Interview with Eva Stachniak, author of Empress of the Night

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Today, I'm thrilled to welcome Eva Stachniak to talk about the release of her new novel about Catherine the Great - Empress of the Night!

1. What drew you to telling Catherine the Great's story not once but twice? 

The sheer complexity of the task to give Catherine’s story justice. Catherine the Great was a powerful monarch, a consummate politician, a woman with few equals in world history. For thirty-two years she successfully ruled a vast, multiethnic empire. She strengthened Russia’s position in Europe, enlarged its territory and reformed—or began reforming—its antiquated laws. She was also an avid reader and writer, a collector of art, a builder of palaces, a designer of gardens. Her position didn’t come to her either by succession or by chance; she had to fight for it and pay a steep price to maintain it. Politics aside, she was a passionate woman who loved many times in her life, and who did not take her love affairs lightly. Enough material for several novels, not just two.

From the start I decided to approach Catherine’s story in two different, yet complementary ways. In The Winter Palace I showed Catherine from outside, through the eyes of her confidante and spy. For it is Varvara—a keen observer of the palace life and Catherine’s supporter from the start—who narrates the story of Catherine’s rise to power, her charisma, her ability to attract and maintain support of those around her. In Empress of the Night, the Empress of Russia takes centre stage. I chose to focus on Catherine as an aging monarch, because I wanted to explore how years of absolute power changed the woman I first described in The Winter Palace as a newcomer to Russia, fighting for her political survival. The new book  is a study of Catherine’s character, an intimate portrait of the empress as she faces the greatest challenges of her life and recalls the moments of both her glory and her defeats.

2. I'm really interested in your decision to write Empress of the Night in present tense. I think it's quite difficult to do present tense in historical fiction and it worked really well here - can you talk about some of the decisions you made? What about the decision to begin the novel at the end of her life and then go back? 

The moment I decided to make Catherine’s consciousness central to this novel, I had to choose the moment in time from which she tells her own story and looks back at what happened to her. By choosing the last days before her death, I could let her reflect on her whole life, see her own decisions and her legacy in retrospect. Beginning the novel at the end of Catherine’s life also allowed me to negate the malicious rumours that trail after her. The story of Catherine’s death had often been viciously distorted by her political enemies. Parisian pamphleteers, angry at her condemnation of the French Revolution, wanted to humiliate her at every opportunity and they used her sexuality as their target. In my novel and in real life, Catherine’s death had nothing in common with political fantasies of revenge. Her death marked the end of an era in Russian history and that was dramatic enough. 

            The novel’s structure and Catherine’ s voice did not come at once; they evolved slowly, as I tried to probe Catherine’s mind in the last days of her life. In the end the long hours of her stroke provided the beat of passing time, which—for me at least—heightened the pressing question of Catherine’s legacy.

3. While Catherine's reign was eventful, it doesn't have the narrative arc of her rise to power. Did you find it challenging to handle such a wide range of events over that time span? 

It was a challenge, but a historical novel is not a biography and therefore a writer is a bit more free to shape a story out of the existing historical material without having to cover all of it. I tried to look for the arc of the story in the development of Catherine’s character, from a newcomer to Russia, through a triumphant Empress of a growing political powerhouse, to an aging monarch having to decide the question of who will inherit her Russia.

             I like to think of my two novels about Catherine the Great as two bookends. In between them the reader can put any  of the existing biographies, or documentary films about her, to enhance the experience.

4. How did you research the two books and how did you keep the research from overwhelming the story? 

I’m a lapsed academic, so research is in my blood. I began from a general immersion in the material. I read everything that I could get hold of, starting from Catherine’s own memoirs and letters, then moving on to Catherine’s biographies, not just those recent, but also those written in the 18th and 19th centuries. I also read memoirs and letters of courtiers, diplomats, and travellers who visited Russia during Catherine’s reign. Thanks to the internet these once rare and difficult-to-get books and documents can be accessed in the matter of seconds. I also travelled to St. Petersburg, to get a physical sense of the locations I describe in both novels, and to look for Catherine’s traces there. I visited her palaces, admired her collections, of art, china, engraved gems, jewels. I held books from her library in my hands. After I did my initial research, I stepped back and let myself dream, become my characters. The process is similar to what actors do when they prepare for a role. It is best done in silence and solitude, in the spot where imagination and knowledge meet. With The Winter Palace, the immediate inspiration came from Catherine’s own letter to the British ambassador in Russia in which she describes running a network of spies in Elizabeth Petrovna’s sickroom. With Empress of the Night, it came from reading the memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski who came two Russia two years before Catherine’s death and who became a very close friend of Grand Duke Alexander, Catherine’s beloved grandson. His memoirs paint a very detailed picture of Catherine court, and a very intriguing portrait of Catherine herself.

