Friday, June 6, 2008

Interview with Sandra Gulland, author of MISTRESS OF THE SUN

I recently had the great pleasure of reviewing Sandra Gulland's new novel, Mistress of the Sun, the story of Louise de la Valliere, the first official mistress of Louis XIV. This is an exquisite novel, and a unique look at a woman whose life has been obscured by the Sun King's later flamboyance. I'm including my review here, which was an Editor's Choice for the latest issue of The Historical Novels Review:

In her first novel in eight years (following the international success of her Josephine B. trilogy) Sandra Gulland has chosen an enigmatic figure—Louise de la Vallière, mistress to Louis XIV and mother of four children by him. Louise has been overshadowed in history by her more glamorous successors and the flamboyance that characterized the later years of Louis’s reign, but in her captivating jewel of a novel Gulland offers an absorbing account of a woman who reluctantly became a royal mistress and paid the price. Gulland’s Louise has a fey spirit with the ability to enchant horses. In a desperate act of magic to save a feral stallion’s life she sets the course for her own destiny, one that will bring her equal measures of sorrow and joy. Uneasy with the cruel sycophantism of court, caught between her innate spiritual introspection and an impoverished lineage that compels her to noble servitude, Louise eventually catches the young king’s eye. Louis is handsome and vital, poised to assume his later embodiment as the Sun King; in Louise, he discovers incorruptible innocence and their romance flourishes under a secrecy that continues for years, even as he grows in stature and she wrestles with her conscience and the degradation of her illusions. Scandal ensues when Louise is brought into the open as Louis’s lover; this fateful moment also sets the stage for her decline. Fascinating details of life at the French court sparkle throughout the narrative, evidence of Gulland’s dedication to research; and while Louise may not be as ambitious or clever as those who followed in her footsteps, she imbues an unforgettable authenticity that gives credence to the belief that she was Louis XIV’s only true love.

Sandra Gulland is also the author of the internationally best-selling Josephine B. Trilogy, based on the life of Josephine Bonaparte, Napoleon's wife. Born in Miami, Florida, Sandra lived in Rio de Janeiro, Berkeley and Chicago before going to Canada in 1969 to teach in an Inuit village in northern Labrador for one year. Settling in Toronto, she worked as a book editor for a decade before moving with her husband and two children into a log house in northern, rural Ontario. In 1985, she began writing full-time. Ten years later, the first of the novels in the Josephine B. Trilogy was published. She thought, when she began writing, that she would never find a publisher. Now the trilogy is published in 13 languages, 15 countries, and has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Mistress of the Sun — which took her eight years to research and write — is set to follow. You can learn more about Sandra, her research and her work on her web site: <> . She also has a blog, Notes on the Writing Life, at

Please join me in welcoming Sandra!

1. Congratulations on the publication of MISTRESS OF THE SUN. It's an honor to have you with us. Set in 17th century France during the reign of young Louis XIV, MISTRESS OF THE SUN offers a fascinating account of the life of Louise de la Vallière, Louis’s first official mistress and mother to four children by him. While Louis himself has been covered in fiction, as well as his other subsequent mistresses, Louise has largely been neglected. What inspired you to write about her, and why are you drawn in general to French history?
Thank you, Christopher — and congratulations to you, as well, on the publication of your novel. I looked into Louise's story because a biography of her was popular in Josephine's time. I wanted to know more about what my own characters were reading, find out what interested them. And was swept away! Mainly I was intrigued by Louise’s horsemanship, which was extraordinary for a woman at that time. She is described as shy, something of a wallflower, and yet an Amazon on horseback. She was religious, yet the official mistress. The pieces of this puzzle didn't fit: I wanted to know more. And thus begins that long journey — writing a novel. I was drawn to French history, and history in general, through Josephine. She led me there, but it was the delightful combination of idealism, whimsy, theatre and what seems to me to be a passion for spectacle that keeps me there.

2. MISTRESS OF THE SUN offers many marvelous details about daily life in Louis XIV’s France, including superstitions around medicine and the influence that people believed evil forces exerted on them. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this book? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about this time in history?
It took time for me to come to understand how superstitious the period was — both superstitious and religious both. Discovering that the mathematician Descartes believed that nightmares had been put into his head by demons was something of a revelation. Louis XIV mother believed that a comet foretold her death.

