|Award-Winning Author Candace Fleming|
Lee: First off, congratulations on your second Golden Kite for Nonfiction, for “The Family Romanov!” What was it about the Romanovs and the fall of Imperial Russia that drew you to want to invest the time in telling this story?
Candace: I first read Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra the summer between my 7th and 8th grade year after pulling it off my mother’s bookshelf.
“You’re not going to like that,” she warned. “It’s pretty dense history.” She was right. It was dense, but I loved it! Imperial Russia (and its demise) intrigued me. I was hooked.
That sense of curiosity has stuck with me over the years. I’ve read dozens of books on the topic. I’ve watched documentaries and gone to museum exhibits. And I can recite – seriously – whole passages from Dr. Zhivago.
But I’d never considered writing about the Romanovs until five years ago. That’s when students in middle schools – mostly girls -- suddenly started asking if I knew anything about Anastasia Romanov. I would visit a school and inevitably during the question-and-answer period of my presentation a hand would wave wildly in the air. No matter that I’d come to talk about Eleanor Roosevelt or Mary Lincoln. Time and again I found myself talking about Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter. Why the sudden interest in Anastasia? I finally found the answer. Those students had seen the animated movie, Anastasia, and realized it was based on a nugget of truth. But what was that truth? They longed to know. And they hoped I could tell them. Sadly, in the little time allotted, I really couldn’t – not enough anyway. And so I began to conceive of a book for them, one that would reveal the truth about Russia’s last imperial family.
Lee: Were there surprises for you as you dug deeper into the history?
Candace: There were so many surprises. Still, I think the most startling came during my trip to Russia and the Alexander Palace. In none of my sources had anyone mentioned how close the palace sat to the front gate. I’d assumed it was somewhere in the middle of the park, away from prying eyes. Not so. The tall, main gate with its golden, double headed eagle opens directly onto the palace’s circular driveway. Every day the family could look through its iron grillwork to the town of Tsarskoe Selo just on the other side. It gave me pause. The family was so close to it’s people. They were right there, just on the other side of the gate. The Romanovs could look out their windows and see them. They could hear their people’s voices from the palace balcony. They could smell their cooking and their livestock. They really weren’t as physically removed from the people as primary sources had led me to believe. It gave me pause. Why, I wondered, didn’t the Romanovs feel more attachment to their subjects? The question led me down entirely new paths of thought. And it eventually led to the book’s inclusion of first hand worker and peasant accounts under the title, “Beyond the Palace Gates.”
Lee: Adding those was really powerful. There’s so much stunning detail, and connections you draw, like the number of stairs to a fateful end, mirroring the number of years Nicholas II ruled… 23. With mountains of material to explore, how did you decide what to include, and what to leave out?
Candace: Oh, I left so much out -- so many vivid details, so many amusing, or poignant or heartbreaking anecdotes. In fact, the first draft of this book was a whopping four hundred pages long, filled with scenes like this one:
On a bright autumn morning in November, 1895 Tsar Nicholas’ first child, Olga, was christened in a ceremony befitting her position as “Her Imperial Highness the Grand Duchess.” At 10:45 a.m., a procession of crimson and gold carriages carrying members of the extended Imperial Family – aunts, uncles, cousins -- rolled through the park at Tsarskoe Selo. Soldiers in silver breastplates and scarlet tunics lined the route as the carriages passed over arched bridges and down wide lanes. At the end of the line, came the golden carriage carrying the little grand duchess. Regally, it made its way to the chapel in the Catherine Palace.It’s a pretty good scene, I think. Not only does it show the Romanov’s world of wealth and privilege, but also it foreshadows their tragic end. And yet this scene never made it into the book. I cut it. Why? Because the vital idea of my book-- the reason for telling this particular tale from history -- was to explain the “why” behind imperial Russia’s demise. Since this scene doesn’t speak directly to that vital idea, it had to go. So did dozens of other scenes. That first draft underwent some heavy-handed and painful pruning. I am not exaggerating when I say some cuts brought tears to my eyes. But a nonfiction writer has to carefully evaluate every detail and scene. Ultimately, if it doesn’t move the story forward, it has to go. The story determines what material is included.