5. Will you be returning to historical fiction for your next book? 

Yes. I have one more Russian book in me, an echo to the two Catherine’s novels, a reflection on Catherine’s legacy. I’m interested in the period between 1890-1939, the time when Imperial Russia, slowly at first, but then quite rapidly, disintegrates.

            This time, however, I don’t wish to dwell at the Romanov court, which is by then far less interesting than that of Catherine the Great. I have began researching the history of Russian Imperial Ballet, and its splinter group, Ballet Russes, which dazzled Paris and other European capitals from 1909 on. Among Ballets Russes dancers there are some who, like Varvara in The Winter Palace are born of Polish parents but are brought up in Russia. I think of Vaslav Nijinsky and his sister Bronislava.

I’ve already starting working on the novel, but I still need to reflect upon in silence.

6. What are some of your favorite novels set in the past? 

Hilary Mantel is my personal favourite. I love the way she writes about history. She takes me into her world with great authority, and lets me experience the life in the past from unexpected angles. A marvellous writer! I also greatly admire Penelope Fitzgerald’s two historical novels, The Blue Flower and The Beginning of Spring. And Kate Grenville’s The Secret River about set in the 19th century Australia.

Thanks to the publisher, I'm able to offer one copy of Empress of the Night to a lucky reader!

Just fill out the Rafflecopter giveaway below!!!!! 

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Review: Empress of the Night

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Catherine the Great muses on her life, her relentless battle between love and power, the country she brought into the glorious new century, and the bodies left in her wake. By the end of her life, she had accomplished more than virtually any other woman in history. She built and grew the Romanov empire, amassed a vast fortune of art and land, and controlled an unruly and conniving court. Now, in a voice both indelible and intimate, she reflects on the decisions that gained her the world and brought her enemies to their knees. And before her last breath, shadowed by the bloody French Revolution, she sets up the end game for her last political maneuver, ensuring her successor and the greater glory of Russia (from Goodreads).

In The Winter Palace, Eva Stachniak created a portrait of one of Russia's greatest rulers from the outside: through the viewpoint of her spy (and sometime friend) Varvara. The choice was brilliant, bringing the scheming court of St. Petersburg alive in all of stench and snow and glittering wealth. Now, with Empress of the Night, Stachniak completes the portrait by allowing Catherine to tell her own story.

I had my doubts about whether or not Catherine the Great's reign could work as novel - after all, fiction rises and falls on conflict and while Catherine's reign was eventful and she built a Russian empire whose legacy lingers in our present day, it doesn't quite have the drama of her rise to power depicted in The Winter Palace.

Fortunately, Stachniak takes a different approach. Starting with the stroke that would eventually kill Catherine and then working backwards through her reign, Stachniak builds a dreamy, contemplative, richly textured world that shifts rapidly through years and events. The sometimes fragmentary, present-tense narrative emphasizes the emotion of the moment and how a ruler must pay attention to the small details of gesture and dress, a slipped word or the wavering handwriting on a letter. These are the small things that result in survival and a name in the history books.

Of course, because it's a novel about Catherine the Great, the reader meets many of her lovers and learns Catherine's true - and often conflicting - feelings about all of them. I caught myself skimming over these parts - because Catherine's point of view is so strong, its hard to develop an independent picture of the men and so they all start to blend together. I was a bit disappointed that the reader did not get more of a sense of Catherine's love of learning and her engagement with the great philosophers of her day - there are plenty of novels that reduce women from history to mistresses and I think my appreciation for Catherine could have deepened if she had been shown considering the great questions and intellectual debates of her time.

This is not the case with Stachniak's portrait of Catherine's sprawling Imperial family. I greatly enjoyed the development of relationships between Catherine and her grandchildren and appreciated the contrast between Catherine's "old" world and their "new" world of the coming 19th century.

Empress of the Night is a richly detailed, risk taking novel that ably recreates the sweeping world of the Russian Empire and the inner landscape of a legendary ruler.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my interview with Eva Stachniak and a giveaway of her amazing book! 

Review Roundup

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I am judging your reading habits......

