Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Interview with Robin Maxwell, author of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Robin Maxwell's latest work, MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, for the Historical Novel Reviews. In this novel, she returns to the subject of her debut bestseller, Anne Boleyn; this time, however, she depicts Anne's life in the court of France before her celebrated rise to power as Henry VIII's second queen. Robin is a delightful woman to correspond with, full of wit and verve, in addition to her extraordinary talent as a writer. She's been a favorite of mine for years and I'm honored to welcome her for her very first blog interview.

Robin Maxwell is the author of six historical novels. A 15th and 16th century history nut who can't seem to stop writing about the historical figures she feels have been overlooked by historians, or have a side of them that hasn't been properly explored, she lives in the rural high desert of California with her husband of 25 years, yogi Max Thomas and two wonderful exotic birds who are her muses. Visit her at:

1. Congratulations on the publication of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN. It's a pleasure to have you with us. Set in 16th century France, MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN is a compelling, imaginative account of Anne Boleyn’s youth in France. This period in her life has hardly been addressed in fiction, compared to her later career as Henry VIII’s most famous wife, though many historians believe it was during her stay at the court of François I where Anne learned about the perils and power of becoming a royal mistress. You have of course written about Anne Boleyn before, in your wonderful debut novel THE SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN. What inspired you to return to her as a character and explore this particular time in her life?

Thanks for having me. This is my first blog interview. When I see what's happening with web technology and how little I know about it, I sometimes feel like I'm still living in the 16th century. As for writing about one of my favorite historical personages at this specific period, it was one of those amazing graces -- no historical fiction had been written about Anne Boleyn during that most fascinating period of her life, ages 8-17. The time that she was becoming the Anne Boleyn that everyone knows, or think they know about. Here was a fabulous, sexy world -- the lascivious court of Francois I -- all ripe for the picking. Having a new angle on an oft-told story or character is, I think, one of the keys to a successful historical novel.

Interestingly, I found the same opportunity twelve years ago when I started writing SECRET DIARY. There had been a lull in fiction writing about Anne. Of course I read everything I could get my hands on -- fiction and biography. And it suddenly occurred to me that no one had truly made the connection between Anne and her daughter, Elizabeth I. Maybe a few sentences or a paragraph. But nothing about how that mother affected that daughter's life and choices. The older I get the more it becomes apparent that our parents' influence is with us from birth to death. With Anne and Elizabeth there were limitless possibilities. In MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, it is the Boleyn sisters' father, Thomas Boleyn, who is the great and terrible influence.

2. MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN offers a fascinating look at the court of France during François I’s early years. What challenges did you encounter while researching this time? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about the French court and Anne’s place in it?

First of all, I had never been in France (I'd been to England three times). There's so very much you can do with books and the internet. But I was particularly stumped about the feel of Paris in 1515. I mentioned this to my wonderful editor at Penguin, and she told me that her mother had spent a lot of time in France. She gave me her mom's phone number and subsequently she and I had some wonderful conversations. I asked her a lot about geography -- there was only so much I could get from maps from the period -- and she even did some research for me. She found a great website that I hadn't seen. My favorite discovery had to do with how well-loved Anne Boleyn was before she returned to England at age 17 and the whole Henry VIII saga began, a period that was filled with jealous enemies -- ones that eventually saw to it that Anne was beheaded and her reputation besmirched. In the courts of Burgundy and in France she was a little dark-eyed wonder. Precocious and charming. A quick study in French who became, at a very tender age, the English interpreter for Claude, the Queen of France. She also became a favorite of King Francois' sister, the progressive and scholarly Duchess Marguerite. This woman opened Anne's eyes to the "New Religion," Protestantism, and later Anne was the person who first brought these ideas to Henry VIII, and with it the Protestant Reformation to England.

3. An interesting storyline within the novel is Anne Boleyn’s friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, who had come to France to live at François I’s invitation. There is no extant evidence to support Anne’s meeting with Leonardo, so how did you go about creating this situation so that it would fit within the facts of her life?

I was in the process of researching THE DA VINCI WOMAN -- a novel about the Italian Renaissance seen through the eyes of Leonardo's mother -- when I decided to change course and write MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN first. When I saw the places (the French court at Amboise) and the dates I was going to be writing about in the Boleyn book, 1514 - 1522, I realized that several of those coincided with Leonardo living as a guest at the French court, in fact as a dear friend of Francois. I went rushing to my Anne Boleyn biographies, and in three of them, they mentioned that Leonardo Da Vinci was living there at the same time she was. One even suggested that it was likely that they knew each other. That was all it took, and I was off and running. That they became friends is my invention. But there is nothing in the historical record to say that they were not. The "secret passage" between Amboise and Cloux (the manor house Francois gifted Leonardo that I write about) was a discovery I made on a website about Amboise. That was like finding a gold nugget!

4. You have written not only about Anne Boleyn, but also in subsequent novels about her daughter Elizabeth I and Elizabeth’s lover Robert Dudley (THE QUEEN’S BASTARD), the pirate Grace O’ Malley and Essex (THE WILD IRISH), and the disappearance of the princes in the Tower during the time of Richard III (TO THE TOWER BORN). Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters such marvelous authenticity?

