Thursday, 1 May 2014

History needs to be re-written all the time...

Interview with Eva Stachniak 
by Agnes A. Rose

Eva Stachniak was born in Wrocław (Poland). She moved to Canada in 1981 on an English scholarship to McGill University. In 1988 she defended her doctoral thesis. Between 1984 and 1986 she worked for Radio Canada International (the Polish Section in Montreal), writing and producing radio programs about Canada. Until 2007 she taught English and humanities courses at Sheridan College. Her first short story was “Marble Heroes”, but her debut novel was “Necessary Lies”. In 2000 the book won in Canada First Novel Award. Her international bestseller about Catherine the Great – “The Winter Palace” – made Eva Stachniak great popularity in the world. In March of 2014 the author published her second Catherine the Great novel. Now she lives in Toronto and works on her books.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you very much for your accepting my invitation to this interview. At the beginning I would like to congratulate you on your second novel about Catherine the Great. Could you tell us why you decided to create the story exactly about this Russian Empress?

Eva Stachniak: Thank you so much. Why Catherine? In the Poland of my childhood Catherine was not a likeable character. I had an image of her as ruthless and hypocritical, hated rather than admired. I’m not disputing the historical accuracy of this image – Poles, Ottoman Turks; Ukrainian Cossacks all had very good reasons to be less than enthusiastic about Russian imperial policy. But the truth is that I knew very little about her then.

When I was writing Garden of Venus, I had to include Catherine the Great in a few scenes. Stanislaw August grapples with his memories of her when he meets Sophie Potocka and Sophie herself has been received by Catherine in St. Petersburg. To write these scenes I started researching her, and slowly a more complex and nuanced picture of her had emerged. I read her memoirs, her letters and one of her Western biographies. In the end, this is what brought about my fascination with this extraordinary monarch, even if I still do not accept or condone all of Catherine’s political decisions. 

Agnes A. Rose: How did you prepare for writing this kind of novel? I mean doing your research.

Eva Stachniak: I read biographies of all my major characters; I read their memoirs, if they left any, and letters. I also talked to historians, and anyone who could shed light on any aspect of my characters’ lives. A doctor to whom I described Catherine’s symptoms diagnosed her with diabetes, a detail not mentioned by her biographers.

I always try to travel to places I write about because I need to position myself in the physical space where I set my novels. In St. Petersburg I walked all over the oldest part of the city, from the Winter Palace to the Nevsky Prospect, from the Vasilyevsky Island to the Peter and Paul Fortress, along the Embankment. I visited other suburban palaces where Catherine the Great lived – Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo – and where her traces are still very much visible.

I also visited museums and art exhibits, looking for pictorial representation of life in 18th century Russia. I searched for the details of ordinary lives, a dog’s collar, and the shape of a pitcher or flower vase, a child’s toy.

Agnes A. Rose: Which of the two parts of the story about Catherine the Great was more difficult to create? Why?

Eva Stachniak: The second one. Empress of the Night is written from Catherine’s point of view. Catherine can be an exasperating heroine, powerful, not always likeable, but always fascinating. I needed to approach her from the outside in The Winter Palace before I could try seeing the world through her eyes. But when I finally began writing in her voice, she was quite forthcoming…

Agnes A. Rose: When did you first decide that you wanted to be the author? And why did you choose to write historical fiction?

Eva Stachniak: I always wanted to write, ever since I realized that books I loved so much as a child had been imagined and written by human beings, but I took a long time to actually write fiction. I was an academic for many years, emigrated to Canada in 1981 where I continued to work on my PhD thesis and only began writing fiction in 1994. I needed that time to find my subject matter, to realize that fiction, not academic writing, is my true passion.

Historical fiction just happened. I’m not sure I’ll always write novels set in the past, but history is my passion, so it was a natural decision. And the fact that Polish and Eastern European stories have had a hard time penetrating into the Western consciousness. I want to work with these stories for they are part of my inheritance….

Agnes A. Rose: A few weeks ago I read “Garden of Venus”. This is the story about Sophie, the Countess Potocki. What inspired you to describe her extraordinary life?

Eva Stachniak: I found Jerzy Lojek’s biography of Sophie in a Canadian library and I could not put it down. Sophie was an immigrant to the 18th century Poland and I love exploring the perceptions of immigrants. She was also a very intriguing woman, able to break through the barrier of class at a time when a young woman without money and family support could easily become a casualty. In addition her story took me to Ukraine and to the court of Stanislaw August for whom I have a soft spot. All of it contributed to the desire to write about her.

Agnes A. Rose: Your first novel won in Canada First Novel Award. I think it is a great honour. Did you expect such a success while writing your debut novel?

