During my last holidays, I had the chance to read Mrs Queen takes the train. I chose this book by chance and I didn’t know so much about the story… except that it was about the Queen’s runaway, which was an interesting idea for the start of a novel. I really enjoyed this book ! This was a fun reading : the story is addictive, you come to really love the characters, and in the end, when the curtain falls, you miss them. I think that’s the feeling you get only with a great book.
I wanted to know a little bit more about William Kuhn, so I asked him some questions. Now enjoy the reading !
First of all, can you tell me about you, your personal background ? How did you become a writer ?
My father was a professor of English literature. So I always heard books and writing being taken seriously around the dinner table when I was little. I became a professor of history, and published my first book Democratic Royalism, for an academic audience. I have slowly tried to make the transition to writing for a wider, non-academic audience. An advance from a publisher for my book on the editorial career of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Reading Jackie, allowed me to leave my teaching job. I now write full time for a living.
‘Mrs Queen takes the train’ is your first novel. How did you get the idea of this story ?
I worked in the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle to do research for a previous book. It was about two courtiers, Henry & Mary Ponsonby, who served Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century. It was fun to see all the modern and quite normal people who worked in the midst of an ancient building for a medieval institution. The porters dressed in red uniforms asked me to sponsor them for their fun runs. The ladies in waiting arrived in dented economy cars. The archivists kept a stuffed dragon in the coffee room. It was not at all what I’d expected.
The Queen is a historical figure. Would you say it makes her an easier character to write ?
There are lots of books about her that give insight into her personality. Her picture is taken all the time and I think it’s sometimes possible to read her expressions. She’s the same age as my father and I think octogenarians have some things in common, no matter where they are or where they’re from.
The writing in your novel gives lots of place to the other characters, and the reader comes to care for them, to like them. How did you build this narrative puzzle ? Was it hard to find a balance between them and the Queen ?
A lot of readers on Goodreads.com and elsewhere say that there’s too much on the courtiers and not enough on the Queen. I suppose that having worked among these courtiers, they were the ones that interested me the most. It was the Queen’s interaction with these people who worked for her that suggested the clues to me about where the action of the book might go.
When reading your book, I felt like being in a “road movie” kind of story. And at the same time, this story is a lot about the personal feelings of seven characters, about their emotional journey. How would you describe your story ?
E.M. Forster has a famous line, “Only connect.” I think he meant that it should be our main goal in life to reach out and understand the few people who come to us as our friends, colleagues, and partners. I would say my book is about different characters, including the Queen, learning that they haven’t connected with other people as well as they should have. They’re all trying to do better.
How much time did you spent writing this novel ? Did you do some research about the Queen ?
I wrote it very quickly, about six months, I think. But then my agent asked me to do re-writes and so did the editor at HarperCollins. So it was about twelve months all together. But I’ve been thinking about the monarchy for decades, especially in my academic work, and so that was all in there too.
I have the feeling that since a few years british people have had a renewed interest in their queen. I think about Stephen Frears movie ‘The Queen’ and Alan Bennett’s novel. How can you explain that ? Would you say there’s a need to know more about her ?
The older she gets, the more sacred she becomes. That happened with Queen Victoria too. I don’t mean “sacred” in any orthodox religious sense, but that there’s a certain mystery that begins to surround a figure who’s been in place for so long. That must explain some of the renewed interest in her. I loved Alan Bennett’s book on her, and the movie ‘The Queen,’ is also excellent.
What is your next writing project ?
I am working on historical fiction about John Singer Sargent and Isabella Gardner. She was a rich Boston collector. She scooped the painter up after the scandal of his having exhibited a revealing portrait of Virginie Gautreau in Paris in 1884. It destroyed his French portrait business. He had to leave Paris and relocate to London. Mrs. Gardner dared him “to get back on his horse” (do you have this expression in French?). In other words, she wanted him to do an equally revealing portrait of her. He took the challenge and painted a portrait of Isabella Gardner that shocked Boston. This time, instead of ending his career, it proved the hit that made his career take off.
Do you know if ‘Mrs Queen takes the train’ is going to be published in French ?
It’s not under contract yet. I hope it will be. It’s under contract in Poland and has been published in Spanish as La reina se va de viaje. The Weinstein Company currently has a film option on it. If the film gets made, maybe there will be a French edition.
And finally, the question I like to ask to people I interview : what was the last book you’ve read ?
A biography of Rimbaud by a British writer, Graham Robb.
Thank you very much to William Kuhn for this interview. I hope it will give the French readers the curiosity to read this excellent novel. Seen you soon for another interview.