A Q&A With William Kuhn, Author of “Mrs. Queen Takes the Train”

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William Kuhn’s Mrs. Queen Takes the Train (Harper) is among the titles that indie bookstores across the country will be promoting to their customers as part of Thanks for Shopping Indie, beginning on November 24, Small Business Saturday.

In Kuhn’s novel, a disenchanted Queen Elizabeth, who is in need of cheering up, walks out of Buckingham Palace hidden beneath a skull-emblazoned hoodie and hops a train to Scotland, heading toward her former royal yacht, Britannia. When a cast of royal attendants discover her missing, they set out to bring the queen back before her absence becomes a national scandal. As she rides the train, takes up yoga, and learns how to use Twitter, Kuhn’s Queen Elizabeth is stripped of the pomp that typically surrounds the British monarchy, and Kuhn reveals the heart of the woman at its center.

photo by Gregory Gaymont

Kuhn is the author of four nonfiction titles: Reading Jackie, a glimpse of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis through the books she chose to edit at Viking and Doubleday; Democratic Royalism; Henry and Mary Ponsonby, a double biography of two key people at the court of Queen Victoria; and The Politics of Pleasure, a life of Britain’s most royalist prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is his first novel.

Kuhn spoke to Bookselling This Week about Queen Elizabeth, his writing process, and the public’s fascination with powerful people.

BTW: You’re a historian and biographer whose previous published work has been exclusively nonfiction. What made you decide to write a novel? How was the writing process different?

William Kuhn: When I was writing Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, I put a line into the first draft saying Jacqueline Onassis must have been thinking “this” as she edited a specific book. I’d talked to her authors and read all the books she edited. Nan Talese, herself a queen among editors, wrote in the margin: “You can’t say this because you don’t know for sure what she was thinking.” She was right. So I took out the line, even though my research combined with my intuition told me it was right. That was the moment that I started to think about writing a work of fiction. Then I could say exactly what the characters were thinking because I could make it up.

BTW: Though Mrs. Queen is fictional, its main character is a real person. What was the extent of your research? How did you decide where to draw the line between fact and fiction?

WK: There have now been many documentaries where the Queen’s authentic voice is audible and you can see how she behaves in different situations. I drew my conclusions about what she must be like on the basis of these films as well as on the principal biographies of her. A few people I knew had met her and also gave me their impressions. I wanted the portrait to be accurate in the book, to be based on the Queen as it is possible to know her now, but acting upon unseen instincts and yearnings which we can only imagine she might have.

BTW: You’ve written extensively about powerful people. What draws you to your subjects? Why do you think so many people share this interest in people with power?

WK: I think sometimes we envy people with power and would like to have that kind of power ourselves. We might seem, then, less powerless over our own fates and destinies.

When you look a little closer, you see that apparently powerful people have suffered from the decisions they had to make. They were also more dependent on circumstances beyond their control than you had been aware of before. You begin to feel for them, even though you’ve never had that kind of power yourself.

In the case of the Queen, she has all the power that comes from the fact that she’s instantly recognizable and people want to see her. But historical forces beyond her control have also buffeted her. Although she’s put her life’s work into making Britain’s monarchy dignified and admirable, she was on the verge of losing everything at the time of Diana’s death. Because she didn’t break down in the way that people wanted her to, she was branded as unfeeling. In fact, she belongs to a generation that came through the war losing many friends and relatives and putting the best face possible on it. Not breaking down was the highest form of self-control for her age group. In the late 1990s, that value came to seem cruel and heartless and nearly everything was lost. In the popularity that has returned to her with the recent jubilee and the Olympics over the summer, we’ve forgotten how much the Queen’s world teetered on the brink with the death of her eldest son’s divorced wife.

BTW: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a must-read for lovers of British culture, an ever-growing population in recent years, thanks in part to TV shows like Downton Abbey,which pull back the curtain on the British class system. How do you think Mrs. Queen fits into this trend?

WK: Do we like to fantasize about what it would be like to have both money and manners? All of us are wearing our sneakers and hoodies, but would it be nice to put on, every once in a while, a stiff tweed coat, a starched collar, a long dress? To pin a jewel in our lapel? Marie Antoinette fantasized about what it was like to be a shepherdess. I think the Queen might dream, occasionally, of being anonymous. Because we live in one-bedroom apartments, we like to dream of living in English country houses and this goes back beyond Downton Abbey to Brideshead Revisited, Upstairs Downstairs, and before that to Jane Austen and Trollope.

BTW: Your novel is among many wonderful titles selected for a promotion designed exclusively for independent bookstores in the U.S. What does having the support of independents mean to you?

WK: Independent bookstores are Downton Abbeys in a world of online book shopping. You go on Amazon and, yes, it’s convenient, yes, it’s cheap, and, yes, the books arrive on your doorstep. But the predominant color is orange and hideous. Everyone is shouting for attention: the author, the publishers, the reviewers, the readers. You feel you’re in some sort of horrible chatroom. You walk into an independent bookstore and it’s a civilized place. You can speak to people who love books and who can make reliable recommendations about what you should read next. What author wouldn’t be thrilled to have their support?

BTW: Are there any upcoming plans for you to tour to promote Mrs. Queen?

WK: I’m going a short drive from where I live in Boston, to Falmouth, Massachusetts, to read at Eight Cousins bookstore on December 14. But really I’m ready to go wherever I am invited.

BTW: What is your next project?

WK: I’m working on a novel for young adults in which a teenaged Lord Byron time travels to modern day California and learns how to wear surfing gear and a work of fiction about Isabella Stewart Gardner returning from the dead to nab the crooks who robbed her museum in 1990.