Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Scandalous Interview: Kris Waldherr, Author of Doomed Queens

I've been trying to be fiscally responsible by not buying new books, but I ended up in Barnes & Noble on my birthday where I found the perfect book for me. Doomed Queens by Kris Waldherr (Broadway Books). It spoke to be from the New Book's shelf and I had to have it.

The subtitle is Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends from Cleopatra to Princess Di. Not only is this book exceedlingly fun and well written but it's illustrated by Kris as well. The minute I saw Marie Antoinette on the cover, I knew I had to have it.

Here's the book's description on Amazon:

"Illicit love, madness, betrayal--it isn’t always good to be the queen.

Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn, and Mary, Queen of Scots. What did they have in common? For a while they were crowned in gold, cosseted in silk, and flattered by courtiers. But in the end, they spent long nights in dark prison towers and were marched to the scaffold where they surrendered their heads to the executioner. And they are hardly alone in their undignified demises. Throughout history, royal women have had a distressing way of meeting bad ends--dying of starvation, being burned at the stake, or expiring in childbirth while trying desperately to produce an heir. They always had to be on their toes and all too often even devious plotting, miraculous pregnancies, and selling out their sisters was not enough to keep them from forcible consignment to religious orders. From Cleopatra (suicide by asp), to Princess Caroline (suspiciously poisoned on her coronation day), there’s a gory downside to being blue-blooded when you lack a Y chromosome.

Kris Waldherr’s elegant little book is a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of queens across the ages, a quirky, funny, utterly macabre tribute to the dark side of female empowerment. Over the course of fifty irresistibly illustrated and too-brief lives, Doomed Queens charts centuries of regal backstabbing and intrigue. We meet well-known figures like Catherine of Aragon, whose happy marriage to Henry VIII ended prematurely when it became clear that she was a starter wife--the first of six. And we meet forgotten queens like Amalasuntha, the notoriously literate Ostrogoth princess who overreached politically and was strangled in her bath. While their ends were bleak, these queens did not die without purpose. Their unfortunate lives are colorful cautionary tales for today’s would-be power brokers--a legacy of worldly and womanly wisdom gathered one spectacular regal ruin at a time."

You can see why I had to buy this book! It's filled with interesting tidbits, not just about the usual suspects, but about little known Queens as well. Of course I had to immediately email her so that I could share this book with everyone.

Q: Can you tell the readers a little about your background before you were published?

I've worked in publishing for most of my adult life -- first as a children's book illustrator and designer, later as a full-fledged author -- so we'd have to go back to my childhood to talk about my pre-publishing background. My childhood was spent in a fiercely matriarchal household, where the women appeared to possess mysterious powers and quirks. One family story tells that my maternal grandmother, who was born in England, was the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. As such, she supposedly was born with second sight and often dreamt of things that came to pass, usually involving unfortunate deaths of various male relatives. A great aunt on that same side claimed that we were related by blood to gypsies as well as royalty. This, along with a too-early exposure to the PBS series "The Six Wives of Henry VIII", lead to an early fascination with all things royal, English, and doomed. Even as a child, I read voraciously about tragic female monarchs, such as Jane Grey, Cleopatra, and Marie Antoinette. Later as an adult, I traveled to many of the places where these tragic queens lived and died: Hever Castle, the Tower of London, Versailles, the Forum.

Q: I’m a big history geek and one of the reasons I started Scandalous Women was to share the lives of these amazing women that I was reading about. What inspired you to create Doomed Queens?

Most of my previous books were about goddesses, whom I wrote about because I hoped to empower women into realizing that we had this whole sacred history, if you will. But after a while, I realized that for women to better claim power, it made more sense to look into the dark side of female empowerment, specifically into the lives of tragic female monarchs. Considered anew, these queens' stories resonated for me as cautionary fables for modern women struggling to survive in a man's world. And so, Doomed Queens was born.

Q. Given that Doomed Queens is a work of history, how is it relevant today?

Though few women are now beheaded, die in childbirth, or are forced into arranged marriages as they once were, the archetype of the "doomed queen" still exists. Though we've come a long way, I do think that society is still uncomfortable with women wielding power. This message is mirrored in best-selling exposes of hellacious women bosses, such as The Devil Wears Prada or The Nanny Diaries. Let's be honest: If Anna Wintour was a man, I seriously doubt there would have been a Devil Wears Armani.

Q. While Doomed Queens is full of humor, I was struck by the moral you include to each Queens story. What was the impetus to include that at the end of each entry?

I wanted the book to be like a Victorian penny dreadful, so it made sense to include a cautionary moral at the end of each entry. Humor aside, I think a lot of the morals are actually useful advice for women who want to get ahead without losing their heads. Plus they were a lot of fun to write.

Q. What about Hilary Clinton? Although she lost the Democratic nomination for President, the fact that she came so close prove that society is getting more comfortable with women in positions of power?

I would like to hope so. In that context, it's also interesting to consider the example of (love or hate her) Sarah Palin. Even if Palin didn't win the vice presidency, she bears similarities with unfortunate woman monarchs of old. For example, you could view her relationship with John McCain as an arranged dynastic marriage; I was shocked to learn that he'd only met with her once before offering her the nomination.

Q. Another biographer, Amanda Foreman, wrote once that biographers are notorious for falling in love with the subjects. Did that happen with you?

