You must have love, or at least compassion, for your characters, regardless of whether they are the hero or villain or somewhere in between. When the reader doesn’t feel the depth of your characters’ humanity, eroticism becomes pornography, valiant battles become gratuitous violence, and the story is nothing more than a plot with stick figures.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Margaret Rodenberg.
Margaret Rodenberg is the author of FINDING NAPOLEON, a historical novel that includes an intriguing adaptation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s own attempt to write a romantic novel.She’s also an adventure traveler who’s visited over sixty countries, the secretary of the Napoleonic Historical Society, and an escapee from the business world. She believes great fiction writing springs from compassion.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I’ve wanted to be a published author since my fourth-grade poem “Puddles” was printed in the school newspaper. I ended up a business executive (mostly in tech). Nonetheless, throughout the years, I cultivated a writer’s memory, storing moments, emotions, sounds, colors, gestures, places, and phrases, confident that novel writing waited in my future.
One day I stumbled across a mention that Napoleon Bonaparte tried to write a romantic novel of love and betrayal. Better yet, the unfinished manuscript still existed. I’d lived in France as young teen and retained a love of its language and history. In a flash, I resolved to finish the story Napoleon had begun.
Since that moment, regardless of life’s distractions, writing has been my focus.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
About four years into my writing career, I spent some summer weeks kayaking with orcas and viewing grizzlies in the wilds of British Columbia. On the way home, while I struggled to readjust to civilization in Vancouver’s airport, I stopped at a display of First Nations’ culture. As I watched a three-minute video of ceremonial dancing, an entire novel, complete with characters’ names and faces, their past and present struggles, and the town they inhabited blossomed inside my head, like a flower in time-lapse photography.
For the next few years, I put aside my Napoleon project to write their story. That novel, although it won unpublished fiction awards, and an agent did her best to sell it, never found a publishing house. I don’t regret writing it — the experience served as a boot camp for Finding Napoleon.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
I ride the rollercoaster of artistic shame and overconfidence. For years, I wrote fiction and memoir in secret, ritualistically destroying each disgraceful scrap after a few pages. My problem? If you want to write stories that touch other people’s emotions, you have to become vulnerable to your own. After years in the business world and toxic personal relationships, I’d developed a tough shell. I found sensitivity self-indulgent and shameful. When I did allow myself express deep feelings on the page, I overcompensated, producing the purplest of prose.
Ultimately, I found my balance in a critique group. Within a safe circle of seven women writers, I learned to accept, value, and give criticism. I began to regulate my dueling tendencies to restrain or overdo emotion. I hunkered down to hone my writing skills.
But Writer Beware: Few critique groups are both loving and useful. Many are destructive. Try for one with a generous spirit, where at least half of the members knows more than you do, and where there’s a mix of opinion. If you encounter cruelty or narrow-mindedness, sprint for the exit.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My best experiences come from unexpected places, so I’ll tell one that comes from scuba diving. For a writer, I’m an exuberant, talkative person. I also love all types of animal life.
That’s a bad combination when you’re diving. Too frequently, when I see an octopus, a ray, or a pretty parrotfish, I grin, breaking the seal between my cheeks and mask, filling my nose with water. Worse, I yell “Look, look!” to my husband (who’s my diving buddy). The regulator pops out of my mouth. Seawater goes in. By the time I’ve recovered, the creature is long gone.
