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Read a 2008 January Magazine author snapshot with Gulland here.
Sandra Gulland is a rare creature. Though she's made her home in Canada for many years, Gulland is a third generation Californian. Her ancestors include the kind of humans that people historical fiction. Some of them felled the great trees in Humboldt County. One great-grandfather was a treasure hunter. They were, in their own way, pioneers, taming the West. Sandra Gulland writes about none of that. What interests Gulland is historical France and what has interested her the most for the last couple of decades is the story of Napoleon and Josephine, through the eyes of the doomed Queen of France.
Gulland's fascination and passion has translated into a trilogy of highly readable books that tell Josephine's story -- all of it, from childhood to her death -- through a series of diary entries. Gulland reports that, prior to working on the first book, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B., she'd never really had an interest in historical fiction. Rather it was Josephine's story itself that drew Gulland. This, in part, may explain the innovative and highly approachable style that the author employed to tell Josephine's story. The books don't feel like historical fiction. Rather, they read like the journals of a flesh and blood woman: albeit sometimes too much flesh and occasionally an overabundance of blood. "I know it sounds strange," Gulland says, "but it took me a while to figure out that I was writing historical fiction."
It didn't take the world that long, however. Gulland's books sell very well internationally. She has a huge following in Denmark, Italy, France and, most of all, Germany. The books also sell briskly in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. As bookseller Diane Waldock of North 49 Books wrote to Gulland, "History can tell me the end of her story, but I can't wait to experience it through your new book..." Josephine, at Gulland's hands, has found new fans almost everywhere.
The most recent of the three novels, The Last Great Dance on Earth, completes Josephine's story, something Gulland had mixed feelings about. The author reports that leaving Josephine after so many years of traveling together was a little bit wrenching. Gulland won't, however, be leaving her entirely behind. She is now at work on a novel about the Sun King -- Louis IV -- likely through the eyes of his first mistress, the great horsewoman Louise de La Valliére, which will take Gulland back another 150 years in French history.
Sandra Gulland, 56, lives in rural Ontario with her husband, Richard.
Linda Richards: The Last Great Dance on Earth is the third and final book in your trilogy, isn't it?
Sandra Gulland: It is.
Sometimes I can't stand historical fiction, because I know how it ends. Like with Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra. I was, like: Don't take that snake with you! It's historical, so you know: they all die in the end. But still.
I heard one reader [of The Last Great Dance on Earth] say: Maybe she'll change the ending. [Laughs] But no.
You must have a great interest in Josephine to have spent so much time telling her story and telling it so compellingly. Where does that come from?
It goes back 30 years or so. I was working as a book editor. I was sponsoring editor and that meant I created projects: looked for projects to take on. I was thinking of developing a line of young adult biographies so I went to a children's library and got out a biography. It was a biography of Josephine. I never was a history buff and it was a subject I'd loathed in school -- in high school and university -- and I didn't really read historical novels. [But] she just really struck me as a person because she was someone I could relate to. I could identify with her because she wasn't that different from normal people. So that's where it all started: I got really curious about her.
I guess that accounts for the tone, Sandra. Because it's not precisely historical fiction-y. It's very fresh and it's very immediate.
Thank you. I know it sounds strange, but it took me a while to figure out that I was writing historical fiction. [Laughs] And I've since now become involved in historical fiction societies and I'm really in way over my head because these people really know historical fiction. I really don't.
But you had to have done a lot of research.
I did a huge amount [for this series]. That's one of the things I love about it: I love the research. The research can really be a siren song. I can get really crazy [with doing] research.
What does research involve for you?
Well, first it involves ordering a huge number of books. [Laughs] And reading and not really reading enough because I order far more books than I could ever read in a lifetime, unfortunately. So the Internet doesn't help at all [Laughs]. Because one of my favorite ways of spending a Sunday morning is to go on ABE where you can buy used and out of print books and they're basically a database that brings them together. So I go on there and start ordering books.
How do you determine which ones to use as source material? Because there must be some on this subject that are completely inaccurate.
Yes. This took me a long time to discover: how many were inaccurate. Especially with the Napoleonic era. I really went into the whole thing as an innocent. I had no idea what I was getting into and I was learning my research skills -- methods -- building them as I went along. I started out believing what I read. On my first trip to Paris where I consulted the experts: that's where they first opened my eyes to the fact that a lot that's written about Josephine is really garbage.
