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YA Wednesday: "Gilt"y Pleasure

One of our picks for the Best Young Adult Books of May is Katherine Longshore's spellbinding historical novel, Gilt, set in the court of notorious King Henry the VIII.  When Catherine Howard catches the King's eye and brings her best friend Kitty along, the girls are drawn into a world of castle intrigue and glamour that is both exhilarating and dangerous.  We wanted to know more about this debut novelist and how she came to write Gilt so we sent her some questions and she was kind enough to answer them in this exclusive Q&A--you can see the rest after the jump.

Q: I was surprised to discover that many of the characters in Gilt were real people who had lived during Henry VIII’s reign. What drew you to this story?

A: I fell in love with the Tudor court many years ago, though I tried to avoid seeing it through a Hollywood lens. It was a time of glamour and courtly romance, but also of dubious hygiene.  Hollywood might have us believe that everything was elegant and precious and clean – a fairy tale.  I wanted to dig a little deeper and find a story about a world in which a real, flawed girl could aspire to be Queen of England – even if it meant marrying a man forty years her elder and of questionable health and character.  Henry was not a Prince Charming.  But by the same token, Catherine was not a Princess and the Pea.  History is not made by perfect people, and it certainly wasn’t inhabited by them.  I wanted to discover – and hopefully portray – something that felt real.

Q: The lives of Henry VIII and Catherine Howard are already very well-documented. How did you go about researching their lives? How did you incorporate the historical records of their lives into this story?

A: I started off my research by reading the popular biographies and histories written by Alison Weir, David Starkey, and Antonia Fraser. These are the books that fed my interest in Tudor history in the first place, that brought the world to life for me. When I decided to write about Catherine in particular, I discovered the fabulous A Tudor Tragedy (now republished as Catherine Howard) by Lacey Baldwin Smith. To dig deeper into specific dates and places, I used the Letters and Papers of Henry VIII that have been transcribed and paraphrased online.  These are the contemporary accounts of the actual events, including the notes written up by Kitty’s interrogators. Because these stories are so full of detail and are already so focused on the salacious minutiae, it was easy to incorporate them into fiction. My job was to place myself into the character's shoes, and try to imagine what might compel a person to do and say these things. What kind of girl would cheat on a husband who had her cousin beheaded for adultery?  How do you get into that mindset?  I needed to create a character who could believably make that choice.

Q: The real Catherine Howard was somewhere between the age of 16 and 22 when she married Henry VIII, who was 50 years old, and became the queen of England. These days I don’t think any of us could imagine taking on such a big role at such a young age—what was life really like for a young adult girl in the Tudor court? How was her life similar to teenagers’ lives today?

A: Life was very different for a young adult girl in the Tudor court. Not only were girls considered social and emotional adults at a young age, they were treated like adults physically. Henry VIII's grandmother, for instance, married at age twelve and had a son by thirteen. However, girls were also expected to be subservient to the men in their lives. To honor and obey first their fathers, and then their husbands, so they never had autonomy.  They were meant to be adults, but treated like children. However, even though societies are different, people are people no matter when or where they live. Teens in the Tudor age would have had many of the same experiences teens do today: first kiss, first love, friends and frenemies, insecurity, bouts of unbridled confidence, belief in the possibility of change. Just because they were expected to be subservient and unquestioning doesn’t mean they felt that way inside.  Though circumstances are different, I think today’s teens can relate to the desire to challenge limits and expectations.

Q: History paints Catherine in a somewhat negative light. How did you balance history’s version of Catherine with your own idea of her as a character?

A: I think history sometimes views Catherine through Victorian hindsight.  The Tudor era had strict social rules, but not necessarily the same moral codes – look at the ribald banter in Shakespeare.  But Catherine is often seen (and portrayed) as flighty, facile and promiscuous – a mindless floozy. She's also been called stupid, in part because she could hardly read or write, but also because of the choices she made. I'm afraid my Catherine is still cast in a rather negative light, but I wanted to create a character who was clever and manipulative and in control. Not someone who was overpowered by the ambitions and desires of an overbearing family, but someone who could be overbearing in her own right. Not someone who made bad choices stupidly, but consciously, safe in a vainglorious belief in her own indestructibility.

Q: Katherine Tylney was also a real person who was in Catherine Howard’s inner circle, though less is known about her than about Catherine. What made you decide to write Gilt from Kitty’s perspective? How did you go about filling in the holes in the historical records about her life?

A: Anyone who knows the history of Catherine Howard knows that her story ends abruptly. I wanted to write a story that had the capacity to continue beyond the end of the novel, with the possibility of happiness. Researching Catherine's companions, I discovered several who gave key evidence that helped to send Catherine Howard to the scaffold and I wondered how a person would feel, unwilling to tell the truth perhaps, but unable to keep all secrets hidden. I chose Katherine Tylney because I liked the conceit of the two girls having the same name, perhaps drawn to each other as children because of it. I also enjoyed the freedom of being able to create a character from my own mind because nothing is known of her. A few words and phrases in the historical record, spoken under pressure, and then nothing. I am, ultimately, a writer of fiction, and my Kitty is almost purely fictional.

Q: What are you working on next? Any plans for another young adult historical novel?

A: GILT is the first book in a series of three, all set in the court of Henry VIII, and I'm currently working on the second. Because these are companion novels and not a consecutive trilogy, I set the second book twenty years prior to the action in GILT so I could capitalize on a younger, more enlightened (and sexier!) Henry.  It features a completely different narrator and unlike GILT, all of the characters are actual historical figures.

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