When I was twelve, my father was a US Navy officer stationed on the Sixth Fleet flagship homeported in Villefranche-sur-mer, then and now a lovely town on France’s Cote d’Azur. I remember standing on the waterfront in nearby Golfe Juan, hearing the story of how Napoleon Bonaparte landed on the beach, escaping his exile on the isle of Elba to reconquer France with a thousand soldiers and four cannon. Later that year when we visited Paris, the marvelous sarcophagus under the grand dome of Les Invalides made an even greater impression on me.
Thus a twelve-year-old American girl joined the legions whom Napoleon has fascinated for two hundred years. Life went on, and the Emperor was forgotten, although the girl grew up a Francophile.
Most of us get sidetracked in unpredictable ways: in my case, French and Russian studies at Georgetown University gave way unexpectedly to an early career in retail management; a sales job with Xerox provided the computer training that segued into the position with a start-up company that led to my becoming Vice President of Marketing at a public company and, later, ownership in a software distribution firm. It all culminated in a wonderful second marriage and the freedom to follow dreams that had nothing to do with 70-hour work weeks, financial statements or the computer industry. And so back to Napoleon.
Twelve years ago, I decided to write a novel about Napoleon told from his own point of view, but first I had to learn how to write fiction–any fiction. Like every avid reader, I believed I could do it, but the task turned out to be much harder than a novice could imagine. (In fact, it’s a wonder so many of us continue to try.) I enrolled in college courses, attended writing seminars, wrote short stories, and joined a writers’ group. Life interrupted with new business opportunities and a year caring for my dying father, but even when I put the writing aside for a couple years at a time, I never stopped dreaming.
Finally, I completed my first novel–but it was not about Napoleon. In the Vancouver airport, on the way home from kayaking and bear-watching in British Columbia, a set of characters bolted into my head. I found I had to write their story. In 2010, that novel, now titled LITTLE SONG, won the San Francisco Writers Conference Fiction award and the Good Reads contest from A Woman’s Write. You can read about it and my award-winning short story, “Mrs. Morrisette,” on the “Other Writings” page of this website and on my website LITTLE SONG. Unfortunately, like many first novels, it didn’t find a publisher.
But it was time to tackle the Napoleon novel. By now, I’ve read book after book about him; I’ve seen the movies and watched TV documentaries. I can tell you facts, dates, and places. I’ve studied paintings and marble busts. I’ve read the memoirs. Still, as I sit down to write, I struggle to find the man behind that opaque mask of a face. Who was this improbable upstart, this Monster of Europe? Was he the just lawmaker and egalitarian, or the power-mad tyrant who could not stop making war?
We’ll never all agree on an answer.
But this I know: he was a lover, a father, a husband, and a son. He had dreams and disappointments, hopes and fears. He was one of us, a human being. To tell his story, I need to know what made him uniquely himself.
This blog details my quest to find that inner man: the feeling, thinking person who wore the famous hat.