History is rife with fascinating stories, and few writers tell historical novels better than New York TImes Bestselling author Allison Pataki. Her latest novel, The Accidental Empress: A Novel, is an 1850s era saga of Sisi, formally known as Empress Elisabeth of the Austro-Hungarian Empress, and the engaging wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Allison through our mutual love of historical fiction, and I’m pleased to share her story in our interview with you today.
The Accidental Empress is a captivating story set during a tumultuous period in the former Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary. As the daughter of former New York State Governor George E. Pataki, Allison’s family roots run deep in Hungary, and served as inspiration for her writing.
In addition to writing historical fiction, Allison is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and FoxNews.com, and is a member of The Historical Novel Society. She graduated Cum Laude from Yale University with a major in English and spent several years writing for TV and online news outlets. She is also the co-founder of the nonprofit organization, ReConnect Hungary.
The Accidental Empress is a stunning masterpiece of imagination, enriched with lavish historical detail. Utterly riveting, amazingly insightful. A splendid saga sure to capture the heart. – Jan Moran
Historical Fiction: Interview with Author Allison Pataki
Please tell us a little about your The Accidental Empress. Why is it a must-read?
Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, was and continues to be a fascinating, complex, modern, beautiful, and tragic leading lady. She was Europe’s last great Empress, as it was her family that declared war and began World War I. She was known as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” but it was her wit and intelligence and charisma that made her a legend in her own time. And yet, somehow, she has become a footnote in modern history. It is so interesting to me how many women—women who accomplished huge things—have slipped through the cracks of history with their stories going largely untold.
I want people to read the story of Sisi so that they can empathize with the great things she did and tried to do. So that they can be transported to the beautiful and romantic world of the imperial Habsburg Court, filled with Walt Disney-esque castles and grand ballrooms and violin waltzes. So that they can be drawn into the love triangle in which she found herself. So that they can empathize with the incredibly moving and relevant difficulties Sisi weathered, not only as a Habsburg empress, but as a wife, a mother, and an individual seeking her own purpose in a treacherous court and a shifting world. So that they can be inspired in their own lives to learn more about history in a fun, entertaining and accessible way.
What are some of your favorite locales, objects, or activities that a reader might find in your books?
There are so many! Since Sisi was the Empress of the Habsburg Court, she spent much of her time in the seat of imperial power, the capital city of Vienna. The Habsburgs were one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy ruling families, so they certainly lived in luxury. Their two primary palaces in Vienna were the Hofburg Palace, where the court spent winters, and the Schönbrunn Palace, where they summered. Vienna, to this day, feels so imperial and grand when you walk down its streets. Whether you’re sipping a Turkish coffee in a café off the Ringstrasse, or marveling at the pastry-like facades of the Opera House, Court Theater, or government buildings, you can’t help but sense that this is a city built to dazzle and rule an empire, and the world.
Another fun location was the Habsburg Alpine retreat in Upper Austria, at the mountain resort town of Bad Ischl. It just doesn’t get more beautiful than that! This is the place where Sisi and Franz Joseph first fell in love as young kids. They were not supposed to be together, and their ill-fated beginning has repercussions that ripple for the rest of their lives (and impact the entire empire). But as you stare at the snow-capped Alps and the clear mountain streams, you can see how the setting certainly added to the romance of it all.
And then, finally, I have to mention Hungary. Sisi very often felt like an outsider in Austria and at the Austrian court. She felt the most at home in Hungary. Hers was a lifelong love affair with the Hungarian people. She was a world-famous horseback rider and she loved to take off on her thoroughbred across the plains of Hungary. She loved to stroll atop Buda Hill and look out over Budapest and the Danube River and the green meadows that stretched all the way toward Russia. While Vienna is imposing and imperial and impressive, Budapest is whimsical and romantic and free-spirited, just like Sisi was.
Is there a question people don’t ask you, but should?
The question people should ask: Why are Sisi and the Habsburgs family not more “well-known” here in the U.S.? Why should we care about them as Americans?
That’s really why I was so inspired and interested in writing this story; Sisi is a woman people should know. She presided over the golden era of the Habsburg Court, in an age that gave us advances in culture and the arts and architecture, as well as advances in science and politics. Her family gave us the castle that we all know of as “The Walt Disney Castle.” Her family gave us the waltz and Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Klimt’s paintings. Sisi ruled at the time that a young Doctor named Sigmund Freud was just down the street in Vienna inventing the practice of psychoanalysis. And this reign of Sisi and Franz Joseph takes us right up to the doorstep of World War I. Her heir was the man who was assassinated (Archduke Franz Ferdinand), prompting her husband to declare war and setting off World War I, the greatest armed conflict the world had known to that point.
