Tag Archives: Eva Stachniak

Women in History: The Great Russian Ballerina Bronia Nijinska

The Celebrating Women Series for 2017 continues with article #8 today. If this is the first article you’ve read so far, March was Women in History month and so I’ve been featuring writers and authors who sent in guest articles surrouding women and topics about women.  In fact, it’s now extending way past March we’ve had so much interest to feature strong, impactful women. You can find a main page for this with explanation and link to all articles here. I’ll add the articles as I schedule or post them. And if you still want to participate, send an article in!

Introducing Eva Stachniak and Her Russian Ballerina

I’m very excited to start this week off with my sweet friend (a truly wonderful person!) and fabulous historical fiction writer Eva Stachniak. Eva lives in Canada and is the award-winning and internationally bestselling author of four novels, several of which are my favorites, and her newest, is soon to add to this list!

This newest novel, The Chosen Maiden, is her fifth novel and features the life of Bronia Nijinska, a Russian ballerina – in fact one of the greatest to ever live…but not without fighting for that title. Read on and find out why.

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Caption: Bronia Nijinska as a student at the Imperial Ballet School

Living in the shadow of giants: the story of Bronia Nijinska

By Eva Stachniak, author of The Chosen Maiden

The history of Russian ballet is full of extraordinary women, but for me Bronislava Nijinska or Bronia as she was known among friends, is particularly appealing. What drew me to her? First, the tantalizing connection to her beloved elder brother, Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950). Known as the God of the Dance, he was one of the best dancers of all times, especially known for his leap and his groundbreaking choreography of Rite of Spring—the one that caused now famous riots in Paris when it premiered on May 29 of 1913. I was also drawn by the powerful strength of her dancing roles in Ballets Russes of Sergey Diaghilev, the legendary impresario who transformed the face of modern ballet: Ballerina Doll in Petrouchkaor the Chosen Maiden in Rite of Spring, a dance Vaslav created especially for her. And last, but not least, I admire her fortitude in the face of obstacles and misfortunes which could’ve crushed anyone less strong and resilient than she was.

Growing up alongside her famous older brother meant that Bronia Nijinska had to stand her ground. Like Vaslav she was educated at the world-renowned Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg. Like Vaslav, she danced at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and then, in 1909, joined the Ballets Russes which revolutionized modern dance and dazzled Paris with their Russian seasons. But whereas he was almost instantly declared a genius, she had to fight for recognition all her life.

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Caption: Bronia NIjinska in Petrouchka

How did she manage to free herself from Vaslav’s shadow? It helped that Vaslav recognized her talent. He was not only her mentor and teacher, but also readily acknowledged that Bronia was the best interpreter of his choreography. Then the vicissitudes of European history intervened, for the siblings were separated by war and revolution. Vaslav never returned to Russia, and by the time they met again in 1921 her brilliant brother’s career (and life) was destroyed by mental illness. In the meantime, during the Russian Revolution and ensuing Civil War, in Kiev, Bronia created avant-garde experimental ballets which inscribed her name in the history of modern dance. And after her escape from the Soviet Union she became one of the very first female choreographers employed by a ballet company—for Sergey Diaghilev hired her as a choreographer in 1921. This is where she created her masterpieces: The Wedding, Les Biches or Le Train Bleu (for which Coco Chanel designed costumes). All of them achievements that are truly extraordinary.

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Caption: A painting by Vadim Meller inspired by Bronia NIjinska’s modern ballet, Mephisto, that she created during her time in Kiev.

However, it was not only Vaslav’s shadow Bronia Nijinskahad to free herself from. She had to stand up to the misogyny of the ballet world, all her life. When she was a young ballerina at the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg she was faulted for her too strong and muscular body, her “un-ballerinalike” looks, her “too high” jumps. Then, in the Ballets Russes, she saw how male dancers and choreographers ruled supreme while women were mostly given supportive or transient roles. When, after her escape from Soviet Russia, she re-joined Ballets Russes, the same Sergey Diaghilev who hired her could not stop himself from telling her: “Oh, Bronia, what a great choreographer you would’ve been if only you were a man.” Yet, despite these obstacles, she had a long career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, both in Western Europe and the US where she emigrated in 1939.

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Caption: An arrangement from Les Noces (The Wedding) Nijinska choreographed in 1923. Music by Igor Stravinsky.

Where does it come from, such strength, such resilience? From early childhood Bronia Nijinska knew dancing was her vocation. She placed the art of ballet in the center of her life and never veered from it. But love of art would not have been enough to sustain her, not without the fierce support first of her mother, Eleanora, and then her daughter, Irina. The evidence of their loving, nurturing relationship is beautifully documented in the archival materials of the Bronislava Nijinska Collection, at the Library of Congress. Dairies, letters, and snapshots of family life show how the three generations of the Nijinsky women, grandmother, mother and daughter, stood by each other through thick and thin all their lives. This female solidarity gave Bronia the inner strength to be an artist, rooted her, and, in the end, shaped her who she was.

