Ruth Hull Chatlien has been a writer and editor of educational materials for twenty-five years. Her specialty is U.S. and world history. She is the author of Modern American Indian Leadersand has published several short stories and poems in literary magazines. The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is her first published novel.
She lives in northeastern Illinois with her husband, Michael, and a very pampered dog named Smokey. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found gardening, knitting, drawing, painting, or watching football.
A. Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine. Do you typically set aside a certain period to write, always write in same place, do you listen to music while you write, do you need solitude to write?
My husband and I are both writers, and we usually sit together in the living room on couches that sit at a right angle to each other (each of us has our back to the corner where the couches meet). He writes longhand on yellow legal pads, while I type directly into my laptop. No music. The dog is usually curled up at the end of my couch, but he frequently ties to convince me that he should take the computer’s place on my lap.
B. If you could give your eighteen year old self one suggestion, what would it be?
You deserve to make your writing a higher priority.
C. "in the name of a humanism hypocritically turned champion of the reader’s rights. Classic criticism has never paid any attention to the reader; for it, the writer is the only person in literature. We are now beginning to let ourselves be fooled no longer by the arrogant antiphrastical recriminations of good society in favour of the very thing it sets aside, ignores, smothers, or destroys; we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author."
What is your reaction to these very famous lines from "The Death of the Author" by Roland Barthes?
I am a strong believer in the reader response theory of interpretation; every reader brings his or her own life experiences to the task of interpreting a text, so there is no one “right” interpretation. For example, I’ve noticed that women who are mothers tend to interpret Betsy’s actionsmore harshly than women who have never had a child. It’s not up to me as the writer to control how readers interpret my novel. However, I would not go so far as Barthes in completely discounting the author’s influence. Of course, the author’s views and experiences strongly shape the work, so learning more about the author can inform the reader’s understanding. I think the fullest interpretations come about when people synthesize different analytic methods.
E. "It is the habit of approaching works of art in order to interpret them that sustains the fancy that there really is such a thing as the content of a work of art" - from "Against Interpetation" by Susan Sontag
As a writer, how do you feel when people Interpet your work, attribute meaning to it?, see things in it you never thought about?
Who is your ideal reader?
I love it when readers see things in my work that I never considered. I believe in the power of the subconscious, which often creates meaning that our conscious is unaware of. So when a reader has an insight about my work that causes me to see something new in it, I feel as though I’ve been given a glimpse in the mystery of my own mind.
My ideal reader is someone who is fascinated by human nature and loves to read stories about individuals who are struggling against both internal and external difficulties. It also helps if they’re interested in history and in seeing how people are shaped by the times in which they live.
F. It seems more and more writers have MAs in creative writing, some PhDs. Education is a great thing but is there a negative side to this, will it produce in few years a literary culture where lacking this degree will make it hard to get published?. Is it homogenizing writing styles? Will the day of the amateur writer who comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this? Does it give you pause to know the University of Iowa M A in writing scholarships for students from outside the USA, were for years funded by the C. I. A?
I haven’t seen any evidence that publishers are requiring advanced writing degrees before they will publish authors. Many years ago, I considered getting a graduate degree in writing, but I chose not to for the very reason you mention; I didn’t want my work to be shaped by the favored style of the moment. Perhaps that decision did hinder my progress in my career, but only because I didn’t build up the kind of publishing contacts I would have made in such a program. I haven’t heard that the CIA funded the University of Iowa writing program. If true, that would make me question what the real goal of the program was during that period.
G. How important is seeing different parts of the world to you in terms of stimulating your creativity?
Traveling is not a big stimulus to my creativity. By nature, I am a homebody. I find research trips to be helpful, but I don’t need world travel to come up with story ideas.
I. Besides reading and writing, what are some of your hobbies or interests?
I knit, I draw and paint (I did the cover portrait on my novel), and in the warmer months, I garden. I’m also an avid fan of American football.
1. How and when did you begin to write?
When I was ten, I started writing a historical novel calledThe Unknown Patriot. It was a combination of a spy story and Romeo and Juliet. During the American Revolution, two young lovers named Rebecca and Thomas were kept apart because their fathers—Boston merchants—had fallen out over political differences. Rebecca’s father was a Tory, while Thomas’s father favored independence. The young couple decided to meet secretly. Thomas was also approached to act as a courier for an American spy who communicated only by letter and called himself John Q to keep his identity hidden. The final manuscript was about 120 pages long and took me about six years to write.
3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers, poets or novelists? What classic writers do you find your self drawn to reread? If a neophyte writer in your primary focus were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?
I love the poet Mary Oliver; she writes deceptively simple poems that convey such grace. If you’ve never read her poem “Wild Geese,” I commend it to you. I enjoy the novels of Richard Russo; he writes about his characters with a great deal of insight and compassion. Two historical novelists I would recommend are Sarah Dunant and Hilary Mantel. Both write well-researched books with finely drawn, nuanced characters.
