Sunday, 3 January 2016

Meet Shannon Selin, author of Napoleon in America

It's a great pleasure to welcome Shannon Selin to the blog. Shannon is an author with considerable experience of writing non-fiction who has recently branched out into fiction with the publication of her alternative history novel, Napoleon in America.

Welcome Shannon,
Would you tell us a bit about yourself and your family? Where are you from? Do you have a day job or do you write full-time?

I grew up in a small town on the Canadian prairies best known for its slogan, “New York is big, but this is Biggar.” I was an avid reader and I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a writer. After graduating from university, I worked at jobs that involved considerable non-fiction writing in fields ranging from foreign affairs to health care, and wrote creatively in my spare time. I worked on several novels, none finished to the degree that I ever considered publishing them. Once I started on Napoleon in America, I turned to writing full-time. I live in Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, with my husband and our youngest child. Our two older children are away at university.

You’ve chosen a historical figure, Napoleon Bonaparte, as the main character for your novel. What in particular attracted you to writing about him?

Five years ago, my husband and I dined at a New Orleans restaurant called Napoleon House. The building originally belonged to a Frenchman named Nicolas Girod, who was the mayor of New Orleans during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Girod hated the British and was furious when they imprisoned Napoleon on the island of St. Helena. According to legend, Girod fixed his house up as a residence for Napoleon and plotted with some pirates to rescue the former French emperor and bring him to the United States. Shortly before they were to set sail, they learned that Napoleon had died.

I read this story on the menu and said to my husband, “That would make a great book, if Napoleon had come to North America.” He said, “Why don’t you write it?” I thought, “Why not?” My father was a history teacher, so I was already quite familiar with Napoleon. Whether one takes a positive or a negative view of him, Napoleon was a complex man who dominated the history of his time. He remains one of the best-known figures ever. Even people who don’t know the details of his story recognize his name, his portraits and the shape of his hat. I thought it would be fun to take this larger-than-life character and put him in a new environment.

Tell us a bit about the story. What conflicts shape it and where did the inspiration for it come from?

Napoleon in America begins where the Napoleon House legend leaves off – with Napoleon on his way to New Orleans in 1821. Beyond the improbability of Napoleon being able to escape from St. Helena, I wanted the book to be as plausible as possible. I thus used only actual historical characters and set the novel in the geopolitical context of the time. The story is shaped by conflicts within Napoleon, as he struggles to adjust to life in the United States, frets about his legacy, and worries about his son, who is living with the Austrian royal family. It is also shaped by the reaction of others to Napoleon’s new freedom. Opponents of the Bourbon regime expect him to reconquer France. French Canadians beg him to seize Canada from Britain. American adventurers urge him to steal Texas from Mexico. His brother Joseph pleads with him to settle peacefully in New Jersey. The British, French and American governments follow Napoleon’s activities with growing alarm, while remnants of the Grande Armée flock to him with growing anticipation.

How do you do your research?

For Napoleon in America, I started by reading a lot of books about Napoleon, particularly about his time on St. Helena. What physical shape was he in? What frame of mind was he in? If someone plucked him up and carried him away, what would he be likely to say and do?

I then read up on all the other characters who appear in the novel – people like the Duke of Wellington, Louis XVIII and his family, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Quincy Adams, the Bonaparte family, pirate Jean Laffite, and Napoleonic officers who fled to the United States after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Since the book moves between St. Helena, various European settings and North America, I also did research on each of these places in the early 1820s, to help me imagine what it might have been like to be there.

Wherever possible, I turned to original sources: relevant letters, diaries, memoirs, travellers’ accounts and newspapers, as well as historical maps, paintings and drawings. Luckily, copies of many of these are available online.

 Even though Napoleon is a historical figure, you’ve placed him in a fictional story. Alternative history has been criticised by academic historians who claim it is valueless. How would you answer that charge?

Alternative history as a genre of fiction has, like all fiction, the value of entertaining the reader. As for the value to academics, considering other ways in which history might have unfolded can help scholars look at events as they appeared to decision-makers at the time, without the benefit of hindsight. It can also help historians clarify their assumptions. Do they regard history as determined in advance to go a certain way? If not, on what factors did whatever they’re studying depend? As historian Mark Grimsley writes, “when historians explain why things happen they are implicitly employing a form of ‘[what] might have been’ history, for whenever they touch upon a key variable – an important decision-maker, social process, or even climate condition – they are in effect arguing that but for that variable, things might have turned out differently.”

Longwood House on St Helena where Napoleon spent his final years as a prisoner of the British
 It’s been said that you can’t teach creative writing, you can only recognise what is good and say ‘keep doing that’. Do you agree?

I think that, as with other creative pursuits like music and art, some people are born with an aptitude for writing. Those who are not can be taught principles and techniques, and even those with natural talent may benefit from some instruction in the craft. Ultimately, the best way to become a better writer is to read a lot of good writing. That comes in many forms.

Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?

I tend to be a plotter. I like to know where I’m going with a book: what the end is going to be, and what needs to happen for the story to get there. I start by coming up with a detailed outline. I then make adjustments to the plot as I go along, if something doesn’t feel right as I’m writing, or if my research – which is ongoing – sparks ideas that I hadn’t considered at the outset.

What are you working on now?

I am writing the sequel to Napoleon in America, which continues Napoleon’s North American adventures. I also blog about Napoleonic and 19th century history on my website. Sample posts include “10 Interesting Facts about Napoleon Bonaparte,” “Napoleon’s Nemesis: The Duke of Wellington,” and “How Pauline Bonaparte lived for pleasure.” I’d be delighted if your readers checked it out. 

Thanks for the lovely interview, Harriet. It’s a great pleasure to appear on your blog. 

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