Occupying Center Stage: Writing About Women Who Changed History

An interview with Allison about her new book, "The Queen's Fortune."

While some books of historical fiction use a historical event or person only as a jumping-off point, others  are more biographical in nature, building on the factual details of a real person’s life with imagined thought, conflict and emotion. Allison Pataki’s new novel The Queen’s Fortune belongs mostly in the second category, but it also has another dimension—the story of its main character, Desiree Clary, is intertwined with the better-known stories of Napoleon Bonaparte and his empress Josephine. The result is both surprising and reassuring, familiar and new. And above all, it’s a fascinating tale. I had the opportunity to interview Pataki about her entry point to the story, how it felt to walk in Desiree’s footsteps, her favorite historical era to write, and more.

Greer Macallister

This book is a fabulous read! I’d never really heard of Desiree Clary going into it, so I was constantly surprised by the twists and turns of her life, and how her story intertwines with those of Napoleon and Josephine. Did you always know at what point in her life you were going to begin and end the story, or did that change as you went along?

Allison Pataki

Well, thank you very much! I’m thrilled you enjoyed Desiree’s story, and I would certainly agree that hers was a fascinating and thrilling life, even if her name is not as recognized as many of the powerful men with whom she lived and jousted and ruled. For me, the drama of Desiree’s character arc really launches when she almost loses everything—even her family and her own life—during the days of the French Revolution. It’s during this tumultuous time that the young Desiree Clary meets the young Napoleon Bonaparte and the two fall in love, and that twist of fate changes the trajectory of her life. So that was the clear entry point into this story for me.

As for the ending, what amazed me as I became enthralled with Desiree’s story was her ability to not only survive while those around her did not, but also her ability to carve a path by which she might also thrive and, ultimately, reign. And so I had to carry her story through to the point at which she is the last one standing. Josephine, her rival in love and life, perishes before her. King Louis loses out. Napoleon floats off in defeat to his island exile, all the while brooding over and writing about Desiree and her family into his final days. Even Desiree’s husband, Bernadotte the King of Sweden, falls before she does. Desiree manages to not only found but then also preside over a dynasty that still rules to this day. It’s really unbelievable, but then I always say that when you are writing from the juicy raw material of history, you can’t make this stuff up.

Greer Macallister

Right—the stuff readers might find the most far-fetched is almost always the stuff that actually happened! Research is obviously a huge part of the process for any historical fiction writer. How do you balance your research and your writing—or do you undertake both simultaneously? What did you enjoy most about researching Desiree’s life and legacy?

Allison Pataki

Yes, the research makes up the bones over which the entire book is built. I always have to start with the research and a big initial push up front to immerse myself wholly into the life and history of my subject. At first, it was about familiarizing myself with the key events and dates of Desiree’s life, the key historical figures with whom she lived, the places that were significant in her life, and so forth. So that is the process of ingesting as much information as I can in the forms of biographies and historical texts—all nonfiction reading. Then once that material is swirling around in my brain, I let it marinate for a time, and the characters begin to emerge for me in their historically-inspired iterations. I’ll depend on the history to plot out key scenes, settings, dates, etc. but then I write the story as a work of fiction based on my imaginings of those aspects and facts. And of course I’ll constantly be coming to plot moments where a question pops up in the writing process. “OK, so Napoleon and Desiree sit down to dinner in Paris on the day of his coronation—but what might have been served at the meal? What foods were served at the imperial court at that time?” And then I’ll have to go back in and do spot-check research for those questions. So it’s a big push of research up front, and then ongoing one-offs that arise with the writing of the story.

What did I most enjoy? Well, going to Paris to walk in Desiree’s footsteps and see the significant sites of her life was no hardship. In all seriousness, I do think that traveling for research makes up an important part of the process for me, because it helps me to contextualize my scenes and to absorb the feel and the ambiance of the places that were important in Desiree’s life and in the plot of the book. It was while I was in Paris, walking Desiree’s streets, staring out over the views of the Seine and the city and her neighborhood, soaking up the history and the character of the places, that Desiree came to life for me as a living, breathing character.

Additionally, I loved the creative freedom I had with this particular story of Desiree Clary. That’s because throughout my research, I could not find a single English-language biography in which Desiree was the subject at the front and center. Copious historical and biographical writings take up the lives of Napoleon, Josephine, Bernadotte—and Desiree is of course a prominent supporting character in each—but I did not find anything where she occupied center stage. So that gave me a wonderful opportunity. Desiree came to life in my mind as a character and not only emerged as a real woman, but as the heroine and the star of this story. And it’s about time!

Greer Macallister

Historical novelists often struggle with how close to stick to the historical record—I know I sure do! How do you decide whether to do things like tweak the timeline, use composite characters, or diverge from recorded events for the sake of the story?

Allison Pataki

I absolutely do struggle with that! It might be the biggest challenge I find in writing historical fiction. The historical record and then the fictionalized narrative that is born out of the historical research are the two tracks running alongside one another, and at times those tracks run pretty close to parallel, and at times they manage to veer off in divergent directions. The thing about Desiree’s story was that the raw material handed down to me from history was just so good that I would have been crazy not to stay close to the historical record. Some of the most outrageous moments of this book are plucked directly from the pages of the history books. Where I find it particularly necessary to invoke the fiction prerogative of the writer of historical fiction is when those big historical moments happen that directly impact your heroine but she was not in fact present when they occurred. The assassination attempt at Christmas is one example that comes to mind for this book. That event happened as I wrote it, and Desiree was directly impacted, but she was not in fact in the coach as I write her in this book. As a writer you want your reader to experience the action of history and the plot up close and in real-time, rather than through a character’s game of telephone. So that can affect the pacing and the narrative at times. Ultimately, isn’t that part of why we love reading historical fiction—because it allows us to enter firsthand into these most compelling and jaw-dropping of historical moments?

Greer Macallister

Absolutely! Speaking of moments—your historical fiction has ranged across the miles and years, from Philadelphia during the American Revolution, to the life of the Austrian Empress Sisi in the second half of the 19th century, to France during the Napoleonic era. Do you have a favorite of those? Or is the one you’re writing always your favorite at the time?

Allison Pataki

You got it—the one I’m working on becomes my obsession. That certainly happened with Desiree. It’s such a privilege and a pleasure as both a writer and a reader of historical fiction to get to waltz through a Habsburg Palace during Johann Strauss’ concert. Or to be in the bedroom of Benedict Arnold and his wife as they are plotting their treason that will end the hopes of the American Revolution. In this case, it was a thrill to enter into the tumultuous times of Napoleonic France through Desiree’s significant role. History is the furthest thing from boring.

Greer Macallister

As a writer, I always dread this question, but as an enthusiastic reader of your work, I have to ask itwhat’s next for you?

Allison Pataki

I’m smiling because you have hit the nail on the head. We dread this question but we also long for it! So I have to thank you for asking. I’m thrilled because my next book allows me to stay (figuratively, sadly) in Paris. I am releasing the second book in my children’s book series Big City Adventures. The first one came out last spring, called Nelly Takes New York, and this spring I’ll release Poppy Takes Paris. These books are fun and educational for young readers, and they are loosely inspired by my own experiences as a mother to two curious and feisty little girls.

As for my next adult fiction, I’ll be traveling back to America. It is the story of another strong, fascinating woman who changed history and who (I’m fairly confident in making this outrageous comment) impacted the lives of most of us alive today. And yet so few people know her name! She was another one whose stunning life narrative swept me away, and I can’t wait to share more with readers soon.

The Queen’s Fortune
By Allison Pataki
Ballantine Books
Published February 11, 2020

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