I can't believe it's been a couple of weeks since I posted here. I'm having a slump reading year - anticipated books are not panning out for me and I've been starting other books and not finishing them. Looking back over the past two and a half months, I've only read thirteen books and out of those thirteen, I only have one five-star review - for Jacqueline Winspear's summer release of her first standalone novel about World War One: The Care and Management of Lies. 

I'm not entirely sure why this slump is hitting me - I've tried a couple of different approaches - getting out tons of books from the library and then returning all of them so that I've limited my choices; reading in different genres or keeping one fiction and one non-fiction book going at the same time so that I can switch back and forth. 

I know that I'll come out of it (I've been a reader for too long to think otherwise) but it's frustrating to wait it out. Any suggestions? 

In the mean time, there are good things coming down the road here on the blog - an interview with Eva Stachniak and a giveaway of her new novel about Catherine the Great that I read last year as an advance reading copy and LOVED; a post about my newfound interest in all things Byzantine and a mini-reading list to go along with that as well as a post at the end of the month after I've attended the Washington, DC Shakespeare Theatre Company's new production of Henry IV, Part One. I attended their free open rehearsal last weekend and it was loads of fun to watch the actors and directors joking, forgetting their lines and blocking out scenes. 

So stay tuned!

Review Roundup

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Winter King by Thomas Penn
This is a special book not only because it was a fascinating, vivid work of history but because it is also the first time I've "read" an audiobook. I thought I would give it a shot since I have access to hundreds of audiobooks through my elibrary and there are many day to day scenarios when I can listen but not read - crammed in on the Metro every morning, while cleaning my apartment or cooking dinner. I realized that audiobooks make these mundane tasks much more fun and this was a perfect first read - Penn has a great ear for the humor and the language of that time. He also writes in such a way that makes the pagentry and political machinations not only come alive but that made me realize their vital role in the monarchy's survival. I really appreciated that he treated the events of Henry's reign not as predetermined steps but as part of a larger, more compelling story, the link between Medieval England and the beginnings of empire during his granddaughter Elizabeth's reign.   Fans of Wolf Hall should definitely pick this one up - Penn nails that same tone that makes far-off times as immediate as today's headlines. 
Source: Library Audiobook

The Memory of Midnight by Pamela Hartshorne
Wow! This book sure left a bad taste in my mouth. If I hadn't gone to the trouble of buying it from a UK bookseller and having it shipped to the US, I probably would not have finished it. What's odd is that I really enjoyed the author's first book Time's Echo, which has similar themes and structure: a troubled young woman in the present day begins experiencing the life of another troubled young woman in Elizabethan York. Where Time's Echo managed to overcome some of the predictabilities of the time-slip genre, Midnight hits all of them. I could have dealt with that except that the book also a strong focus on sadistic violence that was way too graphic for me and made the book a chore to read. 
Source: Purchase

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear
Oh the Maisie Dobbs series - I've had my ups and downs with you. I devoured the first few books in the series set in post WWI-London and following a working-class nurse as she grows up and into owning her own detective business. Then, somewhere around the fifth or sixth book, Maisie started to become tiresome, the same themes repeated and I began to space out my readings. There were still bright spots but by the time I reached this one - the tenth entry in the series - I was ready to see Maisie's story reach some sort of conclusion and it does. The mystery here - about a young Indian woman murdered in London - takes second place to the story of Masie's growing dissatisfaction with her life. No one writes characters like Winspear but here it's clear that she is looking for a break from the formula and that Maisie will follow. Fortunately, I've already read Winspear's first stand-alone novel that comes out later this year and it's clear that the freedom has re-invigorated her writing. 
Source: Advance galley from publisher (with apologies for the late review!)

Sochi Olympics Reading List

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

If you can't get enough of the Olympic spirit......
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
If Jesse Owens is rightfully the most famous American athlete of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, repudiating Adolf Hitler’s notion of white supremacy by winning gold in four events, the gold-medal-winning effort by the eight-man rowing team from the University of Washington remains a remarkable story. It encompasses the convergence of transcendent British boatmaker George Pocock; the quiet yet deadly effective UW men’s varsity coach, Al Ulbrickson; and an unlikely gaggle of young rowers who would shine as freshmen, then grow up together, a rough-and-tumble bunch, writes Brown, not very worldly, but earnest and used to hard work. Brown (Under a Flaming Sky, 2006) takes enough time to profile the principals in this story while using the 1936 games and Hitler’s heavy financial and political investment in them to pull the narrative along. In doing so, he offers a vivid picture of the socioeconomic landscape of 1930s America (brutal), the relentlessly demanding effort required of an Olympic-level rower, the exquisite brainpower and materials that go into making a first-rate boat, and the wiles of a coach who somehow found a way to, first, beat arch rival University of California, then conquer a national field of qualifiers, and finally, defeat the best rowing teams in the world. A book that informs as it inspires (from Booklist). 

