Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Margaret Rodenberg Interview - Finding Napoleon

Photo Content from Margaret Rodenberg

Margaret Rodenberg’s passion for French history began when she lived in France as a young teen with her US Navy family. An avid traveler who has visited over sixty countries, she has journeyed more than 30,000 miles to conduct Napoleonic research, including to St. Helena Island in the remote South Atlantic. She’s a former businesswoman, an award-winning writer, and a proud director of the Napoleonic Historical Society, a non-profit that promotes knowledge of the Napoleonic era. Her website,, reports on Napoleon’s ongoing presence in world culture. Finding Napoleon is her first novel.


Where were you born and where do you call home?
I was born at Bethesda Naval Hospital (now Walter Reed Military Hospital) in Bethesda, Maryland. Because I was a Navy brat, I moved every couple of years as a child, and continued to do so on my own as a young adult. I settled down in Reston, Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. and call the D.C. area home. The only place from my childhood wanderings that fills me with a sense of home is Villefranche-sur-mer on France’s Rivera, where, as a young teen, I spent two years—that’s the “home” connection to my writing FINDING NAPOLEON, a historical novel with Napoleon at its center.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
In the years since I began writing fiction, I’ve been immersed in a community of supportive writers. Publishing can be a heart-wrenching process, full of rejection, failures, and anxiety. Yet I have never felt so surrounded with love, kindness, and generosity from professional colleagues.

What inspired you to pen your first novel?
While I was doing research for FINDING NAPOLEON, I passed some summer weeks kayaking with orcas and viewing grizzlies in the wilds of British Columbia. On the way home, while I readjusted to civilization in Vancouver’s airport, I stopped at a display of First Nations’ culture. As I watched a three-minute video of ceremonial dancing, an entire novel, complete with characters’ names and faces, their past and present struggles, and the town they inhabited blossomed inside my head, like a flower in time-lapse photography.

I put aside my Napoleon project to write their story. That novel, although it won unpublished fiction awards, and an agent did her best to sell it, never got published. Maybe one day, it will. I don’t regret writing it—the experience served as a boot camp for FINDING NAPOLEON.

Tell us your latest news.
My debut novel FINDING NAPOLEON comes out on April 6. What could be bigger news for me than that? The months after pub date are full of fun virtual events with the Brooklyn Public Library, LA Talk Radio, the Historical Novel Society conference, book clubs, and many others. Also, I just signed my first international contract, selling the Hungarian language rights so next time you’re in Budapest . . .

Can you tell us when you started FINDING NAPOLEON, how that came about?
The moment I learned that young Napoleon Bonaparte had tried to write a romantic novel (titled Clisson) and that his unfinished manuscript still existed, I vowed to finish it for him. First, I had to learn how to write fiction. Second, I had to find a way inside Napoleon’s head. Now my adaptation of Clisson accounts for about a third of FINDING NAPOLEON and is at the core of its story. In it, the aging, defeated emperor finishes his youthful, idealistic manuscript while he and his last lover, Albine de Montholon, struggle in exile on remote St. Helena Island in the South Atlantic.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I expect many readers to say “What? This is Napoleon? Wait, did that happen?” as they experience a slice of history in a remote place with characters and events they barely knew existed. By the end, I hope readers will be filled with that most human of emotions: compassion for both the least and the most powerful among us. I hope they will engage in self reflection, thinking, “Now I see who these people were. But who am I, relative to them? What path to happiness and ambition am I choosing? Or am I letting life choose for me?”

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
I’m always surprised by how much I love my characters, even as I reveal their flaws. They become more real to me than many people I know, and they stay with me long after I finish the writing.

Second, most of FINDING NAPOLEON takes place on remote St. Helena Island in the midst of the South Atlantic Ocean, where Napoleon lived out his final five years in exile. The island’s first airport opened in 2017, but when I traveled there, it required a five-day voyage each way on a transport ship out of Cape Town, South Africa. I stayed on the island for nine days. I went there to absorb concrete facts and details, but I found my way into Napoleon’s character simply standing alone in the room where he died. I’m convinced that fiction is both craft and magic.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would take young idealistic Napoleon Bonaparte of 1786 by the hand and introduce him to Emperor Napoleon of 1814 as he is portrayed unflatteringly in Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace. I hope that confrontation would direct the young genius onto a better path, avoiding the tragedies ahead.

