Coffee Talk with Author Allison Pataki

The first thing I do after reading a book’s synopsis is check out the author page.  Just like I want to know every minute detail behind a historical fiction novel, I am eager to learn about each author, their experiences while writing, their repertoire, and any other nugget of information I can find. In chatting with budding author, Allison Pataki, she graciously agreed to answer some of my burning questions about her breakthrough novel, The Traitor’s Wife. Coming off the heels of NaNoWriMo, I also wanted to pick her brain about historical fiction as a genre and the writing process in general. I hope you enjoy reading just as much as I enjoyed asking these questions!

On The Traitor’s Wife:

What new perspective do you hope readers will walk away with after reading “The Traitor’s Wife”?

Everyone knows Benedict Arnold’s name, and to call someone a “Benedict Arnold” is the ultimate insult. He’s a notorious figure in our nation’s history. But no one knows the name of Peggy Shippen Arnold, even though Peggy was as involved and culpable in the plot as her infamous husband. You might even say she was the mastermind behind the whole plot. And yet her story is unknown, even though it’s so fascinating. I wanted this to be the unheard of back-story behind this whole infamous act of treason and this dramatic love triangle. I wanted to tell the tale of the woman who stood by Arnold’s side when he became a traitor. By his side, or, you might even say, out front!

History classes don’t often teach us about the details of Benedict Arnold’s life other than his traitorous ways – this is where the history lesson ends. In “The Traitor’s Wife” it is easy to empathize with Arnold, as he is the tragic hero at the hands of Peggy’s master plot. Was it your intention to paint him in this light?

That’s exactly right! There’s so much more to the story than what we learned in the history lessons. Time again, while writing and researching for The Traitor’s Wife, I found myself wrestling with a surprising reaction: I kept thinking “poor Benedict Arnold!”

I was floored at the complexity of Benedict Arnold’s character and career. There was so much more to him than just the treason for which he is remembered. Benedict Arnold was an ardent colonial patriot and a heroic general who fought valiantly for most of the Revolutionary War. If not for Arnold’s military skill at the Battle of Saratoga, the British would probably have won and the Revolution might have ended in 1777.

Also, I was surprised to learn that a certain amount of Arnold’s bitterness toward his colleagues on the American side was justified. George Washington often mediated for Arnold – and took his side – when Arnold was treated unfairly by the Continental Congress and his colleagues in the army.

Benedict Arnold’s name is synonymous with “traitor,” yes, but there are so many other descriptors – and positive ones – that might also be applied to him. History is always so nuanced.

How did you learn about the story of Peggy Shippen and what inspired you to write a story from the viewpoint of her maid? Why not tell the story in Peggy’s voice?

Several years ago I was walking the dogs with my mother in upstate New York, right across the river from West Point. We paused to read a historical marker, which described “Arnold’s Flight,” the walking trail we hiked. The marker described the three main characters of Benedict Arnold’s conspiracy to sell West Point.

I knew Benedict Arnold, the notorious American turncoat. I knew John André, the British spy with whom Arnold had conspired.

What I had not known, however, was whose face belonged to the portrait of the beautiful young woman beside Benedict Arnold. Her name was Peggy Shippen Arnold. I read how Peggy was courted first by John André before she married the colonial hero, Benedict Arnold. She was a loyalist to the British cause. As such, she was the central figure in orchestrating her husband’s treason. Reading this, I thought to myself: how did I not know this? It was pretty juicy stuff!

As I continued my walk, I could not stop thinking about Peggy Shippen Arnold, and I could not wait to learn more about the role she had played in this well known treason. Once I began the research, and continued to uncover the salacious details of the whole plot, the idea for the novel took off.

And as for creating the fictional narrator of the maid Clara, that was something I decided on doing very early on. The novel would have been entirely different had I written it from Peggy’s perspective—both for the reader, and also for me as the writer. I think introducing Clara’s perspective allowed it to be a more well-rounded story.

Writing from Clara’s perspective allowed me to interject feelings like hope, optimism, insecurity, and idealism into the novel. All of the feelings that one might have felt as they witnessed a new nation’s fight for independence. Clara and Caleb are the consummate idealists—they completely believe in what the fight for American freedom would have been at its best. They believe in the new country, and in George Washington, and in the futures they see as possible. And they, like the new country, are young and naïve and incredibly vulnerable to forces that seem more powerful than they are.

Written from Peggy’s perspective, the book would have been a much more tense, much more uncomfortable experience, I think. With Clara as the protagonist, the reader can be introduced to Peggy, just as Clara is. The reader can be seduced by Peggy, but also repulsed by her. I hope that Peggy is the woman that you love to hate. Seeing it through Clara’s eyes, the reader has a front-row view to the scheming and the double-dealing (which can be really fun to witness), but also enjoy a refreshing dose of sincerity and guilelessness. Peggy is anything but guileless!

