Interview with Author Juliet Grey

Juliet, I really enjoyed reading Becoming Marie Antoinette. Could you please tell us a little about Becoming Marie Antoinette and Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, your second novel in this wonderful series?

Becoming Marie Antoinette charts the story of Marie Antoinette’s life from her tenth to eighteenth year; beginning on the day she learns she is to wed the dauphin of France, the grandson and heir of the reigning king Louis XV. The narrative ends with the death of Louis XV on May 10, 1774, the day she and her husband technically became the new monarchs—although Louis XVI would not be formally crowned until the following year (a scene that is in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow). In Becoming Marie Antoinette, readers are given a rare glimpse at Marie Antoinette’s childhood in Austria (many people either forget or don’t realize that she was an Austrian archduchess, the youngest daughter of the formidable Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa) and the incredible “makeover” she had to undergo in order to be deemed acceptable to the French. I don’t want to include any “spoilers” here, but Louis XV had learned that Marie Antoinette was neither smart nor pretty enough to become the wife of the future king, so she required an army of Pygmalion’s to transform her. The first half of Becoming Marie Antoinette takes place in Austria; the second half takes place after her arrival at Versailles, when Marie Antoinette, all of fourteen years old and married to a shy fifteen-year-old boy she’d never met until their wedding day, is compelled to navigate the treacherous waters of the French court. She doesn’t know who to listen to and naively gets caught up in other people’s internal rivalries, all the while trying to establish her own footing as the highest lady in the land. Meanwhile, her husband the dauphin for some reason won’t consummate their marriage. Royal marriages were not love matches but political alliances, and none was more so at the time than the union of Marie Antoinette of Austria and Louis Auguste of France. If she didn’t present the French with an heir (and only a male could inherit the throne, which made her job even harder, as there are obviously no guarantees of what gender she’d produce!) she could risk being sent back to Austria and the delicate political alliance could collapse.  So much was riding on her slender shoulders.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrowopens where Becoming Marie Antoinette leaves off.  The teenagers (only 18 and 19 years old) are now the sovereigns. Their subjects love them. In fact, Louis Auguste, now Louis XVI, is nicknamed “Louis le Desiré”—the Desired—by his people.  Theirs will be a young and glamorous court.  But the new queen’s alienation of the “toxic” (as we would call them) courtiers who snubbed or mocked her when she was dauphine—and her desire to surround herself instead with a few trusted friends and eliminate some of the court etiquette that she considered antiquated, angers those whose aristocratic families had for centuries earned the perquisites and privileges of being in the queen’s entourage, will eventually come back to bite her. As time goes on, Marie Antoinette goes from being adored to reviled, but there are also deeper, age-old prejudices at work. France and Austria had been enemies for 950 years before Louis and Marie Antoinette were wed. Their marriage could not erase this institutional enmity and mistrust. Propaganda becomes king instead. And when the couple remains childless for seven years after their wedding, the whispers and rumors abound and Marie Antoinette is accused of having lovers of both genders. No one is as disconsolate about her celibacy as the child-loving queen. And of course the fragile international alliance remains at stake as well. Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow charts the fifteen years of Marie Antoinette’s reign from May, 1774 to the fall of the Bastille in July 1789, as she does indeed experience highs and lows (the splendors and sorrows), childbirth (finally!), a passionate clandestine love affair, and becomes the unwitting victim of the nation’s largest swindle.  Meanwhile, the drums of Revolution are beginning to rumble. Some of the seeds were planted when the French crown helped to fund the American colonists during the War of Independence, including sending some of the French navy, as well as noblemen to command mercenary regiments in North America.

How did you research the lives of the characters for your book?

I read nearly two dozen biographies of the principal characters as well as books on Versailles, Le Petit Trianon, Schönbrunn and the Hofburg, the palaces where Marie Antoinette mostly lived, read books and countless articles about the period (on such subjects as food, costumes, customs, hair, interior design and the early days of the French Revolution); and I also walked in my characters’ footsteps whenever possible. I have been to Vienna and visited both the Hofburg and Schönbrunn (which was on the outskirts of the city in the 18th century: it was the Hapsburgs’ summer palace); and I have been to Paris and Versailles, walking several miles in Marie Antoinette’s shoes, even performing the “Versailles Glide”—the walk unique to the noblewomen of the French court—on the parquet in the halls of the Château de Versailles. Picture books, photos, biographies, and the Internet are great research tools, but nothing beats being there and allowing the atmosphere to wash over you and your imagination to run wild.