We’ve read about Anne Boleyn and the Tudors. We’ve read about Marie Antoinette at Versailles. We’ve read about the Medici in Italy and the Tsarinas in Russia, and yet, Sisi’s story is more compelling and complex than all of those, I believe.
I think people will really enjoy diving into the world of Sisi and the Habsburg Court.
Where did the idea come from for your book?
Years ago I was traveling through Austria and Hungary and the Czech Republic with my family. I kept seeing this beautiful image of this young woman. She had this quizzical smile, this rich chestnut hair curled in these elaborate hairdos. I saw her face at every gift shop, museum, even in restaurants and hotels.
I asked someone who she was and the response was that she was “Sisi,” the most beloved Habsburg Empress. I heard just a bit about her epic and tragic life—about the legends that she grew her hair to the floor, that she was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, that every other foreign ruler at the time was in love with her. I sensed that she was a combination of Princess Diana and Marie Antoinette and Catherine the Great and so much more.
I read about how Sisi didn’t mean to seduce her sister’s fiancé the emperor, but did, at the age of 15. Just enough to whet my appetite! I went home and dug in, reading everything I could about Sisi’s story; what I found astounded me. Hers is a story of love triangles, love, lust, betrayal, and so much more. It’s an incredibly human story, told against the glittering backdrop of the Habsburg Court. In Sisi’s case, history is even juicier than any fiction I could have dreamed up. I was hooked—and I hope readers will be, as well.
Anything you would like to say to your readers?
For me as a writer of Historical Fiction, the inspiration and the story ideas obviously come from the historical record. But in the case of the two novels I’ve published so far, there has been a personal connection to the history of each. That is the key—that personal connection is what makes me so impassioned to tell that particular story.
So for my first novel, The Traitor’s Wife, the novel is the story of Peggy Shippen Arnold, the cunning wife of Benedict Arnold and mastermind behind America’s most infamous act of treason. Peggy plotted with Benedict Arnold to turn West Point Fort over to the British during the American Revolution, and she very nearly succeeded. Had Peggy and Benedict Arnold achieved their treasonous purposes, they would have ended the war and the hope of American independence. For me, this story was close to home, quite literally, because I grew up across the river from West Point. As a child I played in Benedict and Peggy Arnold’s old yard. I knew the land and the history and I felt theirs was a story worthy of being told in a historical fiction novel.
And with Sisi, it was a similar process of finding the inspiration in what I already knew. I am of Hungarian-American descent. I am very involved in the Hungarian community in the U.S., and I co-founded the Hungarian birthright program called ‘ReConnect Hungary.’ I’ve traveled to Hungary with my family throughout the years, and I always came across the image of Sisi. I always wondered what her story was.
What was so interesting to me about Sisi was how the Hungarians—still to this day—venerate her and adore her. She is their Princess Diana, but on an even larger scale. Knowing what I knew about my family and that the Hungarians did not ever like their Habsburg rulers (they didn’t appreciate being a part of the Austrian Empire, the Hungarians always thought of themselves as distinct from their Habsburg emperors), I was stunned at the way the Hungarians still embrace Sisi, almost worship her.
I found out that Sisi and her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, were the only Habsburgs that my Hungarian relatives ever loved. That was intriguing. Why Sisi, I asked? I was just captivated by these striking, smiling—and yet almost somehow sad—images of Sisi that I saw everywhere. She is beautiful. And then when I found out about her story I realized that her life was even more dramatic that anything I had imagined. In Sisi’s case, history is juicier than fiction. She makes for such a compelling leading lady in a novel!
Where do you dream of traveling?
So many places! I really want to go to Croatia…to Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast. I’ve heard that is just a stunning region, full of medieval walled cities and seaside mountains. I also would love to tour the Loire River Valley in France and see the great old chateaux. I’d love to ski in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I’d love to see Bali. Oh, the list goes on…
Do you have a Website or Blog?
Yes! www.AllisonPataki.com. Head over there for all sorts of news on The Accidental Empress, The Traitor’s Wife, and other fun stuff.
Thank you for joining us today, Allison. It has been a real pleasure reading your work!
Note: The Accidental Empress: A Novel is available for pre-order now, and goes on sale next week. Visit any major or independent bookseller.