Welcome, Susan Holloway Scott!
Susan is one of the members of Word Wenches (a favorte blog of mine) and she's been kind enough to have me over to visit on multiple occasions. Today she joins us to talk about her newest novel about the many mistresses of Charles II.
Nell Gwyn was never a lady, nor did she pretend to be one. The illegitimate daughter of a royalist soldier, she is taken to London by her widowed mother to work in a bawdy-house. At fourteen, she becomes the mistress of a wealthy merchant who introduces her to the world of the theater. Blessed with impudent wit and saucy beauty, she swiftly rises from an orange-seller to a leading lady. She is still in her teens when she catches the eye of King Charles II, and trades the stage for Whitehall Palace and the glorious role of a royal mistress.
The King’s Favorite: A Novel of Nell Gwyn & Charles II (NAL/Penguin) is a fictionalized biography of the famous 17th century actress and royal mistress. How did you become interested in her?
My last three books have grown from one another. When I wrote Duchess, about Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, I became intrigued with Barbara Palmer, Duchess of Cleveland, who was the lover of John Churchill before he married Sarah. Barbara was also the lover of a great many other men as well (to put it mildly!), and the most infamous of Charles II’s mistresses. Barbara was such a notoriously fascinating “bad girl” that I had to write her story next, in Royal Harlot. While researching and reading about Barbara, I kept coming across Nell Gwyn, another of Charles’s mistresses, but Barbara’s complete opposite in appearance, background, and temperament. I hadn’t even written half of Royal Harlot before I’d begun sketching out King’s Favorite. Like many writers, I don’t find my ideas so much as they find me.
Nell is a pretty irresistible heroine. She a real-life Cinderella, a small woman with a huge personality and boundless charm that climbed from appalling poverty to become one of the most popular actresses of her time, and, finally the most popular of the king’s mistresses. To this day, she remains a kind of folk-heroine in England, and her name still graces bath-soap, pubs, and hotels.
There have been many books about Nell Gwyn, both fiction and non-fiction. Why did you write another one?
Every generation interprets the past through their own eyes and attitudes. Nell’s “story” began evolving even during her own lifetime. Because she was for the most part illiterate, she left no journals or diaries, no version of her life in her own words. Everything was up for grabs, and throughout the next three hundred years or so, she has been both vilified as a whore and a guttersnipe who didn’t deserve to be loved by a king, and practically turned into a Protestant saint for her legendary kindness and generosity to the poor.
I tried to sift through the folklore and repeated hearsay to try to find the girl and woman Nell must have been, within the context of her time. While the king was the great love of her life, I wanted to show the other men in her life, too. I also wanted to include her long-standing friendship with the notorious (and notoriously charming) Earl of Rochester (played by Johnny Depp in the recent movie “The Libertine”). Most of all, I wanted to try to show Nell as a real woman, with real joys and sorrows, and not just the plucky stereotype.
What did you like about the era in which Nell lived?
I love Restoration England, the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685.) Following the grim puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate, an ecstatic London welcomed Charles back from exile with giddy celebration. It’s a delicious time in English history, straddling as it does the end of the middle ages and the beginning of the age of enlightenment. Traitors are still drawn and quartered, their heads stuck on spikes on London Bridge, yet Christopher Wren is rebuilding London into a modern city and Isaac Newton is making revolutionary scientific discoveries. Much like the Regency, the Roaring Twenties, and the Swinging Sixties (every era needs a snappy nickname doesn’t it?), the Restoration is a time of tremendous social instability and change, with youth ruling the day and traditional moral standards being questioned. The mercantile middle class is increasing its power while the aristocracy is feeling the first pinch of waning influence. Add to this the “big events” of the Restoration like the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the wealth of fascinating people, and it’s a fantastic setting for a novel.
What do you like least about this period? Anything that constrained you or that you had to plot carefully around (besides being true to her real life)?
In many ways, it’s not a great time for women. Men are overwhelming in charge, socially, legally, and financially. There’s a casual, misogynistic attitude that women-are-only-good-for-one-thing that’s hard for modern-day me to swallow. I’m sure that’s why I’ve written about the women I have, intelligent women who found a way to leave their mark and succeed within a challenging society. In that context, some of the choices that Nell was forced to make to survive (and at a very young age, too) weren’t easy for me to write, but they were important to show the kind of strength and spirit she must have possessed.
Did you have to do any major research for this book?
Because I’d already written two big historical novels in this time and setting, and with many of the same people as characters, I had much of my background research already done. But I always try to read as many original sources from the period as I can, not only for facts, but to get the flavor and vocabulary of the speech, always important when writing in first person. For this book, I also read all the plays in which Nell appeared or attended, and I also read a good deal of Lord Rochester’s scandalous libertine poetry (not for the faint of heart, believe me!) Thanks to the internet, it’s become so much easier to find original sources that would once have been locked away in distant libraries.
Care to share a bit about your writing process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?
Oh, I’m a total pantser. I know my opening scene, and my ending, and between the two, it’s a hundred and fifty thousand words of flying blind. *g* Well, that’s (fortunately) an exaggeration, but not by much. I have a rough idea of where I’m going, especially with the historical novels, since the plot is dictated by historical fact, but it’s still pretty free-wheeling. I don’t outline, or make notes. I just sit down each day and write, with a goal of about 3,000 words or so that I may or may not reach. I don’t beat myself up about that; some days the words are there, some days they’re not. But I do write seven days a week. I’m much too easily distracted otherwise, and if I take the weekend off, then it’s really hard for me to get going again on Monday (or Tuesday, or Wednesday…you get the idea.)
I’m also a single-draft-writer, and now that my publisher has shifted to on-line editing, I never do print out a hard-copy manuscript. It’s been my sorrowful experience that I’m much better off with my first version, and that, for me, rewriting is a fiery pit of despair and adjectival excess that I do well to avoid.
What are you planning to work on next?
My next book is The French Mistress, scheduled to be released next summer. This is the story of Charles II’s last mistress, Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth, and in many ways his most interesting. She was sent as a “gift” to Charles by his cousin King Louis XIV of France, a beautiful, well-bred girl who may or may not have been a spy for France. Though Charles adored her, she was despised for her religion and her nationality by the English, and no one ever expected her to find such a lasting place in Charles’s heart, or in history. I’m particularly enjoying writing about her as an outsider in a notoriously cliquish court, where she’s safe as long as she pleases the king, but is always aware that if she fails, she’d end up in the Tower as a spy. I do like a challenge!
Many thanks to the Hoydens for having me as their guest! For more about The King’s Favorite and my other books, please visit my website: www.susanhollowayscott.com