Philippa Gregory – Jennifer Merin Interview re “The Other Boleyn Girl”

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Philippa Gregory’s 2002 novel, “The Other Boleyn Girl,” sparked so much interest in the women of Tudor England, the author followed it with four sequels: “The Queen’s Fool,” “The Virgin’s Lover,” “The Constant Princess” and “The Boleyn Inheritance.” Gregory chats with Jennifer Merin about making the novel into a film, Tudor England women’s wiles and feminism.

MERIN: Is publicizing a film different from publicizing a book?

GREGORY: Actually, it’s a shorter process. I was on tour for the book for ages, and this is relatively brief.

MERIN: Do you discover anything new during these interviews?

GREGORY: Yeah, you do. You find out mostly what different takes there are on the book. And, sometimes you’re asked things that make you think. Someone says I liked this or didn’t like that, and I have to really think about what the book was doing.

What I find interesting is that if you’re on tour and are detached and just do the interview over and over again, you get nothing from it. But, if you’re a little bit open, and you notice a different person coming in and you’re interested in what they’re interested in, it becomes a whole different process. It’s a lesson in terms of emotional openness really, and being real, as opposed to saying okay, you want the interview, so here goes.

MERIN: Yes, some people do these interviews on autopilot….

GREGORY: It’s the easiest way to do it, I think, and for some people who are a bit emotionally fragile, that’s probably the safest way to do it–going behind your screen. But it’s much more interesting to take the risk and tell people the truth.

MERIN: How much of a screen do you go behind when you’re approaching your characters?

GREGORY: Not at all. Not at all. They become my most intimate friends. I spend more time with them actually when I’m writing and doing research than I do with anybody else in the world because I’m with them eight hours a day and then I’m thinking about them the rest of the time. So, one of the jokes in my family is that my husband will be driving me somewhere and he’ll say, what are you thinking about, and I’ll say Robert Dudley. I’m allowed to say another man’s name because when I was working on Elizabeth the First, I was constantly thinking about Robert Dudley.

MERIN: Do the characters talk to you?

GREGORY: Yes.

MERIN: So in a way you’re, what would you say, channeling?

GREGORY: It’s tricky in a way, because I wouldn’t say channeling was what I was doing, but when you’ve done a really deep and extensive research, you do, I think, create their world, you are very conscious of what’s in their world, you see what’s in their world. So you’re participating in a way. The divide of time is absolutely there. There’s never a thought in my head that I’m truly there. I know that I am recreating it, and that ultimately I am recreating it for millions of people. But I am really recreating it for me.

Every now and then something happens which I find so odd and interesting–for example, when I was thinking about Mary Boleyn, and spending years researching Mary boleyn, there was no portrait of her, so I had no idea of what she looked like at all. There wasn’t even a description of her. We knew what Anne looked like, but not what mary looked like. And so for the purposes of the novel, I had to make it up, and I had to make it up on the basis of no historical evidence at all. And I decided that she’s be golden-brown haired and brown eyed, and a little rounded than Anne, a little softer than Anne, and little more buxom.

Well, I write about Mary Boleyn and she becomes an extraordinary new character in a way, she’s added to the history, so all the histories written after my novel have Mary Boleyn in them, whereas before they did not. She becomes of interest to everybody, people go to Hever Castle (the Boleyn residence) and ask the custodians of the museum about Mary Boleyn, whereas they’ve never asked before. There’s a whole stir of interest about this character, that comes just out of the novel–it’s quite an extraordinary thing. So, people start looking for portraits of her, which they didn’t before, because nobody was interested in her before. And they find one. And it’s authenticated to being Mary. And, she’s blond-haired and brown eyed and slightly rounder of face. And she looks very like I described her in the novel.

MERIN: That’s so interesting.

GREGORY: Yes, it’s very interesting. And anybody rational would say that’s a coincidence, and anybody not rational would say, how is there some way that you could know that–but I didn’t know it.