I got this one for Christmas and saved it until February when I knew that I would want an Olympics-themed read - even if it is set during the summer!

If you're wondering why Sochi isn't the safest place to hold an Olympics......
Hadji Murad by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s final work—a gripping novella about the struggle between the Muslim Chechens and their inept occupiers—is a powerful moral fable for our time. Inspired by a historical figure Tolstoy heard about while serving in the Caucasus, this story brings to life the famed warrior Hadji Murat, a Chechen rebel who has fought fiercely and courageously against the Russian empire. After a feud with his commander he defects to the Russians, only to find that he is now trusted by neither side. He is first welcomed but then imprisoned by the Russians under suspicion of being a spy, and when he hears news of his wife and son held captive by the Chechens, Murat risks all to try to save his family. In the award-winning Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, Hadji Murat is a thrilling and provocative portrait of a tragic figure that has lost none of its relevance. 

I've meant to read this one for the longest time - some of Tolstoy's contemporaries considered this novella an even finer work than War and Peace - and it's certainly a smaller commitment in terms of reading time!

If the Opening Ceremonies were not enough......

Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia by Orlando Figes
Beginning in the eighteenth century with the building of St. Petersburg-a "window on the West"-and culminating with the challenges posed to Russian identity by the Soviet regime, Figes examines how writers, artists, and musicians grappled with the idea of Russia itself-its character, spiritual essence, and destiny. He skillfully interweaves the great works-by Dostoevsky, Stravinsky, and Chagall-with folk embroidery, peasant songs, religious icons, and all the customs of daily life, from food and drink to bathing habits to beliefs about the spirit world. Figes's characters range high and low: the revered Tolstoy, who left his deathbed to search for the Kingdom of God, as well as the serf girl Praskovya, who became Russian opera's first superstar and shocked society by becoming her owner's wife. Like the European-schooled countess Natasha performing an impromptu folk dance in Tolstoy's War and Peace, the spirit of "Russianness" is revealed by Figes as rich and uplifting, complex and contradictory-a powerful force that unified a vast country and proved more lasting than any Russian ruler or state.

I read this years ago and dip back into it all the time - cultural history is the best kind of history because its so easy to relate to and yet is still strange and unexpected.  

And because all this Olympic watching and reading will make you hungry..........
With startling beauty and sardonic wit, Anya von Bremzen tells an intimate yet epic story of life in that vanished empire known as the USSR—a place where every edible morsel was packed with emotional and political meaning. Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy—and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return. Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past. To bring that past to life, in its full flavor, both bitter and sweet, Anya and Larisa, embark on a journey unlike any other: they decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience—turning Larisa’s kitchen into a "time machine and an incubator of memories.”

I just started this one but it's already intriguing - the first chapter is about dining in late Romanov Russia and the food descriptions are to-die for!

Review: I Always Loved You

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A novel of Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas’s great romance from the New York Times bestselling author of My Name Is Mary Sutter

The young Mary Cassatt never thought moving to Paris after the Civil War to be an artist was going to be easy, but when, after a decade of work, her submission to the Paris Salon is rejected, Mary’s fierce determination wavers. Her father is begging her to return to Philadelphia to find a husband before it is too late, her sister Lydia is falling mysteriously ill, and worse, Mary is beginning to doubt herself. Then one evening a friend introduces her to Edgar Degas and her life changes forever. Years later she will learn that he had begged for the introduction, but in that moment their meeting seems a miracle. So begins the defining period of her life and the most tempestuous of relationships. In I Always Loved You, Robin Oliveira brilliantly re-creates the irresistible world of Belle Époque Paris, writing with grace and uncommon insight into the passion and foibles of the human heart. (from Amazon)

It's a testament to the power of this story and the conviction of Robin Oliveira's writing that I'm able to look back and review this book almost six months after reading it. Oliveira's first novel - My Name is Mary Sutter - is on my list of all-time favorite historical novels so when I saw that her follow-up book looked at one of my favorite times and places in history (the Belle Epoque Paris of the Impressionists), I was beyond excited. 

