An interview with… Allison Pataki

I am lucky enough to sometimes have the chance to ask other novelists questions about their work for the Historical Novel Society and write up feature articles. There’s always something more in the Q&A that I can’t work into the articles though. So here’s a chance to read the whole conversation.

I’m struck by how much you decided to keep to the historical record with Sisi’s story. Can you talk about how that works for you as a novelist? How do you define the difference between historical fictional biography/historical fiction/creative non-fiction and where does your work sit on that continuum?
I’ve said it so often as a writer of historical fiction: one truly cannot make this stuff up. One need search no further than the pages of history to find the most extraordinary, most inspiring, most delicious and dramatic story material out of which to mold a narrative. With Sisi and her Habsburg world, I felt that that was the case one hundred times over.
These characters and the events unfolding around them felt so very big and dramatic. This was the stuff of epic: World War I and Strauss waltzes and Disney-esque castles and the golden age of imperial Vienna and an empress who raced horses and grew her legendary hair to the floor—this was a fairytale meets a Shakespearean tragedy meets a family soap opera meets an international saga.

The blueprint was already there for me; this history and these individuals are so rich and colorful. I would have been foolish not to rely heavily on the historical facts in building this narrative of Sisi and her incredible life among the Habsburgs. But I knew that I really wanted SISI to be a novel, not a nonfiction biography. Not one of us can truly know what any of these moments must have felt like, for Sisi or for any of the other characters involved. Fiction allows us to bring these scenes to life in our imaginations. For over a century now, meticulous and expert (and copious!) historians have studied these individuals and events and have stitched together a complex and multipronged narrative, culled from the innumerable sources and perspectives made available throughout the years—letters, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspaper reports, government documents, and more. A novel allowed me to use all of that juicy material in a way that can be educational but also, hopefully, accessible and entertaining and enjoyable.

As this is a work of historical fiction, and as Sisi was a figure who inspired tales of both fact and fable, there were times when, for the purposes of plot and pacing, I fictionalized historical details, utilizing the creative license that is afforded to us lucky novelists. Each instance was the result of much deliberation. Determining when and how to take the liberty that the fiction label allows is probably the biggest challenge for me as a writer of historical fiction and one that I must negotiate anew with each topic and novel and scene I tackle.

I really enjoyed the stories of the minor characters in your novel, particularly Ludwig and Sisi’s son Rudy. I felt you had a lot of sympathy for both of them. Can you talk about that?
Similar to Sisi’s stories, these characters have largely fallen by the wayside in history, and yet, they are so compelling. Their lives make for ideal fictional material. Take the character of Crown Prince Rudolf. There, the history constitutes a tragic and true story of a lost soul and a grisly family disaster. I had sympathy for Rudolf, to be sure, but I also wanted to be sure to present the many different sides to this very complex family dynamic. I also found myself wondering, many times, how different history might have been, had his life played out differently.

With King Ludwig, or “Mad King Ludwig,” as history remembers him, I don’t think I can overstate how much fun I had researching and writing this character. It’s been such a delight to see the readers respond to his character. What an outlandish, extravagant, tortured, brilliant soul. I think, in some ways, he upstages all the rest of this very colorful cast of characters, even Sisi—and that is hard to do!

In some ways Sisi is a difficult character, charismatic but not entirely loveable. Did you feel that you had ups and downs in your response to her?
I absolutely did. Sisi beguiled and enchanted and frustrated me, just as she did the people in her own life, even—or perhaps especially—the people who loved her the most. Sisi is such a complex character, which is a huge part of why it was so enlivening to write about her, and hopefully to read about her as well. And her complexity is a large part of why she continues to capture the collective imagination to this day. The tragic figures—the tortured souls—are the ones who prompt us to ask questions and think and seek to understand, right?

There are definitely times in her story when you feel for Sisi, like in the case of her troubled marriage or in the trials she faces in that suffocating Habsburg Court. However, there are certain instances where you can’t help but feel a little disappointed by her and the choices she makes.