Links of Interest

Recreated ballets in which Bronia and Vaslav danced or choreographed 1913—35

http://www.evastachniak.com/2016/11/05/the-chosen-maiden-ballets-1909-1913/

http://www.evastachniak.com/2016/11/05/the-chosen-maiden-ballets-1914-1935/

Eva Stachniak, Biography

evastachniakEva Stachniak is a writer of historical fiction. Her latest novel, The Chosen Maiden, was inspired by the art and voice of Bronia Nijinska.  She lives in Toronto.

Find more out about her and her fabulous books on her website.

 

The Chosen Maiden, Synopsis –

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Publisher: Doubleday Canada and US
Date: Jan 17, 2017

The passionate, sweeping story of Bronia, an extraordinary ballerina forever in the shadow of the legendary Nijinsky–Russia’s greatest dancer and her older brother.

Born on the road to dancer parents, the Nijinsky children seem destined for the stage. Vaslav is an early prodigy, and through single-minded pursuit will grow into arguably the greatest–and most infamous–Russian ballet dancer of the 20th century. His talented younger sister Bronia, however, also longs to dance. Overshadowed by Vaslav, plagued by a body deemed less than ideal and struggling against the constraints of her gender, Bronia will have to work triply hard to prove herself worthy.

Bronia’s stunning discipline and mesmerizing talent will eventually elevate her to the highest stage in Russia: the prestigious, old-world Mariinsky Ballet. But as the First World War rages, revolution sparks in Russia. In her politics, love life and career, Bronia will be forced to confront the choice between old and new; traditional and groundbreaking; safe and passionate.

Through gorgeous and graceful prose, readers will be swept from St. Petersburg and Kiev to London and Paris and plunged into the tumultuous world of modern art. Against the fascinating and tragic backdrop of early 20th century Europe, and surrounded by legends like Anna Pavlova, Coco Chanel, Serge Diaghilev and Pablo Picasso, Bronia must come into her own–as a dancer, mother and revolutionary–in a world that only wishes to see her fall.

Add to GoodReads

Purchase on Amazon and other major online retailers and stores nationwide in Canada and the United States.

National Bestseller

“A tale of intrigue, love, betrayal and redemption set in the realm of art and artists, exploring the line between dedication and obsession, creation and madness. . . . Stachniak weaves together beautifully the myriad moments that bring this fascinating family and period to life.” —Toronto Star 

“Carefully researched and capaciously imagined. . . . More than just an absorbing historical account of an avant-garde artist, The Chosen Maiden is a fully-realized tale of family, love, loss and enduring resilience.” —Cathy Marie Buchanan, New York Times bestselling author of The Painted Girls

“Many works of fiction take as their inspiration true events and persons of historical significance, but few do so as lovingly and imaginatively. . . . The Chosen Maiden delves into the workings of an artist’s mind and reveals the resiliency of art in a time of worldwide political upheaval and war. . . . A remarkable work of historical fiction.” —Quill & Quire

“Exquisite. . . . Dance fans will welcome this graceful and entrancing foray into the recent past.” —Library Journal

“Reading The Chosen Maiden is like entering Aladdin’s Cave, where a vivid, strange and enchanting world awaits. It is the thrilling world of the Great Nijinsky and his passionate and unforgettable sister Bronia, whose discipline and talent rival her famous brother’s, but whose greatest genius may be her will to survive. Spanning two world wars and the Russian Revolution, Eva Stachniak’s sumptuous and evocative dance of the Chosen Maiden is the dance of 20th century history.” —Shaena Lambert, author of Oh, My Darling and Radiance

Thank you for following the series!

Women in History

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Filed under Guest Posts, women in history

Author Nancy Bilyeau Speaks: Taking History Seriously When Writing Novels, What Makes a Historian?

Taking History Seriously When Writing Novels: What Makes a Historian?
by Nancy Bilyeau, Author of The Tapestry

02_Nancy BilyeauI AM NOT A HISTORIAN

There. I said it.

I’m still alive. 😀

More and more, it appears that historical novelists are positioning themselves as historians. Readers demand accuracy in their fiction set in the past—authors certified in history can supply it.

Philippa Gregory’s website begins with this statement:  “Philippa Gregory was an established historian and writer when she discovered her interest in the Tudor period and wrote the novel The Other Boleyn Girl which was made into a TV drama and a major film.”

I’ve seen other websites and interviews and book jackets in which the novelists either proudly proclaim it or weave the word into their background: “historian.” It’s become something of a magical word, and not just because it was the title of one of my favorite books: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  (That book mixed digging for obscure historical facts in quiet libraries with…Dracula!)

I’ve never made this claim for myself because I believe I lack the necessary credentials…don’t I?

Let’s take a look at the description in Merriam Webster: 1. “a student or writer of history; especially: one who produces a scholarly synthesis. 2.: a writer of compiler of a chronicle.”

Another definition: “historian: an expert in or student of history, especially that of a particular period, geographical region, or social phenomenon.”