Your question makes me wonder how much we would alter our behavior, if instead of looking back on our lives, we could look forward to see what we will become.

In a sense, that’s what happens in FINDING NAPOLEON. As a part of its plot, the defeated exiled emperor finishes writing the romantic semiautobiographical novel he’d started as a young man. In that novel-within-the-novel, his young hero can change who he becomes.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
During the research phase, I put FINDING NAPOLEON on the shelf to work on my earlier still-unpublished novel. Over the years, I rode that seesaw several times, switching between the two manuscripts.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
I wish everyone could experience the world’s great wild animals in their natural habitats. Whether on the land or in the sea, they are humbling in their majesty and touching in their fragility.

Best date you've ever had?
For one of my birthdays, my husband took me to Isla Mujeres in Mexico to swim with wild whale sharks. Have you seen a whale shark? They are the length of a school bus and their skin is navy blue with white polka dots. Gentle giants, they feed on plankton, not people. If you are in the right spot, they emerge out of the murky water and swim past you.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I would return to March of 2020 when we first went into pandemic lockdown. I’d convince myself to put aside my anxiety and be more productive every day of the coming year.

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew?
When I was in my mid twenties, I was a trainee in a corporate training program that was run like an abusive boot camp. For three weeks, we lived on a campus that was purposely designed to get the students lost. We were constantly tested and overloaded with work so no one got enough sleep. The instructors yelled and mocked like drill sergeants. Many of the new employees had been hired directly out of college and could easily be brought to tears. Since I was a few years older, I made a point of acting up to draw the instructors’ anger to me when my fellow students became distressed. For the first time, I realized I was an older adult with responsibility for younger adults.

First Heartbreak 
As a junior in high school, I dated a senior who was our school’s leading radical. Peter published an underground newspaper, hung out with college kids, and aspired to overturn the Establishment. After he graduated, he moved to Israel to live on a kibbutz and soon stopped writing back to me. Although only a year separated us in age, I was too immature to hold his attention.

What is your most memorable travel experience?
Certainly, that grand voyage to St. Helena Island to conduct research for FINDING NAPOLEON tops the list. On the way there, my husband and I even fit in a safari and a cage dive with great white sharks in South Africa. Nonetheless, a three-week trip trekking and touring in Nepal was actually the most life changing. Maybe it was the thin Himalayan air, the hardships of the conditions, the pervasive spirituality, or something indefinable, but for me and my small group of co-travelers, it crystallized what few things in life truly matter.

Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
Oh, without question, as the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Tennyson went on to say, “And find in loss a gain to match.” I’d always choose to endure the depths as long as I can achieve the heights.

  • 1. It’s a rare, enjoyable opportunity to replace your cartoonish concept of Napoleon Bonaparte—one of the most influential people in history—with a fleshed-out persona brimming with life, riddled with contradictions. Avoid the wars and battles, yet come away with a better understanding what made him the man he was.
  • 2. Meet a forgotten woman of history, the amusing, audacious, truehearted Albine de Montholon, Napoleon’s last love.
  • 3. Come for the history, stay for the entertainment and the writing that New York Times best-selling historical author, Allison Pataki, calls “beautiful and poignant.”
  • 4. Discover the fascinating world of St. Helena Island in 1815-21, a neglected place and time, with a well-traveled, knowledgeable author guiding you.
  • 5. Learn about Clisson, the charming novel Napoleon Bonaparte actually attempted to write. It’ll make for great cocktail conversation at the next wedding reception, dinner at your in-laws, or university faculty party you attend.
  • 6. Relish two love stories (Napoleon & Albine’s affair and the romantic novel Clisson that Napoleon wrote), each marked with intrigue and betrayal, rolled into one novel.
  • 7. Experience a range of emotions, from hope to despair, humor to tragedy, loss and victory, loyalty and betrayal, and laughter to tears, in what New York Times notable author Louis Bayard called, “rousing delightfully peopled adventure.”
  • 8. Meet charming, amusing, maddening new friends in the characters of Cipriani, Betsy, Sir Hudson Lowe, Basil Jackson, and Albine’s husband Charles de Montholon. Figure out whom to trust and what side you’re on.
  • 9. Learn more about slavery in the time of Napoleon. Consider how that fits within your concept of enslavement as practiced in European and American societies.
  • 10. Get a chance to reflect on your own desires for power and ambition. Do you crave life “on the grand stage” or are you content with a “small” life? How are you “creating masterpieces” in your life? Decide: are you a Napoleon or an Albine? How have your youthful aspirations changed?
Your Favorite Quotes/Scenes FINDING NAPOLEON
FINDING NAPOLEON has three points of view or voices in it. Here are excerpts from two of them:
Albine de Montholon, who opens the novel with this prologue:

