Today I’m chatting with author C.W. Gortner about his newest book:
Mr. Gortner, welcome back to One Book Shy of a Full Shelf! When you were last here we had a chance to discuss your fabulous novel: The Tudor Secret. Today I am thrilled to get a chance to talk to you about your newest creation: Marlene
What drew you to write about Marlene Dietrich, a more contemporary subject than your previous female subjects from the Renaissance and Tudor eras?
She actually came to me by accident. I’d written a scene about her in “Mademoiselle Chanel”, where Coco meets her in Hollywood, but the scene ended up getting cut during the editorial process. As luck would have it, after “Mademoiselle Chanel” was published, I suggested an idea for a new book that my editor didn’t think would make a great follow-up; during our subsequent conversation about possible characters, she mentioned Marlene, saying how much she’d loved how I captured her in that now-deleted scene. Her remark piqued my interest. I did some preliminary research and discovered that Marlene was indeed a wonderful subject for me. She was unconventional, independent, but had to strive for success, and her attitude toward the Nazis was quite different from Chanel’s. It was happenstance; had that scene not been cut and my editor not remembered it, she might have never occurred to me.
Movie stars are tough to fictionalize. Unless their personal lives are fascinating, as Marlene’s was, their toils on a film set aren’t that appealing for those not interested in the nuts-and-bolts of movie making. But Marlene had such an exciting trajectory to stardom, coming out of the Weimar Berlin cabaret scene – an epoch I’ve always loved – once I started researching her in depth, I was hooked. I love writing about the Renaissance, but I also revel in the freedom that these 20th century characters give me to explore more contemporary themes.
It always fascinates me to learn how that spark for the story comes about. How funny and fortunate that Marlene was resurrected from the cutting room floor!
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Do you find it easier to run with a story about a famous, in-the-spotlight person such as Marlene or some of the more obscure historical figures?
Research-wise, a famous in-the-spotlight figure is always easier. There’s more readily available documentation, even candid photographs or film if you’re lucky, and you can better discover hidden nuggets that will make the narrative sing. Obscure historical figures carry the weight that the less we know about them or their lives, the more challenging it becomes to resurrect them via a fictional interpretation. I’ve not written about very obscure figures, but I can say that researching Marlene, and Chanel before her, was significantly less arduous than researching Isabella of Spain or Catherine de Medici, and definitely less so than Juana of Castile and Lucrezia Borgia. The documentation is more recent, and there’s usually a good amount of it to sift through.
That said, it’s always challenging to bring these women to life and give them a voice that sounds true to who they were. That part never changes; whether it’s a Renaissance queen or a feisty 20th century lady, after all the research is done I still have to “discover” her, slip into her skin to inhabit her. If I’ve done my job researching, she’ll cooperate. If she doesn’t, then I know that either I need to learn more or she’s not right for me. My characters have to choose me, too. I can’t become them if they resist, and now and then, one has resisted, and I’ve had to set the idea aside. It must be a tango. If she’ll dance with me, then we can make music together.
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With some of the more risqué behavior some of your real-life protagonists exhibited, have you come across any subjects or incidents that you weren’t comfortable including in your books – even for the sake of historical accuracy?
With Marlene, I wasn’t comfortable delving into her life after World War II. A novel is a finite amount of words, while a life is not. She has living descendants, who became larger players in her life as she grew older, and out of respect for them, I didn’t think it was necessary to go any further. I also felt those incidents which I depict in this novel – her childhood and early struggles in Berlin, her rise to fame, her Hollywood years, with its ups and downs, culminating in her courageous stance during the war – give a well-rounded depiction of who I believe she was, both as a public personality and as a woman. I was also cautious around her numerous love affairs; she had more than I depict in the novel (I know, right? She was tireless!) but I chose those lovers who best encapsulated the moments in her life that fit into my narrative.
If people want to learn more about her, my bibliography in the afterword lists several in-depth biographies, but I didn’t want to reinvent those books. The Marlene I portray, is, as much as I could ascertain, true to the facts, but I left in some of her mystery, too, because I think she would have liked that.
I admire the fact that you take the feelings of her living family members into account. I would imagine it is appreciated and rare in this day and age.
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If you hadn’t discovered your penchant for writing, what could you see yourself doing?
Wildlife conservation, without a doubt. As I grow older, I feel increasingly passionate about safeguarding this planet and the many beautiful species who share it with us. I think that we, as a human race, are doing a terrible job of defending and protecting the only home we have. Animals should not suffer for our excess and greed. They live in tune with their environment and limitations, while we do not. I do as much as I can, but I wish I could do more. My dream is to earn enough as an author to be able to fund wildlife conservation programs that currently are at the forefront of protecting animals, because to me, a world without wildlife would be a tragedy.
As a fellow animal lover I applaud your dream. It’s heartbreaking what we as a species are doing to our fellow inhabitants of this world.
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I remember from our previous interview that you read a wide range of genres. Do you watch much TV and if you do, what do you enjoy?
I do watch TV. I read more, but I’m currently addicted to Penny Dreadful on Showtime; The Americans on FX; The Walking Dead on AMC; Homeland and Billions on Showtime, and I really loved the now-cancelled Banshee on Cinemax. I also love Veep on HBO, and of course, that colossal favorite, Game of Thrones. I’m excited about the revival in cable television, all the great shows and ideas. I also watch Masterpiece Theatre – Downton Abbey was a must – and rent movies.
What a nice wide range of shows. Banshee was also a favorite in our home.
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Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Persevere. This is a tough business and it’s not getting any easier. Write the very best manuscript you can, revise, revise, and then revise some more, and go out there like a warrior. Every rejection is a chance to improve your prose and your stamina. We all dream of being the one who made it – that perfect manuscript, submitted to our first agent as a debut author and selling it for millions at auction – but the truth is, success for most authors is built in increments, book by book, and reader by reader.
I think that to want to be a writer isn’t enough anymore: You have to want to be a writer more than anything else, and know you’ll be absolutely miserable if you’re not. Publication might be the bed you want to make, but the writing itself must be your lover. If you’re not in love with writing, find something else. There are a lot of wonderful things to do in this world; and writing can be a lonely, demanding profession that will keep you up at night. If you don’t mind the occasional craziness of thinking your manuscript is the only thing that matters, then join the club. I highly recommend it (I think).
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And finally, what and when can we look forward to next from the desk of C.W. Gortner?
I’ve recently signed a new contract with Ballantine Books, Penguin Random House, to write a novel about Maria Feodorovna, the Danish princess who married into the Romanov dynasty, gave birth to Tsar Nicholas II, and witnessed the opulence of Imperial Russia and its cataclysmic fall in the 1917 Revolution. I’ve always wanted to write a book set in Russia, and Empress Maria, or Minnie, as she was known, is a marvelous, vibrant character who’s not often depicted. I’m currently – again – in love.
How exciting, congratulations! I’m so looking forward to you introducing me to yet another of your fabulous leading ladies in history.
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Thank you so much for coming back to visit us here at One Book Shy and good luck with your tour.
Thank you for spending this time with me! I hope your readers enjoy MARLENE. To find out more about my books or connect with me on social media, please visit me at: www.cwgortner.com
You can read more about the author and my thoughts on this great book in yesterday’s review. You can also enter the giveaway for your own copy as well as check out the other tour stops along the way. Get your copy HERE.
~~~~~ Disclaimer: All opinions expressed on this blog are 100% my own. I do not receive monetary compensation for my reviews but do utilize affiliate links. I may receive books in order to facilitate a review, but this does not guarantee a good review – only a completely honest one. Each review post denotes how I obtained the book.