On Historical Fiction:

In writing historical fiction there’s a delicate balance between actual history and weaving in fictional elements to embellish for the purposes of a book. How do you find that balance?

That’s exactly right. That’s the biggest challenge, in my opinion. With historical fiction, it can be difficult to decide when to stick to the facts and when to use artistic license.

In some ways, having access to a timeline of events and such rich historical details makes your job easier as the writer. Of course you want to include fascinating details like what the characters looked like, how they dressed, what sort of homes they would have lived in, and so forth.

But, the more you uncover facts and historical details, the easier it becomes to get bogged down in thinking that you must include everything you find. You start to feel like you are getting way too granular and that the story is becoming unwieldy. That you are kind of hampered, in a way, by the historical record.

At some point, you need to throw your hands up and say, OK, I’ve got a lot of raw material here. Now it’s time to sit down and write a novel. To create a plot and draw these character portraits and allow it to be a creative, imaginative process. A novel, after all, is fiction.

History is filled with so many stories our history classes don’t even begin to scratch the surface of. What other stories do you personally find intriguing that you’d like to delve deeper into?

I thought, while writing The Traitor’s Wife, that I would never enjoy writing another book this much, ever again. But I was surprised. I found another topic that, to me, is equally fascinating and fun, and that has been the inspiration for my upcoming historical novel, The Accidental Empress.

Like The Traitor’s Wife, my next novel is the story of a captivating woman who had a front-row seat to the events of her time. Though her time period is well known, her life and her role in history have been largely forgotten.

The Accidental Empress is the little known and tumultuous love story of “Sisi,” the Austro-Hungarian Empress and captivating wife of Emperor Franz-Joseph, who was plucked from obscurity at the age of 16 and thrust onto the throne in the golden era of the Habsburg Court.

Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, was and continues to be a fascinating, complex, modern, beautiful, and tragic leading lady. She was Europe’s last great Empress, as it was her family that declared war and began World War I. She was known as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” but it was her wit and intelligence and charisma that made her a legend in her own time. And yet, somehow, she has become a footnote in modern history. It is so interesting to me how many women—women who accomplished huge things—have slipped through the cracks of history with their stories going largely untold.

I want people to read the story of Sisi so that they can empathize with the great things she did and tried to do. So that they can be transported to the beautiful and romantic world of the imperial Habsburg Court, filled with Walt Disney-esque castles and grand ballrooms and violin waltzes. So that they can be drawn into the love triangle in which she found herself. So that they can empathize with the incredibly moving and relevant difficulties Sisi weathered, not only as a Habsburg empress, but as a wife, a mother, and an individual seeking her own purpose in a treacherous court and a shifting world. So that they can be inspired in their own lives to learn more about history in a fun, entertaining and accessible way.

On Writing:

How and when did you know that writing was something you wanted to pursue more intensely?

I love books. I love reading them, I love discussing them, I love writing them. I love immersing myself into a great story and having the opportunity to see a new world through a fresh set of eyes. My 98-year old grandmother once told me: “As long as I have a good book, I will never be lonely.” I feel the same way.

I guess I should have known from the beginning that I wanted to be a writer. I had the great fortune of growing up in upstate New York, in the Hudson River Valley. As the third of four kids, I would often wander off into the woods behind my backyard and spend hours, alone, totally absorbed in my own imaginings. I’d create characters and scenes and lots of interpersonal drama. I still remember many of the characters and storylines I first imagined at around age nine. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I loved staging plays with my siblings and cousins. I recall the difficulty of trying to get my 7-year-old cousins to remember their lines from Romeo and Juliet.

At Yale I majored in English and I could not believe my good luck – suddenly I was able to spend hours doing nothing but reading, writing, and talking about books. And I got to pretend that it was work! After college, hoping to blend my love for English and History, I moved to New York City and pursued a career in journalism. Although I enjoyed so much of the work I was doing, I was sort of a misfit in the industry. I did want to study the major events unfolding in our world, and the way in which individuals reacted to and shaped these events – but the panic-inducing deadlines and the rapid-fire pace of the 24-hour news cycle were not for me.

So, in my free time, I began to write fiction. It started out as a post-workday release, a way to unwind after the hectic newsroom. Before long, I found myself completely consumed with this new hobby. Suddenly, I was rushing home from work to grab my laptop and get to writing. I’d find myself surprised on the subway, at the grocery store, out for dinner, with some new idea for some scene or character or a piece of dialogue, and I’d run back to my apartment, worried that I might lose the idea before I could get it down on paper.

