Drama to Spare: PW Talks with Ruth Hull Chatlien
The author explains why a blend of self-publishing and traditional publishing was right for her.Ruth Hull Chatlien’s debut novel, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, received a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer calling it “meticulously researched, engrossing in detail, and full of the customs, values, and prejudices of the era.” We spoke to Chatlien about hybrid publishing and how to engage an audience.
Why did you choose to publish The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte with Amika Press?
I chose Amika Press because it offered me a blend of both self-publishing and traditional publishing. I kept complete creative control of the final product and I retain control of the rights just as I would if I’d self-published. The big advantage that Amika offers over self-publishing is professional editing and design. I’ve worked as an editor and writer in educational publishing for 25 years, and my experience has taught me that it takes a team of skilled people to produce a high-quality book.
Had you published before?
I have published short stories and poems in literary magazines, mostly in the Chicago area. In 2007, I published the young adult nonfiction book Modern American Indian Leaders with Mason Crest.
Your blog includes excerpts from your novel as well as a book trailer—why did you choose these promotion tactics?As a reader, I always welcome the chance to sample a book before I buy it. Putting excerpts on my blog seemed a natural way to allow potential readers a chance to browse. As for the book trailer, I was participating in an online author’s forum, and someone mentioned that he had done a trailer for his book. I watched it and decided it would be fun to create one of my own.
What drew you specifically to Napoleon Bonaparte’s little brother’s wife?
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 many 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. Once I started researching in earnest, I was hooked.
What kind of research did you have to do?
I read five nonfiction books about Betsy Bonaparte and biographies of Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, and the Caton sisters. A number of different books provided 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.
Did you have any difficulty trying to give a narrative shape to the historical events recounted in the book?
I really didn’t have to create drama with this story; Betsy Bonaparte’s life had drama to spare. But that’s not to say I didn’t create fictional episodes. My favorite analogy for writing historical fiction is that it’s like hanging decorative swags. The first thing I do is to find the main events in my subject’s life and get them in order. Those become the brackets extending from the wall at irregular intervals. Once they are in place, then I drape the fabric that connects those events; that’s the fictional part that makes everything hang together. For me, one of the biggest holes in my research was the lack of explanation for why Betsy and Jerome did some of the things they did. I created fictional episodes to explore their psychology and help clarify their motives. Characterization is one of the things I enjoy most about writing fiction.