What was your biggest research challenge?

Deciding when to stop researching and start writing!  I amassed so much material that determining what to include and what was really germane to the story I was telling (usually from Marie Antoinette’s first-person point of view) became a real challenge. I’m a history wonk and a research junkie and I would find great nuggets of information and think “I have to include this!” But there wasn’t always an organic place for everything I found. Another challenge was how to incorporate the information about the things that were going on outside Marie Antoinette’s scope of knowledge because I felt that it was imperative for my readers to have the full picture, especially if they knew little to nothing about the history of France during the second half of the 18th century. My editors wanted me to focus on fashion in some respects (and her fashion choices did indeed contribute to her downfall). But that was propaganda and I wanted to incorporate the real reasons France was bankrupt. It was a challenge to delicately weave my research on the politics of the day, both foreign and domestic, into the books as well.

After you finish this wonderful book series, what is your next book project?

Ah! Your guess is as good as mine!  My editor, agent, and I are batting around some ideas, but nothing is finalized. It’s possible that I may embark down an entirely new path in the historical fiction arena with an idea that’s been rumbling around in my brain for some time, now.

Who or what inspired you to become an author?

I had two mentors. My grandfather, Carroll Carroll, was a copywriter and humorist. He wrote for all the big stars (Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, to name a couple) during radio’s Golden Age; and in the 1960s he was an advertising guy—yes, one of the Mad Men, working at one of the premier agencies in New York City, where I grew up. I laugh because my grandparents’ apartment number (17B) when I was a little girl is the same as Don Draper’s. My grandfather inspired me to become a writer. He was also a poet and he taught me all the classical forms (sonnets, ballades—I remember when I was a little girl and first read Rostand’s drama Cyrano de Bergerac and asked “Papa” to teach me to write a ballade. He would read all my writing when I was a schoolgirl (and would give me pointers). My other mentor is a dear friend and fantastic author in his own right, a real Renaissance Man: M.Z. Ribalow—writer-director-professor. It was his suggestion during the summer of 1998, after I lamented that I wanted to be paid to write, as I balanced a trio of survival jobs while trying to thrive as a professional actress, that I turn my hand to fiction. I dedicated Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow to him.

Who is your favorite author and why?

Different authors for different reasons. No one so deeply and universally understands the human condition the way Shakespeare does. Jane Austen’s wit and tone are unparalleled—she can write the best “love story” in the world without a single ounce of treacle. F. Scott Fitzgerald always breaks my heart. And for economy of language that never sacrifices elegance and emotion, I can’t think of anyone who does it better than Hemingway. I was reminded today of the world’s shortest short story, Hemingway’s six-word: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

What book(s) have most influenced your life?

I often find that if I write things down (quelle surprise!); it helps me clarify my thoughts and goals, wishes and dreams. At one point when I was at a crossroads in my artistic career I bought a copy of The Artist’s Way and used it as a workbook and found that helpful for a while. And a friend once recommended that I read T.D. Jakes The Lady, Her Lover, and Her Lord, when I was in a self-defeating place in a romantic relationship that was getting in the way of the rest of my life. I’m not a Christian, so I had difficulty relating to the “her Lord” part, but the first two elements gave me some insight into restoring my self-esteem and I realized that to be in a solid place creatively, you have to at least like yourself, if not appreciate or even love yourself. All that said, I’m not really into self-help books. It’s only in the course of answering this question that my memory was jogged and I recalled the places I’ve been emotionally that led me to where I am now. I think, too, about the books I read over and over, year after year, like putting on a favorite old sweater: Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—three “perfect novels” that I fell in love with in high school. Shakespeare’s plays continue to influence my life, both as an author and as an actress. No other author understood the human condition as he did. And I’ll always have a soft spot for Brian Hooker’s translation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

If you want to be taken seriously as an author by publishers (and readers), then take yourself seriously by getting a good literary agent to represent you from the start.  Writing is a business as much as it is an art and a craft. The publishing world is competitive enough, even in this new world of e-pubbed and self-pubbed manuscripts where, sure, anyone can publish a book, but unless you also happen to be a marketing genius, it can fall through the cracks and never be seen again. Agents are still viewed as the “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” by publishing houses (assuming that an aspiring author still wants to go the traditional route with an established, top publisher who can publish your book in all formats, market and promote it.)  Agents know which editors are looking for the type of book you have written and can get it on the right desk, saving an aspiring author a lot of angst.  They will also work with an author to hone her work and will never risk their own reputations as literary agents to submit a sub-par manuscript to a publisher. Without an astute agent in her corner, an aspiring writer might not realize that her manuscript is not yet ready for publication and may get discouraged by rejection—heck, even stellar books are rejected all the time, but at least you would know you had an A+ book on your hands and that someone down the line will accept it.

