I have been a member of a writers support and critique group for several years now. We meet every three weeks to share feedback on manuscripts, but also provide support and advice to one another for all the trials and challenges that writers face. Every once in awhile, though, we also get to share in the joys and successes of our fellow group members.
I am pleased to share with you the news that my friend and colleague, Margaret Rodenberg, has just won the Best Fiction Award at the Tenth Annual San Francisco Writers Conference for her (as yet unpublished) novel, “Finding Napoleon,” which at one time went by the working title, “Eaglet’s Legacy.” In this work of historical fiction, Napoleon Bonaparte writes a novel while in exile on the island of St Helena. Napoleon actually did start to write a novel, but Margaret has finished it and, in telling this story, given us a surprising glimpse of a more human Napoleon than many people imagine. You can read more about Margaret’s research for the book at her blog http://www.findingnapoleon.com/.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Margaret about her book. My questions and her answers follow:
Q: Where did you get the idea for this book?
A: Fifteen years ago, I read a brief mention that young Napoleon Bonaparte had tried to write a novel. I immediately decided to finish it for him and did enough research to acquire copies of the manuscript. Then I set out on the many-year-long process of learning to write fiction.
As FINDING NAPOLEON developed, it became clear to me that I wanted Napoleon himself to finish his manuscript. My book became the intertwining story of the defeated Emperor stripped of his power rewriting his youthful novel to explain his own rise to leadership.
Q: Did you encounter any special problems in writing this work of fiction that’s based on a certain amount of historical fact?
A: From the start, I wanted to stay within the realm of historical possibility. Fortunately, Napoleon’s complex life provides a huge canvas. I used unsolved mysteries about his life to create “secret history,” that is, what could have happened between the interstices of established fact. Handling the passage of time was especially difficult since compressing time makes fiction dramatic. In real life key events often occur over many years, diluting their literary punch. The challenge is to move your reader through the empty months without losing continuity or interest.
A: Thank goodness for the Internet, both as a source of information and a source for used books. I read literally dozens of books, including original source material in French, and traveled over 30,000 miles. It’s easy to find information about what Napoleon did; the difficulty was sifting through it to discover who he was as a person. To do that, I traveled to Corsica where he was born, to France where he spent much of his life, and to St Helena Island in the South Atlantic where he died in exile.
Q: I know you had a long career in the computer field before turning your attention and talents to writing fiction. What motivates you to write?
A: No doubt an affinity for story-telling helped in the sales and marketing aspects of my career. Actually, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t expect to write fiction. A love of books turned into a life-long habit of telling a story in my head to put myself to sleep at night. Sometimes, I’d continue the same story for weeks or years. Add to that a love for language, and you have a writer.
Q: You do a marvelous job in this book of making Napoleon a sympathetic and even somewhat appealing character. Was this one of your goals for writing this book or just a happy accident?
A: Thanks, Raima. I wasn’t sure where my research would lead, but as we increase our understanding of any fellow human being, we become more sympathetic. Napoleon himself—the essence of the man—is often relegated to a caricature of a short guy with a big ego and funny hat. Yet how can that fit with being a great leader, legal reformer and intrepid general? Despite his own voluminous writings, despite the multiplicity of opinion about him, despite the mountain of books I read, his personality remained opaque, his motivations unclear, and his actions contradictory. That’s why I set to work “finding Napoleon,” the hero and the villain of his story, as each of us is of our own.
Your surprise, by the way, reflects the success of British propaganda. Napoleon himself is often quoted as saying, “History is written by the winners.” For example, what we call the Napoleonic Wars might as easily be called the Wars Against Napoleon, reapportioning blame to old-line monarchies fearing the rise of meritocracy in the wake of the French revolution. But that’s not what my book’s about.
Q: Do you have any advice for new or struggling writers?
A: Read with the eye of a writer. Store away the details of what you see and feel for future use. Above all, expose your writing to criticism. My writing group has been invaluable in improving my craft and in motivating me with deadlines. But if you want to be published, recognize that it’s a hard business so don’t count on writing to pay your bills. Do it because you love it.