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Pataki’s Novel Captures Remarkable Spirit of Duchess of Bavaria

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The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki 

An Interview with Allison Pataki

Author of ‘The Accidental Empress’ (Howard Books, 17 February 2015)

Columnist Anna Roins

In 1853, fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, ‘Sisi’ Duchess of Bavaria traveled to the Hapsburg court to attend her sister’s wedding to the young Emperor Franz Joseph I. Shortly after their arrival, Sisi found herself inexplicably drawn to her sister’s groom.


The Accidental Empress
by Allison Pataki

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

Attracted by Sisi’s guileless charm and feminine beauty, the young emperor swiftly declared his intention to marry Sisi instead – against the wishes of his indomitable mother, Princess Sophie.

After she had become empress to one of Europe’s most treacherous courts, Sisi had little control over her life and struggled to keep the love of her emperor and her people.

This novel of historical fiction is packed with intrigue and temptation about one of the most remarkable women in the history of the 19th century. It debuted at #7 on the New York Times Best-Seller List.

(Interview transcribed from a telephone recording)

“One of the legacies for which she is most remembered, still to this day, is her incredible beauty and that she was this fashion icon”
—PATAKI

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Pataki thank you for your time today. We are so pleased to discuss The Accidental Empress with you!

PATAKI: It’s my pleasure! Thank you so much for having me.

AUTHORLINK: From the moment Empress Sisi married the emperor in defiance of his mother, Princess Sophie, she had very little control over her life or even her children.  However, one thing she did have control over was her weight and beauty – and aimed to be at most 50 kilos (at a height of 172 cm) for the rest of her life. It seems her physical appearance was the only quality about which she felt herself appreciated. Do you think it cultivated her primary source of her self-esteem?

PATAKI: It’s an incredibly complicated, interesting aspect of her persona and her personality, certainly. One of the legacies for which she is most remembered, still to this day, is her incredible beauty and that she was this fashion icon. Women wanted to wear their hair a-la-Sisi and, certainly, the emperor fell madly in love with her (when he wasn’t intended to be betrothed to her but in fact to her big sister), in large part because of her physical beauty. So it’s certainly a large piece of her persona. And yet, we, in the year 2015, have to be careful looking back to the 1850’s and the decades following that because, certainly, medicine, psychology and cultural norms were in a completely different place at that point. And I will be the first to say that, as someone who is not a medical doctor or a psychologist, I cannot diagnose 150 years later what exactly was going on with Sisi with her compulsion and sort of obsession with her physical looks – her weight and her beauty.

But what I will say is, you touched on an interesting point, which is that, from the time Empress Sisi arrived at court as a sixteen-year-old bride she felt disenfranchised in so many areas of her life: her ability to bring up her children, her ability to have time and respect from her husband, and her very contentious relationship with her mother-in-law, who was a much more powerful female figure at court. And the very blue-blooded Hapsburg Court found many flaws with the young empress. From the very beginning, she was criticised for not speaking in a high-enough style, not dressing well enough, not being sophisticated enough, not having nice enough teeth. And yet the one thing that was always sort of undisputed, that she had as a strength going for her, was her physical beauty. The emperor was enamoured with her because of it and the people were mesmerised and fascinated by her almost the way they were with a Princess Diana or a Jackie Kennedy. She was a leading lady who captured the collective imagination in large part because she was so aesthetically charismatic. And so she really did lean on her beauty and her weight and it became a fixation, it became a compulsion.  When you go to her palaces in Vienna to the Hofburg or to Schonnbrunn and you see the dresses that she wore, and they are made now to scale, filled out with her actual body dimensions, it’s staggering how petite her waist was.  When you see the human hair wigs that are done to scale exactly how she would have worn her hair – which was another fixation of hers in terms of her physical beauty – you can’t believe it! How beautiful, and thick and luxurious and elaborate her hair was.

So yes, it’s an element of her personality that still to this day captures the imagination – it makes her very interesting. It makes her very complex and yet, we have to acknowledge that there was much more to this woman. She was an intellectual woman, she was a traveller, and she was a lifelong student. She at times had an incredible passion for various political causes in her kingdom. Her cult of beauty I would say was a piece of her persona, but certainly not the entire picture.

