Eva Stachniak’s third book of historical fiction, Empress of the Night, follows on the success of her novel The Winter Palace, both about power, betrayal and love in the court of Catherine the Great.
Why did you write your new book?
To be able to enter the mind and heart of one of the most fascinating women of history. To breathe down Catherine the Great’s neck, not only as she plans her conquests and prepares her political campaigns, but also spies on her grandchildren and gets ready for the palace ball. To watch her rule the Russian court and her conniving family. And to create a meaningful, fictional world out of what history lets us know.
Isn’t that enough?
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Penelope Fitzgerald’s. Filled with brilliantly observed details that render the past alive in a way that is both straightforward and matter of fact.
I love the brevity of Fitzgerald’s sentences, their subtle, multi-shaded irony, their understatement. After I finished reading The Blue Flower, all writers seemed too wordy. Fitzgerald feared that by saying too much, she insulted the reader. She can never insult her reader, but I’m glad she felt so, for this feeling was responsible for the richness of her brevity.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Write books you would love to read. And no other.
Which historical period do you wish you’d lived through, and why?
Early 20th century. I’d like to watch Ballets Russes astonish Paris, London, and Berlin. Observe the ways in which their performances reshaped the Western ideas of dance, music, and visual arts. Witness the times when East and West met as equals in art and created a third dimension.
And I would love to bob my hair, wear a flapper dress and a Coco Chanel hat. Perhaps I might be able to do all of that in my next novel.
Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten, or legendary after death?
Both alternatives are tempting. The first speaks of heaven on earth, the second of immortality. It is plausible that our new and still evolving publishing reality may leave us with only one of the alternatives. The digital literary cloud of tomorrow may grant no space to works that do not manage to become successful in our lifetime, and thus give them no chance to survive their authors.
What agreed-upon classic do you despise?
Despise is too strong a word. There are books that bore me, or seem no longer relevant. I close them and reach for the books I want to read.
Which fictional character do you wish you’d created?
Pippi Longstocking – my childhood love.
A girl who could lift a horse, turn burglars into her dancing partners. Funny and adventurous and always getting into interesting scrapes.
Which fictional character do you wish you were?
Just one? The reason I love to read is that I can experience the richness of many literary lives. I want to be all of them: Hamlet and Ophelia, Tom Sawyer and Thomas Cromwell, Anna Karenina and Natasha Rostova.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work (that they don’t ask)?
I am asked questions from a very wide range of topics, from the writing process to the limitations the historical sources place on a writer. I cannot really think of other questions I would like to be asked. But I know what I do not like to hear. Advice on how I should have written my novel or on what I should be writing next.
This interview has been condensed and edited.