Q&A with Kathleen Benner Duble about Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice

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Questions by Jenny 

Your fascination with Madame Tussaud is obvious. What led to your decision not to set the book from her perspective, but rather from the perspective of an invented street kid?

When writing historical fiction, I try to stay as close to the real facts as I can. At the time of the Revolution, Madame Tussaud was in her late twenties/early thirties. As a protagonist for a YA novel, she was obviously too old. But because I loved her story, I still wanted to examine the French Revolution from her perspective—that of someone who had been involved on both sides of the issues. When I saw a morning show about a man who was able to recall details of anything he saw after just a few minutes looking at it, I thought I could create an young artist with that skill—and that artistic ability would be one that would probably have captured the attention of someone as detail oriented as Madame Tussaud.

What are the challenges of researching a book like this?

I love writing historical fiction, but as with most books that take place in the past, as a writer, you are often guessing about the personalities of real people. For instance, it is documented that the Comte d’Artois was in debt and loved to gamble. From that detail, I had to imagine what kind of man he was, what he might have said to someone, what his actions might have been. In trying to stay true to the past, this is the area in writing historical fiction where I struggle the most as I want my story to be as accurate as possible. As for the research itself, that I love! You realize as you are doing your digging how much history you were taught that you’ve forgotten. I love finding gruesome little details to include in my book that will make the period come alive and keep it memorable. I love how much I’m learning during the process. So due to all the research I had to do for Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice in Paris, I am now an expert on croissants!

What’s your favorite historical detail that you discovered while you were researching this book? The best thing you found out during your research that you weren’t able to get into the book? And what’s your favorite detail for the book that you made up?

The rules of the court being contained in a five-hundred-page book that anyone visiting Versailles had to read and memorize amused me, and it was fun to add it into the book. And it was at an exhibit at the MFA in Boston where I learned about a nef—an item that each King of France was given by the mayor of Paris when the king ascended the throne. A nef contained flatware, salt, pepper, various other spices and amulets to detect poison in the King’s food. It was opened with a key and decorated with an intricate bee design. Both these little details were fun to add. There were many facts about the revolution I would have loved to have in the book, including the eventual stabbing of Marat in his bath or the attempted escape by the Royal Family. But because the revolution was such a complicated and convoluted time and extended over so many years, I had to make some difficult choices and cuts. My favorite detail I made up had to be what it might have been like to have to make a mould from a real head that had been severed from someone’s body. It had to have been gruesome and smelly and awful. This is where, I think, Madame Tussaud’s real bravery during this turbulent time quickly becomes apparent.

Celie becomes enmeshed in the events of the French revolution because of her considerable talent as an artist. Do you draw or sculpt or do any kind of art?

No. I am a horrendous artist. I can’t even draw a decent stick figure but I think that’s why I am so enamored of those who can. I have been told by several artists that drawing is simply a matter of getting your mind to see in a certain way. So sometimes, I try sketching. So far though, I think artistry will have to be a career choice in my next life! 

You’ve said that you steal stories from your relatives all the time. What about this one? Any stealing of family stories to wedge into the story of the French Revolution? (I’ll be enormously impressed if you turn out to be related to Mme. Tussaud.)

So would I! But alas, no. Not related to Madame or Marie Antoinette or anyone of that era or country. (Except my adopted last name of Duble.) This story was simply one of a young girl’s heart. I have been in love with France and Paris since I was a teenager. That is the beauty of being a writer: whatever fascinates and intrigues you can be the place where you can reside along with your characters. When I visited Madame Tussaud’s in London and read her story, I knew I had the vehicle to let myself linger in the airs of France for a bit. I am eternally grateful to Madame for having given me this opportunity and this amazing story!

Do you have a favorite of the books that you’ve written so far? They’re all so different in setting—you’re clearly not in danger of falling into a rut!

Asking about a favorite book is like asking about a favorite child. It’s so hard to choose and each one has its own unique characteristics that make you love it. For instance, The Sacrifice is about my great (nine times back) grandmother who was accused of witchcraft at age ten. How can I not love that book?  My book Quest, about the explorer Henry Hudson, has one of my most favorite characters I’ve ever created, Isabella Digges. And when writing Phantoms in the Snow, it turned out that I had known one of those brave skiing soldiers for years and hadn’t realized he was a member of that elite squad during World War II. And of course, having been in thrall to Marie Antoinette for years, Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice was a joy to write. Through Celie’s eyes, I felt I was there, at Versailles—not a bad place to spend a few years!

Can you give us a sneak peek into what you’re writing now? The ending of this book seemed to admit the possibility of a sequel, where Algernon and Celie wreak havoc on the life of the Comte de Artois in England. Any chance we’re going to see more of these characters?

I would love to continue Celie and Algernon’s story—mainly because the story of Madame Tussaud hardly ended with the French Revolution. Her life was a singular one, and she went on to have many more adventures. It would be fun to write about her time in England and Ireland. But in the meantime, I have just finished a book about a young girl who is coming home from a ice hockey tournament with her mom and brother, who has leukemia. They end up having a terrible car accident in a snowstorm and are taken to the town of Harmony, Vermont, where many odd and unusual things are about to befall them. It’s called The Secret to Harmony and is a middle grade novel. I am also working on a YA murder mystery that takes place in Maine. My protagonist is a crime scene clean-up gal! 

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 Jenny blogs at Reading the End. Read her review of Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice here.

Kathleen Benner Duble, Madame Tussaud’s Apprentice (Alma Books: Surrey, 2014). 9781846883811, 225 pp., paperback.

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