An aspiring author has to ask herself: do I want to be a writer or a one-woman publishing industry? And most of us barely have the time to write our books while we juggle the rest of life, let alone handle all the other things that go into birthing a book.  And frankly, what you get from agent representation and being published by a major publisher as I always have is all the support staff that goes into editorial and production. No one’s book is perfect when she submits it to an editor. That’s why editors exist. To see the things, we don’t and to make our work stronger. It’s why I still passionately endorse the traditional publishing route.

Extended Questions I have for Juliet asked by a few of her readers:

Was France too far gone? Did they hate her because she was Austrian?

France was indeed too far gone and had been for several decades, starting with the reign of Louis XIV, long before Marie Antoinette was born.  We can go back even farther, because historically the first two of the three Estates—the Clergy and the Nobility—the Third Estate comprising everyone else [bourgeoisie, peasants, laborers, etc]) didn’t pay taxes, and it was the Clergy and Nobility that had all the land and the money!  The gentry and working classes were the only social strata being taxed and often an act of Nature, such as a bad harvest, or two in a row, could bankrupt them!  Plus, you had nobility who never deigned to pay their tradesmen’s bills, for example—so what were the tradespeople supposed to use to pay their share of taxes? And every time the king (it happened during the reigns of Louis XV and XVI) had a progressive Finance Minister who suggested even moderately taxing the Clergy and Nobility, there was a hue and cry and the Parliaments (the judicial bodies comprised of nobles and clergymen) who ratified the laws would refuse to sanction the king’s proposal to tax them!  So the kings tried, but got nowhere.  Sort of like an American president today trying to tax big business or millionaires but having the special interests in Congress vote down the proposal; and then the populace blames the president and not the lawmakers for the fact that the people who can least afford it seem to be paying the most, and those who can most afford it have dodged taxation yet again.  As I was writing Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, the political parallels were really hitting home.

Prior to Marie Antoinette’s arrival, the French treasury had also been emptied by Louis XV in order to fight the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). Marie Antoinette was only a year old when this war, fought both on the European continent and in North America, began.  Plus, there were a number of bad harvests during the late reign of Louis XV. Mother Nature did not cooperate, either.

And yes, they did hate her because she was Austrian. France and Austria had hated each other for 950 years before Marie Antoinette wed Louis Auguste—which is even longer than France and England had been enemies. So there was an institutionalized hatred and mistrust of Austrians in France. In fact, a nasty nickname for Marie Antoinette, invented (although she didn’t know it at the time) by Louis Auguste’s own aunt Adélaïde, was l’Autrichienne, a pun on her nationality as well as the French word for a female dog or bitch, a chienne.

What do you think would have become of Marie had she made good on her escape?

Excellent question!  I assume you mean the flight to the frontier than ended at Varennes when the royal family was stopped and brought back to Paris so ignominiously. The family had never intended to leave France. Louis had even refused to cross into another country to get to Montmédy, the frontier town that was their final, intended destination, because he never wanted it said that he fled his kingdom, even temporarily, to access another part of it safely from a different country. He was an astute student of history and recalled what happened when James II quit England for France at the start of the Glorious Revolution in 1688; James’s subjects viewed it as abandoning his throne and forfeiting his kingdom.  And throughout their various ordeals—after the Bastille was stormed and the royal family considered fleeing Versailles, after Versailles itself was stormed in October, 1789, Marie Antoinette insisted on doing whatever Louis chose to do. They were a family and would stay together as one. She was forever reiterating that she was just his consort and not a decider. And time after time, Louis refused to countenance the bloodshed of his subjects; he would not give his guards or armies orders to fire against his own people. So, even if they had made it safely to Montmédy and had received sanctuary in the fortress there, even though they were operating under the assumption that the frontier was a royalist stronghold and they would be among friends and could amass a defense, it’s still doubtful that Louis would have ordered his soldiers to attack the revolutionary troops in Paris.

And what was the King and advisors doing? Surely they were aware of the people’s opinion?

