Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Lisl's Bits and Bobs: Interview with author Art McGrath

Good day, Art McGrath, and thanks for joining us for a little chat.

Thank you for having me, Lisl. I appreciate the chance to speak to you and your readers about my book and the Napoleonic era.

You “grew up fascinated with all things Napoleonic.” What first drew you to Napoleon?

I think in large part it was my French heritage. While my surname is Irish, I am French in all but name, with French-Canadian ancestry on both sides of the family. Though I realize now that French-Canadians were somewhat removed from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic conflicts, it still played a role in my interest. Besides, there was a fair amount of sympathy in Quebec for the Emperor of the French who was such a bitter enemy of the English. I even have a relative, a great-great-uncle, who was named Napoleon.

Were there a lot of others who shared your passion?

No, as I recall I was the only person I knew with that passion for Napoleon. It was a rather lonely interest and waxed and waned over the years.

In your reading you ran across references to Americans having served in the Grande Armée, paving the way for The Emperor’s American. What about Pierre Burns? Did you have to flesh him out over time or did you already seem to know him when his character made himself known to you?

For a time I saw the world through Pierre’s eyes, no matter what I did. I definitely already seemed to know him, or he knew me but I also had to flesh him out as I went. At first he was a little too perfect, but I hope I made him a little more vulnerable and gave him room to grow. He has quite the career ahead of him.

With Pierre wanting to tell his story, over your shoulder, so to speak, what would be the most important thing he wants our readers to know about himself? About Napoleon?

I think Pierre would want people to know he fought not for the sake of fighting but because he was doing what he thought was right. There is more than a streak of the adventurer in him, it is true, but he wouldn’t fight on what he thought was the wrong side.

As for Napoleon, Pierre would want readers to know that Napoleon would have been content with rebuilding France after the Revolution but the courts of Europe, especially England, would not allow it. Yes, Napoleon conquered most of Europe and perhaps after 1808 or 1809 became caught in his own aura of invincibility but he did not start out intending to crush Europe under his heel. He was pushed into it, largely by England. The victories of 1805-1807 were a defensive reaction by Napoleon.

What were some of the challenges of bringing Pierre’s story to life for him? Do you sometimes feel you must be cautious because you are also speaking for a number of others? That is, other Americans who served in Napoleon’s army?

I started writing the book as a way to discover how an American might end up in Napoleon’s army. I don’t feel too constrained or cautious  about those men because so little is known about them that they were a blank slate for me.

Pierre himself writes that he has killed “enough for several lifetimes. More than anyone should see.” Were you ever concerned that readers might be put off by some of his actions or commands, or did you have confidence in his character and context of his various circumstances?

I suppose it is a danger but Pierre is a soldier in a long series of wars that saw some of the most intense, bloody fighting in Europe between the fall of Rome and World War I. Those actions are integral to the story and I have faith in the reader, especially someone who is reading military historical fiction, to understand that.  You can’t tell the story of a soldier in combat without touching on that killing. And Pierre became—becomes— quite good at it. He was part of the greatest army of his age surrounded by hardened professionals. It is only natural that as time goes by and he survives battle after battle he becomes quite good at it—even better than he has shown a talent for in book one.

I really enjoyed the reading of this in first person—it seems as if you as the author could better get into Pierre’s head, if you pardon, but also the character could resonate more with readers, be less distant. Did any of this play into why you chose to write in that perspective? Was it a difficult decision to make, or was it a given?

It was both a given and a difficult decision to make. When I came up with the concept I certainly had no intention of writing it first person but when I sat down and started writing, it came out in Pierre’s voice. I knew historical fiction in the first person was unusual and even frowned upon by many and so I tried to revise the early chapters in the third person but it just didn’t work. It seemed flat. So, I went back to the first person and have not looked back since.

Is there anything you would ask Pierre if you were to meet him in real life? Or do you feel that as your character you know everything about him? What would you ask Napoleon?

It sounds odd but I think I know him well enough. As for what I would ask Napoleon, that’s a tough question, there are so many things and I’d probably be overwhelmed and tongue tied! I think the first question would be why he never went into Spain personally after the campaign of 1808. There is no doubt if he brought the Grande Armée there he would have crushed Wellington and any other opposition. But of course would that have pacified the country?

Will we learn a bit more in coming books in the series about Pierre’s childhood or his adult life before the shipwreck?

Yes, bits and pieces at a time. For a little while he will be too busy to reflect much on home but I figure I will get him back to America eventually. Definitely during the War of 1812 after Napoleon’s first abdication but I may send him back sometime between 1807-1809, to advocate on the Emperor’s behalf. His background will come to the fore again then.

Can you tell us a bit about the research for The Emperor’s American and what your writing day is like?

Well, for a good five years before I began writing the book I was immersed in the Napoleonic era. My interest had risen to the surface again and I read everything I could. Then the idea for the book came and I realized that as much as I knew, I needed more specific information, everything from uniforms to tactics, formations, commands, unit commanders and more. I would go ahead and write and look up what I needed as I went and sometimes go back and add it in.

