This has been in the works a while, so I’m really glad to note that today I have the Canadian writer Eva Stachniak here, doing an interview and promoting her new book, Empress of the Night, which is historical fiction based around the figure of Catherine the Great. That’s coming out in the UK on 25th March with Traverse Press. More info here! Eva is a new author to me, and I’m interested to dig into her portrayal of Catherine the Great; I hope you guys enjoy her interview here. So, here goes —
Hello, Eva. Thank you for agreeing to do a little interview with me! I’m sorry if these end up being questions you’ve been asked a dozen times before, but I’m new to your work, and so are most people who normally read my blog. Now, I think everything you’ve written is historical fiction, right? How do you choose the setting? Are these periods/places/people you’ve always wanted to write about, or have you come across them while researching and had anyone capture your imagination?
My first novel was more contemporary than historical, but, yes, I mostly write historical fiction.
How do I choose what I write about? Each book follows its own path, although there are some similarities. I’m drawn to women characters, especially strong, immigrant women, because their experience speaks to me on a personal level. It may be hard to see Catherine the Great as an immigrant, but when she arrived in Moscow at fourteen, she was a minor German princess, and it took her many years to assimilate and become as Russian as she could possibly be. Sophie Potocka, from my novel Dancing With Kings, was a Greek peasant girl who showed up in 18th century Poland, married one of richest Polish aristocrats, and never looked back. Both Catherine and Sophie are, of course, historical figures. My fictional characters are also uprooted and transplanted into new worlds. Varvara from The Winter Palace, Anna from Necessary Lies.
I know you were born in Poland, and from the summaries and interviews I have looked at, it seems like most of your work is connected to Poland. That’s a country and history I don’t know much about. Do you hope that through your novels you can interest people in and teach people about your background? Or is that just a side effect of writing about something deeply significant to you?
I was born and raised in Poland, behind what was known as the Iron Curtain. The stories I heard in my childhood and adolescence come from there. I’m drawn to them because they are deeply significant to me and—I believe—universal in their appeal. I don’t want to teach—I don’t think novels should teach anything— but I want to share stories that had sustained me, stories that are part of our wider, European heritage.
The Polish borders shifted many times in the course of history, from east of the Oder River to present day-Ukraine. I was born in Wrocław, which until the end of WWII was German Breslau. Catherine the Great was born in Stettin which is now Polish Szczecin. My paternal grandfather was drafted into Russian Imperial Army, my ancestors were subjects of Catherine the Great. Thus a Polish story becomes also Russian or German. I believe that there are no Polish stories without a significant European connection of some kind.
This is why I probe them, explore their meanings.
I’ve actually done a course or two on historical fiction, because it’s a topic that really interests me, and I don’t think my professors or fellow students would forgive me if I didn’t ask about this — what sort of sources do you use? Have you come across anything particularly interesting in the process?
I’m a lapsed academic, so I find the research part of writing addictive and very rewarding. For my 18th century novels I read memoirs and letters by all my major characters. I also read their biographies, not just the recent ones, but those penned in the previous centuries. Sometimes research done for one novel, carries on to the next. When I was writing Dancing With Kings where two of the characters are surgeons, I immersed myself in the memoirs of 18th century doctors and researched 18th century medicine—a lot of which I could use in portraying Catherine the Great’s Scottish doctor in Empress of the Night.
One of my most favourite sources for details of the 18th century Russian life were The Russian Journals of Martha and Catherine Wilmot. The Wilmot sisters were protégées and house guests of Princess Ekaterina Dashkova, a close though estranged friend of Catherine the Great. Newly arrived from Ireland, curious and willing to learn as much as they could, the two adventurous ladies described what they saw and experienced at a Russian country estate. Their journals and letters offer a wealth of details, a treasure-trove for a writer.
So really you’re here to talk about your new book, Empress of the Night. It’s being promoted as a “follow-up novel” to The Winter Palace. Did you know you were going to write it when you wrote The Winter Palace? Or did you finish that book and find that you still had things you wanted to say about Catherine the Great?
It was always a two book project; I found Catherine too complex to do her justice in one novel.
