Mother of Russia’s last tsar springs to life in Gortner’s ‘The Romanov Empress’
By Lou Fancher
San Francisco author C.W. Gortner’s diverse background seems to have perfectly groomed him for the literary genre combining historical facts with dramatic storytelling that, after 10 novels, has become his stock in trade.
Raised in both the United States and Spain by an architect father and a Spanish mother who were avid readers, Gortner, 54, exhibited a childhood fascination with history and literature that ultimately led to him getting a master’s degree in writing with an emphasis on Renaissance studies from the New College of California. He also, mindful of the importance of accurate details, had managed to secure an associate’s degree from San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and pursued an 11-year career in fashion.
But Gortner’s crowning influences are, improbably, receiving more than 30 rejection letters, despite having had what he says were “great agents and an editor who just couldn’t convince his imprint to publish” his first book. Instead, a determined Gortner formed a company, learned Photoshop to design the book and self-published “The Secret Lion” in 2006. Among his best-selling novels bearing top publishers’ imprints today are “The Vatican Princess,” based on the life of Lucrezia Borgia, and “Mademoiselle Chanel.”
All of which comes firmly into play in Gortner’s new novel, “The Romanov Empress,” (Ballantine Books, $28, 448 pages). “I’m just a writer who wouldn’t take no for an answer. I don’t consider myself an overnight success. It took perseverance,” Gortner says in an interview. “Getting published is keeping working, honing your craft and not breaking apart in the face of rejection.”
“Empress” tells the story of Maria Feodorovna, the Danish Princess Dagmar, also known by her nickname Minnie, who falls in love with Tsarevich Nixa, son of Tsar Alexander II and heir to the Russian throne. After their engagement, Nixa contracts meningitis. His dying wish is for his brother Sasha to wed Minnie. They marry and have three children, among them Nicholas, who becomes after Sasha’s oppressive rule and tragic death, the highly unprepared last tsar of a country filled with strife. A disintegrating aristocracy faces impoverished peasants, nihilists, Bolsheviks, bombings, incipient Nazism, failed and successful assassinations and more.
The book’s love stories overlay real life history like shadowy lace, as Romanov marriages and relationships encounter bonding, betrayals, births and deaths. Minnie’s bold-for-the-time support for weak or wounded people in Red Cross hospitals and public forums clashes with darker forces: homophobia, an intense dislike for Alexandra, her daughter-in-law—and Rasputin, a mystic who threatens the empire.
Gortner says he prefers controversial women as protagonists. Writing in first person as a woman, he says, is “innate” and until recently, not something he or other people questioned. “Maybe it comes from being under the coffee table playing when my mother met with her friends,” he says. As he listened to their conversations, he developed a belief that female friendships are deeper than male friendships. Nevertheless, he adds that he understands doubts about a male channeling the female voice. “We’ve become conscious of appropriation,” he says, “and it’s a good thing. We need to be sensitive to that.”
Gortner has his reasons for favoring female voices and themes. “A lot of history is written by men for men, so women often did not have their say. It’s always the evil queen, the fanatic, the slut. They’re pigeonholed, and I always rebelled against that. Partially, I like to give women a voice. I don’t care if readers like my characters. I want them to understand them, empathize, even if they don’t like them.”
Extensive research is a task he doesn’t resent, but it can get complicated, he says. After reading thousands of pages—letters, journals, biographies, archival reports and records—he’s often confronted with opposing facts. “It’s like a big unshaven lump of clay,” he notes. “The process shapes it into a crude figure, which the writing polishes and perfects. I get a sense of my time and character and start working. If I hit a wall, I need to do more research. Things come up—did they ride in a carriage or on a horse? Then you have to do more research.”
When the writing clicks, it’s a combination of imagination and authenticity. “Who doesn’t love bling?” Gortner asks about the jewelry that plays a major role in the book. But history isn’t to be manipulated simply to attract readers. “If connecting a woman from the past to women of today is your goal, you’ll run into trouble. If you create an understanding of her times and the way she saw it, you’ll make connections, because there are universal things. Love of children, animals. Minnie can’t be a modern women in a frock, storming down the hall shouting about women’s rights during the industrialization of Russia. She wouldn’t have seen herself as a feminist, because the term doesn’t apply. You don’t want to bulldoze the history, but to work around it so it becomes less opaque.”
Gortner says his omnivorous childhood reading included some terror-inducing adult books (William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist”), which his mother counteracted by presenting him with Jean Plaidy’s historical novels. Her books, he says, made history come alive and were “far better than the three TV stations we got in Spain that were stuck in the 1940s and went off the air at 3 in the afternoon.” Contemplating his novel’s potential for the silver screen, he says “Hollywood’s tough, but there’s a huge Romanov fan base, so it’d be great. Rachel Weisz is my dream cast for this character, definitely.”
Gortner’s next novel, scheduled for publication in 2020, is about French theater actor and controversial celebrity, Sarah Bernhardt.