6. Many cultures are permeated with references to seemingly supernatural creatures, some kind some malevolent. Do you feel any sense of these entities in the world you look out on in your daily life or in your writings? Do you sense a continuity between the natural and supernatural worlds. Is a belief in the supernatural just escapism and wishful thinking? Is the belief in occult systems the refuge of the powerless?
I do feel a strong connection to the supernatural, but not to the “dark side.” I am a Christian who has a mystical side to her faith, and I believe in signs, dreams, and miracles.
7. These are loaded question coming from me, but with the decline of print reviews, are book blogs becoming more important? Professional critics have denigrated book bloggers as reviewers without credentials; book bloggers have replied professional reviewers just don't like bloggers doing for free what they ask money for doing? Reviewers do it for money, bloggers for love. What is your reaction to this? Do you join book tours or send bulk mailings out asking for reviews?
I think book bloggers have become essential elements in today’s publishing landscape, especially for those authorswho are self-published or (as I am) published by a small, indie press. I don’t think we’ve reached the point where most book bloggers are as influential as, say, the New York Times Review of Books, but they definitely play a helpful role. Yes, I have actively sought reviews on blogs by hiringa couple of book tour companies. My personal philosophy is that most book buying decisions are cumulative. Most readers need to hear about a book three or four times before they’re willing to part with their money and buy it. That’s why I’m trying to get as much exposure as possible within my limited marketing budget.
8. When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write?
No, I don’t picture an audience; I picture my characters. When I decide to write a piece of fiction, it feels as if the main character has walked up to me and said, “Ruth if you don’t tell my story, I will die.” And if the character isfascinating enough, I feel compelled to convey that story to the best of my ability.
9. Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells", periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile?
I need to find a chunk of time by myself. The most useful practices when I’m having a dry spell are to journal or to walk my way through it, preferably outdoors (which is not always possible in the winter here). Digging and weeding in the garden help too.
10. If someone says to you, "I prefer to live life, not just read about it " what is your reaction inside? (Besides cringing!)
I assume that people who say that don’t do a lot of introspection, and I wonder how they ever know what the life they’re living means.
11. What are the last three novels you read? Last three movies? do you have any favorite TV shows? Are there literary works you find reverberate in your mind in happy or in dark times?
The last three novels I read are the mystery A Fatal Graceby Louise Penny and the historical novels Queen’s Gambitand Becoming Josephine. The last three movies we saw were Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Philips, and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug.
One poem that has pulled me through many a dark time is “Carrion Comfort” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which I’ve pasted below.
NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
13. If you could live any where in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why?
My painter side won out when I read this question. I’d live in Paris during the period when the Impressionist painters were fighting against the Salon and holding their independent exhibitions. I would love to see them take on the establishment and fight to change the way we all see art.
14. Amazon - as a reader I like it a lot- but is it a monster slowly taking down small publishers and independent book stores, controlling what books succeed? Is it bad for authors?
I don’t think it’s taking down small publishers. Through CreateSpace’s print-on-demand technology, it’s giving small publishers a chance to survive by making it possible to sell good books without a heavy investment in inventory. I do regret that Amazon is making it very difficult for independent, personally owned bookstores to compete. We’re losing something that provided wonderful atmosphere.
15. Are you open to e mail, Facebook or Twitter, contact with your readers or do you fear stalkers or don't want to be bothered?
Yes, I am open to being contacted by my readers. I’m on Twitter using the handle @RHChatlien, I’m on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/ruthhullchatlien, and I blog at ruthhullchatlienbooks.com.
16. A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse. If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage, a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.
The myth of the mad or tormented writer / artist is very deeply embedded in our culture, but I don’t really think it’s true. I think, as you say, those are dramatic stories so they’re the ones that get repeated (partially because it’s so very difficult to interest students in literature without a juicy story). The sad fact is that very few human beings lead completely happy lives, so biographers can spin almost anyone’s story as a tale of great difficulty or hardship. On the other hand, I do believe that much great art and literature has been created by people whom society labeled as outsiders; I’m thinking of gay writers, women who tried to write before it was acceptable, minority writers. Having to live on the outside gives people unique perspectives that can inform their art.
17. Is a certain amount of suffering good for a writer?
I think a certain amount of suffering is good for human beings, provided they use it as a stimulus to learn and grow. So yes, I think a certain amount of suffering is necessary to be a good writer.
19. Make up a question and answer it please.
Ruth, if you could meet any writer from the past, who would it be and what would you ask?
I would want to meet Emily Dickinson, and I would ask her the following questions: Did you know you were a genius? Did you ever doubt it? How did you sustain your drive to keep writing when you had so little external validation?
