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?
ES: 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?
ES: 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.