Energized and encouraged by this early part of the process, I kept going. Writing became, for me, a guilty pleasure. It was an indulgence for weeknights and weekends. It was the fun I got to have after work. Four years and three completed novels later, I realized that perhaps I was in the wrong line of work. Perhaps writing novels, even though it seemed too fun to actually be work, could in fact be my future. I was so fortunate to meet my agent at Dupree Miller and Associates and by the fall of 2012, we had signed a deal to publish The Traitor’s Wife.

This was such a fun project for so many reasons, but particularly because of how close to home (quite literally) the setting was. Like The Traitor’s Wife, my next project, The Accidental Empress, will be set in a rich and captivating time period, but told from a fresh perspective. My protagonist, Sisi (also known as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria), was a woman who had a front row seat to history, though her story remains largely untold. I hope you’ll have as much fun reading my books as I have writing them.

What inspires you to write? How do you keep the momentum going once you have a loose framework for a story line?

The history is what inspires me. The love of reading history and wanting to put it out there for people in a way that is accessible and entertaining and informative and inspiring.

This was a historical episode that really gripped me from the start. And it all began with uncovering that first salacious historical nugget about Peggy Shippen Arnold. Discovering that this woman existed, and that she was married to Benedict Arnold and critically involved in the plot. And that—and this is the most dramatic part—she was the central figure of a life triangle between Benedict Arnold and his co-conspirator, the dashing British spy, Major John André!

Once I came across this rich historical morsel, I couldn’t wait to really dig into the facts and research. The research serves as an essential and foundational element of writing historical fiction. Everything else – the characters, the plot, the context and detail – sprout up as a result of the facts uncovered in the research.

I actually began my research for The Traitor’s Wife with little more than an idea for the novel. I knew I wanted to write the story of Benedict Arnold’s treason, but from the perspective of his beautiful and intelligent wife. She was a central figure in the whole sordid plot – the central figure, you might say – yet so few people know her story. Including, at the time, me!

For The Traitor’s Wife, the first step involved going to the places where the characters lived and interacted. So, the first stop was Philadelphia, since that was where Peggy Shippen’s story began. That was where Peggy met and fell in love with both John Andre and then Benedict Arnold. Philadelphians do a tremendous job of honoring and sharing the city’s history, especially the central role played during the Revolutionary War.

The next stop was spending time near the Arnolds’ home in upstate New York, where they lived while Arnold was commander of West Point. Unfortunately the Arnolds’ actual home no longer stands, but West Point is an incredible resource. That area of the Hudson River Valley, known as “the cockpit of the American Revolution,” is similarly commemorative of its history. There is a lot to be learned there.

Reading was a huge part of the research. I enjoyed tracking down biographies of all the principle characters. And I read about the related events that occurred, about the architecture of the period, about the wardrobe and the diet.

And then, the goal was to just find other ways to absorb details that will help recreate the historical context. The feel of the time. I visited Colonial Williamsburg. I watched the John Adams miniseries by HBO. I read a lot of David McCullough. I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they had exhibits on Colonial-era furniture and clothing. Similarly, the New York Historical Society offers rooms full of Colonial-era furniture.

The research allowed me to put together not only the plot, but also the picture in my head of what Peggy and Benedict Arnold’s world might have looked and felt like.

When you’re in the early stages of setting up your plot and characters do you do so in a more traditional way with pen to paper, or do you start out of the gate on the computer?

I begin with the history books and the research! Lots of reading. And then I do the writing on the computer. I write MANY drafts. If I’m away from my computer when a piece of dialogue or a description comes into my head, I’ll text it to myself, or scribble a note down on a piece of paper.

What advice would you give to writers about to embark on their writing journey? 

Work with people who share your vision and your priorities. This is especially important when it comes to picking your literary agent and your editor/publisher. As is the case in any relationship, you want to make sure that you and your partners are on the same page—pun intended!

Second, there’s no “right way.” I cringe when people ask me “how long should it take me to write a book?” or some other question along those lines. Writing is a creative process. There are no rules and there’s no formula. I write in the mornings, others prefer to write in the middle of the night. I write with music on in the background, other people can’t write with any noise. Each writer must find the place and time and methods that work for her or his process. And that might even change from day to day or year to year. That’s OK.

And third and finally, be kind to yourself. A first draft is just that: a draft. Don’t berate yourself when you go back and read it and realize “this isn’t actually any good.” Don’t expect perfection the first time, or the second time – or ever.

You can learn more about Allison Pataki by visiting her website here.

Here’s a great article about the Shippen family and how the Revolutionary War tore them apart.

I want to thank Allison for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s so wonderful when authors take the time to connect with readers on a different level.

What’s your favorite genre? If you could ask your favorite author any question, what would it be? What books are on your holiday wish list?

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