BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
May the books under your Christmas tree today include historical fiction by Chicagoan Allison Pataki.
The author’s heroines—Peggy Shippen, the wife of Benedict Arnold, featured in The Traitor’s Wife, and Queen Sisi of the Hapsburg Empire in Pataki’s two irresistible books, Sisi: Empress On Her Own and The Accidental Empress—will add a spark to even the coldest of winter days.
After completing these tales of intrigue from the Hapsburg Court and American Revolution, we are anticipating next year’s Angels of the Guillotine, co-authored by her brother and army officer, Owen Pataki, set in the French Revolution.
Allison takes a break today from her typically packed schedule—filled not only with writing but also the possibility of movie contracts—to celebrate the holidays with her husband David Levy, who grew up with five brothers in Lake Forest and is now a doctor at Rush Hospital, and their baby daughter.
Daughter of former New York Governor George Pataki, Allison played as a child in what was Benedict Arnold’s backyard near her home in Garrison on the Hudson River. Governor Pataki, who served three four-year terms, never moved his family to Albany, remaining in their beloved Garrison.
“Garrison is just across the Hudson from West Point where Benedict Arnold targeted his great betrayal of George Washington. Every 100 feet there are historic markers, and our family always braked for them. History has been a lifelong passion, and it was always a favorite topic for dinnertime conversation.”
And it was during a walk with her mother that turned this passion into a writing career. The two came across a historical marker just half a mile from their house detailing the spot where Benedict Arnold fled, knowing that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton—on their way to breakfast at his farmhouse with the charming Peggy—would soon know of his betrayal.
“I started to ask questions about his wife, Peggy Shippen Arnold, who was mentioned on the marker and soon learned that she was the most interesting character in this tale of intrigue and betrayal—beautiful, fascinating, historically significant, and unknown to us all. The Arnolds’ farmhouse had burned down, but a friend of mine’s family bought the house that stood on that site, and I played there frequently as a child.”
A cum laude English major at Yale, Allison moved to New York following graduation to pursue a career in journalism, and she suddenly felt like a “misfit” in the business.
“I did want to study the major events unfolding the world, but the panic of unending deadlines and rapid-fire pace of 24-hour news cycles were not for me. In my free time, I began to write fiction, rushing home to write down dialogue that emerged while riding the subway. Before long, I was completely immersed in my new hobby. I kept going, and four years and three completed novels later I had my new career.”
A favorite guest on the Today Show, Allison has graced the podiums at many of Chicago clubs and private organizations, speaking with enthusiasm about her characters who never enjoyed literary center stage before she chose them.
“Historical fiction was always my favorite genre as a reader. I love the narration and the story telling; bringing history to life through my character’s dialogue. I didn’t want to write a dense biography, I want my books to be accessible and entertaining.”
When a possible new subject comes to mind, Allison starts her research. She is known for her strong ability to concentrate on her fact gathering.
“When I feel that a character is really nagging at me, I jump on the cue. It is fragile at the beginning, but once it’s for real and I know the story, I want to write and sit down and get going. When I am inspired, I just type it out on my computer. “
She is also a master at organizing her time:
“I am a working mom, and my little daughter is my joy. I have to balance the parts of my writing career: promoting my current books through my talks, doing ongoing editing on my book about the French Revolution, the research and reading for new projects, and then the actual writing. Writing for me is a real education.”
With her Hungarian heritage on her father, Governor Pataki’s side, she fell in love with tales of Queen Sisi of Bavaria, who married Emperor Franz Joseph and became the last great Empress. Sisi: Empress on Her Own—Allison’s follow-up to her first book on the empress, The Accidental Empress—came out in hardcover earlier this year.
“Sisi’s life centered in Vienna, at that time the cultural capital of the world. It was the time of both Mad King Ludwig and Sigmund Freud. This period leading up to World War I is so rich and significant.”
Barbara Rinella, everyone’s favorite book dramatist in Chicago, says that she thought of Holden Caulfield’s words in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye when she read Allison’s first book: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours.”
“I was so dazzled by her ability to bring wonderful history to life, that I instantly wanted to meet the author and create a literary program to promote her books. I have done programs on both her heroines.
“She follows the ‘writer’s rule’—writing about what she knows—and she has a true, sparkling literary talent. Of course, I had to ask Allison after I had read her first book about Queen Sisi if she herself was a Hapsburg. Lovely Allison, now a very dear friend, smiled and said, ‘I am Hungarian, but the Patakis were peasant farmers.’”
The idea for her next book, which was brought to Allison by her brother Owen, takes readers to another tumultuous time:
“My mother has a French heritage, and I have lived in Paris (which is one of my favorite cities), so here is another personal connection.
“What is truly wonderful is that this book is a collaboration with my brother, who at the time was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. I was a newly-published author, launching a career unearthing salacious stories about forgotten women, and both of us are unapologetic history dorks.
“We came up with the idea of a street-level view of the French Revolution, and we have a large cast of characters, including Robespierre, Alexander Dumas, and, of course, Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. My brother is definitely interested developing a movie from this one.”
Devoted to and very influenced by her family, Allison cherishes advice from her grandmother: “My 100 year old grandmother once told me ‘as long as you have a good book, you will never be lonely’—I feel the same way.”
To learn more about Allison Pataki, visit her blog at www.allisonpataki.com.