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History & her-story: Heather Webb on 'Becoming Josephine' (Q&A/giveaway)

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Hartford Books Examiner and Plume will be giving away a copy of Heather Webb’s Becoming Josephine. For your chance to win, simply email HBE at HartfordBooksExaminer@aol.com by no later than Monday, January 20th, 2014 at 11:59 PM EST and include “Giveaway” in the subject line. One recipient will be chosen at random.

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Heather Webb.

Ms. Webb is the debut novelist of Becoming Josephine (Plume, $15.00), published earlier this month. She is a contributor to the popular writing blogs Romance University and Writer Unboxed and also manages her own blog, Between the Sheets. A former French teacher, Ms. Webb now counts flexing her foodie skills and world travel among her passions. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society and makes her home in Connecticut with her family.

Becoming Josephine has proven praiseworthy among critics and contemporaries alike. Kirkus Reviews noted, “Webb adds new frisson to the often fictionalized travails of an unlikely empress … Webb’s portrayal of the range of Josephine’s experiences—narrow escapes from bloodshed and disease, dinner-table diplomacy, and her helpless love for Napoleon, her children, and a small dog—is exceptionally concise and colorful. A worthy fictional primer on Empress Josephine.” Further, Erika Robuck, author of Call Me Zelda, praised, “Perfectly balancing history and story, character and setting, detail and pathos, Becoming Josephine marks a debut as bewitching as its protagonist.”

From the publisher:

A sweeping historical debut about the Creole socialite who transformed herself into an empress

Readers are fascinated with the wives of famous men. In Becoming Josephine, debut novelist Heather Webb follows Rose Tascher as she sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris, eager to enjoy an elegant life at the royal court. Once there, however, Rose’s aristocratic soldier-husband dashes her dreams by abandoning her amid the tumult of the French Revolution. After narrowly escaping death, Rose reinvents herself as Josephine, a beautiful socialite wooed by an awkward suitor—Napoleon Bonaparte.

Now, Heather Webb shares her writer’s journey …

1) What inspired you to write BECOMING JOSEPHINE—and how did the project evolve from idea to finished manuscript?

The idea for this novel came to me in two parts. I taught a unit about the French Revolution in my high school French classes for several years, which sparked my interest in the time period. Yet despite my teaching, I knew little about Josephine and I “discovered” her later. Ultimately she was a minor player in a sea of France’s most famous and infamous people during the Revolution—at least until Robespierre fell and the Directoire took over the government.

When I began to feel the pull to writing a book, I had a dream about Josephine. Strange, but true. From the very first biography I read, I was hooked. Her vivid childhood home, her adaptable nature and courageous spirit had me enthralled. Her rich life story set to the backdrop of the chaotic Revolution and the opulent Napoleonic Empire cinched the deal.

The novel was three years in the making, though during that time I not only learned how to write fiction, but I spent months learning about social media, marketing, and the publishing industry. I’m hoping that means my subsequent books go a bit faster. So far so good!

2) The book is historical and incorporates elements of women’s fiction elements. Tell us a bit about the research process. Also, how do you endeavor to make such a book relatable to a contemporary audience?

I researched for about eight months before I wrote a single word, and then I continued to research in dribs and drabs throughout the entire writing process. I tried to take a comprehensive approach—biographies of important characters, histories of the Revolution as well as those of Martinique, Napoleon’s reprinted letters, documentaries. I studied art and literature movements from this period, china patterns, fashion, weapons. I could go on. Researchitis is a disease we historical fiction writers suffer from.

In terms of making a historical novel relatable, I think the most important piece is to recognize that the human story never really changes. We will always strive for justice, for love and fulfillment, for making the world a better place. A good historical novelist never loses sight of that fact and weaves together details of a different time with classic human yearnings.

3) In addition to author, your roles include parent, freelance editor, blogger, (insert other titles here) … How do you find balance—and what advice would you give aspiring writers who struggle to find the time to commit to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)?

Finding balance is always tricky. I'm a bit of a workaholic so I have to rein myself in at times. What I've found is the most useful to me in terms of time management is very basic: I keep a calendar and a very regular writing schedule. That sounds like an obvious solution, but most writers I know, believe it or not, don't keep regular hours. Every Saturday and Sunday I leave my house and hunker down in a coffee shop and write for 5-7 hours--without exception. That time has become sacred to me. I also work for a couple of hours in the mornings each day during the week, but it typically consists of keeping up with my social media commitments and editing. With young kids, that's the best I can do. The rest of my time is devoted to family.

In terms of advice to aspiring writers, I would tell them to do the same. Make a commitment to their passion, and see it through. If you want to write a book, MAKE IT HAPPEN. One sentence, one scene at a time. Schedule time every week that nothing and no one can interrupt and put words on paper. And most importantly, don't give up on your dream! As cheesy as that may sound, it's true--the name of the game in publishing is hard work and persistence.

4) What do you find to be the greatest challenges facing the debut author today—and have you found any tools or forums to be particularly helpful in advancing your visibility?

The greatest challenge is being seen. Large chain bookstores are closing as the digital age is upon us and thousands of writers are flooding the internet with self-published works (many are excellent and very many are terrible). Wading through the information glut makes it tough for readers to find you. I’ve found the single best tool is really about grassroots marketing—be available to speak, make friends, help others. Kindness and generosity go a long way. Others are willing to help spread the word in return.

5) Leave us with a little teaser: what comes next?

I can’t go into great detail at this time, but I can say it’s another historical set during the Belle Époque—1880’s France—about a pair of artist lovers and the line between love, obsession, and madness.

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With thanks to Heather Webb for her generosity of time and thought and to Mary Pomponio of Penguin Group for providing a giveaway copy of Becoming Josephine.

Don’t forget: For your change to win a copy of Becoming Josephine, simply email HBE at HartfordBooksExaminer@aol.com by no later than Monday, January 20th, 2014 at 11:59 PM EST and include “Giveaway” in the subject line.

Be sure to “like” HBE on Facebook to follow the latest in book news, reviews, and author interviews …

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