1 I am so thrilled that best-selling author, Karleen Koen, was able to answer a few questions about her intriguing new novel, Before Versailles: a sweeping and exceptionally intelligent look into the life of the Sun King featuring a cast of unforgettable characters and a beautiful peek into an opulent time....
R:Well-researched Historical Fiction, such as yours, is a treat to readers who love to time-travel to luscious landscapes, seeing through the eyes of historical personages such as Louis XIV. Why do you think Historical Fiction plays an important role in connecting readers with the past as well as helping them understand our world today?
K: Historical fiction is just more fun to read than history, unless the historican is a fine writer, such as David McCullough or Antonia Frasier (my favorite). Wise folk says we learn from our past….we can’t learn from our past if we don’t know it, and historical fiction is a way to get into an era. If you like the era, you can read the factual sources, memories, biographies, etc. The story behind the fact –date of the treaty, time of the assassination, who did it—always grabs our emotion. Fiction allows a play with that emotion, a play that, if the writer can write, pulls a reader in and gives them insight to what is too often dry factual information.
R:I first read Through a Glass Darkly because a friend compared it to Gone With the Wind: a sweeping historical pick that I was so in the mood for! Before Versailles has the same ambitious and well-realized scope. What books and authors have most influenced your flare for these epic novels?
K: I read Frank Yerby and Frank Slaughter, both historical novelists, as a child. I think they had a great deal to do with my innate gravitation toward historical fiction. I read a lot of Louisa May Alcott as a child, and she handles many characters and moral direction well. I love Winston Graham’s first six or so Poldark Saga books because of characterization. I love Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek and King’s General for the narrative voice. I love Georgette Heyer for the silly, fun little comedy of historical manners she wrote….small plots, small characters, but so well done and amusing. I adored Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. Now there was an epic.
R:The Sun King is a famous subject and many readers will have strong opinions about him as well as imaginative or academic ties to 1660’s France. As an author of fiction, what choices do you find the most difficult when it comes to balancing truth and fiction to appeal to a large audience?
The truth is I don’t worry about appeal. I think only in terms of story as I’m writing. Finding it is my quest. In other books, and likely in the ones to follow Before Versailles, I have always used actual historical characters as secondary characters in the plot. I like the freedom a non-actual hero/heroine gives me. So the trick with writing Before Versailles was to leap off all the research I’d done and knew, to move past the fear of making a mistake around an iconic historical figure, and make Louis XIV human. I think I succeeded. I know I did because I ended by having a crush on him and feeling like I knew him the way I know beloved friend……….
R:Not only does Before Versailles paint a vivid picture of one of history’s most renowned monarchs, it focuses on a crucial period in King Louis’ life---peppering it with intrigue and romance. How did you get into the mind of the young Louis and what tactics did you use to help bring him so colourfully to life?
K:There are no tricks. I simply try to imagine what the character must be feeling. When I know that and trust my knowing of it, I have the character, so to speak. If Louis seems colorful and not factoid, it’s because I showed readers his emotion.
R:There are several wonderful characters in the novel: the boy in the iron mask, Cardinal Mazarin and Louis’ mother, to name a few. How did you select which characters to portray fully as you painted this portrait of a young king’s history?
K:To select accessory characters was diffcult because so much is known of Louis’s court, and the court was big. Mazarin and Queen Anne are key, however, to the man he became. My research and my own sense of character told me that. Now Mazarin is only a memory, Louis’s memory, in Before Versailles. But he has just died in the story, and he was very much a father figure and a mentor to young Louis, so his death would have been profound and Louis would have been thinking of him, measuring himself according to Mazarin’s standard. His mother was an intelligent woman who survived an awful marriage and young reign. She was clever, and she was loving to Louis. She was also powerful. All of this seemed natural to portray to help readers understand where Louis was coming from.
I found the idea of a young court, of so many of his friends around him, of how he would claim power among them, and his relationship with his brother, just intriguing and felt readers would also, once they understood the dynamics.
R:You’ve written extensive historicals with settings in France, England…even Virginia! Where, as a writer, do you feel most “at home”?
K:In a research book and in the pictures research creates in my mind. More at home in England and France, and more at home with later history, 1660 onward, because it’s not so lethal and cruel. More modern sensibilities are beginning to be formed. The cruelty of other eras, the lack of respect for life, is not my cup of tea………
R:You mention on your website that you prefer European history to American because American history is so “male.” If you could re-imagine one historical event in which a woman’s leadership might have led to a different outcome, which event would you choose?
Sounds like a great plot for a novel….and far too heady and intelligent for me…..what do you think? I think women who have children are less likely to support war, particularly if those children have no choice but to fight in them……but so much depends on the standards of the times.
R: mmmm. I am going to have to think about that one, too! :D
R:You’ve written for magazines and specialty news periodicals. How does this background inform your research and the details and perspectives included in your fiction?
K:Fiction and nonfiction are such different beasts. I did learn to organize lots of information writing nonfiction, organize and focus, and now that I think on it, that skill is probably why I can write big stories that sweep a reader along. But I cannot emphasize enough how different fiction and nonfiction are. Fiction is writing without the net. Nonfiction always has the net of the facts. Fiction is scarier and brings up all your inner demons as you write.
I would like to thank Karleen Koen for stopping by and answering some of my questions! Also, to Sourcebooks for the opportunity to read this exciting novel and host Karleen Koen here.
Make sure you visit Karleen Koen on her website