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 over-sized horn-rimmed glasses. She gave me some valuable advice – be serious about your writing!
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; of 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.
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 had slipped into the shadows. So, I got serious: I read for a year, until I felt ready to describe her strange, sensuous, and shocking world. 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, at times I 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 a second piece of advice by Benoite Groult’s came in 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 piece of 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 many times. In the case of ‘Tsarina’, about 300 pages got the cull! Published today is possibly the 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 get published – promise to explore them all. Follow your dream.
Ellen Alpsten was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, before attending L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. Whilst studying for her Msc in PPE she won the Grande École short story competition with her novella Meeting Mr. Gandhi and was encouraged to continue writing. Upon graduating, she worked as a producer and presenter for Bloomberg TV in London.
She contributes to international publications such as Vogue, Standpoint and Conde Nast Traveller. Tsarina is her first novel. She lives in London with her husband and three children