Interview with Eva Stachniak, author of Empress of the Night

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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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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Shift Mama said...

I am really looking forward to this book.

traveler said...

This historical sounds captivating and fascinating. Many thanks for this lovely feature and giveaway. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

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