Author question and answer with William Kuhn, author of Mrs. Queen Takes the Train: A Novel
Take a good look at that little old lady sitting next to you on the metro as you read The Independent on your commute home: It might be Queen Elizabeth II.
So runs the premise of William Kuhn’s first novel, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train. Previously an aficionado of all subjects Victorian, Kuhn has broken out in the past few years, first with his well received Reading Jackie, a look at Jackie Kennedy the editrix, and now with Mrs. Queen, a very British romp set in the modern-day world of Twitter, the Iraq War and PETA protests. In this compassionate and innovative novel, Queen Elizabeth is feeling down after years of lonely service and is at odds with the modern world. The only thing that will cheer her up, she decides, is a trip to Scotland to visit her old royal yacht Britannia, now at anchor in Edinburgh. When the palace staff discover her missing, an unlikely cast of characters unite to bring the Queen to safety before danger — or, God forbid, the media — crosses her path.
Q&A with Willian Kuhn by Sarah Vogelsong
Mrs. Queen has one of the most original premises that I’ve run across in a novel recently. Where in the world did you get the idea for it?
I love trains. I love England. I love castles. I have a long-term fascination with the British monarchy. Somehow, while sitting at my desk and imagining a few different characters talking to each other, I discovered that the Queen wasn’t feeling herself and that she seemed to be giving hints to her loyal dresser that all was not well. She was ruminating over a little unusual trip to cheer herself up. It slipped out in conversation with a staff member whom she trusted perhaps more than anyone else. That’s how it started, I guess.
For such a seemingly light-hearted story, there’s a strong focus on depression and mental health. What spurred you to inject this current into your tale?
My father was born in 1926, the same year as the Queen. I watched him grow older. I was surprised that when he arrived in his 80s, even after a long and successful career, it wasn’t enough to sustain his good mood. He suffered all sorts of challenges, some physical, some mental, as a result of aging. It occurred to me the Queen might be going through the same thing, even though she too has had a long and successful career.
Were you nervous about delving into the intimate life and thoughts of a living monarch? How close do you think you got to reality in your final portrayal of the queen?
I’ve never met her, but there is quite a lot of her personality revealed in the palace-approved documentaries and biographies of the last 10 to 15 years. She often seems a bit stiff, even shy in situations which one imagines she’s been through a million times. I wondered whether this might not have something to do with depression. I was once at a party where I wasn’t introduced, but I was standing nearby when she asked a member of staff whether she’d done her Christmas shopping. It was almost as if she’d made up a list of questions in advance that she could ask so she wouldn’t be embarrassed with having nothing to say. She seemed rather diffident to me. Anyone who reads the book will find that I also admire and sympathize with her.
Mrs. Queen not only describes the elaborate ceremony of the monarch’s court, but also catalogues how this ceremony is slowly being chipped away in these democratic and financially strapped times. You seem to take care in the novel to highlight the meaning of the many rituals that make up this ceremony. Do you see these kinds of institutions — a full palace staff, a private train, etc. — persisting in the future in Britain? Do you think it’s important that they persist?
I think there’s often an equation in people’s mind between ceremony and nothingness. “It’s just ceremony.” “She has no real power. It’s only a life of empty ritual.” “What does she do all day?” This is not only a modern idea, but also goes back well into history as a republican attack on monarchy as a form of government. I think this underrates incredibly the importance of ceremony in our lives. How would we do without a college graduation ceremony or a wedding or a retirement dinner or a lighted candle during our solitary suppers? Nothing really changes at these moments, and yet they are among the most memorable events in our lives. This is her life and she gives weight and dignity and a sense of occasion to these ceremonies by her presence and by the way she behaves. It seems to me that if you’re going to get a knighthood for being a great British actress, like Julie Andrews, or a great British football player, like David Beckham, you want to receive it in a palace with gilt on the ceilings and sumptuous carpet on the floor. Who’d want to receive a medal in the middle of a parking lot?
In the past, much of your writing about the British monarchy has concerned the Victorian era. Why the switch to the here and now?
When I worked on the Victorian monarchy in the Royal Archives in Windsor Castle, my attention was always being distracted by ladies in waiting driving up in dented economy cars, and men in scarlet uniforms who asked me to contribute money to sponsor their fun runs. I love the way royal and Victorian conventions live on in modern egalitarian Britain.
You manage to fit quite a lot of hot-button topics — PETA, the death of Princess Diana, the war in Iraq, homosexuality — into the story, but I never felt I was reading a “political” novel. How did you walk the line of bringing these issues into the story without allowing them to overpower your narrative?
Well, my editors and literary agent asked me to take some of the gay stuff out, so I did. With all of my last few books, there’s always been a team of people to say, “Hmm. Not sure how this will play in Peoria, Bill. You might consider omitting.” I’m sometimes resentful about this, but then I also feel lucky that I have people with some judgment giving my manuscript preliminary readings.
To me, this seems such a quintessentially British story — I can’t, for instance, see a similar tale unfolding in the United States with President Clinton trying to quietly travel back to Arkansas incognito. Do you think Mrs. Queen is primarily meaningful for British readers, or do you think it can be embraced across national lines?
I expect it to be liked most outside of Britain. The British people I know don’t really like talking about the monarchy, except at moments of crisis, or exceptional goodwill, and these occur about once every two or three years or so. Patriotic feeling and emotional attachment to the symbols of the nation embarrass them most of the time. Americans are much more open when talking about patriotic topics. President Clinton would never want to travel around incognito, would he? He loves the pressing of flesh. The Queen does it because it’s expected of her, but it’s not always easy for her I don’t think. In a long life she’s been all over the world. People of all nations recognize her and make her image their own. I think it would be as hard for her to be incognito in Arkansas as it would be for her to get on a train in London without being recognized. And yet, what fun for her if she could pull it off, no?
Sarah Vogelsong is a freelance writer and editor from Richmond, Va. Her work has also appeared in The Neworld Review and Pleasant Living magazine.