Because her story is tied to his -- Napoleon -- and that's shaded by politics and politics are always tied up with the victor's right to history and all of that.
Yes. And the memoirs were really written to please who overcame Napoleon. So everybody was in a rush to say how awful [the Bonapartes] were. Stuff like that. There was a lot of envy too, in the memoirs. Not too many people have the luxury of having a decade to spend studying one person's life fulltime. Even if you're a professor, you just don't have that. You don't have the time to spend on this kind of...
Like postdoc work on Josephine.
Really! [Laughs] And so I feel ... that I've immersed myself in a way that not too many people have. I'm starting a new field of research now and so I say: well, the first thing to do is to get the most up-to-date biography. Read the most up-to-date one because that's the one that's most apt to be correct.
You do a lot of on the spot research too, don't you?
Yes. I do a lot of traveling.
[Laughs] Poor me! When I first started I had no idea. I thought I was on a wild goose chase: that I was just doing it [without thought of publication]. At that point I consulted with Jane Urquhart who was at the University of Ottawa as writer in residence and I gave her this messy manuscript.
When would that have been?
It could have been 1980. Or 1983. In the early 1980s. And she read it and it was a hodgepodge. It started off as a contemporary novel about a woman who is possessed by the spirit of Josephine. It was kind of an academic history and a mystery and the family's diaries were included in this bizarre story. And so Jane Urquhart read this and said: You know, it's the diaries that really come to life. It was the story of Josephine that was [most compelling]. But I didn't have the courage to just take it on head-on. It never occurred to me to really take on this story. But she also said: Oh, you have to go to Paris! [Laughs] And you have to go to Martinique. You know, you could have fun with this book. I went home and told my husband: I have to go to Paris! And it's essential, actually. To see the spots.
Did you go right away?
Pretty soon, yeah. Within the year, I think. I gradually realized it was the diaries.
You said before that not everyone has a the luxury of a decade to spend with one character. How did it happen that you did?
My husband is my patron. And his business enabled me, at that point in our life, to give up money work. It was hard for me to give up earning money, because I liked that. And I like it now, that it's worked out. But for a long time: you just keep writing and it doesn't matter because I was collecting big fat piles of rejection letters. And there were several novels that preceded these that I'm glad never got published. And Van Gogh never sold a painting, so you just keep going. So really... he's a good guy.
Do you have children?
Yes. They're grown now, but they weren't during all of this. They're 22 and 24.
You said you're doing research now, so I gather you're at work on a new project. What is it?
I am going into the court of the Sun King which is going back 150 years in French history.
Right. And this is going to be a book that's a lot about horseback riding and horses because a part of it will be about Louise de La Valliére, the Sun King's first mistress. She was an extraordinary sportswoman, which is very unusual in that time. She could outride the Sun King and that was no easy matter because he was renowned for his [athletic] abilities.
Was she riding sidesaddle?
Well, you know, I want to find that out. Women did amazing things sidesaddle. They jumped and everything. One thing that's really helped the research is the popularity of living history societies and stuff like that. They're wonderful for learning costuming and fencing and horsemanship and all this. It's a little easier for certain periods in history than others and I think Louis IV doesn't have very many. There's one I found -- a living history society -- for Louis IV.
The cover of The Last Great Dance on Earth has a detail of a painting of Napoleon's coronation painted by Jacques Louis David. I know it's in the Louvre. Have you seen the original?
Oh yes. I've visited that painting several times. The last time was hard because I knew that it would be the last time that I'd look at that painting from the inside point of view. That next time I'd be coming as an outsider. It would be different. So it was a very difficult day. I wept leaving and on the way out I bought a [reproduction of] a painting of a horse's head. This was kind of for my next book. So I could say: It's OK. It's all right. I've got another... you know.
Have you started that next book?
I've started researching it. Not writing it.
It doesn't have a title or anything?
It does have a title. Bone Magic is the title.
Was there any temptation to continue the Bonaparte's story?
Well, not after their demise, but there was the thought: Oh well, maybe this is four books.
I thought maybe with Josephine's children and grandchildren.
There is one woman who I'm interested in who is not at all of this era. She was the last person who was in analysis with Freud and she interests me, because she helped Freud escape Germany. She interests me, but I don't know how far I'll go with that: if it's an interest that will grow. I doubt it because I have a feeling I'm going back further.