MERIN: Of course not. But, your studies would give you access to the different philosophical presumptions that people had. Their thinking about things was organized very differently–if I remember correctly we were in an era where the notion of the Great Chain of Being predominated…

GREGORY: Absolutely.

MERIN: And there was detailed symbolism that people used in their communications with each other. We are unfamiliar with all that. How do you manage to recreate the fullness of their mental state within a framework that a modern person would understand? Or would, at least, get an idea of how complex and complicated and sophisticated their thinking and world view were?

GREGORY: First of all, I research thoroughly, reading not only the obvious history books, but I read specialist history books, so…for example, I’ve recently been reading books about spying in Tudor England, so I now know the spy rings and codes they use.

When I was working on John Dee, who was a fantastic philosopher and alchemist during the Elizabethan period, I read a great deal about him and his linguistic notes and beliefs. So I don’t just read the history of the reign, I read all sorts of odd offbeat social histories–particularly when I go to a location where one of my characters lived, you very often find that local historians have written small pamphlets which are only for sale in the little shop, but they have some absolutely extraordinary insights that haven’t made it into the big books.

So, there’s a huge amount of research that goes into the history, the documents and papers, the locations…so all of that goes on. I try and amass it, and because all of my novels are now first person, I just write as if I were that person thinking those things and I try to keep that in mind, bearing that if I’m being read by a doctor of philosophy, then they will be familiar with some of this material and they will understand it when it comes up. If I’m being read by, as I am, a kid of ten, he or she won’t get it–but it doesn’t matter. It’s there. If they come to reread the book later, they may get it. But even if they don’t, they will sense that there’s a difference.

For example, in The Other Boleyn Girl, I don’t remember whether where, but I know that somebody says, well there’s god and the angels and the seraphim and then there’s the king directly below, but superior to everybody else. A kid of ten doesn’t have to know about the Great Chain of Being to get that there is some belief system going on there.

MERIN: So, when he learns about the great chain of being, he will perhaps have a visceral understanding of it because of his exposure to the world you’ve recreated–that he would not have had had he not read your book.

GREGORY: He may well go ah ha, I get it now. So, that’s what that was about. And that’s the way, I think, people learn anyhow. You get a piece of information from here, and you’ve already got some information from there, and it’s when it bolts together, you understand it.

MERIN: Yes, I think making those connections is learning–they change the way you think, they change your perceptions and presumptions. People are reading more these days. The internet has increased literacy in a strange sort of way…but people are still not reading as much as they watch movies. So, it’s my assumption that in this day and age, movies are hugely influential on the way we think, and teach social mores, norms and behavior. The history that you’ve set before us teaches us what?

GREGORY: My view of history is that the lives of ordinary people are just as interesting as the lives of royals or important people and, indeed, that inside royal and important people, there are ordinary people. We’re all fundamentally the same human beings suffering the same ills and experiencing the same desires. Now if any history that implies that the leaders are more interesting than the ordinary people is snob history. I don’t write it.

Similarly, the history of women may not always have as great political impact as the history of men, given that women don’t have political power for such a long time. But actually the history of women is very often more revealing of a society and may be more interesting in terms of people’s aspirations and determination and courage than the history of men–because the history of the underdog is what speaks to me.

So I write the history of people who are neglected by their society–like women. I’ve written about black and enslaved people in England, and I’ve written about Jews in Tudor England at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, the Diaspora. So I am interested in people who are neglected at the time, sometimes persecuted at the time, and that history has forgotten. So, my history is revolutionary history in that sense that it is of people who are neglected and that, indeed, are not just forgotten incidentally, but whose history is swept away because it is in some way an embarrassment to us now.

MERIN: What you set into play in “The Other Boleyn Girl” is a remarkable investigation into the ways of women’s wiles in Tudor England….

GREGORY: Yes….

MERIN: When women were essentially powerless–they owned the clothes on their back, if they were given leave to own anything…

GREGORY: They don’t even own their clothes–they borrow them…

MERIN: Yet, they managed somehow to find ways to wield extensive power…

GREGORY: Yes…

MERIN: I would say that today, we who live in the United States, might call them Texans….

