Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in Profile: an interview with Ellen Alpsten

We may be in the middle of a global crisis, but there’s nothing in the rulebook to say you can’t continue your interview series during a worldwide pandemic.

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. Her first novel Tsarina, described as ‘Memoirs of a Geisha meets Game of Thrones’ is a page-turning epic, charting the untold story – the extraordinary rags-to-riches tale – of Catherine I. Tsarina is currently available in hardback and as an ebook from Amazon and in hardback from Waterstones.

We asked Aplsten why she was initially drawn to Catherine’s story, how she balances research with plot and which historical fiction novels we should all read during lockdown. 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live? What’s your background/lifestyle?

ALPSTEN

I was born in the highlands of Northern Kenya at the foot of mystical Mount Elgon, where life glows in Technicolor. My father is a vet, my mother taught at a local school. We had no TV, but we had a big garden, plenty of pets – amongst them a wounded Serval cat, a grumpy Polo pony called Calypso and at times even a baby crocodile. There were lots of books. I read, I drew, I wrote in my diary (recording things like: This morning there was a 9ft Python curled up in the tree above my swing.) My two elder brothers were away at boarding school, so I dressed up my four dogs and three cats and told them stories. The 70’s in Kenya were a pretty special time – the country was blossoming in a post-colonial growth spurt. Storytelling is also very popular in Kenya, as it is in most tribal traditions: memories and myths are passed on orally. Also, a tall tale was always appreciated around the campfire on safari or on an evening in when the rains came. At eighteen, I moved to Paris. It was love at first sight and was admitted to the ‘IEP de Paris’, which had schooled as diverse minds as Christian Dior and Emanuel Macron. I walked the city’s roads endlessly and wrote long diaries every day, noting small observations and big things – such as meeting my future husband, a handsome, warm, tall, funny, clever and upright Swede, in a Parisian Sunday market. 

Upon graduating I moved to London; my handsome Swede proposed the day I had my one-way Eurostar ticket to join a ‘Graduate Trainee Program’ of a big, international PR Agency.  I hardly earned any money and I had few friends. So, I started writing for real, in the evening, in my little room in a Hammersmith flat share. Very soon, I wrote shamelessly during work hours in the Agency as well – not surprisingly, I was the only graduate who was not offered a job. Instead, I joined a financial TV station as a producer and presenter – an incredibly stringent exercise: I got up at 2 am, was home by noon, napped, went for a run, wrote until 9pm, sleep, repeat. By the time I had finished Tsarina. I was exhausted and suffering from anxiety and depression. Today, we live in Petersham – I love the cows on the meadows who blissfully ignore the red double-decker bus – together with the Swede, my three sons and a moody, chubby fox-red Labrador girl. 

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you? 

ALPSTEN

As a writer the germ of a story can be found in many places, e.g. every morning I walk past this incredible houseboat lying on the river Thames. It looks like a pile of trash bound together with a piece of string, but it grows and morphs, with new boxes, containers etc added each week, like a ‘Babapapa’ house – who lives there, and why? How? What is their story? Curiosity and empathy are invaluable traits for a writer. I’m especially inspired by survivors – characters with an iron will interest me, regardless of their flaws. Marta’s need to carry on, to survive the darkest days, to never surrender has given me strength while writing it. Whatever fate throws at her, she deals with it, dusts herself off and sees the sun rise for another day, ready to be surprised by its gifts. I respect that and I think that even though Tsarina is a character from the 16th century, it’s a very modern lesson in taking control of one’s destiny.  

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love or do you have another passion?

APLSTEN

Writing is my first love, hands down. I wrote a first, atrocious novel aged 11 and then was always encouraged by teachers etc. I suppose two small breaks were starting to write for some of Germany’s biggest newspapers when I was 17, and later winning my Grande Ecole’s Short Story competition with the novella ‘Meeting Mr. Gandhi.’ I do not remember the plot, only that it rained a lot in the story. My husband was convinced that I HAD to be a writer; though I today think that there are more ways to happiness. I always loved fashion, too, and if I had fitted in a corporate career I would have loved to edit ‘VOGUE’ (who would not?)