Unless you too stitched a white gown for the guillotine, do not judge me. But if you’d faced the terrors I have—if you were Empress Josephine herself—I’d accept your judgment on my morals. If you were Napoleon’s second wife . . . No, let’s not talk of Marie Louise more than we must.

Since you’re not Josephine (and likely an ember to her bonfire), I beg you to listen. Within these pages, learn secrets about Emperor Napoleon, whom I loved. He and I were of a piece, our hungers rooted in a bog of family, ambition, treason. We both had children to lose. We both had trust to betray. We both had seen better days. I expose our frailties for your entertainment.

Oh, I don’t pretend to be his equal. The Emperor inhabited a grand stage. I was a creature of the boudoir. History will remember me as a tendril in the forest of his life. Yet when we intertwined, one could break the other.

I warn you: some of this is hearsay from people with tarnished reputations. Much came from the Great Man’s lips when his body lay naked at my side. Part is from a novel Napoleon wrote about himself. I add spice to the stew.

So know my Napoleon, know me, and I shall love you for it. For what but love matters? It is the holiest, costliest, easiest thing to give. I gave mine freely, as Napoleon gave his to me. I was the last woman he loved.

Napoleon Bonaparte, saying goodbye to his toddler son, with a quote (one of the few battle scenes in the book) from his novel Clisson in italics:

A shiver, absent in war, twitched the Emperor’s shoulders. Fifty-four battles, and he’d never been afraid to die. Until he had this child. Until he had his Eaglet.

The boy squirmed. “Papa-Papa?”

He kissed the Eaglet’s fingertips one by one. “Born for war. Come, I’ll read you what that means.” He shifted his manuscript out of the shadows. Not that he needed light. He’d memorized his faded scribbles years ago. He deepened his tone to an army timbre. “Once more, you seize the tattered battle flag. You yell, ‘Hoorah!’ from smoke-seared lungs. The cavalry, sabers drawn, thunders in your wake into the cannon fire. Your horse’s hooves crush bones of fallen men. All at once, a musket blows a thousand arrows through your chest. Your horse wheels, collapses. Earth soaks in your blood.”

His voice broke . . . He hugged the wriggling Eaglet to his chest. “Be still, royal squirmer. Don’t you want to hear more of Papa’s story? Before I say goodbye?”

“Bye? Bye, Papa?” The Eaglet’s heart-shaped mouth, a miniature of the Emperor’s, quivered, gaped, and exploded in a howl. Louis-N covered his ears. The Emperor leaned in, absorbing the wail. He lifted the screaming child above his head and lowered him bit by bit until they met nose to nose, openmouthed, swallowing each other’s breath.

“No bye, no bye-bye,” the Eaglet whimpered.

With its delightful adaptation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s real attempt to write a novel, Finding Napoleon offers a fresh take on Europe’s most powerful man after he’s lost everything. A forgotten woman of history—the audacious Albine de Montholon—narrates their tale of intrigue, love, and betrayal.

After the defeated Emperor Napoleon goes into exile on tiny St. Helena Island in the remote South Atlantic, he and his lover, Albine de Montholon, plot to escape and rescue his young son. Banding together African slaves, British sympathizers, a Jewish merchant, a Corsican rogue, and French followers, they confront British opposition—as well as treachery within their own ranks—with sometimes subtle, sometimes bold, but always desperate action.

When Napoleon and Albine break faith with one another, ambition and Albine’s husband threaten their reconciliation. To survive, Albine must decide whom to betray. To succeed, Napoleon must learn whom to trust.

Two hundred years after Napoleon’s death, this elegant, richly researched novel reveals the man history conceals.

You can purchase Finding Napoleon at the following Retailers:

And now, The Giveaways.
Thank you MARGARET RODENBERG for making this giveaway possible.
1 Winner will receive a Copy of Finding Napoleon by Margaret Rodenberg. 


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