An Interview With C.W. Gortner

Everyone please read and give a shout out to Victoria Mathis​ for a great interview with one of her favorite authors C. W. Gortner.

QUESTION: Your newest book is “Mademoiselle Chanel,” about the iconic fashion
designer, Coco Chanel. Can you describe how she influenced you in the world of fashion and how you made the choice to write about her life?

ANSWER: I first learned about Coco from my women relatives in Spain. My grandmother always wore Chanel No. 5 and my mom once took me when I was a boy to the Chanel Boutique in Marbella, which was an experience I never forgot. Here I was, a wide-eyed child who liked to romp by the sea and play with my dogs, in an ethereal white-and-black mirrored store with all of Chanel’s signature contributions: her perfume, the little black dress, the collarless braided suit, the jersey separates, two-toned shoes and quilted handbag with the gold strap. All the women inside that store seemed to glide. I didn’t understand the exclusivity of Chanel at the time, of course, but I sensed how my mom and her friends seemed to transform when trying on her clothes.

In high school, I was obsessed with fashion and wanted to be a designer.
Upon graduation, I enrolled in the San Francisco Institute of Design and
Merchandising, where I soon discovered my talent for sketching did not
extend to sewing! Nevertheless, I devoted my thesis to Chanel, presenting an illustrated collection on how she revolutionized fashion by creating
signature styles that endure to this day, even though she had no training as a couturière. Her self-taught genius and determination to succeed inspired me. With my degree in marketing, I embarked on a twelve-year career in San Francisco and New York as a stylist and fashion coordinator. I loved my job – and often referred to my battered book of Chanel designs. Her motto “Less is more” became my adage.

Years later, I became a published writer with my historical novels set in
the 16th century, featuring powerful, controversial queens who changed
history. My fascination with Chanel had not abated, but writing a novel
about her was out of my brand, so to speak, as it was set in a different
era, with a non-royal woman. I had an unexpected break between contracted books and decided to try my hand at writing a few chapters in Coco’s voice, just to see if I could capture her. I was writing for myself, without a contract and no plan at the time to submit it. But I became so engrossed that I finished my first draft in five months and finally showed it to my agent, who thought it was one of the best manuscripts I’d ever written. We did some fine-tuning and sent it to my editor. Quite unexpectedly, the negotiations led me to a new editor and new publisher. Writing “Mademoiselle Chanel” changed my life, which is appropriate. In fashion, Chanel taught me about so much more than mere elegance. In her lifetime, she demonstrated the kind of personal resiliency we need to fulfill our dreams. As she once remarked, “My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.” That’s good advice for all of us.

QUESTION: I admire how you select strong women whose lives changed the direction of history. Please tell us how Coco Channel’s life affected the world we live in today.

ANSWER: Coco Chanel was the world’s first international fashion celebrity and one of the first women to build a successful, independently-run fashion house. Before Coco, fashion was almost an entirely male-dominated arena, where wealthy women went to exclusive ateliers to be fitted for one-of-a-kind dresses. Women spent entire days in these ateliers being fitted, but once they left with their clothes, the designer was not acknowledged in public. The ladies did not expect to socialize with their designer because of class distinctions, as designers were considered “working class.” Chanel broke down these barriers by the very force of her personality and her success. She was not only invited into high society but became an influential social figure in her own right. Her clothing also changed everything. She was the first designer to present separates that could be mixed and matched, without a corset — a concept unheard of until Coco opened her first boutique. With World War I, women needed comfortable, sensible clothing to work in all day, as women were now driving street cars and ambulances, working in factories and infirmaries to support the war effort. Chanel’s business exploded. After World War I, women wanted to continue dressing this way and flocked to her
sleek, minimalist styles. Chanel invented the flapper look, with the short
hair and shapeless dresses we so associate with the era of Gatsby. She was also the first designer to successfully produce and market a signature
perfume using the latest synthetic technology to create a long-lasting
fragrance; No.5 became, and remains, one of the bestselling perfumes of all time. Chanel also introduced ready-wear during the Depression, when she presented a charity collection that she invited mass manufacturers to
license and copy. Fashion elite at the time lambasted her for denigrating
couture, but her instinct was right. She knew ready-to-wear was the future, and today most of us buy ready-to-wear clothing. Her contributions to costume jewelry, her classic suit, the ever-popular little black dress, are
staples in most women’s closets. Chanel defined the way women dress today.

QUESTION: As a writer, what drew you to the time-consuming research needed to write historical drama?