  1. I studied history for my bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. After I “broke the curve” of a test given in the early 20th century American history class taught by Professor Sidney Fine, himself a nationally known historian and a Guggenheim Fellow, Professor Fine invited me to his Ann Arbor house. He offered me lemonade and we drank it on his elegant wooden porch as he suggested that I pursue a master’s degree in history. I realize now that this was it: the secret handshake, the door opening to the chamber in which dwelled historians.

But I didn’t pass through the door. I was eager to launch myself on the world of work, not remain at the university, pursuing another degree. (I know: Nuts!)

Without advanced degrees in history, one cannot claim to be a historian. At least, that’s what I’ve always assumed. If you read those definitions above one more time, they don’t specify any sort of degree. Still, I shy away from putting this word on my website, bio, book jacket or facebook page. Just doesn’t seem right.

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Here’s the experience I do offer readers of my work:

Journalist—at newspapers and then at magazines, I learned on the job how to assess facts, assimilate information and structure a story. I’ve always had an image in my mind of being trained by a historian—a distinguished older man, bearded of course (looking like Professor Fine!), leans over a student at work on the thick table, chiding, “No! Can’t you tell that those are discredited documents? What am I going to do with you??” But I do seek accuracy and practice skepticism. In my years in media, if I made a mistake it did more than earn the disfavor of the bearded professor. It could lead to a printed correction and maybe the boot!

Working as a reporter also made me rather…assertive. When I was frustrated with my research on The Crown, trying to find elusive details about being confined in the 1530s in the Tower of London, I decided to go to the source. I used the “contact” email on the website for the Tower and didn’t stop bothering them until they referred me to someone with access to documents. I’ve since worked my way through two curatorial interns. One emailed me a PDF of Edward Seymour’s diet sheet while he was imprisoned, another pulled together every contemporary fact about the beheading on Tower Hill of Thomas Cromwell. (Don’t let anyone tell you he died at Tyburn!)

History lover—I did like my study of history at the University of Michigan. But since I was 11 years old I have loved reading on my own about centuries past, primarily stories set in Europe and, of course, Tudor England. I pored over every biography I could find on Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The historical fiction that first captured my heart was written by Norah Lofts, Jean Plaidy, Mary Stewart and Anya Seton. Later on, I devoured Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Margaret George, Bernard Cornwell, C.W. Gortner, Kate Quinn, Patricia Bracewell and Mary Sharratt.

Storyteller – As a writer of narrative nonfiction for 20 years, I learned a great deal from my editors on clarity, pacing and the need for the right descriptive detail. I’ve tried to pass these lessons on to the writers I edit too. I also wrote three screenplays before beginning The Crown, and learned from teachers such as screenwriter Max Adams how to write visually and describe characters with the right evocative phrase.

I always wonder what other historical novelists feel about the “historian” question. For this blog post, I decided to ask a few. (Remember, I am assertive 😀 )

******

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Erika Robuck, author of fantastic historical fiction like Hemingway’s Girl and the soon-to-be-published The House of Hawthorne, says, “”I think a historian is an expert in a time period or culture, and holds a degree to support that level of expertise. I am an enthusiast, not an historian.”

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Eva Stachniak, who has written two of my favorite historical novels, The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night, says, “As a writer of historical novels, I have to know my history, in and out, understand it on many levels, political, social, cultural. I have to be able to imagine how everyday life was lived at the time when my novel is set. For my two Catherine the Great novels, I studied the life of the Russian court, not just its politics, but also its everyday routines. I researched spies and spying, dressmaking, bookbinding, medical procedures and the ins and outs of 18th century renovations. Does it make me a historian? I am not convinced. But it makes me a student of history. It makes me re-imagine the exiting research in a creative way. However, even if I make no claims to being a historian, I claim my passion for history and my ability to make it seem alive for my readers.”

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My friend Sophie Perinot, author of Sister Queens and Medicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois (pub date: December 2015), has thought about this question even more than I have. She had some fascinating things to say:

“I am not a historian, despite having a BA in history–at least when I have my novelist hat on–because my work isn’t driven by history, or entirely limited by it.

“I’ve had to give serious thought to the line between what I call “H”istory (academic history) and history as portrayed by novelists. I’ve discussed the subject in a pair of lectures given to university history students during their unit on the uses of undergraduate history degrees after graduation.  And I think most historical novelists grapple with the “who is a historian” question because Historical Fiction is undeniably a pop culture way that people today consume history, and those of us who write it are keenly aware that lots of  fans blur the line between NON-FICTION HISTORY and the FICTIONALIZED HISTORY OF HISTORICAL NOVELS.

“Let me start by saying that I have a background in history having graduated with a BA in that subject—but I don’t write BIG “H” history, nor, in my opinion does any other writer in my genre.  Professors write BIG “H” academic history ( I have a sister who is a professor of history so I have tremendous respect for academic historians).

