Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Interview with Juliet Grey, author of Confessions of Marie Antoinette

I'm thrilled to share my recent interview with Juliet Grey, author of Confessions of Marie Antoinette who was kind enough to answer some questions about her Marie Antoinette trilogy and her final book in the trilogy, which is set to be released today. Many thanks to Amy from Passages to the Past for setting up this interview!

What first drew you to the idea of writing a novel about Marie Antoinette?

In the course of researching the royal marriage of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI for a chapter in my nonfiction book Notorious Royal Marriages, written under my real name, Leslie Carroll, I discovered how maligned the pair of them have been and that a lot of what I had originally thought about them was wrong, or skewed by the propaganda that found its way into the history books, repeated over the past two centuries as fact. Marie Antoinette in particular remains condemned as one of history’s most frivolous villainesses, tone-deaf to the plight of her subjects; and for the most part that wasn’t true at all. I felt that her story had to be told; and the best way to do it was in the form of a novel (or three—because the events of her life are too complex to shoehorn into just one novel: one book would barely skim them, covering only “the greatest hits.” So much would have had to be omitted and there would have been scant page time for character development, which was imperative, because Marie Antoinette’s journey was so spectacular. Many of the events of her life were so colorful and incredible that they seem invented by a novelist, which is one reason her story makes such an interesting novel. I have written scenes that sound incredible—but they are totally grounded in fact and based entirely on the historical record!

Fiction also gave me the freedom to use my imagination to fill in the gaps where the historical record closes the door, and to bring emotion to the story, allowing readers to connect to it in a more meaningful way. Yes, Marie Antoinette and Louis were historical figures. But they were not made of stone, clay, or wax. They were living, breathing humans with the same hopes and fears and high-stakes issues (if not higher, given their place in the social hierarchy of France) that everyone faces.

The first book in the trilogy, Becoming Marie Antoinette, was very much a "coming of age" story for the young archduchess who was destined to be a  French queen. The final novel, Confessions of Marie Antoinette, covers the last turbulent years of the queen's life. How would you compare Marie Antoinette's character arc in the final novel to that of her transformation in the first book? 

In the middle novel of the trilogy, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, which spans the years of Marie Antoinette’s queenship, from the day she and Louis become the monarchs in May, 1774 to July 1789 in the aftermath of the storming of the Bastille, we see this transformation slowly unfold; and the queen finally comes into her own in Confessions of Marie Antoinette, having gone from child to woman, not merely because of the passage of years, but because of the numerous life-altering experiences that occurred during the years of her reign.

As the title of the middle novel in the trilogy suggests, its scope covers the highs and lows of her reign—from the glamorous years of the outré gowns with eight-foot wide skirts and three-foot-high “pouf” hairstyles to her struggles for so many years to become a mother (the one reason she married into the French royal family), as well as the personal tragedies and losses she endured during the fifteen years that span the timeline of the novel. In the first and middle novels we see the queen’s character grow as she learns whom to trust at court, often making missteps along the way. In many ways she remained the naïve girl of Becoming Marie Antoinette, and she was not the astute politician, diplomat, and lobbyist for the Austrian Empire that her mother, the formidable empress Maria Theresa of Austria, hoped she would be. However, in Confessions of Marie Antoinette, the queen finally comes into her own: as a wife, a mother, as a monarch (even as this role crumbles about her), and she becomes the savvy political operator her mother had groomed her to be and despaired of her not becoming in Becoming Marie Antoinette. 

It took a long time for Marie Antoinette to grow into her own skin, but we see it happening in the second novel in the trilogy so the transition from book one to book three is a smoother one for readers who have read the entire series. In Becoming Marie Antoinette, our eponymous heroine goes from the ages of ten to eighteen. She begins the story as a pampered, coddled, and comparatively sheltered archduchess who requires a substantial physical and academic makeover before the French royal family will judge her to be an acceptable dauphine and future queen of France. By the time Confessions of Marie Antoinette opens in October of 1789, Marie Antoinette is just a couple of weeks shy of her 34th birthday. She doesn’t know she has less than four years to live. She has seen much, but there is so much more to come.

All three novels include details and events which are sometimes neglected in shorter, single novels about Marie Antoinette. What smaller details did you most enjoy working into your trilogy, and why? 