My wife became part of the research and she was a good sport about it. She was my living combat test subject. When I was writing certain scenes she would stand with sword or musket while I would see—in slow motion—if certain moves seemed realistic.

I joined a historical reenactment group to get a feel for the uniforms, hear the sounds of drums and get a small sense of what it was like living and marching as a French soldier.

 I also spent (and spend) a lot of time shooting flintlock muskets and pistols to test the accuracy and loading times of the weapons.

As for my writing day, I usually write at night after the kids are in bed.

What was the most difficult part of writing The Emperor’s American?

Describing territory or ground as it appeared in 1804 or 1805. I was on Google Earth a lot. I spent a great deal of time studying paintings of places, photographs, descriptions, as well as long email discussions with people in Europe about particular places. The detail about Napoleon’s coronation took some time to get right.

The easiest?

Dialogue, as well as describing action and battles. I think my dialogue is the strongest part of my books and that comes from years of being a journalist and listening to hundreds, if not thousands of people, talking in many types of circumstances.

What is the most surprising piece of information you learned in the course of writing the novel?

How intense was the training of the French Army in the Camp of Boulogne. If you read the novels of Cornwell or other British authors the stereotype of the French Army was of barely trained conscripts who never trained with live ammunition, who loaded slowly and were bad shots. That might have been true of many of the replacements sent to Spain, which generally had second line French troops anyway, but the army of four or five years earlier, the Army of the Ocean Coasts (which became the Grande Armée), that had trained to invade England, was a well drilled and well-oiled machine that trained regularly with live ammunition. I believe the best British troops of the Peninsular campaign would have been no match for them. That army was greatly whittled down by the campaigns of 1805, 1806 and 1807, before they ever set foot in Spain.

What else would you like to write about? Apart from the rest of the series, do you have any other projects on deck?

Yes, I have a Napoleonic zombie apocalypse novel already completed and I will soon start looking for a publisher for it. Beyond that I am doing background research and reading for a novel about the French and Indian War, likely from the French perspective though that is still in the research and “mulling over” stage. I will begin that after the third book in Pierre’s series is done. I have just started Pierre III, however, so I doubt I will start writing about the French and Indian War until sometime next year.

Which books, historical fiction or otherwise, were/are your favorites?

Growing up my favorite authors were Tolkien and James Clavell, especially his magnum opus, Shogun. In my late teens-early twenties, while in the Marine Corps, I discovered H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan, and the South African historical novelist Stuart Cloete. Today I still read a great deal of historical fiction, especially in the Napoleonic era, though the overwhelming majority of it is from the British perspective, alas, such as Patrick O’Brian’s excellent Aubrey-Maturin series. Some of the other series I like are Mallinson’s Matthew Hervey series and Wilcox’s Simon Fonthill series. The former starts at Waterloo and continues into the decades after amidst various English colonial adventures, while the latter series covers the British colonial period from Isandhlwana through the Boer War. Last year I discovered an alternate history/universe series called Destroyermen by Taylor Anderson. I read all eight books back to back, something I never do with series, which I usually deliberately space out at least six months between books when reading.

Are you fond of any other historical eras?

Yes, I’ve enjoy reading about ancient Rome, the French and Indian War, Louis XIV, the Great Trek in South Africa, World War II, and of course the history of the Marine Corps. The history of the Corps is driven into every Marine in boot camp.

What fictional genres do you like to read?

Primarily historical fiction, but I also read Brad Thor’s thrillers, as well as some science fiction and fantasy, plus the occasional foray into the classics.

What books or authors inspired you (or still do)?

I’m a great admirer of Bernard Cornwell, despite the fact that his Sharpe series is about one of Pierre’s ostensible enemies. In some ways my series may be inspired by his Nathaniel Starbuck series, about a northerner fighting for the Confederate army. Unlike Starbuck, Pierre isn’t fighting for his nation’s enemy but he isn’t fighting for his own country either.

What book(s) are you reading now?

I just finished Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Enemy and To Honor You Call Us by Honsinger and am now reading a military science fiction novel, The Empire’s Corps by Nuttall.

Do you prefer books you can hold or are you into e-readers?

I still prefer the real thing. A book really isn’t a book to me unless it has a physical edition, but I recently got my wife’s Kindle after she upgraded to a Kindle Fire. I would never have bought one but now that I have it I enjoy it. It has opened me up to lower priced Indie and self-published ebooks I would never have known about. Some are quite good.

Thank you so much and I hope to see you again soon, as well as Pierre.

Thank you for having me here.

Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne--the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. The Emperor's American is the first in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns. Learn more about Art McGrath and the book at his author page

The author is so graciously offering a copy of The Emperor's American as a giveaway. For your chance to win, simply comment at the book's review blog or at its associated Facebook thread. Good luck!

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1 comment:

  1. An extremely fascinating and insightful interview. A truly enjoyable read.