No one was more aware of Sisi’s flaws than Sisi herself. And that was rare, for a Habsburg to admit to such human frailty; we have to remember that they saw themselves as “God’s
divinely anointed vessels” on earth!

The book blurb compares Sisi to Princess Diana and Sisi even meets with members of the Spenser family when she is in England. Is that a parallel that struck you as you were researching and writing her story?
I find it to be a fascinating parallel. And a very justifiable comparison. Both Sisi and Diana loomed large in their own lifetimes (and well beyond) as these leading ladies of almost mythical stature—legends even while still alive. They both married young, into royal families and courts in which they both found themselves to be outsiders. They were both great beauties whose personal popularity became both a blessing and a curse. Both captured the hearts of the public because of their advocacy and empathy. Both struggled in unhappy marriages and with the constant scrutiny of the press and the public. Both of them set trends in fashion and beauty.

The most tragic comparison of all, however, is how they both faced premature and grisly deaths. Deaths that were entirely avoidable.

There are some wonderful descriptions of Europe in this novel. I really enjoyed learning about Neuschwanstein Castle (familiar to me because of Chitty, Chitty, Bang Bang!) and the World Exposition in Vienna. Sisi was an almost compulsive traveller. Did you follow in her footsteps as part of your research?
Yes! Travel was a huge part of my research when writing both The Accidental Empress
and Sisi: Empress on Her Own. I had to travel to these places in order to fully understand Sisi’s world and try to recreate it in fiction. I had to see where she lived and slept and dressed and fell in love—I loved walking up the aisle in the church and imagining how she much have felt on her wedding day, or looking out her bedroom window and seeing the world she inhabited.

Traveling also happens to be the most fun part of the research process! It was in Vienna, years ago, that I first stumbled across the image of Sisi. She still looms large in Austria and Hungary as an almost deified figure. The Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces are fantastic resources in which to learn about not only Sisi, but all of the Habsburgs. Vienna today still feels so grand and imperial.

Budapest, to me, feels more whimsical and unruly. Walking around the Castle Hill and looking out over the Danube and the Chain Bridge, I could imagine why the romantic Sisi loved it there so much. But of course I could not recreate her journey in all of its varied and circuitous stops! Sisi was such a constant and restless traveler, I would be wandering the globe for a lifetime and would never get around to writing the book!

This is the sequel to The Accidental Empress. Did you always know Sisi’s story would take 2 books? Do you think they can be read as stand-alone novels?
Yes! Sisi’s story as empress began when she was only 15, but she went on to rule and live for another half-century. Her life was so full and significant that, as I did my research, I realized that I was looking at a novel the length of Gone With The Wind! So I made the decision to split it in half.

The Hungarian Coronation of 1867 and the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy seemed like such a natural ending point for one novel and beginning for the next, because it was a moment of resolution for Sisi as an empress and a wife and a mother and a character. And yet, there were still so many unanswered questions for her at that time. So, I can say this much, if we think part one is dramatic, it only gets more dramatic as her life goes on! I had to write SISI because there was so much more story to be told when I was done with The Accidental Empress.

That said, I very much wrote these books as stand-alone novels. I want readers to go along on this journey in whatever capacity suits them, without feeling like they need to sign up for two books at the outset. One does not need to read one in order to understand the other. But hopefully they will love the character of Sisi so much that reading two books will be something they will want to do!

What are you working on now?
I’m working on the film adaptations for both of the SISI stories as well as THE TRAITOR’S WIFE! That is so much fun, and I am so delighted at the idea of learning how to develop screenplays and tell these stories in an on-screen medium.

And then of course I’m writing every day as well, working on my next novels. I have two projects that are in the works and I am absolutely consumed by them. I’m having a blast
working on these stories, but as they are both in such an embryonic phase right now, I
won’t elaborate much more than that—at least, not yet!