Q & A about the Josephine B. Trilogy

Who would you say your readers are?

My aim is to write novels my friends and family will love and admire. Unfortunately, they are not easy to please!

The titles to Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth were decided before the novels were written?

Yes. For me, the title comes first. It’s almost a magical thing, something that’s given to me.

For both the second and third book in the Josephine B. Trilogy, you credit book clubs for giving you editorial feedback. How did this work?

When I was an editor of young adult fiction, I made it a practice to give a manuscript I was working on to a group of teens to read and discuss. I invariably found these discussions helpful. Writing the first book in the trilogy, I passed various drafts of the manuscript around to friends and family to review, but I thought with longing of those reader groups I had used as an editor. I wanted something like that – I wanted an impartial critique – and after meeting with a book club it occurred to me that that was the type of group I was looking for. Book clubs are ideal: book club members take reading seriously and are in the habit of analyzing what’s right and what’s not right about a novel.

So for both the second and the third novel, I arranged for book clubs to read a draft. They taped the discussion and sent it to me. I learned what was working and what was not. I can’t imagine publishing a novel without it.

(See Sandra Gulland’s daring experiment.)

How long does it take you to write a novel?

Three to five years. The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. took four and a half years, Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe three. The Last Great Dance on Earth was written in two and a half years, but much of it had already been worked out. It takes about six drafts, and the first takes a year.

(See The Story Behind the Story.)

Why Josephine?

Decades ago I read a short biography about Josephine, and was, quite literally, swept away. I immediately started collecting books about her, and the more I learned the more fascinated I became. I’d never been interested in history before, and suddenly, I found myself hooked. Josephine’s life was magical, romantic, and extremely dramatic -extraordinary, really: she went from a somewhat impoverished rural life on an island in the Caribbean to becoming Empress of the French. It was a tumultuous and important period in history, and she was right at the centre of events throughout most of it. And too, Josephine herself is a sympathetic individual, loving, humane – she’s easy to love. She wasn’t raised to be a queen, so it’s not hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been for her, and to admire her courage in bowing to the demands of a very public life. She made an excellent empress.

There must be a great deal of research involved.

An enormous amount. It never ends. But it is the research that is so stimulating, that inspires the writing. Part of what intrigues me is the puzzle – trying to find out what really happened. This is particularly challenging when researching the life of a woman. You have to sort through all the assumptions that have been made about her – the sexist assumptions, if you will. When I began writing, I assumed that the scandalous stories I read about Josephine were true, but the Josephine I discovered through my research is not the Josephine most historians describe.

Are you saying that Josephine has been misinterpreted by historians?

In general, yes. If Josephine dined with a man it was assumed she was having an affair with him. The assumption has been that a sexual relationship is the only relationship a woman might have with a man, whereas in fact, Josephine was a woman who had many close male friends. Today we would say that she networked. She was a skillful lobbyist, businesswoman, diplomat.

Many historians have chosen to take the least charitable interpretation of her actions. If she claimed to be ill, they say she was lying – whereas in fact the evidence suggests she was quite ill. If she made an excursion, it is stated that the purpose of the trip was to have a romantic liaison – whereas in fact the purpose of the trip was diplomatic. And on and on it goes.

(See Animating History and Regarding the cause of Josephine’s infertility.)

What is fact and what is fiction?

This is a difficult question to answer. I usually ask: “For example?” Specifically, I can say yes, Josephine owned a disagreeable dog named Fortunè, or that yes, she escaped Martinique under cannon fire, but in general??

In general, the facts are the bones of the story, the fiction flesh. I tend to be obsessive about accuracy – so my novels are based on fact as much as is possible. Aside from the details of daily life, the specific dialogue, much of what happens in the novels has a basis in some historical text. I comb journals, memoirs and letters collecting nuggets of information much in the same way some people collect stamps. When Josephine and Alexandre marry, for example, and one of the men in Alexandre’s regiment is unable to attend because of “an indisposition” going around Versailles, there is, in fact, “an indisposition” going around Versailles at that time.

Facts can be misleading, however. Many accounts are contradictory, suspect, or difficult to judge. When Josephine was in prison, for example, did she in fact tell her cellmate that she would not die, that she would become Queen? Did a woman outside the prison window signal that Robespierre was dead? This is a story Josephine liked to tell, so I’m inclined to believe it, but to what extent might she (and others) have created fictions of their own?

Robespierre said, “History is fiction,” and I have to agree. The line between fact and fiction is a very difficult one to define. The more one delves into the past, the more fact sometimes resembles fiction and fiction fact. My intent has been to use fiction as a tool, as a means of knowing Josephine and experiencing her world. It is important for me to feel that my fictional history could, in fact, have happened. While writing, I think of my evolving novel as one might view an archaeological dig: with each draft I want to dig down closer to “the truth.” To that end I have respected facts as welcome signposts in a wilderness. In the process I have also come to regard certain “facts” as fiction. In the realm of scholarship on the subject of Josephine, many questions remain.

(See Animating History and The Puzzle of History.)

Did a fortuneteller tell Josephine that she would become Queen?

There are references made in the May, 1797 issue of Le Thè. It intrigues me that Josephine’s extraordinary life was foretold. It makes me wonder: Is it possible that there is such a thing as destiny? Was Josephine destined to be a queen? Was it an accident that Napoleon’s years of greatness coincided with the years he was married to her?

(See Was Josephine the key to Napoleon’s power?)

Why does Napoleon stand with his hand in his vest?

I’ve been told that the hand-in-vest pose was popular in the 18th century, yet I’ve only seen four men portrayed in this way: an aristocrat (whose name escapes me), Josephine’s first husband Alexandre, Josephine’s son Eugène, and Josephine’s second husband Napoleon. (You can see portraits of Josephine’s son and first husband here.)

Is it not significant that three men in Josephine’s life are portrayed in the same way? It is likely that Josephine would have been involved in the portrait sessions, helping to select a portrait painter, suggesting clothing, a setting, etc. And it’s entirely possible, in my view – given the portraits of her son and first husband – that she was the one to suggest that Napoleon pose with his hand in his vest.

What is your next novel going to be about?

I’m writing about three women in the Court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. It covers the last half of the 1600s, a period that is just emerging from the Middle Ages. It is a dramatic, passionate story about love and lust, sacrifice and greed, good and evil. Will it be one novel or more? I’m not sure.