Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Interview with Catherine Delors

Catherine Delors's recently released historical novel, Mistress of the Revolution, has been garnering rave reviews all over. I had the opportunity to ask Catherine some questions about her book and the writing of historical fiction. Here is what she had to say.

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1. You wrote Mistress of the Revolution as a fictional memoir. Why did you choose the memoir format rather than describing the events as happening in "real time"? What were the benefits and disadvantages of choosing this format?

I realized how difficult it would be for me, living in the 21st century, to enter the mind of a heroine who lived two hundred years ago. As you know, it is not enough for a historical fiction author to get the costumes and furniture right. The characters must also think and act in a period-appropriate fashion. For me, the best way to avoid an anachronistic feel was to read as many memoirs of the times as possible. Those first-hand accounts, written by women, and men, showed me what it was to witness the events of the French Revolution, to live them. That inspired the first-person form of my own narrative.

I had a completely different research experience with my second novel, tentatively titled For the King. It is a historical thriller based upon a real "terrorist" attack in 1800 in Paris, so I had to read many police reports. In that case, it made a third-person narrative completely natural.

2. What is your favorite scene in the book? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

My favorite scene in Mistress of the Revolution is when Gabrielle interacts with her granddaughter, and the child, whom she loves, reminds her of her late husband, who left unfortunate memories. It is the mix of past and present, of different generations of the same family, of opposite feelings.

The most difficult parts to write were the love scenes. Frankly, I did not know how far to go. So, in the first version of Mistress of the Revolution, I solved the problem by not writing any. Then my beta readers said: "great book, but there are no love scenes??" So I reread every love scene ever written since the Bible and Homer, and finally I pushed myself...

3. What was something you learned that surprised you as you researched the Revolution for your novel?

Many things! The degree of hatred towards Marie-Antoinette astonished me. I knew, of course, that she was unpopular, but I had no idea how far pamphlets went, even decades before the Revolution.

I also had the impression that being tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal meant a quasi-automatic death sentence. I had not realized that, until the Great Terror, the majority of the accused were acquitted.

4. In all phases of her life, Gabrielle finds herself subject to the whims and dictates of men. Did the Revolution do much to improve the legal status of women?

Oh, it did. In the realm of private life women demanded, and acquired, a status equal to that of men. Marital authority, which had been almost absolute under the Old Regime, was abolished. Women could now hold and inherit property on the same basis as men. They could petition for divorce on the same grounds. But the evolution did not stop there.

Women participated in the main political events of the Revolution. They were present at the storming of the Bastille, they attended the sessions of the legislative assemblies. For a while female political clubs flourished. Some particularly forward thinkers began discussing female suffrage, something that would not be implemented until the 20th century. So yes, for women's rights, the Revolution was a time of decisive progress.

5. Did writing the novel in English, your second language, pose any particular problems? Do you think the novel would have been different if you had composed it in French for a French audience?

I had plenty of experience writing in English. Legal briefs, that is. Yet legal writing in a foreign language is, I guess, as good an exercise as any.

I certainly wrote Mistress of the Revolution with an American audience in mind. For a French readership, more familiar with the setting of the novel, I might have explained less about historical events, language, or customs.

6. What advice do you have for aspiring authors of historical fiction?

Be brave! Tough, resilient, optimistic... Take a hard look at your book. Is it as good as it could be, and should be? If the answer is yes, chin up! It will happen, sooner or later. If not, you know what to do.

7. Which part of the journey from unpublished to published has been the most exhilarating? The most difficult?

The most exhilarating part of the journey was finding an agent. Two at the same time, actually. I realized then that I would have a good chance of being published. The most harrowing time is right now, post-publication: breathlessly awaiting the verdict of my readers.

8. What one thing do you hope readers gain from reading your book?

First, I do hope people find Mistress of the Revolution an involving, moving, emotionally satisfying read. If in the process they gain a better understanding of the French Revolution and its legacy, a sense of the importance of politics in everyday life, so much the better.

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Thank you, Catherine, for sharing your thoughts with us. I wish you all the best as you await your "verdict." I'm sure anyone who reads Mistress of the Revolution will only have great things to say about your fine novel!

3 comments:

Catherine Delors said...

Thanks for posting this interview, Julianne!

Julianne Douglas said...

You're welcome, Catherine! Anything to bring your book to the attention of more readers!

MM said...

Thanks for the great interview. I'm looking forward to reading the book