Friday 10 July 2020

Historical Fiction author, Ellen Alpsten, is talking about the inspiration behind her fabulous book — Tsarina #HistoricalFiction #Russia @EAlpsten_Author

An Author’s Inspiration

By Ellen Alpsten


As a student in Paris I worked as an assistant to the bestselling author Benoite Groult: her novel ‘Salt on my skin’ was a 90’s smash hit and she was a Parisian writer through and through: smoking like a chimney, wafting about in a huge ‘enfilade’ 7th arrondissement apartment, wearing oversized horn-rimmed glasses. She gave me some valuable advice - be serious about your writing!

Benoite Groult.

When I joined a Graduate Trainee Scheme in a big London PR agency, I hardly earned any money and I knew very few people: every evening, I sat and wrote. There is no excuse– if a story sears your soul, tell it! ‘Tsarina’ certainly was such a story: Catherine I of Russia – NOT Catherine the Great – rose from serf to Empress, while the country morphed from backward nation to beginnings of a superpower.

“Tsarina” is the most extraordinary rags-to-riches tale – of sex, power and ruthlessness - but also the story of the birth of modern Russia, of a rising Empire in turmoil and change, of the madness of war, the reckless brutality of absolute monarchy set against the colourful backdrop of the wild and passionate world of 18th century Russia, where nothing is as abundant and worthless as human life.

Peter the Great.

I came across ‘Tsarina’ when aged 13, reading ‘Germans and Russians’, which charted the millennial history of those two people, who despite two horrendous wars share a deep, mutual fascination. When I had matured to REALLY write, I realised that, incredibly, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel. Nothing! Like Tut-Ankh-Amun, she had always been there, but the Tsars before and after shed so much light, that she slipped into the shadows.

So, I got serious: I read for a year, until I felt ready describe her strange, sensuous, and shocking world, writing the opening sentence. My research ranged from watching experimental movies such as ‘Russian Ark’ to immersing myself into a 17th century German merchants Russian travel diaries and understanding the imaginary of Slavic fairy tales. By then, I wrote after my work as an anchor on breakfast TV - an incredibly stringent exercise: I got up at 2 am, was home by noon, napped, went for a run, wrote until 9pm, sleep, repeat. If ‘Tsarina’ is a piece of literary diplomacy, making more people understand Russia, I at times, felt overwhelmed by the sheer size of this technicolour tale – half a dozen books at least lay open next to my PC while writing.

‘Tsarina’s early days are shrouded in mystery, so Benoite Groult’s second advice came handy:

‘A protagonist has to sink low until we are happy for him/her to rise’.

History is not only about Kings and Queens. ‘Tsarina’s story is as contrasting as the Russian Soul itself, casually combining seemingly insurmountable opposites: callous cruelty and overwhelming empathy; overt hostility towards all things foreign, yet selfless hospitality to strangers; freezing, interminable winters - zima –, and the balmy summers’ white nights. She grew up in an izba, a rickety hut; she suffered every humiliation imaginable and lost her Baltic homeland, finding a new home in the Tsar’s heart. How? Every girl needs her secrets. Just so much: if Peter LOVED turning the world upside down, she certainly exceeded any brief, politically setting the scene for an unprecedented century of female reign in Russia.

So, there is a third advice: Keep going! The more I write, the more I see how hard it is on how many levels to write an accomplished novel. Finishing is a fantastic achievement, but the first draft is a drop in the ocean. Editing is schizophrenic - knowing the text by heart, but having to read it completely afresh, each time, many times: in the case of ‘Tsarina’, about 300 pages got the cull! Published today is the possibly 30th version of the manuscript; an early draft comparing to the first 1886 Mercedes Benz; the final book to a Bugatti Chiron. It is a writer’s responsibility to do his/her best – we owe that to the readers, who gives us their time, an ever-diminishing resource.

Do not ever give up. Getting published traditionally is artistically the hardest challenge. You look at a painting in one second. You listen to a song in three minutes. But convincing someone to read your 628-page tome about a forgotten Russian Empress? Hang in there. Nowadays, there are so many different, new ways to getting published, thanks to modern technology – promise to explore them all. So, finally: Follow your dream!


By Ellen Alpsten

Spring 1699

Illegitimate, destitute and strikingly beautiful, Marta has survived the brutal Russian winter in her remote Baltic village. Sold by her family into household labour at the age of fifteen, Marta survives by committing a crime that will force her to go on the run. A world away, Russia's young ruler, Tsar Peter I, passionate and iron-willed, has a vision for transforming the traditionalist Tsardom of Russia into a modern, Western empire. Countless lives will be lost in the process. Falling prey to the Great Northern War, Marta cheats death at every turn, finding work as a washerwoman at a battle camp. One night at a celebration, she encounters Peter the Great. Relying on her wits and her formidable courage, and fuelled by ambition, desire and the sheer will to live, Marta will become Catherine I of Russia. But her rise to the top is ridden with peril; how long will she survive the machinations of Peter's court, and more importantly, Peter himself?


Praise for Tsarina


"Makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme..."

Daisy Goodwin


"Alpsten's colourful narrative does full justice to her extraordinary career..."

Sunday Times


"A vivid page-turner of a debut..."

