Eva Stachniak: In search of Catherine's greatness

January 20, 2012

The orchid that Eva Stachniak bought at Costco six years ago has never stopped blooming since the day she put it on the sill of a sunny east-facing window at her home in Toronto's Little Poland neighbourhood, near High Park. Less colourful examples with more respectable provenances bloom intermittently on the same sill, but the Costco orchid is perennial.

Was it merely a coincidence then that the same influential retailer just bought several pallet loads of The Winter Palace, the novel Stachniak has spent most of that time writing? Or is there some cosmic charm at work?

Other Canadian writers may wonder. For although there may be greater literary honours available to them, there is no more reliable indicator of success than to be singled out by Costco. Good things follow.

With the Chapters/Indigo chain responding by ordering its own pallet loads, The Winter Palace became an official bestseller the week of its release. It is now No. 3 on The Globe and Mail's fiction list, just behind James Patterson and ahead of Tom Clancy. Backed by the international promotional power of the book's publisher, Random House, handsome U.S. and British editions quickly followed. Translations into Polish, German and Dutch are under way.

Clearly, the stars have aligned for Eva Stachniak, a Polish-born Canadian writer previously known – and only barely – as the author of Necessary Lies, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award 12 years ago. With The Winter Palace, her deep personal interest in the history of Eastern Europe has magically coincided with a worldwide surge of interest in her subject, Russian empress Catherine the Great.

Nobody appreciates that coincidence more than Stachniak, a dedicated researcher, who notes that there are currently eight English-language biographies of Catherine in print, with three appearing in the past three years. One, by Romanov specialist Robert Massie, is currently sitting at No. 6 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. But that's not news, according to Stachniak.

"Historians have always found Catherine fascinating," she says. "There was never a period of silence about her."

What's remarkable, she adds, is that no novelist has ever visited the legendary court of Imperial Russia's only female leader. Being a multilingual as well as a meticulous researcher, she is confident that The Winter Palace is the first of its kind in any language.

Why? "That's a very good question to which I have several suggestions, but maybe not an answer," the author replies, speaking idiomatic English as lightly accented as language can be. "I think the Iron Curtain stopped much more than people and movement," she speculates. "I think it also stopped stories from penetrating, and these stories are only beginning to emerge into the blend."

Catherine might just have been too big, too foreign for Western novelists to tackle, according to Stachniak. But for her, the project is almost personal. The families of both her parents originated in that part of Poland ultimately annexed by Catherine, and one of Stachniak's grandfathers was an officer in the Imperial Russian army. "This part of the world is close to me," she says. "I'm drawn to it and not daunted by it."

Equally compelling to Stachniak as a novelist was Catherine's personal story as a literally helpless immigrant who not only managed to assimilate into Russian culture but ultimately to dominate it. "You're German, you're 14, you arrive in Russia with four words of Russian and you decide, 'I'm going to become more Russian than the Russians,' " Stachniak marvels. "She was like this perfect CEO." And she far outshone all the native-born Romanovs who succeeded her.

Stachniak tells the immigrant's story through the voice of another immigrant, a Polish orphan girl employed as a servant and a spy in Catherine's court. It is not by accident that, in Stachniak's hands, the story of a mighty empire at its zenith borrows the template of a classic Canadian-style story of arrival.

Like her narrator, Varvara, Stachniak has devoted her adult life to decoding the secrets of a foreign culture. Emigrating in the wake of martial law being imposed in Poland in 1981, she completed a doctorate in English at McGill University and spent 25 years teaching communication at Sheridan College near Toronto, with "intercultural communications" a specialty and first love.

"When you come as an immigrant, you are always interested in communication," she says. "How do you tell your stories to be understood? How do you absorb the stories of the new culture? How do you interact with people from different backgrounds?"

The questions pour out, with the open-ended answers embedded in the warp and weft of Stachniak's fiction.

But "Catherine the immigrant" is only the beginning of the story she hopes to tell. The Winter Palace comes to an end soon after Catherine's coronation, well before the German immigrant girl became Great. While working to publicize her novel, Stachniak is finishing the first draft of a sequel.

There are "too many Catherines" to contain in one book, she complains happily. But as Stachniak has already demonstrated with her instantly popular first foray, there is also an insatiable appetite for them.

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