“Why do I say this?  Well first and foremost a novelist’s work is not driven by the overt goal of educating readers on a particular period or by presenting an overview of a historical issue or time. The historical novelist’s work is driven by considerations of plot and theme—by the desire to tell a universal story that is set in the past but transcends it.

“So, I am not a historian, at least when I have my novelist hat on, because my work isn’t driven by history, or entirely limited by it. BUT if I write first rate historical fiction – and I’d like to think I do – then in telling my story I want to be true to historical facts as we know them.  Good historical novelists use the same sorts of resources that students of history would use to write an academic paper—JSTOR, scholarly journal articles, primary sources, and secondary sources (biographies, prior histories).”

*****

I hope that when you read my historical thrillers, or the fiction by Erika Robuck, Eva Stachniak or Sophie Perinot, you’ll relish not just the story but the awareness that we take our history very seriously—even if we don’t call ourselves historians.

Of that, I think, even Professor Fine would approve.

Check out Nancy’s newest book, The Tapestry, which is the third in her Joanna Stafford Historical Mystery Series! If you haven’t ready any of Nancy’s trilogy, The Crown is book one and The Chalice is book two. 

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The Tapestry, Synopsis and Info~

US Publication Date: March 24, 2015
UK Publication Date: April 24, 2015

Touchstone Publishing
Formats: eBook, Hardcover
Pages: 390

Series: Joanna Stafford, Book Three
Genre: Historical Mystery

GoodReads

In THE CROWN, Sister Joanna Stafford searched for a Dark Ages relic that could save her priory from Cromwell’s advancing army of destruction. In THE CHALICE, Joanna was drawn

into an international conspiracy against Henry VIII himself as she struggled to learn the truth behind a prophecy of his destruction.

Now, in THE TAPESTRY, Joanna Stafford finally chooses her own destiny.

After her Dominican priory in Dartford closed forever—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.

Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King, and fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. Her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.

Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the King’s mistress. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and, possibly, victim.

Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna Stafford must finally choose.

Praise for The Tapestry~

“Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!” – Bestselling Author Alison Weir

“Illuminated by Bilyeau’s vivid prose, minor players of Tudor England emerge from the shadows.” —Kirkus Reviews

“In THE TAPESTRY, Nancy Bilyeau brilliantly captures both the white-hot religious passions and the brutal politics of Tudor England. It is a rare book that does both so well.” —Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife’s Tale

“In spite of murderous plots, volatile kings, and a divided heart, Joanna Stafford manages to stay true to her noble character. Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau’s novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape.” —Erika Robuck, author of Hemingway’s Girl

“These aren’t your mother’s nuns! Nancy Bilyeau has done it again, giving us a compelling and wonderfully realized portrait of Tudor life in all its complexity and wonder. A nun, a tapestry, a page-turning tale of suspense: this is historical mystery at its finest.” —Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire

“A supremely deft, clever and pacy entertainment. This is Nancy Bilyeau’s most thrilling—and enlightening—novel in the Joanna Stafford series yet.” —Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist and The Damned

“A master of atmosphere, Nancy Bilyeau imbues her novel with a sense of dread and oppression lurking behind the royal glamour; in her descriptions and characterizations… Bilyeau breathes life into history.” —Laura Andersen, author of The Boleyn King

Purchase The Tapestry~

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
IndieBound

Author Nancy Bilyeau, Biography~

02_Nancy BilyeauNancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine.

Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza.

A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY released March 24, 2015.

Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information or to sign up for Nancy’s Newsletter please visit her official website.

Giveaway~

To enter to win one of three signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry, please complete the giveaway form below.

Direct Link to ENTER: https://gleam.io/iyF4a/the-tapestry

RULES

  • Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01 a.m. EST and ends at 11:59 p.m. EST on April 3rd.
  • Giveaway is open to residents in North American and the UK.
  • You must be 18 or older to enter.
  • Winners will be chosen via GLEAM on April 4th and notified via email.
  • Winners have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.
  • Please email Amy @ hfvirtualbooktours@gmail.com with any questions.

Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thetapestryblogtour/

Hashtags: #TheTapestryBlogTour #HistoricalMystery #NancyBilyeau

Twitter Tags: @hfvbt @tudorscribe @TouchstoneBooks

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Giving Thanks: What it’s All About and Writer Friends I’m Thanking!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my readers, fellow writers, book lovers, friends. So many of you make my day so much brighter and this weekend, I give thanks to you! I suppose to me it doesn’t really matter if you live in America or not, we all have something to celebrate with this holiday: coming together, working together through differences, and being thankful for what we have, especially when many people might not have as much as us. That is a world-wide sentiment, is it not?

