Coming from a family of writers, author Staton Rabin of Irvington, NY can easily point to the connection her family tree represents to her career path, but academically as a preteen, her roots did not flower where one would expect most writers to find their first home. “In the English department they were always complaining, it took too long to read my work,” she says, but it was as a History student that she planted her future in the world of literature and film.
There the teachers viewed history as art, she says, and with the recent publishing of “Betsy and the Emperor,” its author credits their creativity for giving her the freedom to develop as an individual. This historical novel for young adults, which captures the events of Napoleon’s exile on St Helena, was far from the first time she brought history to life thanks to the Hastings-on-Hudson school system.
Not only did these teachers let her make movies, but permitted her to cast them in historical roles, even when it cost one of them his head in a portrayal of King Charles. “I think the sense of fun they had in their approach to teaching and life and history rubbed off on me,” she says.
They might have rubbed Betsy Balcombe the same way had she walked in the same shoes as Ms. Rabin. Exiled, in a sense, like Napoleon on St Helena with her British military family, this real life 14 year old befriends the emperor and serves as the eyes the story is seen through.
“Betsy, I admit is basically me,” she says, although a slightly more assertive type Tom-boy than she was as a young girl. So it may seem as though Betsy found a second life on paper – and soon to be a 3rd on celluloid – with Ms. Rabin’s excavation of her character.
Most of her subjects usually have a historical basis but with, she says, “some very little known aspect of history and with a different take on characters we thought we knew.” This story jumped out at her when she found a conversation between Betsy and Napoleon, which illuminated the emperor in a light that he’s not normally portrayed.
Betsy had just been imprisoned by her father in the wine cellar for stealing Napoleon’s sword when the emperor caught a glimpse of her crying from the grounds above. Instead of rubbing it in, he sympathized with her as one prisoner to another and even confessed to crying at times himself.
Having compassion and admitting vulnerability to a teenage girl didn’t sound like the Napoleon she knew and since the actual conversation sounded like movie dialogue, she began to write a film treatment for it as a 23 year old in 1983. She soon began to construct a novel as a means to sell a screenplay, although the 20 year wait didn’t arise out of a lack of white out or the release of Windows ’95.
14 wasn’t very far off from the twentysomething Rabin, so writing for a rebellious teenager who saw beyond such things as clothes and makeup, came naturally to the NYU Film school graduate. That was until she hit a wall that left her blinded as to why she couldn’t complete the book.
Only after about seven years did she realize that she was too young to write about a man in the midst of a midlife crisis. “The mother of all midlife crises,” she says, so in the interim she proceeded to build a career as she waited for Wellington to arrive at Waterloo.
She learned to write for children by landing a job writing for a children’s encyclopedia in 1986 and went onto publishing picture books and shorts stories. She’s also worked as a Story Analyst for among others, William Morris and New Line Cinema, and over the last twenty years has served as a script analyst for many screenwriters, novelists and Scr(i)pt Magazine.
Now, in addition to “Betsy,” “Tsarevich” will soon be released, followed by “Dr. Miracle,” which features a confrontation across the time continuum between a teen from South Central LA and Dr. Roger Bacon – the inventor of gunpowder.
But by early midlife in 1990, she was firmly acquainted with Bonaparte’s legacy. Personally not enamored with his militarism, she still feels he’s often unfairly characterized as the Hitler of his time. Like Hitler, though, he gained power through the vote but conversely describes him as “an autocrat for democracy.” He had unlimited power but instead built upon the ideals of the French Revolution. And not only did he extend the democratic Code Napoleon to his people, but also to those he conquered, she says.
Today, it serves as the basis of laws in over two dozen countries, but in actually getting to meet Napoleon through the stream of scribes that followed him around, she found his charm to be inescapable. And even at his most powerful, this supposed megalomaniac took genuine interest in those he met by inquiring into the events of their lives.
An appealing trait in any century, according to Ms. Rabin, and she hopes it pays off further into the 21st. The story has lingered around Hollywood for years because of the interest generated by so many actors wanting to portray Napoleon, and jokingly, she says, “There’s a lot of short leading men out there.”
So while she admits, “a writer lives a feast or famine existence,” with years of waiting for a fat Hollywood lump sum, it can still in actuality factor out on par with the standard 9-5 subsistence the rest of the world is subjugated to. Of course, she’d by lying if she said she wasn’t looking forward to the day they start shooting the movie, but she’s also looking beyond her own success.
She’s somewhat concerned this novel will be perceived as what they call, “Chick-lit,” because it certainly was not the intent. Betsy Balcombe refused to go down the road 19th century had mapped out for her, which has given Ms. Rabin the opportunity to tell a story she views to be primarily about freedom. And through that what she hopes to get across is that people should think for themselves and getting children to always conform, she says, “to some idea of regimented good behavior is not in the best interest of children and not in the best interest of society.”
Rich Monetti interview of Staton Rabin