at Village House of Books in Los Gatos on March 20th, 2015
One of the cool things about working in a bookstore is that if you get lucky, you can bring one of your favorite authors to the store. When I heard that C. W. Gortner was coming out with a new book about Coco Chanel, I asked the owners if I could try to set up a book signing. They were game, so I sent out some e-mails and pretty soon we had Gortner on the calendar for a talk and signing. Awesome. I’d seen Gortner several years back when he was promoting The Last Queen so I knew he was an entertaining guy, and if he was gossiping about one of the world’s most influential fashion designers it could only be amazing.
So fast forward a few weeks and BAM, Gortner is in the Village House. He drew a good crowd, too – we had a full house and even ran out of chairs as latecomers trickled in.
Gortner began by introducing himself and describing his career path. He studied fashion design in school, but quickly realized that sewing and pattern-making would never be his passion, so after graduating he worked as a retail buyer and freelance publicist and fashion show coordinator. He worked in this field for over a decade, but when many of his friends and colleagues were lost or suffering because of AIDS, he transferred his skills from fashion over to public health. During this time, he was also writing, and had even completed a manuscript for a historical epic novel about Anne Boleyn. But though the book came close to being published, it was ultimately his book about the mad Queen Juana of Spain became Gortner’s debut. Writing about strong, complicated women has become Gortner’s passion, and a few years ago he made the transition to full-time writer.
He next moved on to talking about Coco Chanel, and the challenges that she presented. Compared to many of his previous subjects like Juana or Catherine de’ Medici, the documentation about Chanel is far more extensive. Chanel herself further complicated matters by obfuscating her past with lies and omissions. Some of her choices would be sympathetic to the modern reader; her lifelong struggle to balance love with her passion for her work is as recognizable today as it was in her lifetime. Other decisions of hers still generate criticism today. When the Nazis invaded Paris Chanel initially fled the city, but returned and reopened her boutique. Her relationships with certain German officials made it very difficult to stay in France after World War II ended, and she was eventually exiled. But as Gortner pointed out, as much as we all like to believe we would do the noble and good thing in a bad situation, the truth is that many of us will do whatever it takes to survive, even if it isn’t the heroic stance. It was this controversy that led Gortner to publish the book with a different house than his other novels, and he admitted to being a bit nervous about the reception of his portrayal of this period of Chanel’s life. But as he said, his goal was for the reader to understand the character, and not necessarily to like her. So far, reviews have been positive, praising Gortner’s accuracy and refusal to ignore or whitewash Chanel’s choices.
Before settling in to do some serious book signing, Gortner answered questions from the audience. Some folks had questions about his research and writing process, others wanted to know more about Chanel and her life. He also let it be known that he had two books in the can for 2016: one about Lucretia Borgia and one about Marlene Dietrich. As he was signing, he had some really nice one-on-one interactions with guests and also threw in a plug for his friend Jan Ellison, who was present and had a meet and greet event for her novel A Small Indiscretion at the store the following weekend. All in all, a great guy and a fun night.
Me, the store owners, and CW Gortner