Of course, most know (or at least I hope!) that the pilgrims came across the sea on the Mayflower from Britain. If you didn’t, I suggest watching Snoopy in his Mayflower cartoon at the very least!  As I see it, several kind First Peoples helped the Pilgrims through a time that they might otherwise not have lived through. Squanto (who had quite the story of being kidnapped to Spain, escaping to Britain, and then back to North America…whew) taught them to plant corn and fertilize with fish, and others taught them how to clear and build. It was a peaceful time in history that is far from highlighted. A year later, as the crops grew to be abundant and life of a settlement had begun, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans feasted together, giving thanks for what nature and the land supplied in order tfor them to survive. Wha-la! Thanksgiving!

First Thanksgiving

‘The First Thanksgiving’ Painting Source: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

We can all take so many lessons from this, can we not? How extending a hand is sometimes still advantageous (and worth it) as there are still people who truly will be thankful (look at how hundreds of years later we are still celebrating the Native American kindness) or how we can find a peaceful way to get along and work beside people who are different from us whether that be race, religion, beliefs, or what not.  It’s all what is in your hearts, so stop judging and start living! Live in thanks, not in fear!

I hope this Thanksgiving that you not only give thanks for those people closest to you, but for the rest of the people all over the world. For people who are making a difference by forging alliances with those different from us so that one day seeds will be planted and the fruit of kindness will grow further into the world. Where love for others in not only their similarities but in their differences will be had and we will all sit at one big world table learning about each other and GIVING THANKS that we have meals on our tables when so many others do not.

Blessings to you and yours on this day. It’s why it’s one of my most favorite holidays. To quote my 10 year old daughter, “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is the day I get to be thankful for all I have.” That blew me away….!! Which is true as it reminds us, amid food and football and games, during the Christmas tree decorating or the fervent shopping, to remember how good most of us have it compared to many others who will spend the holidays freezing in gloves with holes on the street, begging for a piece of turkey bone from the trash.

As far as books and writing goes, I am so very thankful for so many like-minded people in my life. You all are the source of my best smiles and days (outside of my children) and my inspiration. I love to write and to read and I am so happy that there are so many of us to share our joys in with out there in the online world. I appreciate my readers of this blog and hope you’ll grow that with me this next year. I appreciate the authors who contact me and send me books for review and who offer to do posts and take on my lengthy interviews. It is my complete pleasure to review what I can as I can. You are mostly all so patient and understanding about my time-table and my life.

I appreciate those authors who want my thoughts on a first glimpse of their books, those who hire me to do work for them, and those that I brainstorm for and with. It is the best part of my life, outside of writing my own stuff and being a mom. I am passionate for you to succeed each and every day.

I have complete gratitude for my writer friends who encourage and motivate me each day, even if it is something they don’t realize they do, and how much they truly mean to me. To my friend circle of Hunter Shea and Kevin Sheehan, W.D. Gagliani, Craig Schaeffer (Jonathan Janz), Brian Moreland, Kristopher Rufty, Ronald Malfi, Russell James, David Berenstein, Sandy Shelonchik, and Frazer Lee…I couldn’t get through a week without your amazing personalities. Thanks to many of you for being there for me in so many ways with my crazy life, my intense personality, and for encouraging my writing (both pointedly through emails and by example of what you do). Never would I have though I’d write anything near horror (just had the YA and history going) but then you all landed in my lap (not literally..lol). Hugs to Keith Rommel for his friendship and trust. Thanks further to David Searls and John Everson for always making me laugh or making me hungry and to Jonathan Moore, for his ability to remind me how to find calm in order to write. And to Glenn Rolfe for always writing WAAAAAAY too much so that I pound my head wondering if I can keep up. Great authors, great writers, great people. SERIOUSLY, THANK YOU!

I love my historical author friends who lead by example as well and especially those women who I admire like Nancy Bilyeau, Sherry Jones, Jennie Fields, Eva Stachniak, Cathy Buchanan, Ania Szado, D.J. Niko, Jennifer Epstein. For making me laugh and giving me so much to enjoy is Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Stephanie Thornton, Kris Waldherr, Susanna Calkins.  For Melika Lux and her never ending friendship and chats! To Christopher Gortner and David Blixt for their passion and lively Facebook posts. To Amy Bruno, owner of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, for her organizational skills, friendly emails, and making it easy to feature authors here on my blog.  There are too many wonderful historical writers to name in this post and they all make me want to learn more, be more, write more, and even better, research more. I would be eternally grateful to one day finish my historical novel and be published beside them.

To Dandi Mackall, for first encouraging me to continue my quest to write novels and teach me how to learn from my surroundings. For igniting my spark during college and for continually impressing me with her kindness and her writing. To Tracy Higley for her exotic historical adventures, trust in me to read her novels, and her pursuit of spirituality which makes me think.

To lovely friends Matthew Turner and Linn Halton who makes me transcend beyond every day life and death with their thoughts and insights. And I am so thankful for so many British authors who truly give me emotional connections to books and write the best new adult, mystery, and historicals out there.

I am GRATEFUL for the talent of writing I’ve had my whole life. When I thought I’d lost it, when I got too busy with my former job and life, when I was told I couldn’t write, I didn’t listen. I kept fighting to write because you know what? I CAN. And I am THANKFUL. So very thankful to be free through my writing. The more I read, the more my muses swirl around me–the more I write, the more they whisper.

