Sunday, January 5, 2014

Interview with Heather Webb, author of Becoming Josephine

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Heather Webb to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her debut release, Becoming Josephine. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Heather. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Becoming Josephine.
Josephine is the story of a woman who stole Napoleon’s heart and enchanted an empire. But it’s also a novel about a woman in search of love and stability, and ultimately, herself.

What inspired you to write this story?
The idea for this novel came to me in two parts. I taught a unit about the French Revolution in my high school French classes for several years, which sparked my interest in the time period. Yet despite my teaching, I knew little about Josephine and I “discovered” her later. Ultimately she was a minor player in a sea of France’s most famous and infamous people during the Revolution—at least until Robespierre fell and the Directoire took over the government. 

When I began to feel the pull to writing a book, I had a dream about Josephine. Strange, but true. From the very first biography I read, I was hooked. Her vivid childhood home, her adaptable nature and courageous spirit had me enthralled. Her rich life story set to the backdrop of the chaotic Revolution and the opulent Napoleonic Empire cinched the deal. 

Becoming Josephine is fiction, but features several well-known historic figures. How did you go about developing the personality of each cast member and did you find it intimidating to work with individuals that are so well known?
This is a tough question to answer. I began with research to get a feel for each character’s personality, studied paintings and descriptions of them. From there, they each came alive for me when I put words in their mouths. It’s true what writers say about characters taking on a life of their own. Many times during revisions, one of them would get testy with me if a particular word or phrase wasn’t something they would say. 

It’s always intimidating to write about well-known characters. There are fans who memorize every detail of a historic figure’s life and times and that certainly adds pressure to get facts correct. But here’s the thing—I’m a novelist, not a historian, and though I spent eight months of intensive research before I wrote a single word, my job as a novelist is to entertain, to inspire one to read more about a subject, to inspire readers to look inward at themselves, and to explore big truths. Those are my goals—not to be the first and foremost expert on Josephine and other characters. Though I must admit, the research is quite fun for me as well.  

Joséphine de Beauharnais
What research went into Becoming Josephine and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
I researched for about eight months before I wrote a single word, and then I continued to research in dribs and drabs throughout the entire writing process. I tried to take a comprehensive approach—biographies of important characters, histories of the Revolution as well as those of Martinique, Napoleon’s reprinted letters, documentaries. I studied art and literature movements from this period, china patterns, fashion, weapons. I could go on. Researchitis is a disease we historical fiction writers suffer from. 

As for facts, many things blew my mind; the absurdity of how citizens were condemned during the Terreur, the number of Josephine’s extensive flower and plant collections, not to mention her hundreds of gowns. She was also a patron of the arts and, therefore, supported many painters, filling the galleries in Paris, the Louvre, and her home at Malmaison. I was also astounded by the number of deaths that happened under Napoleon’s command. He massacred whole peoples! I was also surprised by the absurdity of how citizens were condemned during the Terreur, and the rapid change of laws and social mores, even within a few days’ time. I was fascinated by how much women were involved with the Revolution, both through their political influence at salons and even amidst the fighting in the streets.

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I really enjoyed writing the scene where Rose (Josephine) and Theresia attend the Bal de Victimes put on by Paul Barras. The banquet detailing, the gowns, and the verbal sparring between Rose and Paul were a blast to write—it almost felt as if it wrote itself.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
I struggled with the entire prison chapter. I had to really dig deep to envision what it must be like to be faced with such a fate. 

Napoleon Bonaparte
You tweaked several details while writing Becoming Josephine for the sake of the story. Did you wrestle with these deviations and, if so, how did you make peace with your decisions?
I wrestled with it quite a bit. When an editor tells you to change something, you figure out a way to give them what they want without losing the basic truth. After all, you want to sell your novel. A writer’s view of what will sell isn’t always congruent with what a publisher thinks will sell. In this case, the story is overwhelmingly factual, though as you mentioned, there were things I tweaked.