It was important to me to give the fullest possible picture of Marie Antoinette’s life in order for readers to understand who she really was. By now, I think everyone knows that she never said “Let them eat cake,” but I had little interest in writing a book that, as I mentioned earlier, would only have enough space to only touch upon the highlights or “greatest hits” of her life. Context is lost that way. Plus, there is little room for nuance and character development because the author has to move on to the next event so quickly. Readers are told and not shown, because there is no time for events to unfold, as they really would have done. Events would have appeared to have taken place in a vacuum instead of being the culmination of months or years or decades of (e.g. mutual attraction, or disaffection with the government). In the first novel, I had the opportunity to go into the nuts and bolts of Marie Antoinette’s  makeover, to illustrate just how extensive it was, rather than giving readers a quick mention of its occurrence. I thoroughly researched every detail, and in my novel the men who were responsible for her transformation in Becoming Marie Antoinette are the actual “Pygmalions” who fixed her hairline and her teeth and taught her to dance and walk and speak and crammed her head with French history and genealogy; and the details of their lives, even though their roles are relative cameos, are true.

I also had the time and space to explore how Marie Antoinette and Louis eventually became friends, because history tells us they did, yet they don’t tell us how. It’s the novelist’s purview to imagine it within the scope of what could have credibly taken place. It took more than 7 years for their marriage to be consummated. So what was going on in Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber? If their relationship isn’t slowly built and trust steadily established, scene by scene, and love comes gradually after many years of marriage, then where’s the emotional pow-bang payoff when the spouses realize all-too-late (in Confessions of Marie Antoinette) how much they mean to each other? Writing the story as a trilogy also allowed me to develop other relationships and rivalries, rather than merely gloss over them. Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow allowed me to fully explore the development of Marie Antoinette’s burgeoning friendship with Count Axel von Fersen and depict how the seeds of Revolution were sown in France, including the government’s own indirect and unwitting participation through their support of the American colonists (in their effort to weaken France’s greatest enemy, Great Britain). 

Had I not had the luxury of telling Marie Antoinette’s story as a trilogy, I would not have been able to write the scene where the monarchs host Benjamin Franklin at Versailles. His influence on the French aristocracy was enormous, even if the queen herself was not a fan. But scenes like that allowed me to tell the story of how the French Revolution unfolded around the monarchs. It didn’t suddenly begin—bang—with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. I show even in Becoming Marie Antoinette  and in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow how her insensitive treatment of the members of the nobility at Versailles who had long been accustomed to certain perquisites of rank, rankled them to the point of irrevocably disparaging her character and reputation, a villainous image that spread beyond the gilded palace gates into the streets of the capital and across the kingdom. And I was able to explore in depth how the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace (a con that was in the works for two years!) came about, unfolded, and ultimately destroyed Marie Antoinette’s character instead of those who perpetrated the crime. The Diamond Necklace Affair could have been a novel in itself, the details are so wild and crazy and unbelievable.

In Confessions of Marie Antoinette, I was able to depict another perspective on the blossoming Revolution, through the eyes of a young woman who did in fact exist. Through the sections narrated by the sculptress Louison Chabry, the novel is opened up without any violation to the world I have created over the first two books, because she was a real person as well, and she can plausibly be present at events that the queen could not have attended, and on some cases, known much, if anything, about. This allowed me to give readers a far more comprehensive understanding of what was going on in France beyond the scope of Marie Antoinette’s knowledge. And I felt that they needed that picture in order to comprehend how dire the royal family’s situation was as well as what the points of view of the different revolutionary factions were. I could depict trial scenes with the requisite dramatic and atmospheric detail, instead of just mentioning in a quick sentence or two that a trial occurred. Essentially, the luxury of a trilogy allowed me to show how Marie Antoinette (and Louis) were destroyed from within by their own subjects, rather than merely telling readers that they were, because I would have lacked the page count to get into the details of how everything transpired.

Are there any tidbits, events or people that you wish you were able to include in the trilogy, but which did not make the final cut?

I did have additional, juicy, scenes regarding the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (in the second novel in the trilogy, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow), that didn’t make the final cut. 

The last year of Marie Antoinette's life was overflowing with loss: the loss of her freedom, her family and her life. How difficult was it to write about her final months of life and how did you prepare yourself for writing the inevitable tragic conclusion?

I knew it was going to be very difficult to let go of people I had come to know since I’d begun researching them for my nonfiction chapter, and then spent the next five years learning everything I could about them, literally walking in their footsteps. It was also going to be emotional coming to the end of the largest writing project of my career. I felt for Marie Antoinette and Louis from the start or I would not have been compelled to bring their story to life over the course of three novels and half a decade of research and writing. And the more time I spent with them, the more deeply I cared, to the point of feeling as though I had known them personally. As I wrote the final scenes, I cried a lot. I’m talking heavy, heaving, audible sobs. Killing off a beloved character is always difficult, but Louis’s execution (please don’t tell me this is a spoiler for anyone!) hit me very hard. I was a basket case. As I was in Marie Antoinette’s head at the time, writing from her POV, you can imagine what my emotions were—because they were hers. 

