I’m delighted to welcome as my guest today Eva Stachniak, bestselling author of the new novel The Chosen Maiden. I was fortunate to read an advance copy of it. It’s a wonderful read—Eva’s writing is tender, evocative, and immersive.
More about The Chosen Maiden:
Born on the road to dancer parents, the Nijinsky siblings are destined for the stage. Bronia is a gifted young ballerina, but she is quickly eclipsed by her brother Vaslav. Deemed a prodigy, Vaslav Nijinsky will grow into the greatest, and most incendiary, dancer of the early 20th century. To prove herself her brother’s equal in the rigid world of ballet, Bronia will need to be more than extraordinary, defying society’s expectations of what a female dancer can and should be. Based on true events, The Chosen Maiden will sweep readers from St. Petersburg and Kiev to London and Paris and plunge them into the riotous world of early 20th century legends like Anna Pavlova, Coco Chanel, Serge Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky, Bronia, fortified by grit and resilience that comes from ardent passion, must fight for her own place in a world that only wishes to see her fall.
An excerpt is posted from The Chosen Maiden here. I was fortunate to meet Eva at an authorly dinner organized by my friend Nancy Bilyeau, author of The Crown (read my interview with Nancy here). Eva and I instantly hit it off, so I was thrilled when she consented to chat with me about Bronia Nijinsky, her creative process, and her other novels.
Without further ado, here’s my interview with Eva. I hope you enjoy it!
Kris Waldherr: What was your initial inspiration that led you to writing about Bronia Nijinska for The Chosen Maiden? Can you describe the moment that made you say, “I must write this”?
Eva Stachniak: Empress of the Night, my second Catherine the Great novel, ends with the dying empress reflecting on her legacy. After I’ve finished writing it I began to explore the fates of her descendants at the time of the dissolution of the imperial Russia. Interesting as this research turned out to be, the Romanovs did not capture my imagination. But they did lead me to the Artists of the Imperial Theatres and, in turn, to the Nijinsky siblings!
Vaslav Nijinsky was the one I knew about—a brilliant dancer, a ground-breaking choreographer, whose career was cut short by mental illness—but it was only when I started reading about him that I realized he had a talented younger sister, Bronia. I promptly picked up her Early Memoirs, in which she promised: “to re-create for the reader my image of Nijinsky as a person and as an artist.”
She did much, much more. As soon as I finished reading Early Memoirs, I knew she was my heroine.
KW: I truly loved The Chosen Maiden. Your description of Bronia’s creative process felt so intimate and immersive, like I was there with her. One thing that especially struck me as I read: Bronia’s most abiding love was for her art, with her love for her family coming a close second. I found it refreshing to read about a woman’s devotion to her art, instead of to someone else’s art—a husband, a brother, or a parent. Yet it seems that many are more aware of Bronia as the sister of Vaslav Nijinsky than as a great artist in her own right. Why do you think this is the case? Was it simply that she was female? Or her life less scandalous compared to her brother, who went mad after being touted the most brilliant dancer of his age?
ES: There were quite a few reasons for Bronia’s relative obscurity. She was a woman and Ballets Russes where she was formed as a young artist was a male-centred world. Its famous impresario, Sergey Diaghilev, often told her, “What a great choreographer you’d be, if only you were a man.” The irony of this is that she was a great choreographer, and that such attitudes made her achievements less likely to be noted or appreciated. Then there was her personality: preoccupied with her artistic visions, she had little patience for publicity, diplomacy, charm or flattery, all so helpful in the fight for fame and recognition. She was also determined to fight for what she believed in, without compromises, characteristics not considered attractive in a woman. And yes, there was Vaslav’s shadow, too, his brilliance, his scandalous life, and his tragic descend into madness that added to his allure.
KW: A follow up question: For those unaware of Bronia’s creative legacy as a choreographer and dancer, what resources would you recommend (besides your wonderful novel, of course!)? Can you point us to videos of her dances?
ES: Unfortunately there is no original film footage of her dances or her ballets. Diaghilev forbade the filming of Ballets Russes performances—he thought the technology was too basic and only distorted the movements of his dancers—and Bronia herself believed he was right. What we have, however, are reconstructions of her and Vaslav’s choreography—some made with Bronia’s input as a consultant, some recreated from notes, descriptions, photographs, and the memory of those who witnessed them.
KW: Bronia’s career as a dancer and choreographer brought her into close contact with the artistic greats of her age: her brother Vaslav, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and others. Which artist did you especially enjoy writing about, or found the most surprising, during your research?