(She laughs…heartily)

GREGORY: I’ve just come from Dallas…and I understand what you mean. Texas women are very clever.

You know what I find so interesting is that despite the gains made by feminism–and I am a feminist and a great supporter of equal rights–you look at Anne Boleyn who gets from nowhere to be Queen of England, and has the King of England dancing for six years–six years of courtship–during which time he turns the history of England upside down in order that he might get into bed with her, and she won’t allow it–you know, that’s a woman who…well, I mean, these aren’t wiles, this is campaign level strategy. She was a phenomenal woman. Absolutely phenomenal.

MERIN: So true.

GREGORY: And as a feminist, I suppose one has to wonder what would the country have been like had Anne been allowed to be Queen of England in position as well as in name. We see what her daughter does, but what would Anne have done? She’s a character and a half. She is a true heroine. But not because she gets to be Queen of England–what I see in her is extraordinary ambition and the fulfillment of it, and that‘s in a person who was disadvantaged from birth by more than one thing, and in particular by her gender, which was terribly important.

MERIN: Do feel that there are lessons to be learned from your histories. Does observing these women at work in Tudor England give us another take on feminism and how to be successful at being women?

GREGORY: Yes. I’m always writing about the great puzzle of my life and the great puzzle for many women and certainly the women of my novels–and that is how to be a woman in the system, how to be the sort of women you want to be, whether that‘s a woman of wiles, deploying your sexual allure, or whether that is in some way demeaning to you because it totally ignores your intellectual side, your spiritual side and your desire for power, because it focuses on your sexuality and your body, and we know that is going to be of limited use.

So, for instance, in my book, “The Queen’s Fool,” you see a very young woman at the court of Mary Tudor who marries as she is urged to do, and finds herself treated appallingly by her husband. And Elizabeth, who is so afraid of that happening to her, won’t marry at all, but spends all of her early life and a good deal of the rest of her life burning up for various men–but particularly for Robert Dudley, to start off with. And this young women who’d married is questioning how she can be a woman of intelligence and ambition and, because she’s Jewish, a woman of faith, and be safe in a world in which women have to make these huge choices and put themselves in the care of men–or put themselves right outside that, and be absolutely celibate. For Mary Tudor and Elizabeth the First, the choice is really to have an emotional life with terrible danger, or absolute celibacy and, I believe, an absolute drying up of the soul.

MERIN: What about the character of Jane Parker in your book? How does she fit into this spectrum?

GREGORY: She’s so interesting, isn’t she?

MERIN: Yes, I think so.

GREGORY: In film of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” they really picked up on Jane Parker. It was a very intelligent reading of the novel.

You know, they just found that actress (Juno Temple)–she came to audition as an extra, and they picked her out, and she’s great. Parker is a bit of a mystery in the historical record. She does, indeed, give evidence against her husband, George (Boleyn, brother of Mary and Anne, played by Jim Sturgess) which takes him to the scaffold. But she manages to get a pardon for herself and her part in it, which allows her to keep some of the family fortune. She retires to her brothers house and goes very, very quiet. She’s Jane Seymour’s lady-in-waiting and in the interregnum between Jane Seymour’s death and when Anne of Cleves comes in, she just goes to her brother’s house and keeps her head down. Nobody has a place at court then because there is no queen. And then, when Anne of Cleves comes in, up pops Jane again.

And if you read my book, “The Boleyn Inheritance,” Jane then acts absolutely specifically to betray Anne of Cleves and would have taken Anne to the scaffold had she been asked to do so. She gives false evidence of treason and witchcraft, just as she did against Anne Boleyn. And, then, she encourages Catherine Howard to take a lover, she guards her, and she smuggles him in–and then, when they’re caught, she turns evidence on Catherine Howard. So, she sends two queens nearly to the scaffold and one to divorce. Her behavior is extraordinary. The only explanation I could find for her was a pathological one, which I’m really reluctant to go to–because it’s just too easy a way out. You say she’s crazy and there’s an end to the argument. But really her behavior is so contrary to her own interests and safety that she has to be driven by something which irrational. I think she was sexually perverse, someone who loved to be on the edge of an affair. So she’s certainly watching Thomas Culpeper and Catherine Howard–she’s outside the door of the room, listening. We know that. So there’s that aspect to her. And then I think that she’s one of these people who really doesn’t care what risk is taken, provided she’s participating in huge events–and she really likes executions.