AUTHORLINK: Later, she met Count Andrássy. He valued her input and sought her involvement in his political and personal affairs. Would you say she felt her self-worth reinforced?

PATAKI: Absolutely, their relationship was very much a meeting of the minds, the meeting of equals. He recognized that in Empress Elisabeth, in Sisi, he had probably the Hungarians’ staunchest defender within the Hapsburg court. Really, there had not been another Hapsburg ruler, except for Maria Theresa, who had stood up for Hungarian rights the way Sisi did. So Andrássy recognised that she would be a very powerful ally.

They also had a very deep friendship. Andrássy wrote later in life that he thought she was the pinnacle of all womanhood and that he was one of the only few people in the world who knew the real Sisi and that he wished the rest of the world would know Sisi the way he did, because then they would love her the way he did.  It was very much their working together for Austrio-Hungarian compromise, for the Hungarian autonomy that came in 1867. That in many ways was Sisi’s crowning moment as an empress. That’s when she came into her own as a wife, as a mother, as a queen, as a politician. And that was when she was at the height of her physical strength and beauty, and personal power and confidence.  He certainly played a very significant role in her life as a result of that and he believed theirs was a close, kindred intimate friendship that was special and unique for Sisi until her final days.

AUTHORLINK: One of the epithets of the novel is a poem written by Sisi:-
Like thine own sea birds,
I’ll circle without rest.
For me earth holds no corner
To build a lasting nest.

This poem suggests her loneliness and sorrow at the inability to raise her children. What did you understand about her feelings of entrapment in your research?

PATAKI: Yeah, that line absolutely captured my interest from the very first time I saw it because it’s so tragic! I think it so beautifully captures her restlessness. Her restlessness in her soul, but also her inability in her life as queen/wife/mother to find roots in this new life into which she was so unceremoniously and abruptly thrust at the age of 15. So, for Sisi, a lot of her time and energy went into finding forms of diversion or you might even say escapism because she was so unhappy at the court, so unhappy in her marriage, so unhappy being under the thumb of her domineering mother-in-law, and she was so unhappy that her children were taken from her.

So a huge part of what she did was tried to escape all of that. And unsuccessfully so I think, as this poetry indicates. She never really found peace, she never really found a feeling of rootedness, but I think some of her methods of escapism were travel (compulsive travel), again a cult of beauty to which we referred earlier, her obsessive care with her physical beauty and her health and her exercise and her weight. And then there were her studies: she was an obsessive student of anything from Ancient Greek to German philosophy and then through her different relationships. And so inevitably all of these avenues and all these routes of diversion, proved to be somewhat disappointing, proved to be somewhat illusory in the end. And yet, hers was definitely a life-long quest to find these diversions through which she might escape from what she considered a very miserable and unhappy life at the Viennese Court.

AUTHORLINK: Speaking of travelling, in preparation for writing The Accidental Empress you went to places like Budapest and Madeira for research. Had you also visited Sisi’s palace called ‘The Archilleion’ in Corfu, Greece?

PATAKI: I’ve been to Greece, but I did not ever visit The Archilleion, her most sprawling, most lavish home that she built pretty much at the end of her life. And again, going back to her escapism and attempts at diversion, these building projects became a form of escapism for her as well, because she did everything exactly to her liking; from the light fixtures, to the China off of which she ate, to the garden, to the statues that were in the garden. Everything was exactly how she wanted. Franz Joseph indulged her every whim. Franz Joseph even negotiated with the Greek government to make sure that Sisi could build on this land and could build to the scale that she wanted.  That she could have a power-generator so that it could support the huge estate.

And then much to his chagrin, Sisi decided, as she so often did because of her restless spirit, once the house was done and the work was done – the quest, the striving was done – she became bored with it! And she didn’t want to be there anymore. And so she sold it! That’s kind of an interesting example of Sisi’s character and restlessness. I’ve read extensively about it and looked at photos, but no, I’ve never been to Corfu. Have you been there?

AUTHORLINK: No, I haven’t but it has always been one of the places I’ve wanted to visit.

PATAKI: Absolutely!

“She sort of begins a new chapter in her life, where she is now the master of her own destiny.”
—PATAKI

AUTHORLINK: What is your favourite scene in the book and why?