22. Tell us a bit about your non-academic non literary work experience please. Tell us something about your educational background, please.
I was a literature major at Wheaton College, a conservative,evangelical Christian college in a suburb of Chicago. I’ve since moved to the more liberal end of the Christian spectrum, but I retain my love of literature. The work I do to support myself is writing and editing educational materials. I’ve worked on history, geography, economics, and literature textbooks and teacher’s guides. I also write a lot of test questions.
23. Who are three writers you would like to do a q and a session with?
Hilary Mantel, Graham Greene (if he were still alive), andMary Oliver
24. Quick Pick Questions
A. tablets or laptops or smart phones?
B. E readers or traditional books?
C. American Fast Food- love it, hate it, or once and a while?
I’ll eat the healthier options, such as Subway sandwiches loaded with vegies. Otherwise, I steer clear of it whenever possible.
D. Cats or dogs?
Dogs. I love cats, but I’m severely allergic to them.
E. best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?
I’ve never been to Dublin. I love both London and Paris and could be happy in either.
F. Walt Whitman or Willam Butler Yeats?
Yeats. “When You Are Old” probably ranks as one of my top ten favorite poems.
G. Roberto Bolano or Gabriel Garcia Marquez?
I’m sorry to say I don’t know Bolano’s work, so I’ll pick Garcia Marquez.
H. Winter or Summer? Day or Night?
Summer. Day. I have a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, which means I get depressed during the dark, cold season in my climate.
I. Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?
Probably King Lear. It’s one of the few Shakespeare tragedies I haven’t seen performed live.
25. How important is it to you to have readers? Does it matter. ?
It’s very important to me to have readers. I’m telling a story to try to communicate with others. I would still write even if I didn’t have readers, but it’s much better to have people comment on what I did so I know if I succeeded at telling the story I wanted to tell.
27. How important is social media in the development of the career of writers? Do you have your own web page and if so why? Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online? Can you estimate how many hours a week you are online?
I think the social media revolution is still so new that no one really knows if it will become an essential part of writers’ careers. It seems to be more crucial to indie authors who don’t have a big marketing machine supporting them. I have my own website where I post reflections on life and on writing, plus book reviews and my own poetry. I think it’s smart to post a small sample of work online. Often, I’ll read a page or two on Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature before I decide to buy a work. That’s usually enough to help me decide if I can live with the writer’s style for a whole book. I’m online constantly for my work, so it’s difficult for me to estimate how much of that is devoted to social media.
32. Is the notion that someone is a writer of "Women's" literature just one step above calling their work chic lit? Statistics show that women read much more fiction then men, why is this so? Is it patronizing to refer to a work as a great work of literature by a woman, a gay, a person of color as no one ever seems to say War and Peace is a great white men's work?
When I see the label “Women’s literature,” I assume that the writer is interested in exploring the ramifications of human relationships. I also assume that the work is less concerned with the traditional male themes of power,conquest, and glory—except perhaps as an exploration of how the blind pursuit of such goals impact families and loved ones. I don’t personally think the themes of love, home, family, relationship, etc., are any less important than the so-called male-oriented themes. So to me, the label “women’s literature” is not denigrating. I also don’t think it’s patronizing to label a work as written by a woman, an LGBT person, a person of color, a follower of a particular religion. Even white male writers get categorized: Tolstoy is a Russian, Hugo is French, Dickens is a Victorian reformer, etc.
33. It was recently revealed in the press that the philosopher Martin Heidegger was viciously anti-Semitic. If you found out that a favorite writer of yours was grossly bigoted would you lose interest in them?
I wouldn’t automatically lose interest in them, but I would read their work more critically and if I detected themes I personally find repugnant, I would probably drift away from their work fairly quickly.
1. What sparked your interest in Elizabeth and Jerome Bonaparte?
I first learned about Betsy and Jerome from watching theHoratio Hornblower series that showed on American television in the 1990s and early 2000s. The young couple’s struggle to reach France to obtain the emperor’s approval of their marriage was portrayed in the last episode. When I googled their names to find out if the episode was based on historical fact, I learned that Betsy’s story was far more complex and interesting that the snippet shown in the TV show.
2. How has surviving breast cancer impacted your outlook on life? Tell us a bit about the Cancer Wellness Center in Northbrook, Illinois to which you donate a portion of your book earnings, please.
I’m sorting through what meaning I’ll take from having survived breast cancer. I just finished treatment two weeks ago, so I’m still in transition to my post-cancer life. One thing I hope to do is to make even more time for my fiction writing; it’s a somewhat frightening decision because if I cut back my freelance writing, that will reduce our income. However, I have a deep inner sense that this is the direction I should take and that I should trust the more material concerns to work out.