It's a combination of intensive research -- reading EVERYTHING I can get my hands on about an individual, his or her close and not-so-close relationships, and the period and places from history books and biographies and the internet. I do NOT read any historical fictions of the period, terrified of unconscious plagiarism. It's important to look deep in this reading period, because what appears as a tiny fact or a small character, can turn into an important one. A perfect example: during my research for SECRET DIARY OF ANNE BOLEYN, I read one sentence in one history book. It said that Anne had a woman fool. Nothing else. But that struck a chord. I started asking myself who that fool was. How she became a fool (did she come from a family of jesters, did she go to "fool school?"). How she ended up in Anne and Henry's court. I knew that fools were the only people who were allowed to speak the truth in that ruthless, terrifying environment, and that this character would have to be humorous. The one thing Anne's story, especially the last three years of her life as the queen, were as serious as they got, so a fool was a perfect addition. Enter Niniane. She became a wonderful character and has one of the best, most emotional lines of the book.

With THE WILD IRISH, I actually made a 3'x6' chart with every year from 1530 (year of Grace O'Malley's birth) - 1601 (end of the story) down the left hand column. Across the top I wrote the names of Grace, Elizabeth I, Tibbot Burke (Grace's son), the Earl of Essex, Richard Bingham (villain), Hugh O'Neill (arch rebel) and then "all others." Under each heading I made a column. Then I went through every history book and biography I had and filled in the blanks as in "in this year, such and such happened to Grace O'Malley - giving birth to Tibbot, what year Essex left with the English army to fight in Ireland). Then I was able to track and cross-check everything. A story emerged from the chart, one that was as close to the history of the period as possible.

Of course there are giant holes in history, action that was not reported that had to have happened, things that we'll never know about personality, what people actually said in human words to each other, what they were thinking, and especially how they were feeling. All the stuff that takes the information out of the realm of history into the realm of historical fiction. I use extrapolation to help me jump the chasm from the known to the unknown. I have to be a detective or sorts, to read between the lines, and a psychologist to figure out what a person must have been going through emotionally. I have very strong memories of my own relationships and feelings and moments in my own life, so I use them liberally. I try every chance I get to slip into a character's shoes. Say to myself, "If I were facing this person and this situation, considering my background, my history with that person and which side of the bed I got out of this morning, what would I say, what would I do?" I also believe that most of the basic emotions I write about in the 15th and 16th century -- love, lust, hatred, fear, jealousy, humiliation, pride -- are all emotions we still have today. I just try to put them into context and in words that fit the period.
That, I think, is what gives characters their authenticity.

5. Your novel offers a candid and at times difficult look at how women were used as chattel by the men who sought power through them. Both Anne and her sister Mary were exploited by their father to further the Boleyn name and prestige at court. Why do you think Anne proved the exception, in that she took charge of her own destiny, defying the odds to become queen of England? Do you believe that had she not gone abroad at such an early age, her destiny might have been different?

I definitely think that her years abroad are what took Anne from being a provincial girl to being the great woman she became. That is where she got her extraordinary education. In fact, the working title for the novel was The Sexual Education of Anne Boleyn. But of course she got much more than a sexual education. In particular, she got a religiously progressive education from Francois' beloved and indulged sister, Marguerite. Of course I think Anne had the seeds of an exceptional character from the get-go. She was eight when she went to the court of Burgundy, and by nine she had learned the French language sufficiently enough to become a royal translator for Queen Claude.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?

I just wrote an op ed piece called "Hillary Boleyn." It compares Anne and Hillary Clinton, showing how it's not so different now and back in the 16th century when it comes to a woman who aspires to great things -- one who refuses to shut her mouth, one who stands up to the male establishment. How badly these women are treated, especially by spin doctors and the press, and the people who are failing to shut them up. Anne Boleyn helped bring the Protestant religion to England. For that, and having too much influence with Henry for too long, she was reviled and ended up headless. Hillary, as First Lady, took on the American "MegaChurch with Two Heads" - the pharmaceutical and health insurance companies -- and she was cut off at the knees. Told to go home and bake cookies. And let's not forget, there are still huge swaths of the world tin which women are bought and sold into marriage and even sexual slavery by their fathers. Some things change. Others don't.

7. Please tell us about your next project.

The DA VINCI WOMAN may become my masterpiece. I had to move to a different era, a different country and learn about all new personalities. I chose the most fabulous of them --- Leonardo Da Vinci, his mother Caterina, Lorenzo "the Magnificent" Medici and his brother Giuilino, Boticelli, Savonarola, Roderigo Borgia, and the members of Florence's "Platonic Academy." I took on not only the Renaissance that everybody knows about (learning about the art and architecture) but also what I call "the Shadow Renaissance," which I think is the true Rebirth. It had to do with science and philosophy, Hermeticsm, alchemy, the occult and esoteric learning. Talk about having to dig! But I found precious gems everywhere I looked (if I looked deep enough). It is an emotional book, perhaps the greatest love story I've ever written between and man and a woman, and the deepest and most beautiful relationship I've written between a parent and child.

Thank you, Robin. We're looking forward to this next novel by one of the genre's most genuine and delightful writers.


Ms. I said...

Loved the interview and I loved this book. I will be reading more by Ms. Maxwell in the future.

And I totally agree about the Hillary comment ;-)

justin said...

Great interview. It sounds like she's really found some interesting threads to run with. I'll have to check her stuff out.

Interesting comparison between Anne and Hillary. I'd love to read that op-ed piece if anyone knows where it's located.

C.W. Gortner said...

Hi Ms and Justin,
Glad you liked the interview! The book is great fun. Her novel THE WILD IRISH is one of my favorites. You can find her op-ed piece at:

justin said...

Great, thanks!