The Times





In the Winter Palace, 1725                                                                                                                                           

He is dead. My beloved husband, the mighty Tsar of all the Russias, has died – and just in time.  Moments before death came for him, Peter called for a quill and paper to be brought to him in his bed-chamber in the Winter Palace. My heart almost stalled. He had not forgotten, but was going to drag me down with him. When he lost consciousness for the last time and the darkness drew him closer to its heart, the quill slipped from his fingers. Black ink spattered the soiled sheets; time held its breath. What had the Tsar wanted to settle with that last effort of his tremendous spirit?  I knew the answer. 

The candles in the tall candelabra filled the room with a heavy scent and an unsteady light; their glow made shadows reel in corners and brought the woven figurines on the Flemish tapestries to life, their course faces showing pain and disbelief. Outside the door, the voices of the people who’d stood there all night were drowned out by the February wind rattling furiously at the shutters. Time spread slowly, like oil on water. Peter had pressed himself into our souls like his signet ring in hot wax. It seemed impossible that the world hadn’t careened to a half at his passing. My husband, the greatest will ever to impose itself on Russia, had been more than our ruler. He had been our fate. He was still mine.    

The doctors – Blumentrost, Paulsen and Horn – stood silently around Peter’s bed, staring at him, brow beaten. Five kopeks-worth of medicine, given early enough, could have saved him. Thank god for the quacks’ lack of good sense. 

Without looking, I could feel Feofan Prokopovich, the Archbishop of Novgorod, and Alexander Menshikov watching me. Prokopovich had made the Tsar’s will eternal and Peter had much to thank him for. Menshikov, on the other hand, owed his fortune and influence to Peter. What was it Peter had said when someone tried to blacken Alexander Danilovich’s name to him by referring to his murky business dealings? ‘Menshikov is always Menshikov, in all that he does!’ That had put an end to that. 

 Dr Paulsen had closed the Tsar’s eyes and crossed his hands on his breast, but he hadn’t removed the scroll, Peter’s last will and testament, from his grasp. Those hands, which were always too dainty for the tall, powerful body, had grown still, helpless. Just two weeks earlier he had plunged those very hands into my hair, winding it round his fingers, inhaling the scent of rose water and sandalwood.   ‘My Catherine’ he’d said, calling me by the name he himself had given me, and he smiled at me. ‘You’re still a beauty. But what will you look like in a convent, shorn, and bald? The cold there will break you, your spirit, even though you’re strong as a horse. Do you know that Evdokia still writes to me begging for a second fur, poor thing! What a good job you can’t write!’ he’d said, laughing.  

It had been thirty years since Evdokia had been banished to the convent. I’d met her once. Her eyes shone with madness, her shaven head was covered in boils and scabs from the cold and the filth, and her only company was a hunchbacked dwarf to serve her in her cell. Peter had ordered the poor creature have her tongue cut out, so in response to Evdokia’s moaning and laments, all she was able to do was burble. He’d been right to believe that seeing Evdokia would fill me with lifelong dread.  I knelt at Peter’s bedside and the three doctors retreated to the twilight at the edge of the room, like crows driven from a field: the birds Peter had been so terrified of in the last years of his life. The Tsar had called open season on the hapless birds all over his Empire. Farmers caught, killed, plucked and roasted them for reward. None of this helped Peter: silently, at night, the bird would slip through the padded walls and locked doors of his bedchamber. Its ebony wings blotted the light and in their cool shadow, the blood on the Tsar’s hands never dried. His fingers were not yet those of a corpse, but soft, and still warm. For a moment, the fear and anger of these past few months slipped from my heart like a thief in the night. I kissed his hands and breathed in his familiar scent of tobacco, ink, leather, and the perfume tincture that was blended for his sole use in Grasse. 

I took the scroll from his hand, it was easy enough to slide it out, although my blood thickened with fear and my veins were coated with frost and rime like branches in our Baltic winter. It was important to show everyone that I alone was entitled to do this – I, his wife, and the mother of his children. Twelve times I had given birth.  The paper rustled as I unrolled it. Not for the first time, I was ashamed of my inability to read and I handed his last will to Feofan Prokopovich. At least Menshikov was as ignorant as I. Ever since the days when Peter first drew us into his orbit and cast his spell upon us, we had been like two children squabbling over their father’s love and attention.  Batjushka Tsar, his people called him. Our little father Tsar. 

Prokopovich must have known what Peter had in mind for me. He was an old fox with a sharp wit, as comfortable in heavenly and earthly realms. Daria had once sworn that he had 3,000 books in his library. What, if you please, can one man do with 3,000 books? The scroll sat lightly in his liver-spotted hands now. After all, he himself had helped Peter draft the decree that shocked us all. The Tsar had set aside every custom, every law: he wanted to appoint his own successor and would rather leave his empire to a worthy stranger over an own, unworthy child. 

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Ellen Alpsten


Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, where she dressed up her many pets and forced them to listen to her stories.


Upon graduating from the 'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris', she worked as a news-anchor for Bloomberg TV London. While working gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV, she started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap and a run. So much for burning midnight oil! 

Today, Ellen works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. She lives in London with her husband, three sons, and a moody fox red Labrador.

'Tsarina' is her debut novel.


For more information about her literary life follow her on social media:

Website • Instagram • Facebook







1 comment:

See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx