An interview of Kris Waldherr, author of Doomed Queens

Doomed Queens Kris WaldherrDoomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di, is Kris Waldherr’s new book. Lavishly illustrated by the author herself, it contains brief biographies (two or three pages per Queen) from all eras and continents. While the format precludes any in-depth study of any of the characters reviewed, I found the compilation fascinating and was struck by the quality and evocative power of Kris’s artwork

And now I have a little surprise in store for the readers of Versailles and more: Kris kindly agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Thanks so much for joining us, Kris. What drove you to write DOOMED QUEENS?

Kris WaldherrI’m interested in women’s stories, both sacred and profane. I come from a very matriarchal background, so it’s part of my personal history, if you will.  In previous books, I’ve written about goddesses and even courtesans. In retrospect, it seems like it was only a matter of time before I started writing about royal women.

From a personal perspective, I also think I was ready to explore the darker side of women’s empowerment. I wanted to better understand what trips women up when it comes to getting ahead in the world, especially now that I have a daughter of my own.

I find your cover striking. What kind of input did you have in this design?

Jean Traina was the cover designer. She and I discussed the cover at great length, but ultimately it was her design concept. We knew that the cover needs to be witty and beautiful, but also consistent with my design for the interior of the book, which looks Victorian. I painted the cover illustration, which was a lot of fun. I used something called cracking medium in order to make the oil painting look antiquated. I also designed the endpapers and the paper dolls, which are hidden under the French flaps.

I also love the danse macabre motif of the art work that illustrates all of the entries, with the portraits of those doomed ladies. Was it your idea to have so many pictures?

Doomed Queens Juana La LocaI would have loved to have more art, believe it or not. I began my publishing career as a children’s book designer and illustrator, so it’s hard for me to think of a book without considering including art in some way. My ideals are the illustrated books of William Morris, where the art, text and design are integrated into one gesamtkunstwerk.

You also mention the models in your acknowledgments. What can you tell us about them?

Working with the models was a high point of creating DOOMED QUEENS. When I illustrate a book, I usually choose models who remind me in some way of whom they’re posing for. Sometimes the resemblance is physical. Other times it’s their character or energy. For example, my brainy editor Kris Puopolo posed for Amalasuntha, the hyperintellectual Ostrogoth queen. She also has a long, graceful physique, which gives her a rather Gothic aesthetic (though Gothic in the true sense, not the wearing-black-and-being-emo way). My model for Boudicca was the noted illustrator Lisa Hunt, who has just won her Black Belt in martial arts — Lisa is a real warrior woman, but one with better survival instincts.

One strange-but-true story: The couple who posed for Juana la Loca and Phillip the Handsome broke up soon after I finished their drawing. The rumor was that she was jealous, which was the same malady which plagued Juana and Phillip so long ago. I had no idea this couple’s relationship was troubled, but I must have picked up on something subconsciously. I initially chose them to model because they looked so much like historical portraits of Juana and Phillip. It was a sad coda.

Henry VIII’s Queens, Mary Queen of Scots and Marie-Antoinette were naturals for your book, but I was surprised to find Joséphine de Beauharnais there as well. I had always thought of her destiny as rather fortunate, and she died of a bad cold… What makes her a Doomed Queen?

Doomed Queens JosephineI decided to qualify my doomed queens according to how they lost their crowns rather than by how they lost their lives (though the two often coincide). Joséphine was divorced by Napoléon because of her inability to provide him with an heir, just as Catherine of Aragon was. So she falls under my criteria. Plus Joséphine has such a great life story, so full of drama and color! It was difficult deciding which details to feature in such a short format.

How seriously are the “Cautionary Morals” at the end of each of your stories to be taken?

Though there’s a light hearted element to the “Cautionary Morals”, I think they offer good advice. As Mary Poppins would say, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

What did you learn writing this book?

How tough it is for women when it comes to holding on to power. I was aware of this before — it was one of the themes I wanted to explore in DOOMED QUEENS — but there’s nothing like writing a book to bring truths home. It’s really sobering.

If I may ask an impertinent question, how do you score on your own Are You a Doomed Queen? quiz?

Oh, I’m decidedly not a doomed queen — at least for the moment. Then again, how could I be anything but after writing this book?

What about the bonus question: are you related to royalty?

If you were to ask my elderly English great aunt, she would say that we’re related to royalty. She claims that one of my female ancestors married nobility during the Edwardian era; this ancestor was a governess to his children, so it’s very Jane Eyre but without the crazy woman in the attic. However, I don’t know how reliable a source my aunt is. She stopped plotting our family tree once she saw that we were also related to Gypsies.

What can you tell us about your next project?

It’s a little too soon to announce anything — am still working out the details with my publisher. I can tell you that it most likely will be royalty-themed. However, it probably won’t have as many tragic deaths as in DOOMED QUEENS.

Thank you for your time, Kris!

And if you want to discover more about Kris, her books and art, I invite you to visit her gorgeous website.

Artwork © 2008 Kris Waldherr Art and Words. All rights reserved.

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