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Author Talk: August 15, 2017

Philippa Gregory’s latest novel, THE LAST TUDOR, features one of the most famous girls in history, Lady Jane Grey, and her two sisters, each of whom dared to defy her queen. In this interview, Gregory talks about the book’s origin, explaining why she was interested in telling the story of all three Grey sisters and with three different narrators. She also discusses what surprised her in the course of writing it, the film that introduced her to the Tudors when she was just a teenager, and her involvement in a project called Gardens for The Gambia, which was established in 1993 to provide water for wells in the gardens of rural schools in The Gambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

Question: Tell us about the origins of THE LAST TUDOR. There are many stories about Lady Jane Grey, but why were you interested in telling the story of all three Grey sisters particularly?

Philippa Gregory: I am always interested when I discover a woman who played an important role in history but whose story has been mostly ignored, or even forgotten. Jane’s story led me to her less famous sisters --- which is a familiar route for me --- and then I was fascinated by the two young women themselves. Katherine Grey was a major player at court, but, because she was successfully excluded from the succession by Elizabeth, imprisoned and isolated, we have lost her from the historical record. Mary Grey is almost totally ignored.

Q: Why did you choose to tell the story with three different narrators? Was there one voice that was easier for you to channel as you wrote?

PG: I wanted to tell each sister’s life in her own voice, as they were separated so early, that no single narrator could have described the three lives. I find first-person present-tense narration very stimulating and effective in historical fiction, and I was relieved to find that moving from one character to another was quite smooth --- as they were each so striking, and each had her own voice. The most difficult transition was from the famous Jane to the less known Katherine, and I was helped by Jane’s genuine letter to her sister that starts the Katherine section (in Jane’s voice) and then we realize that Katherine is reading the letter and responding to it. It’s a very powerful contrast for me between the famous letter and Katherine’s sense of outrage that it is so impersonal. In that one scene, I really felt the difference between the two sisters and a sense of their relationship.

Q: Would you say that you felt more sympathetic to one of the Grey sisters than the others? If so, why? Is there one sister you can relate to more than the others?

PG: One of the experiences of writing in first person is that as the narrator’s point of view shifts, my interest and preference shifts too. I first felt this most strongly when, having written THE WHITE QUEENfrom the point of view of Elizabeth Woodville, then I wrote THE RED QUEENfrom the point of view of her rival and enemy. I could not have completed the novel if I had not changed sides! In THE LAST TUDOR, I felt the sisters succeed each other in my imagination, and I really welcomed each one as she “came” to me.

Q: What did you think of Katherine’s and Mary’s decisions to marry their loves without the queen’s permission even after the tragic fate of their sister Jane?

PG: As I make clear in the novel, they were legally free to marry without the queen’s permission, but they were definitely taking a risk. I don’t think Elizabeth would have ever given them permission to marry, so they had little choice but to defy her once they were committed to their husbands. Elizabeth’s cruelty to them is exceptional and borders on the irrational. I don’t think Katherine and Mary would have predicted that Elizabeth would have reacted to such an extreme. Their kinswoman Margaret Douglas did far worse and suffered far less.

Q: Who are some of the novelists you find most inspiring or compelling today and why?

PG: I tend to read the classics of English literature for pleasure, so I love Henry James, Jane Austen, George Eliot, E. M. Forster.

Q: How does the story of the Grey sisters correspond to your previous works? Are they much like the main characters of your other works? If so, what unites them?

PG: They should be like other characters of their time period, if I have done a good job of capturing the mind-set of the Tudor woman. I think that Mary’s blunt realism and humor is rather like me, and that comes out in other novels. I think Katherine in her prettiness and silliness is rather like my portrait of Katherine Howard, and Jane’s mixture of piety and childish pomposity is rather like Margaret Beaufort --- another spiritual girl who sought religion to compensate for the lack of a family life. But the main inspiration for them is the record of their lives and my drawing their characters from that.

Q: Do you have a favorite television show, miniseries or film adaption of the story of the Tudors? Why do you think that they are such a compelling family?

PG: I think that people love the production that introduced them to the Tudors, so my favorite film is Anne of the Thousand Days, which I completely loved when I first saw it as a teenager. Of course, the Tudors are great material for novels and dramas because their personal life is lived so very large, and as tyrants, their feelings are so important to everyone.

Q: What books would you say had a strong influence on you when you were a child?

PG: I am very glad that I was given the run of a public library at a very early age so I was reading a lot very young. I loved THE JUNGLE BOOK and JUST SO STORIES, all E. Nesbit’s children’s novels, THE SECRET GARDEN, PETER PAN, all the Heidi books, THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS and all C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books.

Q: How did THE LAST TUDOR change the way you write? Was there anything that surprised you in the course of writing the book?

PG: I was surprised how smoothly it went! The transition from one character to another went very well; the history around Jane is very full, so it was possible to do an almost day-by-day description of her usurpation of the throne. There is less on Katherine, but she was a very inspiring character, and Mary was a joy to imagine. The challenge of the book was to find a way to end it that was satisfying and not hopelessly sad --- since it is the story of two girls who die in captivity because of the cruelty of their times. There’s no way that there could be a happy ending, but by closing it with Mary’s freedom and pride in herself, I was able to end it like a novel with a shape to it, and not like a history you expect to end in the death of the subject. It seems to me that one of the points of writing a novel rather than a history is that you can make artistic decisions about the meaning and route of the story, rather than telling everything --- which is the conventional history approach.

Q: Can you please tell us a bit about what you are currently working on?

PG: I am working on two projects at once, and they are both equally fascinating. I am researching and thinking about writing a history of women in Tudor England, very much inspired by my research for the novels, and I am starting a novel, which is going to be the first of a series about a family who will rise from poverty in the 1600s.

Q: In addition to your writing, you are also involved in charity work. Can you tell us about that? What causes are you interested in, and how can your readers contribute if they are inclined to do so?

PG: I should be very happy if any readers wanted to join with me in a wonderful project in The Gambia --- one of the poorest countries in Africa. I have been paying for the digging of wells in the country’s rural primary schools for more than 20 years (ever since I went to The Gambia to research for my novel about slavery, A RESPECTABLE TRADE). The wells are commissioned in The Gambia by Ismaila Sisay, a retired headmaster who has worked with me on this since the very beginning, and I am proud to call him my friend. He interviews the schools to make sure that they will teach sustainable agriculture and have the support of the village, and then he commissions the well digger who comes out with a spade and a bowl and digs a well --- it’s that simple. Then we provide a concrete liner for the well and a rope and bucket, and a safety wall and gate. Then the children create a market garden around the well and learn to grow their own food, and have water to drink and vegetables at lunchtime. We’ve done some big wells, but most of the wells go down about 50 feet and cost only $600. I send my money for new wells to be dug every quarter, and I am so happy when anyone helps me by making a contribution.

You can see more about our work on my website. Click on the Gardens for The Gambia button where you can donate online, or you can send a check to Gardens for The Gambia, PO Box 165, North Yorkshire, UK TS9 7WX.