And when it came down to her final days and hours, I was an utter basket case, particularly feeling her emotions over never seeing her children again. Although she had already been wrenched away from them by the Revolutionary authorities, the finality of death, where there is no hope of reunion except in heaven, is something else again. I was crying so hard when I typed the final pages that my husband came into my study to see if I was okay. After I wrote the final words and blubbered some incoherent phrase with a double meaning, like “it’s over,” I was so upset that he put his arms around me and let me sob against his chest for several minutes. Readers will not have spent as many years with Marie Antoinette, her husband and her family as I have, poring over the minutiae of her life and reliving her triumphs and tribulations with her as I did, but I aimed to convey her story in such a way that I hope I’m not the only one to have reached for a box of Kleenex during parts of the third novel.

And finally: How has your opinion of Marie Antoinette changed—if it has at all—since you began working on your trilogy?

Given what I learned about her from researching my nonfiction chapter, I was predisposed to like her or I would not have chosen a subject that I was going to spend so many years of my life researching and writing about. But the deeper I went into my research and the more I learned, not only about Marie Antoinette, but about Louis (for whom I have tremendous compassion and who has also been for the most part horribly mischaracterized by history), as well as about the other key historical figures in the trilogy and about the political climate and conditions in France that existed for decades before the Revolution began, the more I understood her and realized how much the deck was stacked against her long before she even set foot on French soil. Friendless in a foreign country at the age of fourteen, and wed to a complete stranger who was as naïve as she was about intimacy, shall we say, she also relied on misinformation from her mother about whom to trust at the Bourbon court. 

This set her on the wrong path right from the start; and instead of cultivating allies among those who had been predisposed to despise her, she made enemies. Marie Antoinette’s natural ebullience and resistance to the picayune etiquette of the French court made matters worse. But she can hardly be blamed. She was barely more than a child, with a huge responsibility on her shoulders and had no reliable role models. The older women at court who were supposed to guide her, secretly wished to damage her reputation. (Add to all this, a husband who shied away from consummating their marriage, which sparked rumors that she had to be receiving her sexual gratification elsewhere.) Imagine a teenage girl nowadays enduring this posh form of bullying, and it’s a wonder Marie Antoinette found the resiliency within her to withstand it to the degree she did. 

When I began working on the trilogy, like many readers I was under the misconception that Marie Antoinette may have been flighty and frivolous. But the luxury of being able to dig deeper, telling her story in three books, allowed me to find, and then show, that tensile core at the heart of the young girl who loved to dance all night and wear spectacular gowns (as one would expect from the queen of the most sophisticated and enlightened court in Europe!). So it really comes as no surprise that, just like the French Revolution, the seeds of the strong and resilient and maternal Marie Antoinette were there all along. It just took time and the right set of circumstances for them both to bear fruit.



Publication Date: September 24, 2013
Ballantine Books
Paperback; 464p
ISBN: 0345523903

Confessions of Marie Antoinette, the riveting and sweeping final novel in Juliet Grey’s trilogy on the life of the legendary French queen, blends rich historical detail with searing drama, bringing to life the early years of the French Revolution and the doomed royal family’s final days.

Versailles, 1789. As the burgeoning rebellion reaches the palace gates, Marie Antoinette finds her privileged and peaceful life swiftly upended by violence. Once her loyal subjects, the people of France now seek to overthrow the crown, placing the heirs of the Bourbon dynasty in mortal peril.

Displaced to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the royal family is propelled into the heart of the Revolution. There, despite a few staunch allies, they are surrounded by cunning spies and vicious enemies. Yet despite the political and personal threats against her, Marie Antoinette remains above all a devoted wife and mother, standing steadfastly by her husband, Louis XVI, and protecting their young son and daughter. And though the queen and her family try to flee, and she secretly attempts to arrange their rescue from the clutches of the Revolution, they cannot outrun the dangers encircling them, or escape their shocking fate.

About the Author

Juliet Grey is the author of Becoming Marie Antoinette and Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow. She has extensively researched European royalty and is a particular devotee of Marie Antoinette, as well as a classically trained professional actress with numerous portrayals of virgins, vixens, and villainesses to her credit. She and her husband divide their time between New York City and southern Vermont.  

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