INTERVIEWER

Tsarina is your debut novel and tells the story of Catherine I of Russia. What was it about Catherine that made you want to invest in her as a character? 

ALPSTEN

Catherine I is not Catherine The Great, but she set the scene for everything that was to follow politically: a century of unprecedented female reign in Russia! The fascinating story of Catherine I. of Russia  – from serf to Empress, from backward nation to superpower – had never left me, ever since I first read about her when aged 13 in ‘Germans and Russians’ by author Leo Sievers, charting the millennial history and the deep mutual fascination of those two people. One chapter in that book was devoted to Catharine I, and I never forgot her story. Who could? When I had matured enough to really write, I realized that, amazingly enough, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel, nothing. I do not want to write the umpteenth book about either Catherine the Great or the last Tsars; I wanted to tell a new story. I admit I have a soft spot for Cinderella stories – who doesn’t?  In the beginning, I was mesmerized by the 2D ‘elevator-pitch’ of her life’s story, but slowly, as those bare bones got fleshed out, there was a myriad of aspects to consider making the story realistic; no half-measures were possible: I completely fell for her. I did research for almost a year before I dared writing the book’s opening sentence, entering her strange, shocking and sensuous world.

INTERVIEWER

Hannah Rothschild has said Tsarina was ‘impossible to stop reading.’ How did you manage to balance research and historical detail with a page-turning plot? 

ALPSTEN

Even though my Russian is patchy at best, there are original and of course secondary sources galore, as such infinitely fascinating: My research ranged from watching experimental movies such as ‘Russian Ark’ to immersing myself into a 17thcentury German merchants Russian travel diaries and understanding the imaginary of Slavic fairy tales. Robert Massie’s and Henri Troyat’s biographies about Peter the Great, and, last, but not least, Prof. Lindsey Hughes of the London School of Slavonic Studies’ FABULOUS tome ‘Russia in the time of Peter the Great’. This turned out to be my bible as I encountered the Slavic Soul: seemingly insurmountable contrasts are casually combined and lived out without any qualms. This absoluteness is fascinating. In the end, I read for almost a year before writing my first word, immersing myself completely into this woman’s life and rise in the Russian Baroque. Perhaps that is why people ‘feel’ the book: it is stuffed to the brim with soul, detail, and truth – and an attempted answer to the question: So, what was her life really like? History is not only writing about kings and queens. A lot of early readers have particularly appreciated the early life of Tsarina: chasing the heroine on towards her destiny – and often the reader will stop and say: how on earth will this woman meet the Tsar – makes for pace and suspense. No character, no scene must be wasted. Everything is there for a reason. 

INTERVIEWER

Which historical fiction writers should we be paying attention to at the moment? 

APLSTEN

It is impossible not to name Hilary Mantel, of course, who combined her genius with a fresh look at an eternally fascinating story. But I also like Tracey Chevalier as well as German-born NYC-living writer Daniel Kehlmann. Both his ‘Tyl’ and ‘Measuring the World’ are fabulous and deliver on every level. I admire Barbara Kingsolver – her ‘Poisonwood Bible’ made me cry, as I understand that you can lose yourself to Africa in so many ways. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank screen to completed manuscript? Do you plan the plot before you write, or do you just dive in? 

ALPSTEN

I normally read, research and reflect until I have an idea for an interesting angle to kick off with – in Tsarina this is the Tsar’s unfinished last will. What is to happen, to whom shall the world’s largest and wealthiest realm and his absolute power fall? And I take it from there, having read a lot before I dare to write. Then things develop, characters get their own life, claim more attention etc. The necessity to keep things pacey and surprising forces you to plan to a degree. Five chapters from the end, I pinned up a note reading ‘how it all ends. The blank page holds no threat – it is better to write something, anything! You can always delete it later. Normally it helps to read what I wrote the day prior. The muse is a treasured employee who is required to appear every day 9.30 – 14.30! 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a writer? 

