Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Interview with Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Ruth Hull Chatlien to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her debut release, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Ruth. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte.
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte tells the story of Elizabeth Patterson, a clever American beauty who dreamed of making a noble marriage in Europe. When she met and married Jerome Bonaparte, she thought her dream had come true, but the Emperor Napoleon had other plans for his youngest brother. The novel combines romance, action adventure, and a tale of family dysfunction. Betsy Bonaparte led a tumultuous life because of her deeply held belief that a woman had as much right to exercise her talents as any man.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson Bonaparte is a lesser-known member of the famous family. What inspired you to fictionalize her story?
I first encountered Jerome and Betsy’s story in an episode of the Horatio Hornblower television series (made in the 1990s and early 2000s). Even though I’ve worked on history textbooks for nearly 20 years, I didn’t know that Napoleon’s brother had married an American. When I looked up the facts on the Internet, I discovered that Betsy’s real life was far more interesting than the snippet shown (and distorted) in the television show.

One of things I wanted to do with the book was to portray Betsy in all her complexity. She’s someone who’s easy to dismiss as a stereotype. Older interpretations of her life focused on the romance and the injustice of Napoleon’s opposition to her marriage, while some modern historians disparage her because of her vanity, ambition, and obsession with rank. I think either interpretation is too simplistic. I wanted to create a more nuanced portrayal that showed both her flaws and her strengths, the qualities that make people want to shake her and the qualities that make people want to give her a hug.

What research went into The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
I started by reading five nonfiction books about Betsy Bonaparte. I also read biographies of Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, and the Caton sisters. A number of books helped me acquire information about Baltimore architecture, an excursion to Niagara Falls in 1800, period dress, the War of 1812, and forms of transportation. And I traveled to Baltimore to visit historic homes, Fort McHenry, a 19th century warship, and the Maryland Historical Society.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly stands out to you?
I would have to say that the scene showing the last meeting of Betsy and Jerome is a favorite of mine. I don’t want to give away too many details for readers who haven’t read the book yet, but I love how the setting embodies what Betsy had envisioned for her marriage. And I think the way the encounter plays out reveals a great deal about their relationship.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
My husband and I don’t have children, so I was really nervous about writing the childbirth scene. I did a lot of research on the Internet before daring to tackle that one, and I felt greatly reassured when one of my test readers told me how much she liked the way I did it.

Jérôme Bonaparte is an interesting historical figure. How did you approach characterizing him within your novel and how do you hope he comes across to your readers?
History has not been kind to Jerome. One of the biographies about him is called The Burlesque Napoleon, which pretty much sums up the way many people see him. He’s a joke, a ridiculous imitation of his older brother. However, as with Betsy, I came to believe that Jerome had more complexity than he is commonly given credit for. When I have Betsy defend him by saying that he’s a warm-hearted and generous man, I’m expressing my own opinion of his strengths. I believed he truly loved Betsy; it’s impossible to read his letters and not conclude that. (It’s also worth noting that as far as is known, he remained faithful to Betsy while they were together—which was not true of any of his other relationships.) Jerome’s problem was that he was spoiled and undisciplined. He truly believed that he could wear Napoleon down and get everything he wanted. Unfortunately, he was wrong. I hope that readers come to see him as I do—as a man who could have been so much more than he was, but who refused to grow up. He used disappointment as an excuse to indulge himself, and in the end, I cannot respect him as I do Betsy.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on? 
I did end up cutting one scene I really liked. As they traveled to Washington, D.C., Betsy and Jerome were in a carriage accident (based on a real incident). The scene demonstrated Betsy’s physical courage, but I knew it would be better to reveal that quality later during the trip to Niagara, so I decided to cut the accident scene. In addition, I would have liked to do more with the friendship between Betsy and Dolley Madison. They kept up a correspondence, and Dolley gave Betsy commissions to buy her fashionable items in Europe. But I felt those stories would have been too much of a distraction from my theme.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte and if so, what did you alter and why? 
I moved Henriette Reubel’s wedding later in time to better suit the way I wanted to develop Betsy and Jerome’s courtship. And when Betsy and Jerome first go to dinner at the President’s Mansion, I altered one historical incident to suit my story. President Jefferson did offend Ambassador Merry by neglecting to escort Mrs. Merry into dinner, but in reality, he led Dolley Madison in to the dining room rather than Betsy.