This Thanksgiving Season, be thankful for your talents, your support circles, your writing friends, the authors you like, and for the ability to read, and if you write, to write!

Eat lots of pumpkin pie and enjoy a good book or do some writing over the weekend!

Snoopy-Woodstock-Thanksgiving-Dinner

GRATEFUL for YOU! Happy Thanksgiving!

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Historical Novel of Catherine the Great a Stellar Deeply Woven Tale: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

The Winter Palace, by Eva Stachniak, was released this January and I am so happy to have finally been able to complete this outstanding fiction work regarding the rise of a woman history knows as Catherine the Great. Surprisingly, after an over 30 year reign (which was the longest by any female ruler in Russia (1762-1796)), Catherine II did not have a novel on the shelves about her until this one!  Stachniak certainly takes the shelves by storm with this historical fiction of grand design and includes all the elaborate scenery, trickery, politics, and debauchery of the time period that keeps readers engrossed in the story late into the night.

Though this novel doesn’t take place during Catherine the Great’s lengthy rule (only covers her covert ascension at the very end), it’s such an interesting story because it’s told through the eyes of a court servant and spy, Barbara-or Varvara in Russian.  The child of a deceased book binder, and Polish immigrant, Varvara becomes an orphan taken in by Empress Elizabeth Petrova on a favor, who then observes and assists in Catherine’s growth into womanhood throughout a book that outlines all the intrigue and machinations of the elaborate Russian court during a time when many outside of the Royal Family were extremely poor and hungry and dissent abounded.

Before she becomes Catherine the Great, she is Sophie, a German teenage princess from Zerbst who comes at the age of 14 to a court ruled by Empress Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great.  The Empress is just 35 years of age and exorbitant in her vices of decadence, lovers, and drink.  This makes her impulsive and sometimes curt even through her bouts of kindness. Princess Sophie is brought to the Palace to become the wife of the Crown Prince Peter, who is Empress Elizabeth’s nephew. He’s not enthralled with his new wife and the many issues that plague him make him distant, unloving, and not a player in politics, or in the bedroom, and Empress Elizabeth is expecting (and demanding) an heir. To Varvara, she is her closest friend.

I have always had a love affair with Russian history during the time period of the 16th to 19th centuries.  I loved the depth of the character of Varvara and how her life is held constantly in the balance by her usefulness (what she sees and hears) at court.  The ending was amazing. I don’t want to give it away, but the redemptive stance it took was so properly portrayed as to how I thought it should be.

I highly recommend this book if you love any type of historical drama regarding life surrounding those in court politics. For me, I especially enjoyed that it surrounded Russian court in the 1600s, as I love Russian history, intrigue, and mystery. Again, I am astounded by strong women of history, both those of royalty as well as those who serve them.

About the book from the publisher~

Catherine the Great is one of history’s most fascinating rulers—a monarch whose 34-year reign brought Russia into the modern industrial world, whose affairs were the scandal of her court, and who truly embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet there are no other novels in print on Catherine the Great. Now, drawing on letters, diaries, and on-the-ground research in St. Petersburg, Peterhof, and Tsarskoye Selo, award-winning author Eva Stachniak delivers a passionate novel that illuminates the early life of one of history’s most enigmatic and powerful women. THE WINTER PALACE: A Novel of Catherine the Great (Bantam Hardcover; January 10, 2012) tells the epic story of Catherine’s improbable rise to power, as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

That servant is, like Stachniak herself, Polish—a woman who straddles the crossroads of Eastern European immigrant culture, and for whom the world of the Winter Palace is simultaneously alien and familiar. Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Orphaned early in life, nimble-witted and attentive, she makes her way into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Chancellor and spymaster Count Bestuzhev, Varvara is educated in skills from lock-picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in the form of a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager who will become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more adept at court politics than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that swirl around her. Varvara becomes Sophie’s confidante, and together the two young women rise to the pinnacle of absolute power—surviving ill-suited marriages, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia—but at a tremendous cost, emotionally, physically and psychologically.

See the trailer on YouTube:  http://youtu.be/4RNlgKLbSfk

The Winter Palace

An Interview with Eva Stachniak, Author
(NOTE:  this is an interview sent by the publisher, not an exclusive as I generally do on my site, but good nonetheless)

There are no novels in print about Catherine the Great. Why do you think that’s the case, and what drew you to write about her life in THE WINTER PALACE?

It’s fascinating to me that there are no novels about Catherine, especially since there are many biographies of her. She and her reign have always been objects of attention.  

I have been drawn to Catherine for some time. She was a powerful woman who survived and triumphed in a misogynist world, and she was shaped by the 18th century, the Age of Reason—a time I find irresistible.  Like me, this German princess who came to Russia when she was fourteen was an immigrant. Like me, she had to re-invent herself in a new country, learn to understand it and change in the process.

