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!