Today I have the pleasure of welcoming author Shannon Selin to The Maiden’s Court and introducing her to many of you. Shannon has published her novel, Napoleon in America, which is an alternate historical fiction novel looking at what might have happened if Napoleon escaped St. Helena and came to the United States. I have not read widely within this sub-genre and am excited to explore this a little more in this interview.
Writing a “what if” novel, also known as alternate history, is a very different avenue to write from. How do you prepare yourself for writing this type of novel? Is it more freeing as an author because you can craft what occurs or is it more difficult to write without a historical skeleton?
As with any historical fiction, I prepared for writing Napoleon in America by doing a lot of historical research. Even though the novel was going to be a “what if,” I wanted it to be as plausible as possible – no alien space bats, as they say in the alternate history world. Once I accepted the unlikely scenario that Napoleon could have escaped from St. Helena, writing the book became an exercise in asking who was around at the time (early 1820s), and what might they and Napoleon have done, given their personalities and the geopolitical context. This gave me a strong skeleton on which to hang the plot.
I used only actual historical characters – people like the Duke of Wellington, Louis XVIII and his family, the Marquis de Lafayette, John Quincy Adams, the Bonaparte family, voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, and officers of the Grande Armée who fled to the United States after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. I even worked in some events that actually happened, including an 1823 French invasion of Spain. I find it easier to write with a confined range of possibilities, rather than a wide-open slate.
What made you pick Napoleon, and especially his escape from St. Helena, as your plot point in history to change?
Four years ago my husband and I dined at a restaurant called Napoleon House in New Orleans. The restaurant is in a 200-year-old Creole townhouse that used to belong to a Frenchman named Nicolas Girod. He was the mayor of New Orleans during the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Girod hated the British and was very angry when they imprisoned Napoleon on St. Helena, which is a remote island in the South Atlantic. According to local legend, Girod fixed his house up as a residence for Napoleon, and plotted with pirate Jean Laffite and his gang to go and rescue Napoleon and bring him to the United States. A day or two 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 said, “Me? Write about Napoleon?” Then I thought, “Why not?”
Has writing always been something you dreamt of doing or was this a more recent development? Did you always intend to write an alternate history?
I knew from a very early age that I was going to be a writer. It was what I loved to do, and people thought I was good at it. Practically, however, I needed to make a living and raise a family. So I spent 25 years working at jobs that involved a lot of non-fiction writing – technical writing, research, government – and wrote fiction in my spare time. I started at least seven unfinished novels, all of which turned out to be excellent practice for writing Napoleon in America.
I did not set out to write an alternate history. As with all my fiction, I simply wanted to explore an idea that was interesting to me. It was only after I’d finished Napoleon in America and realized that I had to figure out what genre it belonged to that I learned there is this whole category called alternate history.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your writing career so far?
Since I’m an introvert, the most challenging thing has been having to become more of a public person to market the book.
I saw on your website that you had the opportunity to travel to historical sites with your father when you were young. Do you continue to travel to these types of sites today? What has been your favorite place to visit?
I love to travel, and do so as often as time and finances permit. Wherever I go, I check out the museums and other historical attractions. It’s hard to choose a favorite, because I adore so many of them.
Narrowing it down, I’d say my top three thus far are Pompeii in Italy, Mycenae in Greece, and L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada: Pompeii because of the extent of the site and the excitement of imagining – as you’re walking through the ancient streets and going in and out of the remains of houses and shops – how people lived; Mycenae because of the mystery of a people entwined with myth, and the power that comes across in the scale of the ruins, even though they’re over 3,000 years old; L’Anse aux Meadows because it’s the only confirmed remnant of where the Vikings settled in North America 1,000 years ago, and then left.
Each of these sites is in a physically striking location, and – apart from the tourists – modernity does not press too closely. They bring home the impermanence of civilizations, but also the whisper we leave on the land. I find them humbling and haunting.
You have written a few short stories, including A Petition for the Emperor and Dr. Sym Goes to Heaven. Do you find it more difficult to write short stories as opposed to a novel because of the space restriction? Are you still writing short stories, or focusing on novels?
Though I don’t find one form easier than the other, I do like the discipline of writing a short story, of having to tell a tale succinctly and powerfully.
I wrote the stories you mentioned, as well as a couple of others, after I finished Napoleon in America, as a way of clearing my head and taking a break from the novel. They arose from anecdotes I came across in my research – things where I thought, “Gee, I wonder how that happened.” In the case of A Petition, it was a reference to some French Canadians who tried to deliver a petition to Napoleon in 1805, asking him to help free them from English rule. In the case of Dr. Sym, it was about a tussle between some nuns and Protestants over the burial of a Montreal doctor in 1807. In each case, I used only real characters and imagined what might have happened to bring about that historical tidbit. Readers can find links to the stories (they’re free) on my website at shannonselin.com.
I am now back to novel-writing. I have more short stories in the works, which I’ll return to the next time I need a break.
Do you have any future writing plans? If so, do you intend to write another alternate history or another genre type?
I am working on the sequel to Napoleon in America, so by default it’s alternate history. There will probably be at least three books in the Napoleon series. After that, I’ll keep writing novels, though I don’t know what genre they’ll be. I will likely stick with historical fiction because I love history so much and it’s such a rich vein to tap. But it will really depend on what idea I find interesting at the time. In any case, I will definitely continue to write. It’s what I’ve always done.
Shannon Selin was born and raised in the small town of Biggar, Saskatchewan (“New York is big, but this is Biggar”). Her father was a history teacher, so she grew up immersed in history books and spent her holidays tramping around battlefields, graveyards and museums. Her early obsessions included Vikings, the Tudors and the Statue of Liberty.
Shannon always knew she would write novels, but the need to make a living and raise a family came first. She worked at jobs that involved a lot of non-fiction writing, including university research, technical writing and working for government, namely Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and British Columbia’s Ministry of Health. She has published many articles, book chapters and monographs in the fields of international security and health care.
Realizing that she needed to do what she always wanted to do, Shannon now writes historical fiction full time. Her short stories have appeared in The Copperfield Review and CommuterLit.com. Her novel Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821, was published in January 2014. Shannon is working on the sequel.
Shannon has a BA in Political Science from the University of Saskatchewan and an MA in Political Science from the University of British Columbia. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two of her three children (the other one is at university).
Former French Emperor Napoleon has been imprisoned on a dark wart in the Atlantic since his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Rescued in a state of near-death by Gulf pirate Jean Laffite, Napoleon lands in New Orleans, where he struggles to regain his health aided by voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. 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.
As Napoleon restlessly explores his new land, he frets about his legacy. He fears for the future of his ten-year-old son, trapped in the velvet fetters of the Austrian court. While the British, French and American governments follow his activities with growing alarm, remnants of the Grande Armée flock to him with growing anticipation. Are Napoleon’s intentions as peaceful as he says they are? If not, does he still have the qualities necessary to lead a winning campaign?
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