PATAKI: Oh my goodness! Probably the coronation scene in Budapest in 1867, because it’s such a climactic moment for Sisi in so many ways. As I said earlier, it’s really the moment in which Sisi comes into her own as a queen and as a political activist. This is the cause that is closest to her heart – the Hungarian autonomy – and preserving the empire for her offspring and to prevent civil war within her empire. It’s really the one time when Franz Joseph really makes her a political partner and a political equal in negotiating this deal. This is when she is at the height of her beauty and physical strength and just her agency as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, and it’s really a turning point. It’s kind of a watershed moment.

In some ways, it’s kind of a resolution and climax and in some ways it’s a turning point towards a new beginning because the following year, Sisi spends more time in Hungary than she does in Austria. She sort of begins a new chapter in her life, where she is now the master of her own destiny. It’s an interesting moment – an end of era and beginning of another and there’s a lot of tectonic shifts happening for Sisi, as a woman, as a character, as an individual both in history and within the novel.

AUTHORLINK: That’s true. Sisi’s story has been made into plenty of movies, but it would be exciting if one was made based on your book. We understand your first book ‘The Traitor’s Wife’ (Howard Books, 11 February 2014) is set to be made into a national TV series. Congratulations! Have you had any offers for The Accidental Empress?

PATAKI: Thank you, and absolutely! For as often as Sisi has been explored as a character for a European audience (and I know there is that very famous Romy Schneider production,) there are no American versions and there are no English versions that I’ve ever been able to find. I think that’s a huge part of why an American audience is not as familiar with the character of Sisi. I can’t for the life of me figure out why else, because we’ve had so much exposure through book and film and television to characters like Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great and the Russian Tsarinas.

Yet I think Sisi is the most interesting leading lady that Americans had never heard of. I think she has all of the drama and intrigue of other historic women and yet, the Hapsburgs are the most interesting royal family you could ever explore through fiction, through literature, through books, through films, through television. So I’m very excited. We actually have had many offers for film and screen writes, and I’m actually in the final stages of negotiations with a production partner. I’m so excited and I can’t wait to share the official announcement very soon.

AUTHORLINK: That’s fantastic. Which actors would you like to see playing Empress Sisi, Emperor Franz Joseph and even the handsome Count Andrássy?

PATAKI: Oh my goodness! I’d be absolutely lying if I said that I hadn’t thought about it. I think it’s one of the most fun things to think about. There are so many – it would be fun to have somebody who was completely unknown, completely undiscovered. Then there are other actresses out there like Alicia Vikender who was in A Royal Affair (2012), or Lily Collins who was in Blind Side (2009), or Lily James who was in Cinderella (2015) and Downton Abbey (2010). I love Felicity Jones; she was in The Theory of Everything (2014). I really like Rebecca Ferguson who was in The White Queen (2013) and then Blake Lively is obviously beautiful.  

There are so many, and it would have to be somebody who is charismatic and powerful. You know, Sisi was young – 15 at the beginning of this story – but then we follow her through to her thirties. It has to be a woman who has a real presence and is a real charismatic leading lady material because Sisi was certainly a charismatic leading lady in her own right.

“. . . if I was to pick one thing that is the most inspiring, the thing I love most about this job is when I become very, very fascinated by and taken with a character or a moment from history as it was with Peggy Shippen Arnold in The Traitor’s Wife or like Sisi in The Accidental Empress.”
—PATAKI

AUTHORLINK: You used to be a journalist and you said once that ‘the panic-inducing deadlines and the rapid-fire pace of the 24-hour news cycle were not for me.” For you, what is it about writing books that you love so much? What is the least thing you like?