There are a lot of really rich details in The Last Great Dance on Earth. A lot of them, I think would have been difficult to find.
Like makeup. That's really interesting. Again, it is difficult. There was one book written on the history of makeup. A wonderful book but, unfortunately, very hard to find.
You mentioned the stuff, I can't remember what it was, that was lead based and it was to make them look smooth.
In the eyes they were putting...
Belladonna. [To dilate their pupils.] A friend told me that. [Laughs] Information comes from everywhere.
You don't think -- at least I don't -- of people in that era wearing makeup, and yet...
They were very heavily made up, actually. And they had whole lines. [Cosmetics from] Venice were the best.
A great deal is known about Napoleon and Josephine. Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Lots. Lots. First of all it was finding out that a lot of what I was reading wasn't true. That she didn't have this awful reputation, that that had been to discredit her and that the evidence was contrary: that she wasn't the empty-headed, gold digging, promiscuous woman that historians have portrayed. It was quite an unraveling process, saying: OK, who started that story? A lot of the really bad Josephine stories come from the memoirs of Bertrand who was the husband of the daughter of Josephine's [first] husband's mistress. She was the daughter of the mistress who was the other woman who hated Josephine. [And she] is the woman who basically transcribed and put together these memoirs. So there's a good reason to suspect what Bertrand says.
Another thing -- and this is a technical thing and I couldn't make use of it in fiction -- is that she was a Freemason. She was very active in Freemasonry.
Really? I didn't even know girls were allowed.
In France, yes. Especially at that time. Not only was she a Freemason, but you see on her letters as empress that she sometimes put three little lines in front of her signature. That's a signal from one Freemason to another, like a little secret handshake.
In one of your earlier books, there's reference to a prediction that is made when she is very young that Josephine will be empress. Is that true? Was there really such a prediction?
[The prediction was] that she was going to be queen of France.
Was it true?
I think it's true. There's no one who has written a doctoral thesis to prove it one way or another. I think it's true because there are several references to that prediction before she became empress. Like there's one story about her after she left prison, that there was a party and everyone was joking about this and I read that there was an account in the newspaper in France that describes this: Well, that would prove it. But tracking that down would take time.
Hortense -- Josephine's daughter -- says in her memoirs that Josephine told her about this prediction on the way back from her first trip to Italy. So this was long before she [was empress]. And my feeling is that Hortense does not lie. She lies by omission, but she never just says something untrue. So I think it was true and it's a story that Josephine would tell people. So that was one of the first things that really interested me about Josephine: this prediction.
It was something that kind of haunted her, wasn't it?
[Nodding] And it was significant in their marriage because they both believed that there was this fate involved in their marriage.
Marie Antoinette's time was not long before all of this?
It's just before. Josephine is the next queen after her: she's following in her footsteps. In the second book, when they move into the palace, Josephine feels she's haunted by Marie Antoinette. In fact she was: she was obsessed with the feeling that the palace was haunted by the spirit of Marie Antoinette.
I didn't have to make much up. The hard part was knowing what to leave out.
Now, why the Sun King? And there's a whole world. So the fact that you're going back to France again is interesting.
It's Louise de La Valliére I'm interested in and I'm really just beginning my research. I'm interested in her horsemanship. And there was apparently a horse whisperer at the court of the Sun King: I'm interested in that because I think he would have had something to do with Louise de La Valliére. Her horsemanship ability was astonishing. There's a description of her riding an Arabian stallion who was cantering and she was standing on the horse barefoot and she was controlling the horse with just this silken thread. And at that point she'd had a couple children. And she's described as being a wallflower: a bit of a shy person and ... she becomes a nun. It's a bit of a challenge and I don't know how much of the story I'm going to tell. It's not going to be a fictional biography the way Josephine is where you start at one point and go all the way. I think I won't do that. That's one story. There's another woman that's suddenly grabbed my interest and I don't know if she's part of the same book or if it's another book. The characters are interesting.
Do you read French?
I do very limpingly.
Because I guess that would help with research.
It would help a lot. [Laughs] I'm always taking French, so I'm always studying. I can make do when I have to. It's crazy! Why am I doing this? [Laughs]
Why are you doing it?
It's just that I found it irresistible. It's not as though I'm going to say I'll do something else. [Because] well, no. I'm not. Certain people have affinities for certain periods. | July 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.