Your narrator is a young Polish woman who serves as a spy in the Winter Palace. How does she offer unique insight into the court life and politics that transformed Princess Sophie into Catherine the Great, and to what extent does she reflect your own background and cultural history? 

Varvara or Barbara (her Polish name) is an outsider who has to survive in difficult and dangerous circumstances. She is an orphan, and she has no allies but her own intelligence and perseverance. Cast adrift in the Winter Palace, she has to watch and listen in order to find her way into safety. Unlike Princess Sophie, she is not an aristocrat, and if she perished no one would notice.

The evolving friendship between Varvara and the future Catherine the Great forms the novel’s backbone. Both women have to define themselves in a world of shifting loyalties, both have to weigh the price such transformations exact.

What does Princess Sophie find upon arriving at the Winter Palace? What was life like in the Russian court at that time?

Sophie arrives in Russia to the court of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the youngest daughter of Peter the Great. Empress Elizabeth was an absolute monarch, she lived in unsurpassed splendour, and she freely indulged in her passions. When Sophie arrives, Elizabeth is thirty-five years old, charming and very beautiful.  She is fond of men, dancing, music, and cherry brandy, all easily available at court. She can be loving and warm, but she can also capricious, impatient and inconsistent. Her court is dominated by her favourites.

In the 18th century, Russia emerged as a significant power on the European scene, but it still had to contend with its persistent image as an “uncouth Russian bear.” Hence Empress Elizabeth’s insistence on recognizing Russia’s playing a growing role in European politics, and also her grand building projects, the renovations of all the imperial palaces in the grand rococo style that plagued the daily life of the court with constant moves in all sorts of weather.

Princess Sophie travels to Russia to marry the Crown Prince Peter, Empress Elizabeth’s nephew.  The marriage is not yet certain, and even after it does takes place Sophie/Catherine’s position at court is extremely precarious for many years. She spends these years in an apprenticeship of her own design, looking for allies everywhere, learning the mechanisms and perils of power.

Both Princess Sophie and her confidante Varvara have to adapt quickly in order to survive in their new surroundings. What do they learn? And what are some of the ways in which they change as they come into power?

Both women quickly learn the deadly dangers of not having power. An unwanted and unloved wife could be sent to a nunnery. A childless wife—and Catherine did not conceive for several years after her wedding—could be pushed aside for a rival. A spy could find herself without a tongue, with her back mangled by the knout, exiled and forgotten.

Thus, for a long while, for both young women, power means safety, a chance to survive, and perhaps an opportunity to change some of the injustice they see and experience. But the moment Catherine reaches for the throne, power begins to exact its price. Catherine and Varvara learn that power means betrayals, but in the end each woman makes very different choices.

What was the role of women in the Russian court? Empress Elizabeth proves to be quite volatile in her treatment of Princess Sophie and Varvara as young women, and later as wives and mothers. To what extent (if at all) does Princess Sophie improve the lives of the women around her when she becomes Catherine the Great?

It was Peter the Great, determined to modernize Russia and break the country’s isolation, who changed the position of Russian women most drastically. One of his many decrees forbade upper-class Russian women to live in domestic seclusion. Under Peter’s rule, they had to participate in social and court life, alongside their husbands, brothers, or fathers.

By the time Peter’s youngest daughter Elizabeth became Empress of Russia, the country had had a succession of female rulers, starting with her own mother, Catherine I. At court, aristocratic women had as much power as their family wealth and connections would allow them. At home, however, they still deferred to their fathers, husbands and brothers.

Young women, especially if—like Catherine and Varvara—they were deprived of family support, had little to protect them. Still, they were much better off than serf women. It is worth remembering that Russia was a country in which serfs could be bought and sold, married to anyone their owner chose for them, punished or even killed with impunity.

Catherine as Empress did little to change the lot of serfs—claiming that Russian society was not yet ready for such drastic reforms—but she did improve some aspects of women’s lives. She founded foundling homes where unwanted babies could be left without questions or inquiries. She founded hospitals where venereal diseases could be safely and discreetly treated. She also established the Smolny Institute, the first educational institution for Russian women, providing excellent and progressive education to daughters of nobility. It is also worth noting that Catherine appointed her friend, Princess Dashkova, Director of the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences and President of the Russian Academy—making her the first woman to hold such important positions.

In diaries of the time, I found traces of complaints some Russian men allowed themselves to utter. They were bothered by Catherine’s sexual freedom, not so much on her account—she was a Tsarina and could do what she wanted—but on account of their wives and daughters. “If matushka is acting thus, why cannot I do it as well?” Russian wives and daughters must have been asking their fathers and husbands when the empress took yet another young man into her bed. Catherine’s example spurred Russian women to demand more freedom.

Princess Sophie doesn’t find love with her husband, the Grand Duke Peter. But she does have intimate relationships with other men, including the future King of Poland, whom she places on the throne after becoming Empress. Do you think she found love, or did she embark on these relationships for political expediency? And what of her relationship with Varvara—is there true affection between them?