A flourish of trumpets heralded its arrival. Inside, the chapel was already crowded with members of the nobility and the court - the men in full dress uniform their chests covered with medals, the woman in lace and satin and sparkling with jewels. Only the tsar and empress were absent (Russian Orthodox custom forbade parents from attending the baptism of their child).
Princess Marie Golitsyn – the tsar’s elderly cousin --stepped from the carriage. Having been given the honor of carrying the infant to the baptismal font, the princess came prepared. To keep from dropping the baby, the satin pillow on which she lay was attached to a thick gold band tied around the Princess’ shoulders. And to keep her feet from slipping on the polished marble floors, pieces of rubber had been glued to the soles of her slippers. Cautiously, the cushion balanced precariously, the elderly woman moved toward the chapel’s gold-inlaid altar.
Father Yanishev was waiting. Through clouds of sweet-smelling incense, the priest lifted the infant from her cushion. After removing her white-lace christening gown, he plunged her into the sacred – but cold – water of the baptismal font three times.
The tiny Grand Duchess howled her outrage.
Ignoring her cries, the priest clipped the infant’s downy hair in the shape of a cross. Rolling the clippings in wax, he tossed them into the baptismal font. According to church custom, if the hair sank the child’s life would be one of good fortune. If it floated, sorrow awaited.
What would Olga’s fate be?
All eyes were fixed on the font as the hair slowly circled to its bottom. A murmur rippled through the congregation. Good fortune, of course. What else would await the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II?
Lee: Wow. It's amazing to read that, and to hear why it didn't make the cut. Nonfiction often has a different traditional publishing process than fiction. Was this book sold with a proposal, or did you write the whole thing first before your agent sent it out?
Candace: The answer is neither. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ve never written a proposal for any of my nonfiction books. Honestly? I don’t even know how to write a proposal. Instead, I’m blessed with an incredibly trusting editor who -- after twenty years of working together -- will write me a contract based on an idea. Yes, I do know how lucky I am.
Lee: And we've all gotten some amazing books out of that, too! Any advice to offer other writers of nonfiction?
Candace: Here are three ways to create gripping nonfiction for kids.
1. Write in scenes. Recreate worlds by describing more than just how things look. Sounds, smells, temperature and even textures of objects are all important. Have the people in your scenes talk to one another and interact with one another, or the narrative will feel lifeless. Make sure your reader knows how your “characters” are feeling above events depicted in your scenes. Don’t forget, however, that all this must be completely accurate. Every detail, every emotion, every quote or piece of dialogue must have a source, if not several.
2. Research. Research. Research. While researching, don’t look for the answers. Instead, look for the questions. When I began The Family Romanov, I read endless firsthand accounts of life in the palace written by former courtiers and diplomats. Then I read Maxim Gorky’s autobiography and I realized how profoundly different life was for 97% of the country’s population. My question was: what would it be like to live in a country where the government did nothing to help its starving, uneducated people? The research, which sprang from my research, began my research. So… explore the subject. Follow tangents. Be open to the material and willing to question it.
3. Finally, write the stories that captivate you. These are the ones you should be telling. Don’t worry about common core or school curriculums. Share your passion with young readers.
And thank you, Candace, for sharing your passionate nonfiction with all of us!
If you'd like a chance to win a copy of "The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & The Fall of Imperial Russia," leave a comment on this post. A week from the publication date we'll randomly choose one winner. Good luck!
Candace will be on faculty at the upcoming 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles, July 31-Aug 3. We hope you can join us to cheer her on and attend her breakout workshops, "Seven Simple Fixes for the Picture Book Text" (with Eric Rohmann) and "Five Secrets To Writing Narrative Nonfiction."
You can find out more about Candace and all her books at her website here.
Illustrate and Write On!