Friday, February 22, 2008

Author Snapshot: Sandra Gulland

Sandra Gulland’s many fans have had a long wait. It has been nearly eight years since the publication of The Last Great Dance on Earth, the final installment in Gulland’s acclaimed Josephine Bonaparte trilogy.

But the wait is over now or -- for some readers -- nearly so. Gulland’s most recent book, Mistress of the Sun was published this month in Canada by HarperCollins and will be published in the US in June by Touchstone Fireside. Other international markets will follow. Gulland’s readership is not only enthusiastic, it’s very far-flung.

Mistress of the Sun introduces us to Louise de la Vallière, the unlikely mistress of Louis XIV, who in 17th century France, was known as The Sun King, the book she was only beginning to research when we spoke with Gulland last in 2001.
“It is easy to escape into [Sandra Gulland’s] world and not want to return,” says Margaret George (Helen of Troy), another January Magazine interview alumna.

We agree.

A Snapshot of Sandra Gulland…
Born: Miami, Florida
resides: Sandra Gulland and her husband live half the year near Killaloe, Ontario, Canada, and half in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Birthday: November 3, 1944
Web site:

January Magazine: Please tell us about your most recent book.

Sandra Gulland
: Mistress of the Sun: sigh. I can’t believe it’s out. A year ago, I didn’t think the novel would ever be finished. But it is, and I'm pleased.

It’s the story of Louise de la Vallière, the Sun King’s mistress -- a woman of silent power, is how my French translator so beautifully described her. It’s set in mid-17th century France. (Versailles, Paris, Fontainebleau . . . ) It’s a passionate and tragic story, yet victorious. It has something of a fable-like quality, I think.

Louise intrigued me. She was devout, yet the King’s official mistress. She was unsophisticated, a rather timid young woman by Court society standards, yet she was an aggressive horsewoman and hunter. She was unambitious, entirely disinterested in power or wealth, yet she was partner to one of the most powerful (and charismatic) (and handsome!) kings in history.

Entwined with their love affair is the story of magical Versailles -- and entwined with the story of Louise is the story of a magical horse. Mistress of the Sun is very much a story of what people are willing to do, the pacts they are willing to make -- with evil, with the Devil -- in order to save a life ... or take a life.

What’s on your nightstand?

Three Junes, by Julia Glass. Friends have raved about this novel. It’s in the line-up.

Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama. This was a gift from a friend, an Obama fan. I’ve only read the introduction so far: what a fine writer he is. I’m a fan now, too.

From Where you Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. I read this book two years ago, and noted that Chapter 5, “A Writer Prepares,” would be a good chapter to revisit when I was ready to begin a new novel. And it is.

What inspires you?

A great novel. Historical research. Books on writing.

What are you working on now?

I’m not sure yet. Well, that’s not exactly right. I’m mulling, and a story -- characters, scenes -- are beginning to form. I feel somewhat uneasy about it because it is not the subject I had planned to write about next, and it would not be an easy story to tell. It’s possible that the protagonist will be male: that alone would be a challenge.

The one thing I do know for sure is that my next novel (and the next, and the next) will be set in the court of the Sun King, the world of Mistress of the Sun. Seventeenth-century France is a period rich in story.

Tell us about your process.

Many writers hate “pen or pencil” questions, but I love them. I love being asked, and I love listening to what other writers have to say.

I begin writing early in the morning, usually before dawn. When I’m deep into a draft, I will organize my work space the night before: set up the coffee pot, clear the desk, make notes about the scene to come.

I used to plunge right in, but now I find that I simply can’t resist the lure of the Internet, so as I’m drinking my mug of coffee, I’ll check my email,, Facebook and now -- groan -- even MySpace before I begin. I’m not sure this is a good thing, but it’s the way it is.

I can't imagine writing without a computer. I bought the first Mac -- that sweet, ugly little box (only 128K) -- with writing in mind. Now I work on a Mac laptop, usually stretched out on a bed or couch, the computer on my lap and my notes spread all around me.

I must not be distracted by household noises, so often I have headphones on. The music must be instrumental and somewhat hypnotic. For Mistress of the Sun I listened to Gregorian chants, and, for the sheer joy and energy of their music, [legendary Puerto Vallartan musical duo] Willy & Lobo.

In terms of plotting, I try to have something of a story thought through before I begin, but my plan inevitably derails as I begin to write. I often return to plot analysis between drafts, when I’m trying to figure out why the story isn’t working. I like the dream-storming technique that Butler talks about in From Where We Dream: it’s something between outlining and just jumping in.

My first draft is usually long and thin. It lacks reality, detail, shape. I thicken and cut. (I love Ariel Gore’s description of the drafting stages in How to be a Famous Author Before You’re Dead: lather, rinse, lather, rinse.) I print out, edit, revise; print out, edit, revise: many, many times over.

When I’ve taken the novel as far as I can, I turn to editors and readers, an army of them.
When, finally, it’s nearing completion -- just before production, in fact -- I arrange to have a book club or two read and discuss it. This can lead to rather drastic last-minute changes -- an opening chapter rewritten, a chapter cut.

Then, when I’m too exhausted to even think of changing another word, off it goes, and the promotion cycle begins ... and mulling about the next book.