Louis was extremely aware of the propaganda that was being printed about the queen, some of which (the earlier libelles) was being printed right in Versailles by disgruntled aristocrats who felt snubbed by the queen because she had eliminated them from her intimate circle and her entourage, perquisites they had always enjoyed and expected. Ever since the time of the Sun King, who invented the arcane system of court etiquette and brought the nobility of France under his roof and under his thumb so they couldn’t spend time in the countryside considering rebellion or raising armies against him, certain members of the aristocracy had come to expect various sinecures. They even expected the same pastimes and routines to continue as they had during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV because with their proximity to the sovereign came favor and political appointments and salaries. Marie Antoinette despised the rigid etiquette and hated having dozens of people following her around all day. So the first people she angered were the aristocrats, not the common people.  Ironically, the aristos would bring the guillotine down on their own necks when the revolutionaries expanded the issue into one of class warfare, rather than anger at the monarchy alone.

Louis tried to stop the publication of the pamphlets, etc., and he did have one of his ministers declare the printing of them to be seditious, and some of the small presses were confiscated, but there was such a flood of material that he was powerless to halt it all. For one thing, his cousin, the prince of the blood, the fabulously wealthy and politically progressive duc d’Orléans, who descended from the branch of the family related to Louis XIV’s brother Philippe, secretly financed the printing of many of the libelles, and many of them were published right in his Parisian mansion, the Palais Royal. Thousands of other publications were impossible to stop because they had been printed in other countries, primarily England and Holland, and then smuggled into France.

Even today the French are against the aristos, so what in your opinion was the true turning point?

The French can’t have it both ways. You visit Versailles or the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette spent her last days, and they are selling busts of her in the gift shops.  In the Conciergerie—where she last wore her head on her shoulders?  That takes gall in Gaul! There is a cult of Marie Antoinette that is very strong in France in the places where she lived or spent time and some of the French are coming around to call her la reine martyre—the martyred queen—and realize that what they did to her was on the wrong side of history.

I think the true turning point was the scandal known as l’affaire du collier or the affair of the diamond necklace, that came to a head in 1786 with the trial of the perpetrators and of the real target of the world’s greatest jewelry swindle, the greedy Grand Almoner, Cardinal de Rohan, a distant relation of Marie Antoinette.  The scam was the brainchild of the impoverished comtesse Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois, her husband and her lover; and it was their intention to convince the cardinal to purchase from the court jewelers an ostentatious diamond necklace on the queen’s behalf.  The cardinal craved nothing more than Marie Antoinette’s good regard (she detested him and refused to say a single word to him throughout her reign because he had publicy insulted her mother). And yet he was persuaded by the comtesse, who claimed to be the queen’s intimate (in fact the two women had never met) that Her Majesty would forever be in his debt if he acted as the middle man, because she didn’t want Louis to know she was making another extravagant purchase.  I’m already including too many “spoilers” here because the whole unspooling of the necklace swindle and the trial are part of the narrative in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow. But it was Marie Antoinette’s insistence that the matter be tried in public by the Paris Parlement, rather than kept within the confines of Versailles, that, ironically, proved to be the beginning of her downfall. As I mentioned earlier, propaganda was king and the defendants’ lawyers were clever. The queen was not on trial, and yet her reputation was made the subject of debate as much as the facts of the case. In a way, she was tried in the court of public opinion and because of all the vicious pamphlets that had been disseminated about her for years, the people found it hard to believe that she knew nothing about the necklace transaction.  I don’t want to add too much more about it here, because it will spoil the readers’ enjoyment of the events as they unfold in the second book in the trilogy.

Do you think Marie was a pawn for the French Revolution?

Not a pawn, but I believe the revolutionaries used her as a scapegoat. She was blamed for every bad thing that had ever befallen France from bad harvests to men who beat their wives because they’d overspent on clothing purchases. But even before the drums of Revolution began to rumble, Marie Antoinette was the kingdom’s punching bag. Seditious propaganda about her abounded, beginning during her days as dauphine, when she wasn’t getting pregnant. It was assumed she must be deriving her sexual pleasure elsewhere than the marriage bed and so she was accused of sleeping with her brother-in-law the comte d’Artois, with her friends the princesse de Lamballe and the comtesse de Polignac, with a number of courtiers, and even with her modiste, Rose Bertin. But certainly after the execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, when Marie Antoinette was no longer even a consort (and queens of France did not reign alongside their husbands; they were purely ornamental), she remained a scapegoat and a symbol of the monarchy as evil tyrants and oppressors for the radical elements that by then had seized control of the Revolution.




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