Five Questions for Author Eva Stachniak

Zoomer sat down with Toronto-based author Eva Stachniak to talk about her best-selling book, The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great, travelling to Russia and her favourite historical fiction.

Told from the eyes of a maid trained as a spy within the Russian court, The Winter Palace is the epic story of Catherine’s ascent from a young outsider to ruler of Russia.

Athena McKenzie: Why did you choose a court spy to tell Catherine’s story?
Eva Stachniak:
I was researching Catherine for some time before I decided on Barbara. I read a lot of diaries, I read her letters and I travelled to St. Petersburg.  There were all these fascinating stories about Catherine from these different points of view and it was beginning to be too much. If you dig into historical sources, you can get taken astray by many voices. It was my usual process. First, absolute despair, I have too many stories to tell. How am I ever going to make it into a novel or even two novels (which is what it turned out to be)? What happened is that in reading Catherine’s letters to Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, I came across this very intriguing sentence in which she says, I have three spies in Empress Elizabeth’s bedroom and they do not know about each other and they all report to me and they will never fail to tell me if anything happens.

For me, that was the breakthrough. I started thinking; they must be women, because at that time most of Elizabeth’s attendants were women. And they are obviously spying for Catherine. Who could they be? I knew I would love to hear that perspective on what was going on. You’re watching one Empress and reporting to the possible future Empress. Are you perhaps also reporting back? Barbara came very ready made. She began speaking to me, more or less, what the first three or four paragraphs of the novel are – that there are some spies who are very willing to give you their secrets but you have to watch out because they are spies. They tell their stories for a reason. I started digging into that and listening to her voice. A spy is a marvellous narrator. When you have a first person point of view as a writer, it can be very limiting because you have to filter it through the consciousness of one person, no matter how well placed that person is. If that person is a spy, you can get her to overhear a conversation, you can get her to hide and peek through peepholes and wander the corridors of the palace at night and see things that are not meant for anybody else to see.

AM: You said that your research lead to two novels on Catherine the Great? What is the other one?
The second one is The Empire of the Night and I want to write it from Catherine’s point of view.  The Winter Palace ends two years into her being an Empress, so she has not been formed yet by power to the extent I believe she was as a mature Empress. I want to deal with her as a mature woman toward the end of her life and take the reader into her mind — into someone who has been the autocrat of Russia for over 30 years and has had to make her choices.

AM: Tell us about your research trip to St. Petersberg?
It was not a very long trip. It was 10 days, but I chose my time very carefully. I went during the White Nights, when the sun is bright even at midnight. I’d read about it a lot, but I couldn’t imagine it. It gives you an enormous amount of energy but the problem is after 10 days, you are totally exhausted. There is no sense of night. There is just a little bit of twilight for about 15 minutes.

I visited the Winter Palace even though it’s a bit harder to see imprints of Catherine because we have to remember that in the 1830s the Winter Palace, the old one, burned down almost completely and it was rebuilt many times. Of course, there is the art collection, which is the basis of the Hermitage, there are her jewels and dresses, and her carriage, but many of the interiors are from later. So I found much more in Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo, the other suburban palaces, where the interiors from Catherine’s time have been preserved in a much more pristine way. You can see how different they are from Empress Elizabeth’s baroque rooms. When you walk into Elizabeth’s interiors, it’s like walking into the inside of a jewelry box. If you’re walking into Catherine’s room, it’s like being in Wedgwood porcelain, all classical lines. In Peterhof, you go into a recreation of Catherine’s bedroom and there is a porcelain sculpture of her beloved dog raising her head and it’s almost as if she were there. It was also important to get a physical sense of the city and the possible walks, since I had a narrator who wasn’t always riding carriages.

AM: This is your third novel. How has your writing process changed?
With each book it’s different. I think first books are always hardest because you don’t really know what you’re doing. So [with Necessary Lies] I was panicky about a lot of things. I didn’t have the freedom of getting into what I wanted to. I just wanted the book to be finished and not to fall on my face. And also the first one had a lot of my own memories  – the city, the people in Poland. Some history as well, but fairly recent history that I remember my mother remembering —so there was always that personal connection. So, that was a very different process.
The second novel, The Garden of Venus, is the same period as this one, so the research was very similar. The problem that I had, which I think I managed to avoid with The Winter Palace, is that I just went into this research and there was just so much of it and I just did too much. I profited from it because it was the same time period as The Winter Palace, so a lot of the every day research I had already done. The problem with the second novel was that I didn’t know how to limit my research.
And I think with this novel, that process was helpful to me. I was able to say, I know enough for the first draft and I’m going to write it and then see what else I need to research. I was far more focused and I think it shows in the writing as well.

AM: Do you read historical fiction?
ES: I do. I have many favourites. My last great love was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and I cannot wait to get my hands on the sequel. It’s a beautiful novel and she does this trick of getting into the mind of her character and writing from his point of view even though she’s writing it from the third person.
There’s this wonderful British writer who is no longer alive, unfortunately, Penelope Fitzgerald, a one-time Booker Prize winner. She wrote two historical novels. One about Russia,  The Beginning of Spring and one about Germany, The Blue Flower. Tiny slim little books and how did she do it? How can she put the whole of Russia of the eve of the revolution in a book of that length? Her chapters are a page and a half, sometimes two or three pages, with a marvellous sense of detail. She is the mistress of writing for me. I go back to her. I reread her books. I could never write like her, I don’t want to write like her but it inspires me to use details and use everyday stories just to give the reader a sense of being there.

To learn more about Eva Stachniak, click here.