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?
It would have to be Betsy. I felt that I grew so close to her during the writing of this book. During my research trip to Baltimore, on my first day there, I visited Betsy’s grave to pay my respects and to promise her that I would try to tell her story fairly. I’d really love to know what she thinks of what I did.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I have strong opinions about Betsy’s various actions; I respect some of her decisions, while I vehemently disagree with others. However, as an author, I tried not to reveal my own prejudices to the reader. Rather, I wanted to show how Betsy might have justified her actions within her own mind. I trust readers to draw their own conclusions about her life, but I also hope that when they do, they remember how circumscribed women’s lives were in the early 1800s and how few options she really had.

Authors are famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for writing their own experiences, friends and acquaintances into their narratives. Is there anything in The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte that sprung directly from your personal history? 
Really, no. Betsy and I are very different people, and it took me a long time to decide to work on the book because I wasn’t sure I could even like her. Once I found an angle on her personality that helped me understand her, I pretty much tried to see the world through her eyes, not mine.

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process? 
For me, it’s crucial to be able to listen to the story and let it tell me where it wants to go. I’m not the kind of writer who could ever churn out 50,000 words in a single month the way NaNoWriMo participants do. I can’t force the process because I need time to hear my characters; if I can’t hear their dialogue in my head and if I can’t hear the narrator describing the setting or the action, I’m not ready to write. Usually, I hear approximately half a chapter further along than the scene I’m currently writing.

Two words: writer's block. How do you deal with it? 
I talk out loud to my characters, I journal my way through problems, and I go for long walks. Walking is really helpful because, somehow, the rhythm of putting one step in front of the other helps my mind to do the same thing with story elements.

Who are your favorite authors? 
There are so many, how do I choose? I owe a tremendous debt to Graham Greene for showing me that it’s ok to write about deeply flawed characters. I love Jane Austen for her social commentary and Charlotte Brontë for her unconventional female protagonists. As for writers of historical fiction, I admire Tracy Chevalier, Hilary Mantel, and Sarah Dunant for the way they have made the past come alive in their work.

What are you currently reading? 
I recently read Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle and was very impressed by the way she made one of Henry VIII’s lesser queens come to life. Currently, I’m finishing up The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak.

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I have more hobbies than I have time for! I’m an artist (in fact, I did the portrait of Betsy that we used on the cover). The two media I work in most are colored pencil and oils. In addition, I’m a knitter (my favorite patterns are intricate Aran sweaters), a gardener who grows both vegetables and flowers, a doting owner of a 9-year-old schnoodle, and an avid fan of the Chicago Bears football team.

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate? 
Decaf. Seriously, I love both coffee and tea. I usually drink both black and green tea every day, and I have a burr grinder and an espresso machine so I can make my own cappuccino. But my doctor made me give up caffeine about a year and a half ago. Withdrawal was rough, but it’s behind me now.

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? Planning a vacation? Anything exciting and/or noteworthy? 
Currently, the most exciting thing in my life is that I just finished radiation for Stage 1 breast cancer. Ironically, I found out I needed a biopsy the next day after my novel was published, so I really didn’t have much opportunity to bask in achieving my lifelong goal of becoming a published author. Now that I’ve finished treatment, I can focus on writing again. I’ve started to research my next novel, which is based on the true story of a woman who was taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. I’m still in the process of trying to understand her character. One of the great things about answering these interview questions is that it reminded me how long it took for me to get inside Betsy’s mind. Remembering that gives me confidence that I’ll get a handle on my new character too.

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Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her specialty is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leaders and has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is her first published novel.

She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.

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Format: Paperback & eBook
Publication Date: December 2, 2013
Released by: Amika Press
Length: 484 pages
ISBN: 978-1937484163
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check out all the stops on Ruth Hull Chatlien's The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte Virtual Book Tour Schedule

Monday, March 31
Review at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, April 1
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, April 2
Spotlight at HF Book Muse-News
Interview at Layered Pages
Thursday, April 3
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Interview at Unabridged Chick
Friday, April 4
Review at Scandalous Women
Monday, April 7
Review at The Maiden’s Court
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Tuesday, April 8
Review at The Lit Bitch
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Wednesday, April 9
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, April 10
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession
Interview & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Friday, April 11
Review at Let Them Read Books
Review at The True Book Addict


Anonymous said...

Thank you for interviewing me. I enjoyed answering your questions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for stopping by!