Philippa Gregory: How I Write
Philippa Gregory, whose series of novels based on the Wars of the Roses has been adapted into the BBC television drama The White Queen, which will premiere in the U.S. next month, talks about her approach to historical fiction and what she knows about screenwriting. Her latest book in the series is The White Princess.
The White Queen has recently appeared as a television series. Tell me about how that particular book was chosen and what the process of preparing the script for the series was like for you.
Well, a number of producers came to me wanting to do television or a film based on The White Queen. After talking a lot about it, what emerged is that I wanted to a series based on the three books: The White Queen, The Red Queen, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter. Those show the events, going back in time, from the birth of Henry Tudor right up to his arrival in England at Bosworth, through the eyes of the three most important women of the time. That’s how I wrote the novels, each through the eyes of a single, very important woman. Writing the scripts was in a sense weaving these stories together, the stories which I had pulled out of history—weaving them back together, through time, going from one woman to the other.
It is the dream of many a writer to see their characters brought to life by actors on screen. But your books feature historical characters interpreted by you in works of historically researched and accurate fiction. And now your interpretation has been interpreted for the screen. That’s a lot of steps. How much of the TV series that we see feels still historically accurate and maintaining your authorial voice, and how much was changed to suit the format?
I think when you move from novel to TV script, you lose your authorial voice. That’s the first thing that goes. It’s not you speaking, it’s the actor speaking, apart from everything else. And of course, behind them is the scriptwriter, and the various requirements of television. In terms of historical accuracy, we stayed pretty close to the novel and pretty close to the facts of history. There are some changes that I didn’t like, and I said at the time that I didn’t like, and that’s part of the scriptwriter’s job. They say, “Yes, but this has to change for the script to work as a television series.” My specialty is the novel, so I don’t expect to know better than a scriptwriter.
With so many books, which of yours would you recommend to a curious reader who has yet to read one of your works?
I think one of my favorite books is The Queen’s Fool. It’s a bit unusual in that it’s not based on a true historical person, it’s based on a fictional character. However, there was someone who worked as a fool, who worked for Prince Edward (Henry VIII’s son), for Queen Mary I (Henry VIII’s daughter), and for Queen Elizabeth I. So she had extraordinary intimate access and insight into those three reigns. Her story develops throughout the course of the novel. She’s Jewish, and she is a learned girl, an educated young woman. So how is she going to live in this society where you die for being a heretic? If you’re a woman, you’re expected not to think and not to study. Her story interweaves with the story of the courts in which she served: under a Catholic queen, then a Protestant queen, and she’s Jewish. It’s an intense, complicated story about how to be an intense woman, a passionate woman, and how to survive in a society opposed to women of that sort. It’s one of my favorite books.
At what point did you decide that you’d like to be a writer full time?
I never really decided it. I wrote the first novel, really while I was waiting to get a job as an academic. I was going to be a university lecturer in history. And while I was waiting to go to interviews and whatnot, I wrote my first novel, and it was published and became an international bestseller. So I thought, well, I’ll do this for a bit. They wanted me to sign a three-book contract, so I thought I’ll do this for three books and then get on with my proper job. And that was 30 years ago!
What is the view from your favorite workspace?
I live in the country, and I’m blessed to look out over a little garden, with a pond where I can see my ducklings, which I raised from eggs. I’ve got five baby ducks. Behind that is a hill of the North York moors. I rarely see people during the working day.
Describe your morning routine.
I get up and have breakfast and go to my study. I read what I’ve written the day before and edit that. Then I usually start from where I left off, though sometimes I rewrite. I write until something else comes up that I have to go and do. I usually get to a point where I think, all right, that’s enough for today.
No magic hat that you have to wear, or anything like that?
Ha! No, I was a journalist before I was an academic, and I got in the habit of writing where and when I needed to, so I just sit down and get to it. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work because the material is problematic, or the research—it would never not work because I was in the wrong place.
Your books on your website are divided into the years in which the historical action takes place. Do you choose historical years and then prepare your books around them, or what is your approach to mapping a new project?
I do the research first, because I get interested in a person. Then from the total biography of their life, I decide where a novel is going to work well. A novel can’t just be being born and everything that happens to them until they die—that’s a biography. To be a novel you have to take some aspect of their life that encapsulates how you see them, what you think is beautiful or interesting or moving about their life, and then work with that. That then determines the year the novel takes up. It’s more about looking at the life that matters.
What is your favorite snack?
Oh dear, no! That would be fatal! I’m a woman; I have to watch what size I am. I could never eat and write at the same time!
What phrase do you overuse?
When I was writing a book based on Mary, Queen of Scots, I used to say “deliciously” a good deal. It became such a ridiculous habit that I don’t do it anymore!
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“Old, healthy, happy.”