Sherry Ficklin is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is Queen of Someday, a novel loosely based on the life of one of history’s best well known women, Catherine the Great. In this interview we discuss future Russian novels, Catherine’s transformation from naive teenager to powerful ruler and why history teachers hate her.
1. What made you want to write about Catherine the Great? Was there any particular moment in time when you learned about her life and thought “wow, I have to write about her” or was there some other inspiration?
Her history is just so fascinating. I mean, she started out as this fifteen year old German princess, a very poor princess at that, and managed to not just take over the Russian monarchy, but she won the heart of an entire nation. What kind of person could, would dare to, do that? I love strong women, so I knew right away I wanted to know more, and when I didn’t find what I was looking for, I decided to tell my own story.
2. At the very beginning of the novel, you mentioned that history teachers everywhere would hate you for changing history around. What were some of the reasons you decided to change the details of Catherine’s life?
The number one reason was timing. The events in her life, while amazing, were spread out over several decades, I sort of squeezed it in so the majority of it happens in a five year period. That tossed many of the historical dates out the window.There are a few other things, for one an illness that I present as a poisoning. I wanted to show the reader the dangers around her in way that was more blatant than it probably actually was. Everything in that time was so subtle, I really had to punch some things up for the sake of keeping the narrative moving, so what would have been veiled threats in reality, became outright confrontations in fiction.
3. In your novel, Sophie transforms from the relatively sheltered, innocent girl into the somewhat cynical, occasionally ruthless woman that would turn into Catherine the Great. What was your greatest challenge in writing about such a drastic transformation in less than 300 pages?
The big thing for me was that every choice she had to make had to be justified, at last in her mind. It was a progression of cause and effect. For me she was always just a girl trying to do her best.
4. What is your research process like?
I read several books, took virtual tours of the palaces online, and have swatches of fabric, dress patterns, and various other things form the period. It was exhausting and painstaking. Even things that never made it into the book are in my notes. Like the “Rank” structure of her ladies in waiting. There was never a good place to introduce it without bogging down the story, but it’s all in my head.
5. Once you finish the Stolen Empire series, do you see yourself returning to Russian history for more inspiration? Or are there other countries/time periods you would like to explore?
I will never say never, thought I think that Sophie’s story will be done. I have very recently become very enamored with the Empress Elizabeth, Sophie’s predecessor. She has an interesting and suitably brutal history, that always draws me in. We will see.
6. There are some very emotional scenes in your novel, particularly toward the end. As a writer, how do you strike a balance between ’emotional’ and ‘sappy’?
That’s funny, because I always felt Alexander was very sappy, but it’s part of his personality. He’s a romantic, and that wasn’t uncommon at the time. I suppose you just have to let the scene play out, and try to balance it out as needed.
7. Do you have any hints for us about Queen of Tomorrow or other future projects?
I will say Queen of Tomorrow sees a more mature Sophie. She’s finally got her hands on the life she wants, and she’s not willing to relinquish it. There are some new faces, and some old ones that return, and there’s also a real darkness that we didn’t see in book one. The stakes are much higher for Sophie and there’s a great deal of violence that forces her hand in some ways. I will also say that you will both love and hate Peter even more after book 2.