Eva Stachniak Interview
January 11, 2012
the author of The Winter Palace
It was great to have Eva Stachniak visit the blog on January 11, 2012, to talk about her novel The Winter Palace, about a woman who becomes a spy for Catherine the Great.
In your research, what did you learn about Catherine the Great that made you feel you could tell a part of her story not dealt with in previous novels?
Amazing as this may seem there've been no mainstream novels about Catherine the Great in English for years. There were, however, many excellent biographies of her. In The Winter Palace I was able to tell the story of Catherine's rise to power from a unique point of view of a palace spy. Historical sources often mention that Catherine kept spies - she admits to it herself in her letters - but the biographies don't dwell on this part of her story. Understandably, historians have to focus on what is known and documented, while a fiction writer is free to explore the past in a more imaginative way.
Varvara's plight after her parents die is heart-wrenching. Did the real Empress Elizabeth take orphaned girls into her court?
Elizabeth Petrovna was a passionate woman with a soft heart for children and animals, but also with a short attention span and unwillingness to bother with the details of life. We know, for instance, that she took care of children by her deceased friends or servants by entrusting them to her attendants. Visitors to the Russian court wrote about these "palace wards," speculating if some of them might not be Elizabeth's own illegitimate children. I haven't found any convincing evidence that Elizabeth indeed had children of her own, but she had strong maternal feelings and could be quite generous to those who appealed to them.
The scenes involving Catherine and Stanislav Poniatowski, the future Polish king, are touching. How much does history tell us about their actual relations?
Stanislav wrote about his love for Catherine in his diaries, published after his death. He described her "dazzlingly white complexion ... a mouth which seemed to invite kisses - a laugh as merry as her disposition." He wrote of their common passions for serious books and his pain of having to leave St Petersburg without her. In addition to his testimony we have Catherine's letters to Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams, from the time of her relationship with Stanislav. These letters are touching, for they are written by a woman in love who longs to talk about her beloved with a mutual friend.
In the end, however, their relationship didn't survive the test of time, politics, and Russian imperial ambitions, but this is the topic of my second Catherine novel, The Empire of the Night, which I'm working on right now.
Review of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
See listing for The Winter Palace at Powell's Books
See listing for The Winter Palace at Amazon.com
See listing for The Winter Palace at The Book Depository
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