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November 13, 2008

C.W. Gortner: The Endless Dance

Posted by carol
Today's guest blogger is C.W. Gortner, author of the historical novels The Secret Lion and The Last Queen. Here he talks about the insights he's gained from talking to reading group members about The Last Queen, in which he imagines the life of Juana of Castile, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit her country's throne. Click here to visit C.W.'s blog about historical fiction, including author interviews, and the writing life.

It is true that much of what we write comes from an autobiographical fount. Even though I strive to remove myself as much as possible from my characters so that they can breathe and live for readers as individuals, fragments of who I am inform my characters as much as fragments of who the reader is informs the experience of meeting those characters.

It is an endlessly entwined dance between writer and reader, one that depends on the other's candor; this is why book groups teach me more about why I write than anything else. It never ceases to amaze me how insightful reader groups can be. Every time I do an author chat over the phone or visit a group in person, I'm always delighted to discover how much readers find in my work, sometimes more than even I supposed.

In my novel The Last Queen, several themes exist but the most important one was something I didn't see until I was meeting with a book group. We'd been discussing my central character's struggle to win her throne upon her return to Spain and one of the group members said, "I think Juana [the lead character] struggles with this feeling of estrangement her entire life. Like the Moors who were vanquished, she fights to retain her rightful place in a country she loves but where she has become a stranger." Another group member nodded and added, "I know how she feels. I was born in Canada and raised here, and sometimes I feel as though I don't know where I belong." As other group members nodded in agreement, she looked at me. "Did you empathize with Juana because you've also felt this?"

Her question gave me pause. I'd never considered it before; yet as I mentally gazed back over the years I'd spent researching and writing, I realized that of course my own sense of estrangement permeated the book. How could it not? Like Juana, I was raised in Spain but I left in my early teens and when I returned after years of absence, so much had changed it felt like a different world. Somehow, I had found within the story of a 16th century queen a means to come to terms with my own yearning for a place I had left behind; I had, through writing, found common ground with my protagonist.

And my readers had found common ground with her, as well, seeing parts of themselves in Juana's quest. Moments like these are invaluable to a writer; and are why I'm always so eager to meet book groups and hear their varied impressions of my work. What I take away from these groups strengthens my writing and illuminates my character's souls in ways I'd never know otherwise.

It is a dance I want never to end.

---C.W. Gortner