The idea was to show Catherine from two distinct vantage points, external and internal. Thus The Winter Palace tells Catherine’s story through the point of view of a close confidante, while Empress of the Night lets Catherine herself take centre stage. The Winter Palace concentrates on the younger Catherine, a woman who is reaching for power, while Empress of the Night focuses on Catherine at the end of her life, reflecting on a life she had. I see the two novels as bookends, with historical Catherine the Great in the middle, works of fiction illuminating history, offering readers not just the facts of Catherine’s life but the experience of them.
Obviously Catherine the Great was an amazing woman (whether people like her or not), and under her rule Russia became very strong. But do you like her? What drew you to write about her?
I do like her, although I do not approve of many of her choices or political decisions, and I like her less at certain periods of her life.
I’m drawn to her energy, her dedication to what she considered her job, her sense of purpose, the breadth of her interests and passions. She was a very modern manager, excellent at motivating those who worked for her, using their potential to the fullest. I often say it, jokingly, that I wish she had been elected the Queen in Poland. With a monarch like her, the 18th century Poland would have fared much better.
The problem with historical fiction for some people, particularly when it involves public figures whose lives are well known, is that we know how it ends. Did you find that a problem in writing this, or didn’t it matter for what you wanted to do?
It didn’t really matter. Tension and suspense can be created in other ways.
Unless a historical novel tells a story of a fictional character, we cannot help knowing how things turned out in the end, who will live and who will die, why and how. Readers of historical fictions are like the spectators at a Greek tragedy who knew their myths very well and yet they flocked to the theatre for yet another rendering of the story of Oedipus or Antigone or the Trojan war.
For a writer, this means that how things happened must take precedence over how they ended. A historical novel must create suspense from what is still a mystery: the character’s emotions and motivations that were driving their decisions.
Where do you want to go now with your writing? Are all the stories you feel you have to tell from the same setting/time period, or are you planning to go somewhere else? Do you even know — are you just going to see what strikes you?
I’m now working on a novel set among Russian exiles before WWII. It is not exactly a continuation of my Catherine the Great novels, but it takes place during the final unravelling of Catherine’s empire. In the streets of Paris, Berlin, and London, Catherine’s descendants rub shoulders with Imperial artists, all of them exiles, cast adrift when Russia plunged into the Revolution of 1917.
Beyond that I do not think. Some story will grab my attention, turn into another novel.
I know people aren’t supposed to pick favourites among their children, but is there a book of yours that you’re particularly proud of, or which is particularly dear to you? Or perhaps a book you’d recommend new readers to begin with?
The book I’m working on is always my favourite, because it is still truly mine. But I would recommend The Winter Palace as a starting point. It is a perfect introduction to Empress of the Night, showing Catherine the Great in the first two decades of her life, a woman who reaches for what she wants, not yet aware of how much she would have to pay.
Are there any particular writers who have influenced you, who you’d recommend to people who are interested in the kind of books you write?
To many to mention, but here are a few.
Hilary Mantel is a genius of historical novel writing and I’d recommend Wolf Hall followed by Bring up the Bodies. I also admire Kate Grenville, the Australian author of The Secret River which combines family history with the history of a continent, Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence and Colm Tóibín’s The Master.
One last one: are you a bookworm like me? The name of my blog is “the Bibliophibian”, because it does feel like I’m swimming (though thankfully not drowning) in all the books I have. How’s your TBR pile?
Growing with each day, sometimes too fast for me to cope. I’m reading biographies of 20th century Russian exiles, dancers, choreographers, writers, painters, and tricksters of various shapes. I’m reading Memoirs of Bronislava Nijinska, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky, and memoirs of Felix Yusupov, one of the murderers of Rasputin. Biographies of Sergiey Diaghilev and Anna Pavlova await me, and a marvellous history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels.
And then, when I need a break from this rather focused TBR pile, I’ll start reading Deborah Swift’s The Lady’s Slipper.
Wow. I wish I had that focus!
Thanks for answering all my questions, Eva. For those who’re interested in her work now, her books are available as ebooks and it looks like once Empress of the Night (link to goodreads page) is officially out on March 25th, all of them will be available in the UK — at least on Kindle, and of course, apart from Empress of the Night, as hard copies as well. Now to restrain myself from buying The Winter Palace…