Friday, July 24, 2009

A Conversation with Jeanne Kalogridis

About the Book
Jeanne Kalogridis is known for her powerful narrative portraits of women whose inner lives are lost to history. Now, in The Devil’s Queen (St. Martin’s Press; July 21, 2009; $24.95) she spins the tale of power and passion that was the life of Catherine de Medici, a girl from Florence who became the monarch of France.

Kalogridis weaves a rich tapestry out of Catherine’s life, from her early days of imprisonment by her family’s enemies to becoming a prodigy of mathematics and languages. It is through this lens—the sentiment that a mother will do anything for her family—that Kalogridis explains the pull of the dark magic that led one determined woman to fight for her family’s survival at the expense of great bloodshed.

How did you come up with the idea to write The Devil’s Queen?  Why were you inspired to choose Catherine de Medici as your heroine?

I read a wonderful biography of Catherine by Leonie Frieda; it portrayed Catherine as unfairly blamed for the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.  The more I learned about Catherine, the more fascinated I was by her.  She survived a horrific childhood to become a brilliant mathematician, diplomat and political strategist, and has been called the most intelligent individual ever to sit upon the French throne.  At the same time, she was inordinately fascinated by astrology and magic, and took no action without consulting her court astrologers.  Yet despite her political brilliance and magical talismans, she was unable to avert one of the bloodiest catastrophes France has ever known.

She was also tragically devoted to her husband and her sons, and the premise of THE DEVIL’S QUEEN is that her obsessive love for them eventually led to the Massacre.

How did you research this novel, making it come alive?

I wish I could say that I had the time and means to go to Florence, Catherine’s birthplace, and to France in order to see all the places Catherine lived and visited; however, I relied on the magic of the internet and some sixty-odd books for my information.  I was lucky enough to come across a gentleman who had seen one of Catherine’s talisman rings and provided me with an illustration.  Happily, the Italians and the French revere their history and have provided the public with countless websites that allowed me to virtually tour Catherine’s birthplace and many palaces.

What was one of the biggest challenges in writing The Devil’s Queen?

Catherine lived almost seventy eventful years.  I could easily have given her a trilogy – but I wanted to present the most turbulent periods of her life in a single volume.  Artistically, it was an enormous challenge, and in fact, my first draft ran almost a thousand pages.  I pared it down to just under seven hundred without losing anything I truly wanted to convey to the reader.

Why did you decide to tinker with some historical facts, such as the number of children Catherine had?

See the above answer:  There simply wasn’t room to deal with all of them in a single novel.  Catherine had ten children; I managed to include eight of them.  I intentionally left out her youngest son, the ironically named hunchback, Hercules, because of his complicated conflicts with his brothers.  Hercules would have added another three hundred pages to the novel, and his story would have distracted the reader from Catherine’s.  It seemed just to sacrifice a child or two in order to do Catherine justice.

How did you come up with the spells and ceremonies that Cosimo Ruggieri did for Catherine?  Tell me more about the element of magic in the The Devil’s Queen.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve done a great deal of reading about Renaissance magic; it’s one of my lifelong passions.  I’ve collected the books that Catherine would have studied – and so, when I speak of a particular spell or ceremony in the book, it’s portrayed the way a Renaissance magician would have accomplished it.  The talismans and their preparations, the simple casting of a circle, the evocation of spirits – all are based on the same grimoires and techniques that the magician Ruggieri would have used.

Catherine was an accomplished astrologer, and so I delved deeply into the world of Renaissance astrology.  One of the most fascinating things I learned while writing the book – a fact that Catherine certainly knew – concerned the position of the “evil” star Algol during the hour the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began.  The rising of Algol supposedly augurs widespread bloody violence; the ancient Chinese called the star “Heaped-Up Corpses.”  The very hour of the massacre, Algol rose and made a negative aspect with Mars, the planet of war.

What do you personally think of Catherine de Medici, as a woman, a mother, and a queen?  What did you tinker with when developing her as a character in your novel?

First, let’s talk about Catherine as a human being; she was nothing less than amazing.  She was born a mathematical prodigy, was quick to learn languages, and was brilliant at politics; had she been born male, she would undoubtedly have been put in the same class as her ancestor Lorenzo the Magnificent.  She was also an innovator:  She invented the side-saddle and high heels (she was very short, and her husband very tall), and brought the fork and women’s underwear (pantaloons) to France.

As a woman, Catherine was fearless.  Although she receded from the limelight while her husband the King was alive, the instant he died, she came forward and took charge in order to protect the rights of her sickly, feeble-minded sons to the throne.  Under French law, a woman could not take the throne – but she could serve as regent until her son was old enough to serve.  Catherine used that right in order to gain full control of the French monarchy, and her sons – except for Edouard – were too inept to wrest that power from her.

As for tinkering with her character:  I thought long and hard about the fact that, after she married Henri (who would later become King), she remained childless for a full decade.  That fact brought her very close to being repudiated and sent away; her father-in-law, King Francois, was seriously considering marrying Henri off to another young woman.  Catherine was terrified, and resorted to desperate measures – including magical ones – to conceive.  After ten years, she finally conceived…and then proceeded to have ten children in twelve years.  I took that fact and – given Catherine’s fascination with magic and astrology – ran with it.  Her desperate attempts to conceive form the heart of my story.

What do you think of the role of men in The Devil’s Queen?  Are they pawns of the women, or do they have the real control, or is it more complicated than that?

It’s complicated.  If the men seem eclipsed by Catherine in this novel, it’s only because she outshone them as an individual.  Her husband was in thrall to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and was easily manipulated by her; he was a decent king, but hardly exceptional and certainly not Catherine’s intellectual match.  Catherine’s sons were all sickly, spoiled, and emotionally unstable; only one of them (Edouard) inherited some of his mother’s intelligence.

However, Catherine faced some formidable male foes who were every bit as strong and determined as she was.  I hope I did them justice.

** Reprinted here with permission from St.Martins **

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1 comment :

  1. Wow, I'm not one for reading history like this, but Catherine does sound fascinating, especially if she was into astrology and magic. Sounds out of place for a woman of her time. And with all her other accomplishments, she's a very intriguing woman!