand out favourite historical figure? ‘There’s so many – and there are so many women we haven’t looked at yet, but I bet they are phenomenal. I’ve never yet started research without finding out amazing revelations on what historical woman are really like.’ Perhaps it is her ability to consider mediaeval women from a very different perspective and lift them off the pages of traditional history books which has become the true signature style of Philippa Gregory’s novels. ‘The subjects and events in my novels may be historical but the issues, emotions and dilemmas the characters face are just the same as those faced by modern women. You can read forward i.e. look at someone who is under pressure from their father and husband and consider it as a feminist issue; think about her as if she was a modern woman – how would that feel? You can also read back. For example, Anne Neville, according to traditional history, looks like she is kidnapped by her sister and brother in law and held in their house until Richard III rescues her. But it you look at the timing of events, her route to escape and where she goes to, I think she has to have escaped herself. Historians typically say ‘and that’s what women are like – they are just possessions of their fathers, then their husbands, then they have babies and die in childbirth.’ That was a woman’s story according to traditional history, but it is always more complicated than that.’
So, what can we expect from Philippa next? ‘The White Princess is the next novel. This is about Princess Elizabeth of York who marries Henry Tudor. There will be one further novel in the Cousins’ War series after that and that will conclude the series for the time being.’ She does, however, admit that she loves the period so much that she might go back to it at some point.
And what advice does she have for the aspiring writer hoping to follow in Philippa’s rather impressive footsteps? ‘My advice – and what I have never done – is don’t look at something that seems to be successful and think ‘I can do that.’ You should be modelling yourself on something that you consider to be so fantastic that you think ‘I would die if I could do that.’ To look at something, think it’s rubbish and that you could knock one out better, means you are committing yourself to two years of second rate work. If you’ve been blessed with a talent to write, you should write it as the best you possibly can. If you’re looking at something and thinking you want to write like that, make sure that that is the best there is. Good stuff will get a readership – what you should work on first is to make sure that it is so good that whatever way a reader comes across it, they will want to turn the page and keep reading. That is what makes a good novel.’
Ultimately, it is the business of sitting down and writing which is the only way to guarantee success. ‘My writing has improved over the years,’ Philippa explains. ‘I have developed a signature style and confidence not because of success but because of the practice; the discipline. I look back at Wideacre now and could, with pleasure, re-write it tomorrow and it would be completely different, but it wouldn’t have that first novel energy, because you do lose that. Every time I write something I learn more about writing. As you would hope.’
For authors like Philippa Gregory, changes in technology and the advance of social media have changed the way their novels are published, read and the way in which they interact with their readers. What is Philippa’s take on this? ‘There are ways of getting your books out there now which didn’t exist before. I typed my first book on a typewriter and corrected it with Tippex! The social media side has grown enormously and it actually takes a lot of time to do it well. The positive part of it is that readers have access to authors now which they didn’t have before.’ So, does she enjoy meeting her fans? ‘Yes, I enjoy meeting people. What you learn from those exchanges is what the novels have done in people’s lives, which you’d never know about otherwise. Lots of people are introduced to history through my novels or start reading novels again. Others go and study history and wouldn’t have done otherwise. Some historians are now doing their PhD based on Philippa Gregory novels! It really has come full circle!’
They say you should never meet your heroes, but in the case of meeting Philippa Gregory, I certainly wasn’t disappointed! She was an inspiration and an absolute pleasure to spend time with. The one burning question I didn’t get to ask her was whether she had tried the Guinness. Next time, perhaps!