Saturday, April 12, 2014

Guest post from Eva Stachniak, author of EMPRESS OF THE NIGHT

I'm delighted to welcome Eva Stachniak, author of EMPRESS OF THE NIGHT: A Novel of Catherine the Great, the follow-up to her international bestseller, The Winter Palace.

I loved The Winter Palace, which recounts Catherine's tumultuous struggles through the eyes of a trusted servant with secrets of her own. In Empress of the Night, Eva returns to the grandiose, turbulent and dramatic life of Russia's most famous empress, now in the twilight of her long reign, as she is dying from a massive stroke and recalls the twists and turns, sacrifices and intrigues, that brought her to the throne. Catherine is a magnificent woman, but prey to capricious appetites and a hunger for power; and her trajectory from neglected foreign princess to czarina of the one of the most expansive and decaying empires of the world offers an astonishing, compelling look at the vagaries of fate.

Eva's work has been highly praised by readers and critics alike for her luminous prose and insight. Library Journal calls Empress of the Night "historical fiction fans will appreciate . . . this personal account of a formidable and, indeed, infamous ruler." and Book Reporter says, "As the reader, you’re left with an intimate, up-close look at the imagined life of Catherine the Great. It is, quite simply, wonderful."

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Eva, who offers us this tantalizing glimpse into her inspiration behind the novel. To find out more about Eva and her work, please visit her website.

Ever since I decided to write about Catherine the Great, I knew that I couldn’t write just one novel about her; she was too big, too complex, her story involved too many people and too many key events. It was always a two book project. In The Winter Palace the readers watched Catherine through the eyes of Varvara, Catherine’s spy and confidante who was clearly captivated by her mistress, and thus not always reliable as a narrator. Empress of the Night turns its spotlight on Catherine herself.
Empress of the Night is a study of Catherine’s character. The novel begins in November of 1796, when Catherine is 67 years old and succumbs to a massive stroke. In the two days that follow, speechless and motionless, the most powerful woman in Russia is forced to witness how the intricate threads of her palace politics unravel around her. Her legacy, her plans for Russia’s future, the very fate of the monarchy are in danger. Grand Duke Paul, Catherine’s son, the man whom she grew to despise, is getting ready to assume control over the imperial court and Russia’s sprawling lands. He feels he no longer has to hide his hatred of everything his dying mother represents. After all he’ll soon become Emperor Paul II, the absolute monarch of All the Russias, answering only to God. 

As a writer, I was drawn to the image of once powerful Catherine the Great facing her limitations, her powerlessness, her mortality. I wondered how much the historical Catherine understood from what was happening around her in these last two days and nights before her death, what she thought of the events that led her to this pivotal and tragic November morning when she felt the first pangs of pain. Of course we’ll never know how massive her stroke really was, how much consciousness she retained and for how long. One witness of these last two days and nights in the imperial bedroom recorded that Catherine tried to speak once. She lifted herself up a little, her lips moved, her throat produced some strange noises. In the end, all the dying empress managed was to grab her attendant’s hand and squeeze it.

This—I thought—was a commanding image. I took it for a permission to imagine that Catherine understood far more than those around her gave her credit for and began writing Empress of the Night.