#AuthorInterview: C.W. Gortner on The Romanov Empress

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Christopher. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about The Romanov Empress.
The Romanov Empress tells the story of Maria Feodorovna, mother of Tsar Nicholas II. Known in her family as Minnie and born as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she wed into the Romanov dynasty and became tsarina, then Dowager Empress when her son took the throne. Minnie bore extraordinary witness to the final years of the Romanovs, living through the last three reigns, including her husband’s and son’s. She’s less well known today than the ill-fated Nicholas II and his family, yet her life was full of drama, tragedy, and tumult. Most of the Romanovs had very little idea about, or much care for, how dire things were in their country, but of all of them, Minnie was probably the most aware; she was one of the few in a position of privilege who sought to improve the plight of the poor and advocate for change. She was a complex and fallible woman; I loved writing about her.

At risk of sounding impertinent, where did you find this story? Did it strike like lightning out nowhere or was it an idea that grew over time?
It actually came about by accident. I’d always wanted to write about the Romanovs and had originally decided on another character. Not surprisingly, given that character’s real-life personality, the writing wasn’t going well, but every time Minnie appeared (at the time, she was a secondary character) my writing came to life. I finally realized I should be writing about her, instead. To inhabit a character, I must hear her voice. I heard Minnie’s rather than the character I’d chosen, which turned out to be a fortunate discovery. Her point of view is rarely depicted, allowing me to portray a more encompassing view of events. Minnie experienced firsthand the years of discord and agitation against Imperial rule that led to the 1917 Revolution. She also had family and friends outside of Russia and brought a broader sense of the world to the novel.

Maria’s rivalries with both Maria Pavlovna (her sister-in-law) and Alexandra Feodorovna (her daughter-in-law) are intrinsic components of the narrative. Why did you hone in on these particular relationships?
Because relationships in conflict often create history. History doesn’t occur in a vacuum; people make history happen. Minnie and Maria Pavlovna’s “frenemy” relationship was one of the most interesting to me; both foreign brides who wed into the Romanov family, and of opposing nationalities, they had such different approaches to life. Yet they became friends of sorts, because they recognized that both were indomitable. As for Alexandra, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, I realize she’s venerated by many; the execution of the Imperial family was one of the most defining, terrible events of the early 20th century. But in life, Alexandra was quite difficult. She had a distorted sense of the world and her place in it; she wasn’t equipped emotionally to cope with the demands of her rank—and Minnie knew it. There’s plenty of evidence that the Dowager Empress and the tsarina were antithetical, so it was important to highlight this because it drove an unsurpassable wedge between the tsar and his mother, on whom Nicholas had relied almost exclusively for advice. Alexandra was one of the key players in the downfall of the Imperial house, not intentionally, but through her inability to recognize the catastrophe brewing around her, some of it caused by her own actions.

Maria Feodorovna is not as well-known to modern readers as her son and his family. What do you hope readers take from their experience of this fictional account of her life?
First of all, I hope readers enjoy reading about her. I’m a novelist, so my primary goal is to entertain. But I also love history, so I hope readers will learn something about the circumstances that led to the demise of the Romanovs, as well as the personalities involved. We tend to think of the Russian Revolution as an isolated, abrupt upheaval; in truth, it was the inevitable culmination of centuries of blind privilege and unwillingness to change. Minnie wasn’t an exception, in that she upheld the notion of the tsar’s divine right to rule, but she also had a vital perspective that went unheeded. Her efforts to prevent the chaos are underappreciated, in my opinion. And through her eyes, we see a very different portrait of the Romanovs than is usually portrayed. I wanted to go beyond the popular mythology. While some of my conclusions may be controversial, they’re supported by factual evidence.

The Romanov family was very fond of their pets and you managed to include many authentic cameos throughout the narrative. I was delighted to discover such attention to detail and wanted to ask why you felt this theme so important.
Well, I too love animals and always try to include them in my books when the historical evidence supports it. And the Romanovs were well known for their love of animals, despite their hunting practices. They had many beloved pets, like Minnie’s spaniel, Beauty, and later, Alexei’s spaniel, Joy. Minnie founded the first chapter of the Russian Humane Society; she was an ardent supporter of compassion toward animals. I felt this trait among the Romanovs gave them humanity and also complexity; they’ve been accused, rightfully so, of being insensitive to the millions of people suffering in Russia under their rule yet they had this very human love and care for their companion animals.