ES: I found Vaslav a compelling character: sensitive, fragile, immensely gifted and at the same time tragically vulnerable. Bronia believed that her brother had taught and inspired her more than anyone else. She thought of Vaslav as her other half, an artist with whom she was most in tune, even at the most difficult times when they quarrelled or accused each other of betrayal. I found this intense relationship between two artists particularly rich in meaning.
Sergey Diaghilev was also great fun to write about. He was so flamboyant, so dramatic in his manner, so complex, manipulative, devoted to his art, compulsively self-centred that he stole every scene he was part of, which would—of course—please him enormously. [KW note: I loved reading about him too!]
KW: Before The Chosen Maiden, you’d written two books about Russian empress Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night, both which were bestsellers. A novel about Bronia Nijinsky as a follow up after Catherine seems quite the departure, though both reveal fascinating slices of Russian history. What was it like to write about Bronia after Catherine? How were the women similar? Different?
ES: Bronia witnessed the end of Tsarist’s Russia, a series of traumatic events that determined the course of her life. As I was writing The Chosen Maiden I was reminded over and over again how the dissolution of Imperial Russia fostered experimental art. There is no coincidence that artists like Bronia and her brother Vaslav turned away from the imperial dance tradition and embraced the revolutionary changes that formed modern dance.
How do they compare as women? Both are strong and fiercely independent. Both had to force their way into a misogynous world that was stacked against them. Both were determined and single-minded in realizing their visions.
But, at the same time, Bronia didn’t have Catherine’s talent for politics and skillful manipulation. If she did, it might be Nijinska, not Balanchine, who would define post-war American ballet.
KW: Can you tell us a little about your creative process for writing fiction? Are you a “pantser” or “plotter”? Do you have any special tools, writing programs, or rituals you use? How do you incorporate your immersive research into your lyrical prose?
ES: Definitely much more of a “pantser” than “plotter,” intuitive and messy in my writing, awaiting moments when—after a long preparation—I begin to see and hear what I want to write.
For an intuitive “pantser” historical characters pose their own specific problems. They come with a list of events which demand to be incorporated into the story. If a character is well known to the readers, a writer has a bit more freedom, but with Bronia I knew I had to cover the milestones of her life: her childhood, her education as a ballet dancer, the years she spent in revolutionary Russia, or her escape from the Soviet Russia.
The Chosen Maiden—as you have noticed—also had an added difficulty, rich archival sources which often threatened to kidnap my imagination, order me to write what the historical Bronia may have wanted. To foster the fictional voice I needed I set myself the following tasks. The first one was to learn as much as I can about various characters from the Ballets Russes milieu—dancers, musicians, choreographers—so that any time my fictional Bronia recalls Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Karsavina, or Pavlova I know these characters well enough to make them alive.
As part of my my second task—developing my own understanding of ballet— I shadowed dancers and choreographers, asking questions, observing their artistic struggles, asking for their take on incidents in Bronia’s artistic life. This was a long process, but one that allowed me, in the end, to integrate my research and fold it into the writing. Create a fictional voice which incorporated both the essence of the historical woman and my own understanding of her.
The tools? I keep all my novel notes, research, observations, images in a Scrivener project, because it allows me to have all the material I am working with in one place. Scrivener, I also find, makes moving files around very easy and allows for cross references. It suits my messy process, lets me colour-code my scenes, notes, insights, group them in appropriate clusters, organize many drafts and keep track of the changes I make. [KW note: As an intuitive writer myself, I’m a huge Scrivener fan too. It makes it possible for non-linear thinkers to keep track of everything in one place.]
KW: As a novelist, what advice would you give to writers starting on the path? After writing and publishing five novels, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
ES: That novels are like children; each provides different challenges and demands different approaches. That it never gets any easier.
My advice is to write in tune with your own intuition. If your writing process thrives on careful plotting, plot. If more unstructured approach works, go for it. Look for ideas and characters that have buried energy for this energy will have to sustain you over many long months or years of work. Before you commit yourself to an idea know that it is strong enough not run out of steam.
KW: Finally, what are you planning for your next book? Will you return to writing about royalty, like Catherine the Great? Or is another arts-inspired novel in the works?
ES: I have some very preliminary ideas for the next novel. I want to return to the 18th century, to France this time, and create characters who are fictitious, although they will live in a historically accurate world. A bit like The Winter Palace where fictional Varvara spied for historical Elizabeth Petrovna and then Catherine. But this time the historical characters will remain in the background, while fictional characters will take centre stage. Beyond this I am not yet sure.
KW: Whatever you decide to write, I’m excited to read! Thank you for answering my questions so beautifully, Eva. 🙂
I hope you’re as inspired as I am by Eva’s words of wisdom. You can learn more about Eva and her books, read an excerpt from The Chosen Maiden, and purchase it here.