ANSWER: Well, I love to read and have always been curious about the past. History was my favorite subject in school and when I discovered historical novels, they opened a portal to the past for me. Instead of dry facts, historical fiction clothed the past in colors and skin. Research absorbs me. It takes a lot to get the vivid sense of a bygone era – the sights, smells, and sounds, the feel of it – but I really enjoy researching. I’ll spend days hunting down an obscure fact, like what Catherine de Medici’s riding saddle looked like or how Chanel’s first hats sat on the head, because it’s those details that capture the moment. Less than 50% of what I learn during my research ends up in the finished novel; I want to wear my research lightly. The reader only needs to know enough to turn the page and understand the character, but I need to know as much as I can to make it authentic. I want my readers to experience what the character does, rather than be overloaded with information. I strive to stay very accurate to the facts, but in the end, a novel should first and foremost entertain and make you feel.

QUESTION: I’ve noticed your books are able to cross everything from murder mysteries to the world of fashion and back again. Can you describe how it is to command such different voices across so many different changing years?

ANSWER: A bit schizophrenic? Joking! But it is a bit like that. I don’t have any method, really. I just try to live inside my character’s skin, to forget who I am and the time I live in to “become” my character. I have to be like an actor, inhabiting the person who’s telling the story at every moment that I’m writing. I know it’s working when I feel as though the book is writing itself, and conversely, when it’s not. It’s an organic process: after all the research is done, after I have a strong sense of who my character is and who he or she will become, I start writing.

QUESTION: How did you develop your writing style? The character voices ring so true to the reader.

ANSWER: My style developed over years of trial and error, like it does for most writers. I set out wanting to think like the character, to experience their world through their eyes. This is where my voluminous research comes into play. If I know enough about their era and the forces influencing them, then I know what my character will see, hear, and feel. I also work very hard at understanding who my character is from within: What do they dream of and what do they desire? What do they fear? What motivates them? What angers them? What do they hate and what do they love? Who do they think they are? I have to strip myself of myself, of my judgments and prejudices, to empathy and become the character. We rarely see ourselves as others see us. That is the key for me.

QUESTION: Because your books focus on such strong women, women who in this age as well as their own would be leaders, has there been a strong woman who influenced your life?

ANSWER: Many. My mother and grandmother. My aunts. My best friends. I’ve always gravitated to women. I find them easier to understand in some ways, but also paradoxically very complex. I often say, I like women for their rough edges.

QUESTION: When did you decide to become a writer? At what age did you begin to identify with writing?

ANSWER: I’ve always written stories, even as a child. But I never thought to make a living at it. Writing was something I did to relax, to escape my troubles and explore my obsessions. I didn’t even try to get published until my father read my first completed manuscript and suggested I get an agent. I had no idea how to go about it, but I researched agents and sent out many, many query letters. Before I got published, I had four different agents and accumulated over 350 publisher rejections, which I still keep in a folder. I’ve always been very persistent, too, so the more they said no, the more I tried. It took 13 years before I received my first offer for “The Last Queen” but those years of failure were invaluable, because every rejection fueled me to keep going, to write more and deepen my craft. Once I began seeking publication, I couldn’t stop. After talent, persistence is everything in this business. Never give up.

QUESTION: Now that “Mademoiselle Chanel” is available to the public, what’s coming up for you? Will you take time to relax, perhaps down south? You have a beautiful place in Guatemala.

ANSWER: I will go south, yes. I love Guatemala. As for upcoming books, I just finished my new novel on Marlene Dietrich, which will be published by
William Morrow, HarperCollins, next year, as well as my novel about Lucrezia Borgia, also coming out in 2016 from Ballantine, Random House. I’m already planning another novel and begun my research. I’m obsessive, what can I say? I’m not happy if I’m not writing.

QUESTION: You are very active in animal rescue, do you have any messages for pet owners?

ANSWER: Please spay / neuter your pets and keep them safe. Thousands of animals are euthanized every year just because they are homeless. Be responsible and don’t breed your pets. It’s healthier for them and it saves lives. Also, whenever possible, adopt, don’t shop. A rescue pet is just as loving and beautiful as one bought from a store, and will return your gift of saving them a thousand times over.

I want to thank you for taking this time to speak to us, you’ve written an
outstanding book about Coco Chanel. “Mademoiselle Chanel” is a great read both for the casual reader and for people in her industry.

Thank you so much for inviting me. To learn more about my books, please
visit my website at


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