3. A key storyline within the novel is Louise’s relationship with horses. She is fey by nature, and also deeply spiritual. Did Louise like animals in real life, and did she struggle between her desire for a spiritual life and the role she found herself fulfilling as the king’s lover?
Louise de la Vallière was an extraordinary horsewoman — this was one of the things that first captured my interest. We have very little to go on, but what there is is telling, rather like the tip of an iceberg: a line in a letter saying that she looked mighty fine on horseback; an account from a traveling Italian priest who saw her standing a galloping horse, and reported that she could out-ride and out-hunt the king and his men. (As well, he reported that a Moor who worked in the King's stables coached her.) That isn't very much to go on, but from such scraps it's fair to deduce that Louise had to have spent a great deal of time on horseback and that she had a way with horses. No doubt there were special horses in her life. We know, likewise, very little about Louise's early spirituality. We do know, from her writings later in life, however, that she had an intensely spiritual nature, and one must assume that this didn't come upon her out of the blue. Too, her father and her father's siblings were very religious, and given how conflicted Louise's relationship with her mother seems to have been — and too, given how gentle and good her father was — I think it likely that she took after him. In fact, she wrote an account of her spiritual awakening, Réflexions sur la miséricorde de Dieu. There is little doubt, I believe, that she was seriously conflicted about her relationship with the King.

4. Louise and Louis were together for years, yet much of that time their relationship remained a secret. Do you think this can account for Louise’s relatively obscure place in the pantheon of Louis’s mistresses? Why else do you think she has been largely bypassed by history?
It's true that Louise is not well known, even to the French. In the words of Bernard Turle, the French translator of the Trilogy, Louise is a woman of "silent power." I like that. I think if she had stepped happily into the role of First Mistress, if she had used the power that comes with that title, she would have been better known. But she was not one to seek power or the limelight. She had no interest in being in a position of power and was not at all suited for life at court. Had she embraced the position of "left-hand wife" and used it to advantage, historians would have taken note.

5. Can you tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity?
I wish I could say that it "just happens," but it really comes down to elbow grease: an arduous combination of research and revision (re-vision). The characters in my early drafts tend to be wooden and two-dimensional. Over time, and many, many drafts, they begin to take on life. It's really a question of constantly asking, "How does she feel?" "Would she really have done that?" I don't do extensive "interviewing" of my characters the way some authors do. (I always feel I should, however.) I do try to identify what it is they want — their "noble goal" — their inner conflict, ruling passion, their weaknesses. Over time, details build up. I especially like identifying what my character keeps with her — her secret treasures. These became very important in Mistress of the Sun.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?
Mistress of the Sun is a love story, and that's universal and timeless. It's a story of what people are willing to do to get power — and that's universal and timeless as well. It's a story of how power corrupts, how hard it is to stay true to oneself, how love's passion can turn to insatiable lust . . . In truth, I think people are people are people, no matter the time and place, and that's an important part of what's learned by delving into history.

7. Please tell us about your next project.
I'm thinking a lot about La Grande Mademoiselle, the King's cousin. She was a fireball, an early feminist, a writer, the wealthiest person in France (wealthier than the King). She managed to avoid marriage to practically every king in Europe, only to fall for the charms of ugly little lady-killer Lauzun, a lowly courtier. They secretly married — possibly there was a daughter — he became abusive and she kicked him out. There are a number of fantastic stories in her life, and I'm not sure what I would focus on. I'm considering her devoted male secretary as the narrative voice. I've lots of mulling to do yet.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Great interview! I'm really looking forward to reading this book.

Catherine Delors said...

Louise remains one of Louis XIV's best known mistresses in France. There's even a type of cravat named after her, if that counts as a mark of fame!
But, true, she was eclipsed by the flamboyance of her "successors."
Bravo to Sandra for choosing this lovely figure as her heroine! I look forward to reading the novel.

Lezlie said...

I reviewed this for my blog last week. What a fantastic book! I've also been promised yours from your publisher, C.W., and I can't wait to see it!

Books 'N Border Collies

C.W. Gortner said...

This is great! Sandra and I recently started corresponding and she's a lovely person, as well as a truly magnificent writer. She's on tour at the moment, so if you have a chance visit her website for details. She may be near you and it would be great if you could see her in her beautiful period gown!

Lezlie, please let me know when the book arrives or if it doesn't. I'll be happy to check on its status for you as long as I have a mailing address. You can send that to me confidentially at

Nice to see you Susan and Catherine. Hope Paris is fabulous, Catherine, and great anecdote about the cravat! I wonder if Sandra knows? She must, but I'll mention it to her anyway.