When trying to come up with a theme for our 5 year anniversary, I decided we needed to spotlight some of our favorite authors. When I asked the staff to start naming names, Andrea practically begged me to ask Margaret George to guest with us. And when Margaret said yes, Andrea wanted to do the interview. So, today the blog is being turned over to Andrea and Margaret. Ladies, take it away!
Andrea: After reading Henry VIII, I was surprised how much sympathy for him. Did you purposely write him that way?
Margaret: Oh, yes. I think I was in love with the guy…at least, the young Henry VIII. When I started researching the book the young Henry was quite unknown to the general public. No one knew he had once been slim, athletic, romantic, or the victim of power politics of others, like his father. So, discovering that side of him made me want to rescue him and let that part of him live again. Once I had such sympathy for the young Henry, it carried through as he aged. The French say, “To know all is to forgive all.” Certainly that was true for me and Henry VIII.
Andrea: Is there anyone you have written about where you were expecting the story to go one way but it ended up going in a different direction?
Margaret: Not for any major character, since those are based on history, and unlike fictional characters they have to stay on track. I couldn’t decide that Henry VIII would be married only four times, although I sure would have liked to. (After four, you get the message.) But minor characters, yes. The four Maries that attended Mary Queen of Scots never really developed as dramatic possibilities, in spite of my hopes for them, and the biggest disappointment was Mardian, Cleopatra’s eunuch. I thought he would be a strong voice in her story, and started out to develop him that way. You can see that in the beginning of the novel, where I have scenes featuring him. But he just didn’t want that role—he was too retiring. However, Olympos the physician turned out to like the limelight and so he became the counter-character to Cleopatra, the one person who could argue with her and tell her the truth. I needed such a character, or rather, Cleopatra did.
Andrea: How do you choose who you finally decide to write about?
Margaret: It’s rather a mysterious process. I feel a tickling of interest in the person that tends to grow—it takes a long time. But, they do tend to share certain characteristics: 1. Operatic lives—lots of drama and often an early death 2. Household names—often have a lot of silly products named after them—proof that their names sell things, even hundreds of years later. (I once saw “Henry VIII royal raisin muffins” and there are innumerable Cleopatra beauty products, and dolls are available for all of them) 3. Their lives affected history 4. They follow the Joseph Campbell “Journey of the Hero” character arc—called on a quest which they spend their lives fulfilling 5. Often misunderstood by history—they have sides that contradict their popular image; for example that Henry VIII was a fat, stupid slob—that Cleopatra was a sexpot mad for power (chalk that one up to Roman propaganda)— that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and so on.
Andrea: I’ve read that you wouldn’t want to write about anyone after 1900 because their lives are already pretty much documented, thanks to the internet. Is there anyone you might make an exception for?
Margaret: Maybe Elizabeth Taylor, who fascinates me. (I even bid on something in her estate sale, because I wanted something she had owned.) Of course, she fits into a lot of the earmarks of the people I have written about—she’s even played one of them! I wouldn’t do a politician because they aren’t all that interesting anymore, and even the debauched and disgraced ones are debauched and disgraced in pitiful ways, not operatic ones.
Andrea: What was your favorite book when you growing up?
Margaret: It depends on what age you are referring to. When I was really young, it was the Greek mythologies, because I had a wonderful old book that was illustrated with art nouveau drawings of the gods and goddesses. (To this day, I think that is what they looked like.) And the Jungle Books, especially “The King’s Ankus”, about the old cobra guarding a royal bejeweled elephant prod. When I was 7-10, it was horse books. Later I liked Little Women and Gone with the Wind—both whoppers that covered epic periods of history and obviously influenced me in my style of storytelling.
Andrea: Will you share a short bio with us?
Margaret: I come from a southern family and was born in Nashville. My father was the first in his family to leave the south and make his life elsewhere, and boy, did he. He joined the Foreign Service and was posted to Taiwan, Israel, Germany, Norway, and Japan. I traveled with them and probably that’s one reason I started writing, little stories and ‘novels’ to entertain myself. (I didn’t have a TV until I was 13 and it was a black and white in the basement, with rabbit ears and bad reception.) I finished my first novel at age 11 (it was about the wild west and had a hero named Flint West, and this is long before Clint Eastwood), sent it to Grosset & Dunlap, and received a very sweet note from an editor there. (Needless to say, it wasn’t published.)
I wrote on and off for myself in the coming years but it wasn’t until 1986 that The Autobiography of Henry VIII was published. It turned out to be a great success for this unknown author and after that I was known as the author who ‘did’ epic biographical novels. It takes me a long time to do one, so they have come out roughly every 4-5 years since. Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (1992), The Memoirs of Cleopatra (1997), Mary Called Magdalene (2002), Helen of Troy (2006), and finally Elizabeth I (2011).
All these books have been New York Times bestsellers and the Cleopatra novel was made into a 1999 ABC-TV Emmy-nominated miniseries, starring Timothy Dalton and Billy Zane. Working with the screenwriter and visiting the sets in Morocco and London were a high point in my life.
Please do visit me there.
Andrea: What’s next for you?
Margaret: I am working on a novel about the Emperor Nero. I’m enjoying it a lot. He, too, needs some image polishing!