So here’s the life lesson: When enthusiasm overtakes good judgment, you risk missing what’s beautiful, dangerous, and rare. Or, in scuba diving (and investment) lingo, “Shut up when you’re underwater.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My novel-in-progress is a French Revolution-era, dystopian novel about social justice. Does that make sense? I think it’s going to be a ripping good story with unfortunate parallels to our time.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
FINDING NAPOLEON holds fascinating surprises about Napoleon’s life and personality, including in the novel-within-the-novel that relates his idealistic “origin story.” While that may draw readers into the book, I hope they will find his last love — Albine de Montholon — equally enthralling. She (and her husband) followed Napoleon into his exile 5,000 miles from Europe. History characterizes the couple as either scoundrels or heroes. In FINDING NAPOLEON, Albine gets to tell her side of the story, as she juggles love affairs, pregnancy, and trauma. She’s an endearing, scrappy, sexy survivor with a lot to say about human nature.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
In the book’s front pages, before the novel starts, I quote a poem by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It starts, “Power’s only a small blessing,” and concludes that what’s important is “creating masterpieces.”
I hope the reader will take away from FINDING NAPOLEON that power is not what you are, but a tool you can use, misuse, and lose. True power comes from realizing that no matter who you are, you get to choose whether or not to make your life “a masterpiece.”
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. You must have love, or at least compassion, for your characters, regardless of whether they are the hero or villain or somewhere in between. When the reader doesn’t feel the depth of your characters’ humanity, eroticism becomes pornography, valiant battles become gratuitous violence, and the story is nothing more than a plot with stick figures.
2. Accept that the writing itself is the reward. For me, fiction writing is the most intellectually challenging pursuit I’ve ever undertaken. When in the flow, I experience a mental euphoria more powerful than any runner’s high. Plus, a profound belief in art for art’s sake will help you weather the vicissitudes of the publishing world.
3. Craft takes time and practice. To return to a sports analogy, when I did Century Bike rides (100 miles in a single day), I grinded through weeks of training miles first. It’s the same with writing: put your butt on the seat and your hands on the keyboard to tone those writing muscles.
4. Observe, experience, record. If you’re lucky enough to travel, don’t skim the surface and rush on to the next destination. Soak in the atmosphere, taste the food, smell the soil. Learn the names of the trees. Think of words to describe what you see and feel. Do the same at home: eavesdrop on conversations in a bar, go to a local museum, listen to your grandma’s chatter, attend a town council meeting to experience civic anger. Commit it all to memory, photographs, and written word.
5. Imagination is a muscle while inspiration is a mystery. Exercise the first; seek out the second. Like any muscle, imagination needs workouts to stay fit. Train, tone, and engage yours with what if, how could, why would questions that build stories in your mind. Meanwhile, actively seek inspiration. Be open to it when it finds you. I found inspiration for FINDING NAPOLEON reading a book in my den, holding a 200-year-old manuscript, and traveling halfway around the world to the island where Napoleon died. You might find yours in the 7–11 down the block.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I — who was the vice president of a public company at thirty-five — -now practice patient perseverance. Most days, I let the joy of writing propel me forward, as slowly as need be, meticulous word by word, chapter by chapter, revision after revision.
For those times when impatience gets in the way of great results, on my desktop I keep a painting of a bulldog with six linked sausages draped over his snout. If that taut, quivering animal can hold his impatience in check, surely I can.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’ve always read widely so it’s difficult for me to pinpoint a specific inspiration. Every few weeks, I return to a classic writer, such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, Austin, Dickens, or Dostoyevsky. I also read a potpourri of recent best-sellers. The classics teach language and structure; the new books reveal today’s culture. In non-pandemic times, I see over thirty plays a year, which tunes my ear to dialogue.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My movement — The Purple Hands, with a logo of a red hand and a blue hand turning purple as they clasp each other — would repair the Trust Deficit in America. Without first fixing the Trust Deficit, we’ll never fix climate change, health care access, inequality, unequal justice, and immigration. We won’t have a democracy. So, henceforth:
Resolved: Whenever you hear someone spewing hate — even someone you admire, even a hate you also espouse — turn off the TV, click away from the website, or leave the gathering. Find something positive to fill your time.
Resolved: Practice a Win-Win philosophy of real compromise in all relationships, whether personal, political, or business. Further resolved: Whenever possible, smile with compassion and slowly back away from those who would take advantage of you.
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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!