“I cannot live one hour without love,” Catherine told Prince Potemkin, and her statement rings true. In her life, she fell in love passionately, many times. Her relationship with Stanislaw Poniatowski, the last King of Poland, lasted three years and ended only when he was expelled from Russia. Catherine clearly loved him, but once he was gone, she found his successor immediately.

Grigory Orlov was the lover whose support allowed her to reach for the throne, but she did love him and lived with him quite happily for twelve years. I think that her true soul mate, however, was Prince Potemkin, her partner and most probably husband. Her relationships with her young favourites are also not just sexual or expedient. When twenty-five year old Sasha Lanskoy died after a brief illness, Catherine suffered from a serious depression for months. On the other hand, any lover hoping that love might make Catherine forget she was Empress, and thus responsible for the well-being and supremacy of Russia, would be greatly mistaken. She took her job very seriously, and personal sentiments were never allowed to interfere.

In THE WINTER PALACE, the fictional Catherine treats Varvara the way real Catherine treated her lovers and friends. She gave a lot, but she demanded ultimate loyalty and usefulness in return.  

What special research did you do for this book? Were there any surprises waiting for you in St. Petersburg, Peterhof, and/or Tsarskoye Selo?

First of all I read all the biographies of Catherine that I could find. I also read diaries of her contemporaries, and any 18th-century correspondence that had anything to do with Russia. There is a wealth of information in these old volumes. Once you know what to look for, the picture they paint is filled with intriguing details, many of which have found their way into my novel.

I always need to visit the places I write about. In preparation for writing the novel, I visited the palace in Stettin (now Polish Szczecin) where Catherine was born. I also travelled to St. Petersburg to get a physical sense of the city. I visited the palaces where Catherine lived: the Winter Palace, Tsarkoye Selo, Peterhof and the small Montplaisir Pavilion where, in June 1762, she spent her last night as the emperor’s wife before claiming the throne for herself. I went to St. Petersburg in June to experience the famous white nights of which I read so much.

The biggest surprise, I have to confess, was a visit to Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s famous museum on the Vasilievsky Island. The sight of deformed fetuses in glass jars, the strange art pieces Peter the Great brought from Amsterdam composed from human body parts, made a great impression on me. Once again I was reminded of the vast cultural gulf that separates us from the 18th century; the experience cautioned me to be keenly aware of the differences in our perceptions of the past, the sense of what is appropriate or not, what can be accepted and what is considered shocking.

Your next novel will continue the story of Catherine the Great. How will it differ from this one?

The Empire of the Night begins three months before Catherine’s death. She has been Empress for thirty-four years.  She has conquered her enemies and ruthlessly enlarged Russia’s territory. The King of Poland, her former lover, is now her prisoner. And then, on November 5th, 1796, she has a massive stroke. Paralyzed, speechless and totally helpless, for two days she is forced to witness her heritage denied and her cherished plans abandoned.

If THE WINTER PALACE tells the story of acquiring power, The Empire of the Night is the portrait of powerful woman who loses control over her world.

Interesting facts about Catherine the Great

Catherine (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst) was German, born in Stettin, Pomerania, (now Polish Szczecin) and came to Russia at fourteen to marry the Crown Prince. Intriguing facts about her include:

  • She was a prolific author of plays, journalistic pieces, letters, books for children, and translations (in addition to government decrees and her authorship of Great Instruction, a guide for Russian Legislative Commission)
  • In the Sevres dinner service for 60 ordered for Prince Grigory Potemkin, her “beloved nail-biter,” she was depicted as goddess Minerva.
  • She had no legal claim to the Russian throne.
  • She never left Russia—a coup was always a possible threat
  • She made Stanislaw Poniatowski (her Polish lover) the king of Poland, only to force him to abdicate thirty-one years later and annex one-third of his kingdom to Russia

 Pastimes/Preferences:

  • She loved playing billiards and cards (boston and macao)
  • She loved Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy (Fielding was a close friend of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, British ambassador to Russia and Catherine’s close friend)
  • She loved dogs, had a white squirrel whom she tamed herself as well as doves, parrots and many other birds.
  • She disliked music; she was probably quite tone deaf, and musicians were appointed to give her a sign when to applaud.
  • She collected art with a passion; her vast collection is the basis for Hermitage Museum
  • She was a consummate gardener
  • She was largely indifferent to food: boiled beef with pickled cucumbers was her favourite, and  cucumbers with honey.

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Eva Stachniak, Author Bio

Eva Stachniak was born in Wroclaw, Poland. She moved to Canada in 1981 and has worked for Radio Canada International and Sheridan College, where she taught English and humanities. Her first short story, “Marble Heroes,” was published by The Antigonish Review in 1994, and her debut novel, Necessary Lies, won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000. She is also the author of Garden of Venus, which has been translated into seven languages. Stachniak lives in Toronto, where she is at work on her next novel about Catherine the Great to be published by Bantam Books, The Empire of the Night.

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