I've been disappointed by a lot of historical novels lately - they either seemed to lack ambition or would have been better served by a focused editor's eye. I Always Loved You is the exact opposite - a considered work of art in its own right that looks at the twisted demands of art, family and love and that brings late 19th century Paris to life. 

The novel is beautiful in its simplicity - a short opening chapter that introduces the reader to an older Mary Cassatt then moves seamlessly into two stories based on the real lives of the small, interwoven group of men and women who would become known as the Impressionists. The main story focuses on the artistic and emotional development of Mary Cassatt, one of the few female painters in the group. In a richly detailed third-person narrative, we're brought close in to the daily frustrations of an artist at a critical juncture in her working life, that time when a painter or a writer or a musician knows enough to know that they have so much more to learn. At this moment, she meets Edgar Degas and begins an acquaintance that shifts and grows and fractures with time, defying categorization but always influencing her artistic development in unexpected ways. 
A secondary plot, exploring the love triangle between Manet and his sister-in-law Berthe Moirsot throws Mary and Edgar's relationship into relief, providing perspective and a deep thread of melancholy through the story. 

Some historical fiction readers may find the gradual development of personalities and relationships too slow and lacking in the more dramatic narrative twists and turns that mark the genre - I found the difference refreshing. Despite my excitement, I found myself reading this one slowly and that it took time for me to develop an appreciation for the unusual rhythms of the story generated by the short (4-6 page) chapters. 

I rarely buy books after checking them out of the library or receiving e-galley copies. But there are some cases when I want to support the author and in some small way thank them for working for years to craft a story that has brought me so much joy. I'm looking forward to returning to I Always Loved You again and again as the years go by. 

Source: Advance e-galley from the publisher for review

Review: Isabella, Braveheart of France

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

She was taught to obey. Now she has learned to rebel. 12 year old Isabella, a French princess marries the King of England - only to discover he has a terrible secret. Ten long years later she is in utter despair - does she submit to a lifetime of solitude and a spiritual death - or seize her destiny and take the throne of England for herself? Isabella is just twelve years old when she marries Edward II of England. For the young princess it is love at first sight - but Edward has a terrible secret that threatens to tear their marriage - and England apart. Who is Piers Gaveston - and why is his presence in the king’s court about to plunge England into civil war? 
The young queen believes in the love songs of the troubadours and her own exalted destiny - but she finds reality very different. As she grows to a woman in the deadly maelstrom of Edward’s court, she must decide between her husband, her children, even her life - and one breath-taking gamble that will change the course of history. This is the story of Isabella, the only woman ever to invade England - and win. (from Amazon)

Isabella, daughter, wife and mother to kings, is one of those odd historical figures who led a fascinating and drama-packed life but who rarely shows up in historical fiction. I remember reading one of those old-school 1970s novels about her when I was a teenager in the 1990s and I'm sure Jean Plaidy gave her the fictional treatment at some point but the titles of both novels escape me. Unfortunately, Isabella is best known for her highly inaccurate appearance in Mel Gibson's 1995 epic Braveheart about the life of William Wallace. In that movie, Isabella appears as a fully-grown woman who has a daring affair with the Scottish rebel that results in the birth of the future king Edward III. Of course, none of that is true - she came to England to marry its king as a girl of twelve, long after Wallace was captured and executed. Hats off to Falconer for attempting to reclaim her true story - although I had to smile when I saw the sub-title of the book!

As for the novel itself, I struggled with Falconer's decision to use third-person, present tense to tell Isabella's story. For many readers, this narrative choice lends a vivid immediacy to the recreation of history. I can only recall two historical novelists (Hilary Mantel and Jude Morgan) who can handle the tricky nature of present tense and they do it by infusing their language with the flavor of the times. Unfortunately, Falconer's novel is far too short (my advance reader's copy wraps up at 207 pages) and filled with choppy chapters (often only one or two pages long) to supply the deep sense of narrative and detail that can compliment a present tense narrative.

I did enjoy Falconer's ability to inject a sense of humor into his character's dialogue - this is an often overlooked aspect of historical fiction that helps bring long-dead people to life - and Falconer is quite good at it. He also has a strong sense of color and paegentry that serves the setting of Medieval England and France quite well. While this novel wasn't quite my cup of tea, I think it could serve as a nice introduction to Isabella's story and many readers will find much to like in this fast-paced story.

Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.