William Kuhn is a biographer, historian, and the author of Reading Jackie, Democratic Royalism, Henry and Mary Ponsonby, and The Politics of Pleasure. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
His first novel, Mrs Queen Takes the Train, is a fresh new look at a seemingly arcane institution and a woman who
wonders if she, too, has become a relic of the past. It's about British
social, political, and generational rivalries—between upstairs and
downstairs, the monarchy and the government, the old and the young. The
story tweaks the pomp of the British monarchy, going beneath its rigid
formality to reveal the human heart of the woman at its center.
We asked Bill some questions about his new novel, and his writing life.
How long did you spend at Windsor Castle researching the archives?
Probably about six months altogether, but not continuously. I was an academic then, so I used summers off from teaching and the occasional sabbatical. I was meant to be working on the Victorian monarchy, but kept looking over my shoulder to see what modern courtiers were like today.
Was it your chats with the courtiers that inspired you to write Mrs Queen Takes the Train?
Yes, partly. I loved seeing the ladies-in-waiting driving economy cars instead of riding in limousines. Not what I expected. There were also men in scarlet uniforms who, instead of ordering my head cut off, asked me to sponsor them for their fun runs.
Did you send a copy to Her Majesty?
No, I haven’t. I’m a little nervous about that, I must confess. Will you do it for me?
You seem to have a great knowledge of cheese, is it a favourite food?
What’s not to like about cheese? It goes on pasta, hamburgers, and salads. It’s not at all bad after supper with a wedge of apple.
You have a massive interest in 19th Century English History, did you study it at University?
Yes. I wrote a thesis on the Victorian monarchy during my last year at the University of Chicago. I’m still interested in nineteenth-century history, but now try having a little more fun with it.
Did you ever meet Jackie Kennedy?
No, but I met her best friend, later her White House social secretary, and saw the room they shared in a Connecticut boarding school when they were teenagers.
How did you become a writer?
I was praised for my writing when I was young. I wrote a learned and dull dissertation as part of my job when I became a professional historian. I was then introduced in London to an editor at an old-fahioned trade publisher who wanted to do my book on two Victorian courtiers, Henry and Mary Ponsonby. This happened to come out at the time of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. The BBC was looking for a royal-themed book-of-the-week to air on Radio Four and suddenly my writing career was launched. A lot of it was luck.
What did you find different between writing a biography and writing a novel?
It was a lot easier to write fiction than to write a biography. In writing a biography you consult all the secondary sources as well as all the manuscripts you can find. In writing a novel, you consult your instincts.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing a novel for young adults about Lord Byron when he was in his teens. He travels through time to the modern era and learns how to surf. I’m also working on a story about Boston’s legendary Isabella Stewart Gardner, an imperious nineteenth century art collector who opened her own museum. She died in 1924. In 1990 her museum was burgled and important works were stolen (including rare canvases by Vermeer and Rembrandt) that have never been found. In this book she comes back from the dead to nab the crooks.
Could you please send us a photo of your desk where you write?
I work most days at this wonderful library that goes back to Isabella Gardner’s time and beyond, the Boston Athenaeum. Here’s the desk on the fifth floor where I’m working today.