Launch: Gareth Williams’s Needing Napoleon


Gareth Williams always thought Napoleon underperformed at the Battle of Waterloo and this idea drove him to write his first alternative history novel, Needing Napoleon.

Gareth, you have heard the term ‘elevator pitch.’ How would you describe Needing Napoleon and its themes in a couple of sentences?

I’ve kept it to the point. A disaffected teacher believes Napoleon should have won the battle of Waterloo. He is given the chance of a one-way trip back in time to prove it.

Why did you choose to write about Napoleon and what drew you to ‘what if’ historical fiction?

I was initially attracted to Napoleon because he was an outsider, an underdog who defied the odds to crown himself emperor of France and become the dominant European figure of his era.

As I delved deeper, the contradictions at the heart of the man attracted me. He started as a servant of the Republic but tried to reinstate dynastic rule. He championed meritocracy but struggled with delegation. He is remembered as a general but oversaw the codification of French law that lasts to this day. To Britain, he was an ogre who threatened the hereditary monarchies of Europe. While that assessment may seem valid, he was a product of his time. Perhaps he was the last of the warrior kings before the Industrial Revolution transformed warfare and the world.

I love all kinds of speculative fiction and enjoy the paradoxical nature of time travel. I love adventure stories and settings and historical figures that lend themselves to action scenes. Perhaps I am still writing for the little boy inside. I like to think he would have enjoyed Needing Napoleon!

The immense detail about the Battle of Waterloo impressed me. Are you a fan of military history?

I do enjoy military histories and the process of historical research, but I chose Waterloo as the focus of the novel for it was, as Wellington himself admitted, ‘the nearest-run thing you ever saw.’ So, a different result is plausible. There is something compelling about the ultimate defeat of a dominant figure, something poignant about the defeated Bonaparte living out his last years imprisoned on St Helena. I kept wondering what might he have done had he escaped?

What kind of research did you do to imagine your exotic settings during the nineteenth century? Did you visit St Helena?

To me, it isn’t necessary or possible to travel to every far-flung location that occurs in a novel. Rather, I travel in my imagination and with the help of the internet.

To capture the flavour of the nineteenth century, I read accounts by those who were there. We have Napoleon’s own words, those of his Irish doctor and Governor Hudson Lowe among others, plus Michael Fass’s excellent website dedicated to Napoleon on St Helena. And I read books on topics such as architecture, interior design, art, and so on.

What I know about ships I have picked up from books and websites dedicated to the subject. I am fascinated by the rich vocabulary being a maritime nation has given the English language. I think we have more idioms from the sea than anywhere else apart from the Bible and Shakespeare!

What research book have you pulled off your shelf most often?

It is hard to choose just one! My study is full of volumes about period uniforms and evaluations of the battle of Waterloo. Philip Haythornthwaite’s Napoleonic Source Book was invaluable for the chapters set in and around the battle itself.

Which character challenged you the most?

I think Napoleon Bonaparte. There is more leeway with a fictional character, although the challenge there is to make them seem real. Bonaparte is so famous that anything I write will likely be contested. The outstanding Napoleon series by Max Gallo influenced me.

I enjoyed making Napoleon three-dimensional. Forcing him to interact with my teacher character, having him confront his abdication and exile, and finding the spark left within himself that wanted another adventure were my methods!

When did you start writing fiction and what inspired you to start? How did your teaching career affect your writing?

I started my first novel at eighteen because I loved reading and thought I had a facility for writing. It was an atrocious love story; more wish-fulfilment than novel. Fortunately, I met my wife the following year, which ended my writing in that genre!

Throughout my teaching career, I wrote sporadically, but every effort suffered from the same flaw. I jumped in without sufficient planning. Without a plot, it doesn’t matter how pretty the words are, they don’t make a novel. I usually ended up tying myself in knots and stuffing the unfinished manuscript into a drawer. I still have several there and that is where they are going to stay! So, my career both fed into and got in the way of my writing!

What is your next project and how far advanced is it?

The second book in the Richard Davey Chronicles series is published later this year. The sequel features the founder of the Zulu empire, Shaka Zulu. Unlike Napoleon, Shaka is a man about whom relatively little is known. Only one contemporary drawing of him has survived. He left no written records, and the only first-hand accounts are the Zulu oral traditions and the impressions of British, Dutch and other adventurers who encountered him. This lack of historical record has given me more latitude in creating the character. The third instalment of the Chronicles is written and in the editing process at the moment.

My current project is a biography in the form of a novel, consisting of several layers. The main subject is relatively obscure and, possibly, rather controversial. I reveal the story through the discovery of his deathbed memoirs and an ongoing email exchange between one of his descendants and a history professor, which is intertwined with a straightforward narrative.

What is the last great book you read?

I recently re-read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.


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