Do you have a favorite scene in The Romanov Empress?
One of my favorites is the scene between Minnie and Alexandra, when Minnie visits the family after Alexei has been ill, and mother and daughter-in-law sit down for tea in an atmosphere of tension. Minnie has just met Rasputin in passing and spent time with her granddaughter Anastasia, who was often said to most resemble the Dowager Empress in character; Minnie is angry at Alexandra’s unfathomable attitude, but in that scene, we witness the quiet, unending suffering that the tsarina endures because of her son’s illness and the grief Minnie also carries over the loss of two of her children. In that moment, these women who cannot see eye-to-eye should bond over their shared sorrow, but they fail to find common ground. The scene really defines their relationship.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Romanov Empress?
So many. I always say, real life is full of infinite details, while a novel is finite. You only have so many words to tell your story. I would have liked to delve further into ancillary characters, particularly Grand Duke Sergei, whose torment over his homosexuality fueled his astringent personality. Sergei really captured me as a novelist. We don’t often consider how a gay Imperial grand duke had to hide who he was and how that would have warped his personality. Sergei and Ella’s marriage would have been so interesting to explore; she truly loved him even though he treated her callously, probably because he resented that he’d had to marry. He was known to carry on clandestine relationships with men throughout their marriage, yet he could never be honest about it.

If you could sit down and talk with a member or members of the cast of The Romanov Empress, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you invite and why?  
Minnie, without a doubt. And Marie Pavlovna, or Miechen, as she was known. To have them in the same room and be able to ask them about their feelings about the family, the events that led to the downfall . . . it would be incredible. I also think meeting Prince Felix Yusopov would be fascinating. What a life he led.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big screen adaptation of The Romanov Empress, who would you cast?
Gosh, I never think about it. Isn’t that weird? I know a lot of writers do. Hmm . . . For Minnie, it would have to be an actress with range, as she goes from being a very young woman to a much older one in the course of the book. Someone like Rachel Weisz would be ideal for Minnie. Petite and dark, and strong-willed. For Sasha, her husband, we need a powerful presence: Joel Edgerton, perhaps? For Nicholas II, an actor like Jude Law or Jake Gyllenhall, you need a lean man who can brood and carry a beard! Alexandra would be difficult to cast, but I think Rosamund Pike could capture her. Fun to think about, but also tough, as I see these characters so distinctly in my mind.

What next for you? Do you have another project in the wings?
I’m writing a novel about Sarah Bernhardt, the French theater actress who created a sensation in Belle Epoque Paris and the world at large. My new book will tell the story of her rise to fame, her youth as the neglected daughter of a Jewish courtesan, her struggles to become an actress, and how her bohemian lifestyle and extravagant love affairs mythologized her as the world’s first international celebrity. Publication is scheduled for 2020.

Thank you for inviting me. Readers can always visit me at: www.cwgortner.com


“A sweeping saga that takes us from the opulence and glamour of tsarist Russia to the violent, tragic last days of the Romanovs. Brave and inspiring, Maria Feodorovna confronts assassinations, the Rasputin affair, and the Russian revolution. C. W. Gortner breaks new ground here, skillfully painting an intimate, compelling portrait of this fascinating empress and her family.”—Stephanie Dray, New York Times bestselling co-author of America’s First Daughter

“The Romanov Empress has all the glitter and mystery of a FabergĂ© egg. The waning days of a doomed dynasty are recounted by the vivacious but tough Danish princess who would become one of Russia’s most revered tsarinas, only to see her line end in war and revolution. Gortner pens a beautiful tribute to a lost world, weaving a tale as sumptuous as a Russian sable.”—Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Alice Network

“From her unique vantage point, Maria Feodorovna transports readers through decades of the most turbulent and dramatic events of modern history, from the last glorious days of the Russian tsars to the violent triumph of the Bolsheviks. This absorbing and poignant novel will leave everyone who reads it with a new fascination about the last days of the Romanovs.”—Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sister

“A vivid, engaging tale of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Russia’s last tsar, her loves and her heartbreaks, bringing the troubled final decades of the Russian empire to life.”—Eva Stachniak, author of The Winter Palace



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