I think there's truth to that. However, since Doomed Queens features fifty royal women, I'd have to say that my experience was more akin to speed dating. I'd become infatuated with one monarch, but then I'd need to write about the next. Despite this, there were some queens that it was very hard to move on from because of my affection or fascination with them: Anne Boleyn, Jane Grey, Juana of Castile.

Q. In your research, did you come across an account of a Queen, doomed or otherwise, that you admired above all others?

My mind immediately runs to England's Elizabeth I, though she certainly doesn't need any fresh accolades. When you consider the circumstances of her birth—she was the daughter of Anne Boleyn—it's amazing Elizabeth survived to wear the crown for as long as she did. Elizabeth also mastered the "biology is destiny" lesson that plagued so many Doomed Queens, including her mother. She refused to marry, though she did not hesitate to play her suitors as skillfully as a fickle Southern belle. This choice meant that Elizabeth did not have to undergo the trauma of childbirth, which proved so deadly for many women of her era. However, this also meant she was left without a direct heir, which created other problems after her death from old age. One quote I love from Elizabeth cannily confronted her contemporaries' prejudices about her gender's ability to rule. She said, "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king." What a way to silence your enemies!

Q. What makes someone a Doomed Queen? Did you find a common trait amongst them? Was there a moment when they could have changed their fate?

Aside from sheer bad luck—and who can predict that?—the core traits for a doomed queen often comes down to either overreaching politically or biology is destiny. Most of these queens were thrust into dynastic marriages as soon as they hit puberty, like royal hostages. Not surprisingly, these alliances were unhappy for the most part. But even when they were romantically happy, they were dogged by issues of inbreeding, infertility, or postpartum death.

In terms of changing fate, you have to look at the queen's individual circumstances. Someone like Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, allowed her voracious ambition to push her luck too far. However, someone like Blanche of Bourbon could not have changed her fate. After all, she was considered the possession of her parents, and had to follow their will. So when they chose to marry Blanche off to accurately-named Pedro the Cruel, there wasn't much she could do but submit. Eventually, Pedro arranged for Blanche's murder and got away with it.

Q. Where did you start in terms of research for the book? How long did it take you to write Doomed Queens from research to last draft?

Overall, the whole book took about eighteen months. But this was working at a very intense pace. That written, much of the research, especially in regards to Tudor and Elizabethan history, was already under my belt.

Q. Doomed Queens is written and illustrated by you. What made you decide on an illustrated book?

Since my background is as a book illustrator and designer, it's hard for me to avoid thinking of a book without also considering the art and design. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, I wanted the book to look like a Victorian penny dreadful, which were used in their day to present stories of damsels in distress -- an appropriate format, given the subject matter.

Q. We don’t have a monarchy in the United States, but if we did, who do you think our contemporary Queens would be? I noticed that you didn’t include Princess Grace of Monaco, who while not a Queen, was the closest we’ve come to an American Princess.

I did consider including Princess Grace as well as Jacqueline Onassis. My original concept of the book was more expansive in terms of what a doomed queen could be; for example, I planned to include tragic "queens" of cultural movements, such as Elizabeth Siddal of the Preraphaelites, who died from a laudanum overdose. But as I researched the book, I decided that it was more interesting to limit the entries to those who actually had a royal title. Though I did make an exception for Eva Peron. I thought Evita's life story presented a necessary transition between royals of old and the modern tragedy of Princess Diana, when it came to illustrating how the media now shapes royal identity, for better and worse.

In terms of contemporary queens in the United States, our closest corollary is the First Lady. It will be interesting to see how Michelle Obama shapes that role. Otherwise, I'd have to say that celebrities are the new queens, at least while they're popular enough to control the media and command fortunes. For example, Oprah was able to undermine Hillary Clinton's run for the White House by endorsing Barack Obama. On a more mundane level, the contract riders for some celebrities don't seem that dissimilar from Marie Antoinette at Versailles. J. Lo. must have a white dressing room stocked with with white flowers, white candles, and white furniture; Mariah Carey requires Cristal with a bendy straw. I don't know if this is true, but there's a rumor that Madonna's underlings are not allowed to look her in the eye and or address her without first being spoken to. If that doesn't sound like royalty, I don't know what does.

Q. Beheading or poison, which would you choose?

I hope that writing Doomed Queens would grant me the wisdom to avoid such a fate! That written, I used to think that beheading was the way to go, especially if there was a guillotine involved -- one quick blow and it's over. However, a neuropsychologist friend recently explained to me the physical reasons why beheading would not be painless, and how you'd be aware through much of it. So I guess I'd have to opt for poison instead.

Thanks Kris for stopping by Scandalous Women. You read more about Kris and her other books and read her blog here. Or just order the book from Amazon, Powells, or Barnes & Noble.


[Tara] said...

The cover of her book is FANTASTIC. I will add this to my list of books to read after I read all the books on my exam list...it may be a while!

Bearded Lady said...

You know...I think I have a beautiful deck of tarot cards illustrated by Kris Waldherr but the illustrations look very different from the cover. I will add this book to my Christmas Wishlist.

Samie said...

New Christmas Wishlist book! :) it sounds fabulous; very exciting.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Yes, please go out and buy this book. After seeing the Goddess Tarot, I have to put that on my list along with her other books.

tonidolls said...

This is so true,These ladies coming to a bad end the way they did,most did not really deserve this .Off with my head still attach, I go Marie Antionette

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I agree tonidolls. Particularly Marie Antoinette and the Tsarina Alexandra. I have a huge problem with mothers being killed for things that were beyond their control. There was a plan to have the Tsar and Tsarina come to England but King George V nixed that idea.