An interview of Sandra Gulland, author of Mistress of the Sun
Sandra also wrote the best-selling Josephine B. trilogy. It is aprivilege to have her answer a few questions for the readers of Versailles and more. Enjoy!
– We had a few great discussions about book covers on this blog, and I couldn’t help noticing the differences between the US and Canadian covers of Mistress of the Sun. Which do you prefer, and can you tell us the inside story?
I find the U.S. cover [left] handsome — it’s lush, and explicitly clear about the subject of the novel — but I confess that I am in love with the Canadian cover [below, right].I like the mystery it evokes, the hypnotic innocence of those eyes. It’s psychologically true to the novel, I feel. It’s a cover that looks better onthe book though; it can look a little strange reproduced on a website or in a review. I know some fans of historical fiction object to it, but by the same token, readers of general fiction seem to be really attracted to it — at least that is my experience in Canada. Certainly it stands out boldly on a bookstore shelf. I think it’s also a cover that’s more likely to get a book reviewed.
The difference, I think, may have to do with market. Harper Collins Canada sees me as a writer whose work appeals to a wide range of readers — not just readers of historical fiction. Touchstone (of Simon & Schuster) in the U.S. is focusing on fans of historical fiction. Possibly it has to do with the difference in populations of the two countries. The Canadian English market is only 10% that of the U.S., and must therefore, possibly, appeal to a wider audience.
Interestingly, however, the Canadian cover will be entirely different for the paperback edition — more historical. One reason for the change is that they are republishing my Josephine B. Trilogy with new covers, all of a set, so that there will be an identifiable “look” to all my books. Touchstone didthe same. The “sets” are handsome, and I suspect it’s good for sales for books to come out with new covers — it draws attention, perhaps.
As for how the covers evolved:
I get involved in the design process because I am able to suggest portraits of my character that might be suitable. Also, this is one area about which I can be fussy, and my editors are kind enough to want me to be content. My Canadian editor imagined a white, very spare cover from the start. I didn’t like the image used initially — too kittenish for my tomboy Louise — and in brainstorming other possibilities, we talked of eyes. When the mock-up was emailed to me, I swooned.
My U.S. publisher initially went for a commissioned work of art. This can be quite tricky. After several attempts the result was too genre romance for my liking — but it was also inaccurate (dress, hair, background, etc.). At that point my editor looked toward a more traditional approach. One challenge with Mistress of the Sun was that there wasn’t that “perfect” portrait. I spent hours combing the databases.
Of course all of this is done to very tight and pressing deadlines. It’s an emotional and stressful process! I’m happy with how each cover has come out, and feel that each is suitable for its market.
– Louise de La Vallière was not very famous outside France, where she is best known for leaving her name to a type of loose cravat. She may be the most obscure of Louis XIV’s “major” mistresses. How did you discover this particular historical character and what drew you to her?
I didn’t know about the cravat!
Bernard Turle, French translator of the Trilogy, describes Louise as “a woman of silent power.” I like that. She is very much in the shadows —which is where she wanted to be.
I came upon her story while working on Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe, the second in the Josephine B. Trilogy. A biography of Louise had been published at that time and was popular — and so I looked into it. What caught my attention was that she is described as something of a timid wallflower, yet clearly aggressive on horseback. It was said she could out-ride and out-hunt the Sun King, who was quite the athlete. One account describes her standing a cantering horse in the Tuileries gardens. I knew enough about riding to know that you don’t get to that level of skill without a great deal of practice. It’s unusual today, and almost unheard of for a woman in the 17th century. I wanted to know more.
Who is your favorite secondary character, fictional or historical, in Mistress of the Sun, and why?
I adore Clorine, Louise’s maid: she’s so crusty and practical. All we know ofher in fact, though, is her name — which was indeed Clorine — so I had the freedom to invent.
I found the evolution of Louis XIV in the novel rather frightening. What is your impression of the Sun King?
I think of him as a good king, in spite of his personal failings. He is a hard man to get to know — historians have said so, and even people at the time said as much. Napoleon, on the other hand, was rather transparent (uncontrolled, one might say), whereas Louis XIV was born on a stage and always wore a mask. Two things are key, I think: he wept easily — and possibly for this reason kept his emotions in check. And he seemed to have been addicted to sex; it was perhaps the only aspec tof his life that was unrestrained. Like Napoleon, power overwhelmed him. At the end of Mistress of the Sun, we begin to see the worst in im. As a king, however, and as a husband, I believe he did his best.
After the Joséphine B. trilogy, this is another French-themed novel. What particularly attracts you to France as a setting?
Well,that’s a very good question, given how terrible my French is! It’s notthe setting, but the history itself I’m drawn to — that mix of theatre,fancy and passionate idealism I find in French history. (Where else dokings star in ballets and adorn themselves with ribbons and lace?) I’vebeen drawn to French culture since I was a teen. My mother’s name wasBrezee, her father a French American. One of the attractions of Canadafor me, in emigrating from the U.S., was that it was partly French. Butthese are slender props. A more nuts-and-bolts explanation is that Irather accidently became interested Josephine, and then one thing ledto another, and another, and another.
I read that you discarded all of your books and documentation about Joséphine and the Napoleonic era. Really, have you given up on the late 18th/early 19th centuries for good?
I believe so. I’m moving back in time, not forward. Sellingmy Napoleonic collection (but for a few treasures) was partially apractical decision: I needed to make room for books on the 17thcentury. But it was also a rather deliberate cutting of the cord. Ineeded to move on.
It had been some time since you had published the last of the Josephine B. trilogy. Did you notice any significant changes in the publishing business?
Enormous,particularly in the realm of promotion — now so much is on-line. Interms of public
ation itself, I don’t think too much has change,although I notice that a book’s notice goes into the sales cataloguefar, far in advance of publication.
The construction of thePalace of Versailles serves as a background for the second half of Mistress of the Sun. How do you personally feel about the place?
Overwhelmed! (It would be easier on horseback, don’t you think?) It was challenging getting information on Versailles as it was before it became the monument we see today. I’m interested in seeing the changes that are being made now — changes to make it more authentic. With every palace I see, I long to see the “underbelly” — the kitchens and servants’ quarters, the outhouses and laundries. I once had a private tour of Fontainebleau through the secret passages — the servants’ passages. It was wonderful, and eye-opening.
I also read thatyour next project would be about La Grande Mademoiselle, a cousin ofLouis XIV. Another French heroine! But very different, in many regards,from Louise de La Vallière. What draws you to her this time?
I’mactually considering several possibilities from the Court of the SunKing: there are so many great characters, so many fascinating stories.It may well be La Grande Mademoiselle next, and yes, hers would be avery different point-of-view from both Louise and Josephine in that shewas born to be a queen. She’s an early feminist, a warrior, a writer, atempestuous woman: she makes me smile. I see her as something of afemale Don Quixote.
Of late, I’ve begun to consider a novelabout Athénaïs. I believe that I will write both these novels, but soonI’m going to have to decide which comes next.
Congratulations, Sandra, on yet another achievement, and best wishes for your new novel!
Thank you, Catherine — see you in Paris!