Lift your head and look around. What do you see?

I’m stretched out on a daybed with my laptop on my lap. By my side is a wireless mouse, set on Will Self’s Psycho Geography for a mouse pad. I’m facing an antique bookshelf filled with books, small photos and artwork in frames set here and there (my children, an Escher eye, a painting of a wounded angel, a primitive etching). Some books are stacked on their sides, yet to be shelved -- new purchases, books loaned out and returned, advance reader copies of Mistress of the Sun.

To my left, alongside the daybed, is a long wooden coffee table also stacked with books -- research texts, various novels, a big picturebook on Charles II, and, pride of place, the Canadian hardcover edition of Mistress of the Sun.

Across the room is my L-shaped desk with papers piled up: papers to file, notes on essays (blogs now) I’m thinking of writing, papers to sort.

Above the computer stand is a bulletin board: family photos, phone number reminders on Post-It notes, and various images that were important to me while writing Mistress of the Sun: a gloomy circus scene, an etching of a theatrical event in the gardens of Versailles, an image of a white horse. Now that the book is out, it’s time for me to take these images down, I realize, leave an empty space in which to pin new images. (I’m curious: what will they be?)

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Wanting to be a writer has been a fairly constant longing for me, but I can’t recall when it began. In my teens I wanted to be a painter. When I moved to Canada in my 20s, my first year was spent teaching in an Inuit community in northern Labrador. That year I read all of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series. I also read the diaries of Anais Nin and, most importantly, Virginia Wolf's A Room of One’s Own. I think it was at this time that I seriously began to want to be a writer.

After that year I moved to Toronto and became a book editor, which was as close to writing as I could get and get paid. Life was busy (as life is): I told myself that I would write my own books -- “some day.” When I turned 40, I realized that I wasn’t going to live forever and that “some day” might well be “never” if I didn’t actually sit down and write. And so I did.

If you couldn’t write books, what would you be doing?

I have a strong need to create, but I’m not sure that it has to be expressed in story form. Perhaps I’d return to painting.

I’ve often thought that in another life I’d be an architect ... or a clown.

To date, what moment in your career has made you happiest?

Writers often say that there is nothing quite like the feeling of holding their first published book in their hands. I’ll never forget that moment myself. I drove into town (population 600: you get the picture) to pick up a parcel at the post office. Once back in my car, I nervously opened it: a hardcover book -- The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. -- with my name on it.

It was almost too much to bear. Quickly, I slipped the book under the newspapers and magazines stacked in the passenger seat. As I went about my chores -- the bank, the market, the hardware store, the pharmacy -- I would now and again peek under the newspapers and magazines. It was still there.

As soon as I got home, I put the book -- my book! -- on a shelf, just to see how it looked side-by-side with the novels I loved so much. I’d always thought that all I wanted was to have a book published, but the moment I saw that book on the shelf, spine out, I upped the ante. At that moment I longed to see a shelf full of books with my name on them.

I don’t know if I will live long enough to achieve this goal: it took eight years of hard, constant writing to finish Mistress of the Sun. When the Canadian edition arrived by courier, it was, yet again: A Moment. I took the parcel into the kitchen. My husband hovered as I nervously cut open the wrapping. And there it was, in my hands: one of the most beautiful books I’d ever seen. I ran my hands over the gold embossed letters in wonder.

Even now I keep looking over at it, set upon the coffee table along with other beautiful books: It’s still there.

For you, what is the easiest thing about being writer?

The isolation: I like solitude. A writer must.

What’s the most difficult?

Organizing my research, taking notes. I also find that a certain stage of the writing process can be boring: after I’ve written a draft on computer, I print it out and edit the hard copy. Then comes the task of typing those changes onto the computer file. When the changes are mechanical, it’s tedious.

But these are easy compared to what I consider to be the most difficult thing about being a writer, which is the constant frustration of trying to carve out periods of isolation and silence in the midst of a busy, noisy and tempting life.

What question do you get asked about your writing most often?

With historical fiction -- and biographical historical fiction in particular -- readers often want to know what parts of the novel are fact, and what fiction.

What’s the question you’d like to be asked?

“What were the challenges in writing this novel?”

What question would you like never to be asked again?

I dread being asked: In what year did...? When was ... born? How old was ... when he/she died? (Fill in the blanks.)

In short: factual historical questions, especially about a subject I researched over a decade ago. I do not have a good memory for dates, numerical facts. I’m a writer: I write things down! But that doesn’t mean they stay in my head.

Tell us something about yourself that no one knows.

When I’m nearing the completion of a novel, I become paranoid about my health. Invariably I become convinced I have some serious and life-threatening disease that will prevent me from finishing. I’ve come to see it as a somewhat amusing sign that the book is almost done.

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Anonymous wilnostation@hotmail said...

Sandra: I'm a sucker for writer's explanations of their inner life and creative processes...and of course, you've talked about this in writers group. Reading this interview reminded me that you have one of the most thoughtful, succinct and earthy viewpoints on the writing life. One gets a sense of both the awesome committment of seriously taking up the pen (or the cursor) and the notion that such a task is manageable if simply undertaken in a series of smaller steps. Can't wait to read the book...the joys of Amazon!!

Monday, March 3, 2008 6:43:00 AM PST  

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