This week's Q&A is with Kathryn A. Kopple, poet and author of the acclaimed Little Velasquez, a rich historical tapestry set in the rule of Spain's most influential monarchs, Queen Isabel and King Fernando, as experienced through the eyes of their court jester.
Q: This is a novel about the reign of "Isabella and Ferdinand" who most people know only from their elementary school history books as the couple who financed Columbus. Further study reveals they were the driving force behind some much darker stuff, to the point of genocide. And yet Queen Isabel has been always been treated very well, both by contemporary and modern historians. Comment?
Much of the legend surrounding Isabel has to do with the chronicles (of which there are a number dealing with her reign). We have to understand that the chronicles—and much of history up until the Middle Ages and even through the Renaissance, were not objective. History, as the old adage goes, was made and transmitted by the victors. Also, given Isabel’s reputation as a queen determined consolidate her empire under the name of Catholicism, it’s not surprising that many Catholics consider her a saint.
Q: When did you first become interested in history and historical fiction?
As Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue.” No doubt, Shakespeare meant that our fate is pre-determined. My sense of history is not quite as fatalistic, but the more we know about the past—the richer we become in cultural awareness. History is an excellent teacher.
Q: Have you ever been to Spain? Tell me about your adventures.
The first time I went to Spain I was two years old. My parents, caught up in the 60’s social revolution, sold the farm (literally, we were living in Schenectady, NY on a farm), and, with my eldest sister and me, set off on a Russian freighter for an artists’ colony in Ibiza, Spain. We lived there for several years. When I was in college and graduate school, I would return to Spain. I’ve lived in Andalucia and Madrid. While there, I travelled as much as possible: Spain, Morocco, Italy—all through Europe.
Q: Your writing is so rich than I can open up to any page and feel transported, and yet none of it seems stilted or costumy. What is your secret?
It’s wonderful, as a writer, to hear that—and I really thank you. I wanted the book to have a comedic yet tragic feel, but it wasn’t until I found Velasquillo, the protagonist (who is an actual historical figure I discovered in a footnote) that I was able to achieve it. Velasquillo set the tone and the style. Without him, I don’t think the book would have been finished—because it was seven years of research, writing, and then throwing out one draft after another.
Q:Tell me about the reference materials you used for your research. How much of the story was based on fact and how much was invented?
The research was a joy for me. Libraries are some of my favorite places. When you are dealing with the Middle Ages and Renaissance history, it’s important to realize that much of what was written (the chronicles) are not history in the modern sense of the word. Chronicles are not necessarily objective; they are homages for the most part and easily romanticized. I wanted to actually show that in the novel. I also thought it important to list all of my sources—historical and current research. Of course, when it came to telling Velasquillo’s story, I had only a footnote to go on—nothing more. I became intrigued, and began to ask myself how he managed to gain the favor of two of the most powerful monarchs of the era. Those questions because the basis for the novel.
Q: The princess Juana strikes me as a bright girl, but a little too sensitive for her own good. Rumor has it she loved her husband so much she refused to be parted from him, even after his death. I've seen her depicted as many things running the gamut from demented madwoman to innocent pawn. Where does the truth lie?
Juana of Castile, who is the third child of Isabel and Fernando, was raised to marry a foreign prince (or, in her case, a duke—Philip, the Fair of the House of Burgundy). Until she married, she had no title, no household of her own, although she received an excellent education. Unfortunately, she was ill-prepared for the life that awaited her, especially as the wife of Philip IV. He was proud, far more connected to France than Spain, and very distrustful in his in-laws. When Isabel I passed away, her chosen heir had died. Juana inherited the empire—or would have, except that Philip declared himself king. In today’s parlance, you might call it a coup d'état. The dark legend you refer to originates in those years after Philip’s death. He wasn’t king very long when he succumbed to a fever. Juana was determined to have her husband buried in Granada alongside her mother—the main reason being that it would grant legitimacy to her children (whom she wanted to inherit the crown). Thus began the bizarre odyssey in which Juana accompanied Philip’s corpse from one city to another, asking that the coffin be opened so she could kiss his feet, and often said to weep uncontrollably over her dead husband’s body. Eventually, she collapsed—and Castile was thrown into disarray. Fernando, her father, then resumed control of the government and ruled until his death. After which, Charles V, Juana’s son, inherited. In this, she succeeded.
Q: In the course of your research, have you run across any interesting facts that you ended up not using since nobody would believe it’s the truth?
Not at all. I intentionally sought out the most interesting material. Otherwise, the book would a re-hash of everything that has been written before on the subject.
Q: What inspires you? Do you have any writing rituals?
Recently, I posted on Facebook that some writers do so because they have rich fantasy life. I write for the opposite reason. My mind comes alive during the writing process.