Allison Pataki is a New York Times bestselling author mostly known for her refreshing historical female fictions. She graduated from Yale University, spent years in journalism but her real mission is fictions. She is a member of The Historical Novel Society, and is a co-founder of ReConnect Hungary. We asked about her Hungarian roots, her latest novel, The Queen’s Fortune, published in Hungary and the importance of reframing the overshadowed women of history.
– First of all, can you tell me a little about your Hungarian roots?
– My great grandparents came to America from Aranyosapáti, it’s a rural village near Kisvárda. Their names were János and Erzsébet Pataki. They came to New York where there was a big Hungarian community in upstate at the time, working in several tight-knit communities. They started a farm which was an extended Hungarian family. My father grew up surrounded by Hungarian cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. My whole family stayed very connected to their Hungarian roots. My father has brought me back to Aranyosapáti but we also have been to Budapest, Eger, Tokaj and Gödöllő where Sissi stayed.
– You are the co-founder of ReConnect Hungary. What is the mission of the organization?
– It is similar to many of the other international birthright programmes. The concept is that Hungarian Americans who have Hungarian roots or one Hungarian grandparent, they can go back to Hungary where they learn the history and culture, hear the language, visit the historic sights, reconnect to their roots, meet other Hungarian Americans and Hungarians. After that there’s an opportunity to work in Hungary, through various internships. We hope that young Hungarian Americans don’t lose the history of the Hungarian relatives they have. Just because you’re in America, you shouldn’t lose the connection to your family or your ancestry, so we want to encourage young Hungarian Americans to feel that connection to their backgrounds and the country of origin.
– You have written great historical novels about fascinating women like Sissi, Peggy Shippen Arnold, etc. with a fresh new optic. What is your story, your upbringing to historical themes?
– Thank you very much for saying that. I am the third of four children, I grew up and in upstate New York. I always loved writing, storytelling, and books. History was always a passion of mine. After college I wrote in news for some years but I just realized that I really wanted to write novels and longer stories, specifically fiction novels. I always really loved the character of Sissi. It’s incredible when you travel in Europe – specifically in Hungary, Austria, Germany – you see her almost everywhere. She is a real icon and yet Americans know so little about her, that’s why I wanted to tell her story to a new audience. I have to explain what matters and why they should care about. I always come back to the way we learn history during school but it is a totally new way of looking into history. That makes it fun, entertaining, educational, accessible. And when you read this historical fiction you can not only get swept away and entertained by a great story but you can also learn so much about history, and history comes to life.
– You present less-known women like Desirée Clary, Marjorie Post from the shadows and popular icons like Sissi with less-known details and new perspectives, right?
– Well, we learn history in school but much of the time we miss out on the female stories and the deeper human stories. I think a lot of women who occupied history have the most fascinating stories. I think their stories tend to be overshadowed, especially when you’re looking back 200-300 years, for example with Desirée Clary. I’d like to pull these women out of the shadows because they were actively participating and shaping history. Through their stories I want to show that history is the furthest thing from boring, and that these women deserve to have their names known.
– After your novels of Sissi last year, The Queen’s Fortune has just been translated and published in Hungary. The story is about Desirée Clary who is a very interesting person of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era. How did you get to her?
– I learned about Desirée Clary from my father, Governor George Pataki, who gave me a great tip and he said ’if you love writing historical fiction based on these women of history, you should really look into Desirée Clary.’ Before this I didn’t know about her, didn’t know the name at all. My father told me she was Napoleon’s first love and fiancee before Josephine. She was front and center through the Napoleonic era of France, she marries Bernadotte, they go to Sweden and found this dynasty that still serves as the Royal Family today in Sweden. I thought;- how do we not know about her name? Many of us know only Josephine de Beauharnais from this period as the wife of Napoleon.
– There was a strange love triangle between Desirée, Napoleon and his great general, the king of Sweden, the indomitable Jean-Baptiste Bernardotte. How was the lady’s connection to these successful but very different kinds of men?
– I would say they were both fateful matches. They both shaped history and history all around us, still to this day. I think Napoleon and Desirée had a young love, that was a naive affair, they were both very youthful and inexperienced, they had not seen as much of the world as they would come to see later on. With Bernadotte it was a more long-lasting love. It was a marriage, they had a son together, they founded a kingdom together. Napoleon and Bernadotte, even if they worked together for a while, were fierce rivals. Bernadotte was much more humble, self-effacing and duty-orientated, Napoleon was much more concerned with his own glory.
– How was the research for the book? Have you been to Paris?
– I’ve been to Paris many times and I lived there in my twenties. My mother lived there for many years of her youth. I have a lot of relatives there. My father’s family is Hungarian and my mother’s family is French so I feel very connected both, to my Hungarian and French roots.
– Your next book takes a great, extraordinary and revolutionary story of a less-known woman from the 19th century. What is this project?
– My next book is set back in America. The main character is Margaret Fuller in Boston and New York and then she goes to Italy, to Rome. She was a fascinating woman in the mid-19th century. She lived and worked in connection with great American writers and artists. She was an early advocate for the American female right to vote and study, she was the first woman to study at Harvard and the first woman to cover the Roman revolution. She falls in love with an Italian count. We all know female names of the 19th century, but only a very few of us know about Fuller, about this great thinker, writer and activist. She is a great iconic woman.