For example, Alexandre and Rose separated, but it took place with the aid of a provost through a series of letters and not in person. I chose to set it up as a show-down between the two of them because it’s more dramatic, therefore much more fun to read. It helps the book move. Plus, Rose initiated the separation from Alexandre and won, after which, he apologized—this is the basic truth that was not lost by portraying it as I did. Another example is Rose’s father initially came with her from Martinique to Paris for a two year stay, but he was so ill his entire time in France, that his character added little to the story. This is why I chose to leave him at home. Other changes I listed on my website.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of their story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I would have loved to make the novel another 30,000 words, but longer novels don’t suit the publishing environment these days, at least for the most part. There are many aspects I would have loved to expand upon—Hortense’s life and her lover after she moved away from her husband, Louis. I would expand have expanded the entire last third of the novel when she traveled with Napoleon, Josephine’s friendship with Theresia, her hedonist days, Mimi’s feelings and those of the slaves…there’s just so much. I’d love to talk more about her art collection, fashions, and flowers, etc.

Josephine’s life has been fictionalized in the past. What do you think makes Becoming Josephine different from books like The Secret Life of Josephine by Carolly Erickson or The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland?
Well, I adored other accounts of Josephine’s life, but the biggest difference always lies in the author’s voice and perspective. I believe my Josephine appeals to the modern reader; she’s a survivor, adaptable, and cunning. She understands how to read the emotions and needs of those around her, and how to leverage the crisis during her times to support her family and assure her station. She’s flawed—generous to a fault but a spendthrift, an ardent lover but one who enjoys her trysts with many men, a loving mother but one who sacrificed their needs at times for the “good” of her countrymen. Also, the big thrust of this novel is unique as it’s from a women’s fiction slant: it follows the trajectory of her womanhood and how she grew into herself and discovered her own happiness.

Hortense de Beauharnais and her son,
Napoléon Charles Bonaparte
If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Josephine, hands down. No contest. A runner-up would have to be Napoleon. There were so many I’d love to meet—Aunt Fanny, Mimi, Talleyrand. To hear their views on their lives and times would be fascinating.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
The message I would like readers to grasp—this is tricky because a book, film, or piece of art, means something different to each person based on their own emotional lens and life experiences—is that there is hope in beginning anew, not just loss. Also, true contentedness comes with forgiveness and generosity. Or maybe my readers will just enjoy a fun, fast read with sensual detailing. I’m happy with that, as well.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I’m working on a novel set one hundred years later, during the Belle Époque in Paris. It’s the story of two artists and their struggle to delineate the lines between love, obsession, and madness.

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About the Author: Heather Webb grew up a military brat and naturally became obsessed with travel, culture, and languages. She put her degrees to good use teaching high school French for nearly a decade before turning to full time novel writing and freelance editing. When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. For more information please visit Heather’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

About the Book: A sweeping historical debut about the Creole socialite who transformed herself into an empress. Readers are fascinated with the wives of famous men. In Becoming Josephine, debut novelist Heather Webb follows Rose Tascher as she sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris, eager to enjoy an elegant life at the royal court. Once there, however, Rose’s aristocratic soldier-husband dashes her dreams by abandoning her amid the tumult of the French Revolution. After narrowly escaping death, Rose reinvents herself as Josephine, a beautiful socialite wooed by an awkward suitor—Napoleon Bonaparte. 

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Check out all the stops on Heather Webb's Becoming Josephine VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR

Wednesday, January 1
Review & Interview at HF Book Muse-News
Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Thursday, January 2
Review at Let Them Read Books
Review & Giveaway at WTF Are You Reading?
Friday, January 3
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Monday, January 6
Review & Giveaway at Confessions of an Avid Reader
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, January 7
Review & Giveaway at Scandalous Women
Wednesday, January 8
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, January 9
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book!
Review & Giveaway at Luxury Reading
Friday, January 10
Review at Turning the Pages
Interview & Giveaway at Oh, For the Hook of a Book!
Monday, January 13
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Tuesday, January 14
Review at Unabridged Chick
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Wednesday, January 15
Review at Book Lovers Paradise
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Thursday, January 16
Review & Giveaway at The Maiden’s Court
Friday, January 17
Review & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Monday, January 20
Review at A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, January 21
Review at Griperang’s Bookmarks
Interview & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, January 22
Review at A Book Geek
Thursday, January 23
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, January 24
Review at Book-alicious Mama
Monday, January 27
Review at A Bookish Libraria
Interview at Erika Mailman Blog
Tuesday, January 28
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Wednesday, January 29
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time
Thursday, January 30
Interview at HF Connection
Friday, January 31
Review at Books in the Burbs
Monday, February 3
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Tuesday, February 4
Review at A Muse in the Fog
Wednesday, February 5
Interview at A Muse in the Fog
Friday, February 7
Review at Silver’s Reviews

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