The Cancer Wellness Center is a marvelous place that provides counseling, classes, seminars, and wellness services such as massage and acupuncture free of charge to cancer patients and their spouses / partners. I’ve been seeing a counselor there for a couple of months, and she’s really helped me sort through the emotional impact of being told “You have cancer” and learning that your life is never going to be the same again. I’m also going to attend a seminar there this week called “Treatment’s Over: Now What?” to help me with the transition I just described above. Everything the center does is funded through donations, which is why I want to give back by giving them a portion of my proceeds from now until Easter.
3. What writers of historical novels do you especially admire?
Sarah Dunant’s novel Sacred Hearts, which is about a young woman during the Renaissance forced into a convent against her will, blew me away with its thorough research and brilliant characterization. I’m eager to read Dunant’s new novel about the Borgias, which has finally come out in paperback. And like so many other people, I was tremendously impressed by Hilary Mantel’s two books about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I commend her for finding a fresh angle on the Tudor era, which has been so overdone in recent historical fiction, and I can’t wait until the third and last book of the series comes out. A new writer, Elizabeth Fremantel, just caught my attention with Queen’s Gambit, a book about Katherine Parr. I think she could be a major new voice in the genre.
4. What attracted you to Amika Press?
The people. They are a small house that exists to publish writers who have good books that somehow didn’t find a home in traditional publishing. My editor and designer helped enormously in making The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the book I wanted it to be; I never felt that they were forcing me to do anything that violated my vision for the book. Their approach is to assist their authors, not to treat us as commodities.
5. What do you grow in your garden?
I have a lot of flowers: daylilies, peonies, irises, antique roses, plus annual flowers like marigolds and begonias. I also grow vegetables: lettuce, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and potatoes. Last year, I planted strawberry vines and blueberry bushes, so I hope to have fresh berries this year too. I live in the northern part of the United States, where it gets very cold in the winters and we have a short growing season of about five months. The milestone that every gardener in my climate lives for is that first tomato of the summer—usually about mid-July. I’ll be starting the seeds indoors soon, and from then on, the anticipation will build.
6. Please tell us about your book, Modern Indian Leaders.
A few years ago, I received the assignment to write a young adult book featuring biographies of several modern American Indian chiefs. After I did my research, the publisher and I decided that we needed to expand the topic to include leaders, not just chiefs. The book includes the life stories of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell of the Northern Cheyenne; Bureau of Indian Affairs Chief Ada Deer of the Menominee; political activists Winona LaDuke of the Anishinaabe and Russell Means of the Lakota; Philip Martin, chief of the Choctaw; and David Salmon, Episcopal priest and Athabascan chief.
7. Do you have another historical novel in mind or in the works? I hope so.
Yes, I’m in the research stage of another historical novel based on the true story of a woman taken captive during one of the most brutal Indian wars in U.S. history. Her story will be very different from Betsy’s, but the two women share the quality of being fiercely determined survivors.
8. Robert, the brother of Elizabeth, refers to slaves in Santo Domingo as "blacks." Your book is very well researched. My superficial research says "black" was not at all used by polite society at the time. What, if anything, was behind your choice of this word?
The etymology source I used throughout my writing lists the use of black as a term for people of African descent as dating to the 1600s. I also found an article by an African-American scholar that says some of the earliest Africans in the Americas actually referred to themselves as blacks, so I’m not sure it was universally considered offensive.
The line you're referring to is when Betsy's brother Robert tells her that "the blacks and whites are killing each other in terrible ways" during the uprising on Saint Domingue. As the young son in a family of privileged, slave-owning whites, Robert would have been shocked by such events, and in that scene, he wasn’t particularly concerned about observing the niceties of social convention. He mainly wanted to stop his little sister from probing for information that he knew their father didn’t want her to have. (Robert tells Betsy, “Father made me promise not to talk about it at home. He says that it is a man’s duty to shield women from ugliness.”) In real life, Robert might have used an even more offensive term in his conversation, but as a writer, I refuse to use that word even if it's period appropriate. So I chose the phrase "blacks and whites" to provide a sharp and immediate contrast.
9. Tell us a bit about your research methods please.
I used six different biographical sources for Betsy alone, some of which contained excerpts from her letters (which are held by the Maryland Historical Society). I also read about Jerome, Napoleon, Dolley Madison, the Caton sisters, the War of 1812, Baltimore architecture, period clothing, and an early explorer’s expedition to Niagara Falls. My husband and I traveled to Baltimore to visit the Maryland Historical Society, period homes, a 19th-century ship, and Fort McHenry. As I wrote, I also did extensive online research to find out interesting tidbits about some of the important figures Betsy met. And as I mentioned, I used an etymological source to try to make sure that every term I used in dialogue was period appropriate.
I offer my great thanks to Ruth for taking the time to provide us with such illuminating answers. I hope Tne Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is the first of numerous works from her which I will have the privilege of reading.
You can read several insightful reviews of the book here
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