Thursday, April 3, 2014

Interview with Ruth Hull Chatlien

Earlier this week I reviewed Ruth Hull Chatlien's fabulous novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, about the American belle who married one of Napoleon's brothers. Her life verges on the unbelievable, and I inhaled this novel in a few days. I'm excited to share my interview with the author, so read on to learn more about the book and what she does when she's not writing.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

When I was ten, I started writing a historical novel called The Unknown Patriot. It was a combination of a spy story and Romeo and Juliet. During the American Revolution, two young lovers named Rebecca and Thomas were kept apart because their fathers—Boston merchants—had fallen out over political differences. Rebecca’s father was a Tory, while Thomas’s father favored independence. The young couple decided to meet secretly. Thomas was also approached to act as a courier for an American spy who communicated only by letter and called himself John Q to keep his identity hidden. The final manuscript was about 120 pages long and took me about six years to write.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I like to start each writing session by rereading what I did the day before and maybe making a few changes. Doing that helps get me back into the flow of the story. If I’m really stuck on something, I like to take a long walk outdoors and let the physical activity clear out the cobwebs from my mind.

Was The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the original title of your book?

Yes, the title came very early in the process. There is a famous quotation by the real Betsy that I used in the novel: “Tell the emperor that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.” In addition, as I read through Betsy Bonaparte’s collected letters, I realized that she often used the adjective ambitious to describe herself—and to distinguish herself from many of her acquaintances. She was well aware that she wanted much more than was typical of the other women she knew.

When did you first learn about Betsy Bonaparte, and why did you want to tell her story?

My husband and I were great fans of the Horatio Hornblower television series in the late 1990s. Then in the 2000s, we discovered an additional four episodes that we had never seen because they were produced much later. The last of those featured Jerome and Betsy Bonaparte. Despite my familiarity with world history, 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 many 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. Even when I disagreed with her choices, I felt that it was my task to show why she made the decisions she did and how they grew out of her own values and goals, not mine as the writer.

As you were writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I think the scene that surprised me most occurred in Chapter Twenty-Seven. I had taken great care to depict Betsy’s son Bo as an even-tempered child who did his best to please his mother so I was shocked that, as I was writing the scene in which he learns that his tutor must leave him, he suddenly began to throw a tantrum. I tried to backtrack and start over, but Bo just would not play the scene any other way. After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I hadn’t done justice to the insecurities the boy must have felt because of the precarious status of his parents’ marriage.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to read of course, but I also have many interests not related to books. 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, a gardener, a doting owner of a 9-year-old schnoodle, and an avid football fan.

Read any good books recently?

I recently read Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle, which I enjoyed immensely. It tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife. Fremantle is adept at plotting and characterization and she does a good job of demonstrating the personal qualities that caused Henry to marry Katherine despite her seeming disadvantages (she ha already been widowed twice). The descriptions offer enough period details to ground the reader firmly in the historical place and time without bogging down the prose. I think Fremantle is a promising new voice in historical fiction.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Chatlien for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her book at her website and connect with her on Facebook.


  1. Thanks for the interview. I enjoyed answering the questions.

  2. Great interview. There were good questions and answers. It was very detailed.

    1. I love it when authors share such great details with me. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. It's great when the characters in a book take on a life of their own! I love that quote about Madame Bonaparte being ambitious, too.

  4. It's a great quote -- I adore it!