Monday, February 13, 2012

Interview with Eva Stachniak, author of THE WINTER PALACE

I'm delighted to welcome Eva Stachniak back to Historical Boys for an interview about her bestselling novel THE WINTER PALACE, one of my favorite historical novels this year and a riveting account of the rise to power of Catherine the Great. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Eva!

1. Congratulations on the publication of THE WINTER PALACE! It's an honor to have you with us. Set in Russia during the era of the Czars, this novel offers us two different characters—Catherine the Great and her spy and maid-servant, Barbara—each of whom is linked to the dramatic and ultimately deadly struggle for the throne. What inspired you to write about Catherine? Why did you choose a fictional character through which to tell Catherine’s rise to power?

Thank you, C.W.

Catherine the Great tempted me for a long time. Or I should rather say, her many incarnations. Catherine, or Sophie, for such is her birth name, arriving in Moscow at 14 to marry the Crown Prince, with just a few Russian words at her command and a meager supply of linen in dire need of mending. Catherine a vulnerable immigrant who has to reinvent herself and find friends who will not betray her. Catherine an unloved wife of a not too stable and mature husband who—jealous of her abilities—constantly threatens to push her aside.

But there is also another Catherine, the enlightened empress who reforms Russia’s institutions and strengthens its army, turning her adopted country into a formidable European power. Catherine the usurper, a woman who stole her husband’s crown and condoned his murder. Catherine a masterful politician, with steady nerves, foresight, and courage, demanding her place at the political gaming table of the 18th century Europe.

My fictional narrator? I wanted to tell Catherine’s story from an observer’s point of view in order to show the essence of Catherine’s power over people. I wanted the reader to experience Catherine’s spell over those around her, show how this Prussian princess managed to command the hearts of so many. In addition, my narrator, Varvara/Barbara, is an immigrant to Russia. Most outsiders make excellent observers, readers of clues, and hidden intentions. And, of course, she is also a spy, a perfect tool for a writer.

2. THE WINTER PALACE shows the seamy underside of life at court, especially the constant scheming, intrigue, and relentless quest for power. And Catherine’s own actions as she fights for the crown are controversial. What types of challenges did you encounter while researching this story? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover about Catherine’s role in history?

For me, born and raised in Poland, Catherine is the empress who, with the help of Prussia and Austria, wiped Poland off the map of Europe for over a hundred years, and made my own ancestors reluctant subjects of the Russian tsars. She was the one who crushed the last Polish uprising and made Poland’s king—her one time lover—her prisoner. I grew up hearing stories about her, bitter stories of a woman feared and despised, hated and cursed. What I have uncovered through my research was the more authentic Catherine, a woman behind the politician, passionate, clever, but also sometimes at a loss.

3. Barbara is both the narrator and key player in the novel. Her struggle to find her independence as a woman and a human being is an important part of this story. Because your book is centered on women and told through the eyes of a woman, do you believe it can also resonate with male readers? Is there anything in particular that you do in your book to address this issue?

I assume that the book will resonate with anyone, man or woman, fascinated or troubled by the issues of power. Catherine often referred to herself as being of “a manly” turn of mind. She certainly stood her ground against male monarchs and politicians of eighteenth century Europe. Her world is not particularly feminine, even in the sexual terms, for as empress she chose her lovers —younger and younger as she grew older—and let them go when they no longer pleased her. Not unusual for male monarchs of Europe, but still quite revolutionary for a woman.

I try to write from a universal perspective—show women and men navigating their worlds, reaching for their dreams, but there is also another reflection. The ambitious vision Peter the Great had for Russia was fully realized by two women rulers: Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great. Would Russia have been a stronger, more just, or even only more prosperous country, if it were ruled by men?

4. Please tell us about any methods that you employ to give your characters authenticity.

I try very hard to see my characters, imagine their physical characteristics, hear them speak. To do it, I scrutinize all existing portraits of my historical characters looking for anything that might help: facial expressions, background scenery, the pattern on a dress. If they have written memoirs and letters—like Catherine did—I read and re-read them for the turn of phrase, the patterns of thinking.

With fictional characters I spend time writing a short biography of their lives, and when I know what they did in life and when, I look for a portrait that would help me see them. Often I find their likeness among the many portraits in a museum—hanging there to tease and temp the writer in need—and when I do, I get a good copy of this portrait and keep it on my desk when I write.

6. How do you think your novel speaks to today’s reader or how do the events you evoke resonate for today’s world?

I have a persistent sense that the Iron Curtain separated the West and the East not only politically but culturally and spiritually, and that eliminating this division is a slow and laborious process. I like to think that the stories I tell—stories that come from behind the former Iron Curtain—make this process easier. I also like to think that if you read my novels you will understand something about Russia, Poland, and other countries east of the Oder river, something you might have missed in history books.

7. Please, tell us about your next project.

The Winter Palace is the first of two novels of Catherine the Great. The second, Empress of the Night will be written from Catherine’s point of view, and the two books will, I hope, complement each other. In Empress of the Night Catherine is an absolute monarch, a sole autocrat of a great and thriving empire. I want to explore how having power has transformed the empress herself.

Thank you, Eva. We wish you much success with THE WINTER PALACE.

Eva Stachniak was born in Wrocław, Poland, and came to Canada in 1981. She has been a radio broadcaster and college English and Humanities lecturer. Her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the in Canada First Novel Award, and her second novel, Garden of Venus, has been translated into seven languages. Her third novel, The Winter Palace, is a #1 bestseller in Canada (Doubleday) and has also been published in the US (Bantam) and the UK (Transworld) and will soon appear in Holland, Germany, and Poland. Eva Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is working on her second historical novel about Catherine the Great. Please visit her website.


brokenteepee said...

Fascinating. I just won this and can't wait to dig into it. Thanks for the interview.

Unknown said...

I loved The Winter Palace, and look forward to the second book!!