PATAKI: Oh my goodness! There are so many things! I don’t even know where to begin. I can truly say that I think the cliché has been proven true where if you find what you love to do you never work a day in your life. That is truly the case for me with writing historical fiction. I consider it such a luxury, that I basically get to play make believe every day, and I get to consider it work. And so I would probably say, if I was to pick one thing that is the most inspiring, the thing I love most about this job is when I become very, very fascinated by and taken with a character or a moment from history as it was with Peggy Shippen Arnold in The Traitor’s Wife or like Sisi in The Accidental Empress.I get to really delve into all the history, through research, to travel and incorporate all of the plots into my mind’s eye and kind of let it marinate and then from there, I basically get to play make-believe. And I get to use the history, use the historical figures and the details and the events and then plot out a world for readers to be able to enter. So what I love the most as a reader of historical fiction – that’s my favorite genre to read – is getting lost and being transported to this completely other time and place and to be able to see the history and to be able to see the world come alive through my imagination. So for me as the writer of historical fiction, I get to create that experience for the reader and also for myself. So I think it’s fun because I’m basically an adult who gets to play make-believe and get to call it work! I think it’s the best job in the world.

Editing can get very tedious by round 100! You are just over it. The characters become like anyone in your life – you have days when you can’t spend another day in their presence. You’re sick of everything that they’re doing. But on the other end of that I would say I do genuinely like editing, but it can have its difficult moments. Then the promotional side is fun and it’s completely different to the writing side because the writing side is a very solitary inner, interior, introverted-experience where you’re on your own with these characters creating this world and then you switch gears and you go to the promotional side which is completely different because you are out there meeting readers which I love, travelling and doing book tours and signings and going to book stores. And so sometimes I think it can be kind of hard striking the balance between those two aspects of the job. You’re on a deadline and you’re writing and stressed but you’re also in a really intensive promotional phase – it can be hard to kind of switch back and forth and switch gears. They’re two really different hats that you have to wear at the same time.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, I can just imagine. You wrote three novels in four years in your spare time when you were a journalist – is that right – before you found your agent, Dupree Miller?

PATAKI: Before I found my agent I had written two novels.

AUTHORLINK: Okay, and was one of those The Traitor’s Wife, or The Accidental Empress?

PATAKI: The Traitor’s Wife was one. So The Accidental Empress I worked on right after that. And another one was the first book I ever wrote. Interestingly enough, that’s how I got my literary agent. That’s how I got my first publishing meetings and in that first publishing meeting with Simon & Schuster, the editor asked, ‘’So  what else have you written?’’ I started talking about the current project I was working on, which was The Traitor’s Wife and I said, ‘Well, let me tell you about Peggy Shippen Arnold. She was like another figure, kind of like Sisi, where the American audience didn’t really know her at all, even though she played such a significant role in history and occupied such a fascinating significant moment in history.

Yet everyone kind of knows her husbands’ version of events and everybody knows her husband’s name and not hers. I was so excited to tell the editor about Peggy Shippen Arnold that we ended up spending the whole second half of the meeting talking about The Traitor’s Wife. By the end of the meeting, the editor said, ‘’Okay, we actually want to buy that book!’’ So this first book remains in draft form. Something that now, years later, having worked with editors and having published books, I want to go back and completely edit and rework it.

“. . . there is writing the first initial draft that gives you a whole manuscript and a whole story but then there’s the whole phase of editing that could go on for months. “
—PATAKI

AUTHORLINK: Oh good. And how long does it take you to write a novel or does it change with each novel?

PATAKI: It changes with the novel and I would say that there are many different ways to answer that because there is writing the first initial draft that gives you a whole manuscript and a whole story but then there’s the whole phase of editing that could go on for months. And there’s the whole phase of going into production with the novel. So from start to finish it takes about a year, but in terms of actually sitting down and banging out a complete draft of a full manuscript novel, I would say…You know, I become so obsessed with my characters with the history and I become so immersed in it that when I’m in one of those intensive phases of writing a rough draft, a first draft of a manuscript, it’s really all I want to be doing every day anyway. So I try to do that pretty quickly while the inspiration is really flowing. I would say it averages about four months to get a first draft finished.

AUTHORLINK: That’s interesting. Before your 10th birthday, your father was elected to be the governor of New York in what would be the first of three 4-year terms. He seems to be a remarkable man. I read your blog entry ”A Note to Dad” dated 15 June of this year and was much moved. What did it feel like to have a dad who was the governor of New York for twelve years, who has now announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for the President of United States in 2016?

