Saturday, April 18, 2015

One of those "a-ha"moments...

     Today I had one of those "a-ha" moments when I saw this painting, Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet. 
Chez Tortoni by Edouard Manet (1878-80). Cafe Tortoni earned an international reputation by its famous clientele as well as its frozen desserts.
     While I was writing Race to Tibet, I had set the first scene of the novel—an altercation between Gabriel Bonvalot and General Prejevalsky that may or may not be realin Café Tortoni, a well-known café on the Rue des Italiens in Paris. But until today I had never known about the existence of this painting, even though I had been to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston numerous times, although not prior to March 18, 1990, the day it was stolen. To me, Cafe Tortoni, with its sophisticated ambiance and suave reputation, known for being the meeting place of politicians, intellectuals, scholars, dandies, and ladies of the demi-monde seemed to be the perfect setting to place two opposing characters, and how much more so now that I can see it through Manet's eyes. All I can say is, "Wow!" and pray that some day Chez Tortoni is restored to its rightful place in the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, one of Boston's great cultural treasures.
Cafe Tortoni on the Boulevard des Italiens, Paris.
Incidentally, the FBI is offering a $5 million reward for the return of Chez Tortoni.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How an Obscure Danish Princess led me to write Race to Tibet

The idea for writing Race to Tibet came about in an unusual manner. While I was researching my first book, a historical novel set in the Danish West Indies, I came across an obscure, outspoken Danish princess whose life story gripped me. Princess Marie Valdemar was born in 1865 as Princess Marie d'Orléans, the daughter of Prince Robert, Duke of Chartres, a Grandson of King Louis-Philippe of France and a Pretender to the French throne.

Portrait study of Princess Marie of Denmark by Albert Edelfelt (1894)

Through her marriage to Prince Valdemar (the youngest son of Christian IX of Denmark), Princess Marie developed a great love of Denmark and the Danish people. In addition, she strongly opposed the sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States. Out of curiosity, I began to look into the life of Princess Marie d'Orléans, and was struck by how tragic and poignant it was, and how much it paralleled the life of Princess Diana with its tale of unrequited love and early death. Before long I decided to write a novel about her life, but after months of knocking on doors, I realized I would never be able to gain access to the Royal Danish Archives where the obscure details of her life lay locked up. Instead of giving up, I started searching for other sources. I made a list of all her relatives and searched for any diaries or memoirs they might have left behind, anything to fill in the missing gaps in her tragic life. As it turned out, the only relative of Princess Marie's who wrote an extensive number of books was her younger brother, Prince Henri d'Orléans, a notable French explorer who died at the age of thirty-three.

Prince Henri made headlines all throughout Europe for his 1897 duel with the Count of Turin Vittorio Emanuele.

During his brief life, Prince Henri earned a reputation as a ladies' man, a dilettante, and a hot-headed dueler, but he earned the Gold Medal of the French Geographical Society twice, once in 1891 for a  daring expedition to Tibet he made with the French explorer, Gabriel Bonvalot, and again in 1896 for his expedition from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Bengal. 

By 1889, no living Westerner had been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa or met the Dalai Lama.

The more I read about Prince Henri's expedition to Tibet, and all the hardships and difficulties it entailed, the more I became enthralled with the story until I found myself studying it in great depth. Not only did I focus on the expedition, I also threw myself into the study of the Great Game, Central Asian history and geography, famous explorers, and the history of Europe's obsession with Tibet.

The French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot had connections with Russian Generals like Korolkoff  in Russian Turkestan that made him a lesser-known player in the Great Game.

Gradually, my focus changed from writing about Princess Marie's life to writing about Prince Henri d'Orléans and Gabriel Bonvalot's expedition to Tibet. To this end, I researched this famous journey both in the original French and in the English translation. But still there were many unanswered questions about what really happened to these hardy explorers on the Roof of the World. Victorian writers are known more for the details they left out than for what they chose to tell; this was an era when propriety and discretion were at their zenith. Luckily, after months and months of unrelenting searching and digging, I came upon another version of the events, this one written by Father Constant de Deken, a Belgian missionary who had accompanied the famous explorers. I had struck gold.

Rare for a European missionary of his era, Father De Deken could speak Chinese and ride and shoot like a cavalry officer.

Unusual for his generation, Father Constant de Deken was fluent in Chinese and wrote about his experiences with uncharacteristic candor, telling details that would have raised eyebrows in polite society. His input added a whole new dimension to the story, filling it with more danger and suspense, and for that I am eternally grateful. By combining both versions and adding some fictional elements of my own, the end result is this account of an historic journey into mysterious Tibet. But it only came about because of this tragic Danish princess and her sad, poignant life. And so, I owe this lovely lady all the gratitude in the world for leading me to this fascinating story. Without Princess Marie d'Orléans, Race to Tibet would not have been possible.