Eva Stachniak: No, I didn’t. First novels are hard. No one knows about you yet, no readers wait for your books. I was very happy to have been nominated for the award, as it meant reviews in major Canadian newspapers. When I won, I was both astonished and delighted. My competition was stiff, and so it was, indeed, a great honour.

Agnes A. Rose: You are also the author of the book about one of the most famous love affairs of Romanticism era. I mean Delfina Potocka and Zygmunt Krasiński – the Polish poet. Could you tell us a little bit about this novel? 

Eva Stachniak: Dissonance, so far, has only had its Polish edition in a wonderful translation of Anna Przedpełska-Trzeciakowska. This is a very special novel for me, probably my most Polish one, for it touches upon Polish romantic myths. It tells the story of a very torturous love triangle, a great romantic poet, his muse/lover, and his wife, all three entangled in psychological games that draw us into the very nature of Polish romanticism. The story is told from several points of view, the poet’s, the lover’s and the wife’s… and a few other characters who interact with them.

I’m planning to have its English-language version published before too long, but the novel needs some revisions and so far the two Catherine novels were absorbing me entirely.

Agnes A. Rose: I think that your female characters are strong women pursuing their goal at any cost. Some of them have a very particular impact on men’s decisions concerning the country. Do you think that historical women in positions of power were better politicians than men?

Eva Stachniak: There were so many more male politicians in history that any generalization is bound to be stretched. For centuries, only truly exceptional women were successful enough to claim power for themselves – so no wonder that they were usually better. The question still remains if they ruled differently than men. In many ways they had to. Catherine the Great could not lead her army to battles; she had to rely on Potemkin to do it for her. But – of course – she could control Russia through other means.

Agnes A. Rose: In my opinion Polish history is very interesting and rich in different events or individuals. Have you ever thought about writing a book concerning one of the Polish royal dynasties such as the Piasts or Jagiellonians?

Eva Stachniak: I don’t really plan that much ahead. I agree with you that Polish history is extremely interesting and – especially in the West – not known that much if at all. But in my case a book always finds me. Something has to happen to grab my attention, make me want to resolve something for myself. So far the 18th century was as far as I went back in history, because for me this is when the modern era began.

Agnes A. Rose: If you could choose three individuals from the past and take out them to dinner, who would that be?

Eva Stachniak: Catherine the Great, definitely. I have a lot of questions to ask her…though I am sure she would answer them the way it suited her. Bronislava Nijinska, for she is my latest inspiration and fascination. And, Delfina Potocka, the Romantic muse to Zygmunt Krasiński and Chopin. I am not sure how they would react to one another, but I would have a great time.

Agnes A. Rose: Do you have your favourite authors? Do you read your fellow writers’ books?

Eva Stachniak: I read all the time, trying to read both in English and in Polish. My favourite authors change all the time, so here are my latest: Hilary Mantel and her historical novels about Thomas Cromwell are my delight and a model I am trying to dissect. Penelope Fitzgerald whose historical novels follow a very different path – they are very short, and yet saturated with the ideas, perceptions and everyday texture of the past.

My favourite Polish writer is Olga Tokarczuk – I fell in love with her Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times) many, many years ago and have been her faithful admirer ever since.

Agnes A. Rose: Are there any other areas of history or historical figures you would like to write about in your future novels?

Eva Stachniak: My next novel will be about dancers from the Imperial Theatre: Bronislava Nijinska and her famous brother Vaslav. I have already begun researching ballet and the émigré milieu of Paris, Berlin, and London in the 20s and 30s. Beyond them, I don’t know yet. Something will grab me…I am sure.

Agnes A. Rose: What do you hope your readers take away from your work?

Eva Stachniak: A sense that history needs to be re-written all the time, from many differing points of view. That we can learn from the past, that what had happened is our heritage, universal, human. That stories from the lands we may not know much about enrich our understanding of the human nature.

Agnes A. Rose: Are you going to visit Poland to meet your fans in your homeland? What would you like to tell them?

Eva Stachniak: Yes. As soon as the Polish translation of Empress of the Night is published I will travel to Poland for a book tour. I have already met readers who read The Winter Palace, and I am hoping to have many interesting conversations about Catherine the Great and my two very different novels about her. I’m looking forward to this trip very much. And I would like my Polish readers to know that every time I come to Poland always feel I have come home.

Agnes A. Rose: Could you tell us about your current project or projects?

Eva Stachniak: As I already mentioned I am drawn to the imperial dancers. The Nijinskis, brother and sister, are particularly interesting because of their complicated identity. They were born in Russia of Polish parents, they spoke Polish at home but they were educated in Russian and identified with the Russian artistic community. They also spent most of their creative years in the West. I like to reflect on all these connections, search for their meanings.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for this interview. I wish you further success in your writing. We are looking forward to your next novel soon.

Eva Stachniak: Thank you, Agnes. It was a pleasure.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

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