PATAKI: Oh thank you. I’m very proud of him. He is somebody who is in public service and politics for all the right reasons. He truly loves people, he truly loves policy. He feels this calling to serve and to find solutions, to make government more effective. He’s done that his whole life. And obviously there are challenges to having a family in the public eye, but I would say, on balance, it’s been a lot more positive than negative. He’s doing what his calling is. He’s always encouraged us to do what our calling was including me – becoming a writer and quitting my day job. I think we support one another and are a very close family.

AUTHORLINK: That’s lovely. We understand you want to “tell the stories of women who shaped history and inspired people,’’ which is great. How did it evolve within you to want to write about these ‘footnote women’? 

PATAKI: Well, it started with Peggy Shippen Arnold because when I uncovered her story – she and Arnold grew up and lived in the hometown where I grew up, in West Point in the Hudson River Valley, and so I considered myself familiar with the area. I certainly knew Benedict Arnold’s name and certainly knew of John Andre, his British spy co-conspirator. And then when I discovered the central role played by Peggy Shippen Arnold in this treason, I thought to myself, ‘’I would want a historical fiction novel about this! Why doesn’t it exist? If it doesn’t exist then I want to be the one to write it!’’ Because she is a fascinating leading lady who deserves her time in the spot light.

And from there, similarly I became very, very intrigued by the Empress Sisi because everybody knows it was Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was assassinated, the heir to the Austrio-Hungarian empire, and that began World War 1 and everybody knows of the Hapsburg family, and yet I think Sisi is the most interesting individual of the whole bunch and yet, we don’t know her story. We don’t know the role she played in the empire. So I just felt like, we know often times the male version of history and the male version of events, and yet the woman who was there, had not only a front row seat, but was a front row participant.

I think oftentimes, especially for me as a woman, and a reader of historical fiction, that can be almost the more interesting angle into the story and certainly with those two women, I’d become completely fascinated by them. I felt like theirs were just stories that were really worthy of being told. And there are so many others out there. And what I really love about historical fiction in particular is that I’m not only having a wonderful literary experience when I’m reading a great historical fiction novel, but I’m also learning in a way that’s not only entertaining but informative and interesting. And so I get transported to another time and place. And I get to see history through this other set of eyes. So that’s what I really want to do for the readers of my books.  

AUTHORLINK: Yes, and easily digestible too – accessible for people.

PATAKI: Exactly, and while I might not necessarily gravitate towards a very dense biography, I will gravitate towards a historical fiction. Once I’m incredibly interested in that figure or that time period, then I’ll go and pick up the dense biography text – but the historical fiction becomes almost my window into this other world of time and place and can be a really great hook for people.

AUTHORLINK: Finishing up now, we understand that you have book two of The Accidental Empress soon to be released and that will take us and Sisi right into turbulent years that lead right into the Habsburg family declaring World War I. We can’t wait to read that one too!

PATAKI: Thank you! I’m just finishing up edits on it. I loved writing it and I have to tell you, if you think it was dramatic and emotional and significant and tumultuous in part one, just wait until you get to part two!

“I’m working on the Sisi part two book, and then after that I have another book that I’m just finishing up a draft for . . .”
—PATAKI

AUTHORLINK: Have you got something else in the meantime?

PATAKI: Yes, I’m working on the Sisi part two book, and then after that I have another book that I’m just finishing up a draft for, that I will be talking more about in the coming months. It’s still in the gestational period.

AUTHORLINK: Ms. Pataki, thank you for sharing your time with us to discuss The Accidental Empress. We enjoyed talking to you and wish you every continued success with your book – and, of course, the health of your husband and the exciting and eventual birth of your beautiful baby!

PATAKI: Thank you Anna!

About the Author:

Allison Pataki is the New York Times bestselling author of THE TRAITOR’S WIFE and THE ACCIDENTAL EMPRESS. She graduated Cum Laude from Yale University with a major in English and spent several years writing for TV and online news outlets. The daughter of former New York State Governor George E. Pataki, Allison is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and FoxNews.com, as well as a member of The Historical Novel Society. Allison lives in Chicago with her husband.

To learn more and connect with Allison visit AllisonPataki.com, https://www.facebook.com/AllisonPatakiPage?fref=ts or Twitter @AllisonPataki.

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor in Sydney before she embarked on a career in writing eight years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites, and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins on https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Sophiabluestar