MERIN: She’s the original drama queen.

GREGORY: And in the end, it takes her to the scaffold. She dies with Catherine Howard.

MERIN: Historically, where did you take liberties?

GREGORY: I don’t take liberties….

MERIN: Not at all?

GREGORY: When we don’t know, when there’s an absolute gap in the record, I have to create the story–because historians can go ‘we don’t know what happened to Fred for the next three years, maybe he went on crusade, maybe he went home, maybe he got drunk,’ but if you’re writing a novel, you can’t let the reader go for a second. There’s no ’I don’t know what I did for three years’– it’s not possible.

So, I have to make my mind up. I look at the historical record–where the person last appears and reemerges, and then create the story that’s missing. It’s conjecture, animated conjecture. It‘s fiction, but it’s the closest I can imagine it to be. When we have partial evidence, it’s controversial because one historian thinks one thing and another historian thinks another, and it’s hard to choose which evidence to go with. Usually, I look at the written history and consult historians–but before I do that, I look at original material and decide what it means to me. And then I see if anyone agrees with me.

If I were a historian, I could say it might have happened this way or that, but because I’m writing a novel in the first person, I have to choose. So that’s where the fiction comes in. The other part where the fiction is all the way through is the dialogue, the emotions, the motivation–the animation of it. But that often seems to me to be more like a reconstruction. You know, it’s like when they do crimes scenes and dramatic reconstructions that are scripted. It feels more like that.

MERIN: How much influence did you have in the making of the film, and in the script?

GREGORY: I was hired as a consultant on the script and I was pretty influential, I think, in that when I said that something really wouldn’t do, it usually didn’t happen. But there were times when I said something couldn’t be done, and the movie was made that way anyway. That, in a sense, is part of the moviemaking process, which is not going to change for me. It’s the director’s movie, not my movie. It‘s Peter Morgan’s script, not my script. And, it‘s the actors’ performances, not mine. So, I would comment and my comments always went into the mix. Everyone always knew what my opinion was, but ultimately, at the end of the day, they were making the best movie they could and they used everyone’s suggestions.

What was really interesting for me was that when I went on the set, all the cast and crew had a copy of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” and lots of people had “The Constant Princess“–the director had started reading it and told everybody to read it as well. The book was its own advocate far more powerfully than I could have been, and particularly Scarlett (Johansson, who plays Mary Boleyn)–her pages are absolutely marked up and she was always going to Peter Morgan and saying we have to have this scene, if you haven’t put it in yet, we’ve got to have it in because it’s really important for the character.

So there was this real powerful dialogue going on all the time between the book and the moviemakers–I wasn’t even voicing it, they were reading it for themselves. And the book was its own advocate. So, I’d go there and it would be like meeting a reading club. The electrician guy and the guy who did the…would say is this true? Did this really happen? And I’d say, yeah, it really did. And they’d say that’s amazing. It was extraordinary. It was like going to a reading club.

MERIN: Is there a woman today who you think of as a Mary or an Anne who’s functioning in our society with the same kind of heroic intelligence and innate skill?

GREGORY: Well, actually, because I’m interested in the history of ordinary women, I’d say there are millions of us–each of us–trying to hoe our little row as honorably as we can, achieving our ambitions, being good wives, being good mums, being good women every day. Yes, millions of us.

MERIN: And nobody like Angelina Jolie, Margaret Thatcher or whomever–someone specific you can cite?

GREGORY: I don’t have a heroine. I don’t think I have a personal heroine today. But then, I’m not someone who looks up to people…

(She laughs).

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).