ALPSTEN

Yes, hugely. Who has not been touched deeply by a book, and its protagonist? Who has not at least one opening line to quote? I hope that no-one who reads Tsarina will remain untouched: I always try to do my best – the published version is probably the 30th draft of the manuscript. You could compare the novel’s early manuscript to the first Mercedes Benz from 1886, and the final one published today to a Bugatti Chiron. The responsibility to do my best extends far beyond my agent, my editor, or my publisher. The person I owe most to is the reader. Not only do they pay good money for my book, but, crucially, they give me something so much more valuable: their time, that ever-diminishing resource. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the first book that made you cry? 

ALPSTEN

As a child, ‘The Brothers Lionheart’ by Astrid Lindgren. So deep, spiritual and mythological, about the meaning of life and love. My 10-year-old just finished it and then came into my study for a long, silent hug. As an adult, I remember Kuki Gallmann’s ‘I dreamed of Africa’, which made me cry a great deal. What a sense of destiny, what tragedy – be careful what you ask for, it might be granted; everything comes at a price.

INTERVIEWER

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

ALPSTEN

It can be a quite lonely profession, yet still you bare your soul to a possibly – hopefully – vast audience. I could not write without immersing myself in the process. Tsarina is my horcrux! 

Last but not least, rather amusingly, if you have written a book some people assume you doing financially as well as JK Rowling – and ask rather shameless questions about it. 

They also find it hard to imagine that this is a steady profession: Often I get asked ‘How is the writing doing?’ I never ask, ‘How is the dentistry going?’ It is my profession, and has many facets, such as journalism, creative writing classes, editing advice etc. One has to develop many arrows to make a quiver. 

INTERVIEWER

Name a fictional character you consider a friend. 

ALPSTEN

Pippi Long-stocking. Very fetching how she just moulds the world like a piece of playdough until it resembles something she is pleased with! 

INTERVIEWER

Did getting published change your perception of writing?

ALPSTEN

Yes. The more I write, the more I see how hard it is on how many levels to write an accomplished novel – plot, prose, pacing. So, so tough and impossible to achieve in one single sitting. Finishing a novel 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, each time, many times: in the case of Tsarina, about 300 pages got the cull! Traditional publishing is also no charity – you need to sell. I think that the Corona-Crisis will also have a deep impact on the world of publishing, and on all its players. 

INTERVIEWER

Which book deserves more readers?  

ALPSTEN

The Bible. I am serious – the Old Testament is stunning, and full of heroes, villains, love, hate, trust, betrayal, princes and paupers. Story telling at its finest! Too few people have ever truly read the Book of Books. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any friends that are writers? If so, do you show each other early drafts?

ALPSTEN

No showing of early drafts, I am superstitious and fret and torment myself before sending anything away – it has to be the best I can do. But yes, one of my neighbours is a successful Psychological Suspense author and we support each other a lot, e.g. on agenting questions, what to expect from whom when, social media questions, tips and tricks, get togethers etc. It is such a strange, lonely profession in which you bare your soul, and quite schizophrenic at times. And yes, there can be a sense of competition, a certain: why not me? Impossible not to. We live our passion after all. 

INTERVIEWER

What is next for you? 

ALPSTEN

Researching Tsarina has led me deeper into all aspects of the Russian Baroque and the early Romanovs. I am now addicted to their company and have just finished writing a Tsarina sequel, which I loved doing – it is also about a Romanov and it is also the very first novel about that woman, which I like. There is too much on Catherine the Great! The Tsarina sequel is again a very modern book, about my young heroine fighting to do things her way. At the same time, the task of writing the follow-up was daunting: proving that you aren’t a one trick pony can be harder than doing the first trick at all. Next up will be a prequel – Fingers crossed!

QUICK FIRE ROUND!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

ALPSTEN

 Gone with the Wind – Scarlett is such a perfectly unsympathetic, egoistic and narcissistic yet fascinating heroine. She is very real! 

INTERVIEWER

Saturday night: book or Netflix?

ALPSTEN

Book. I only have a TV because my children insist! Also, endless fights and discussions precede any choice of movie / series.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?  

ALPSTEN

Critically acclaimed! ‘To Catch a Thief’ – witty banter, beautiful scenery, a secret soft spot for Cary Grant, a surprising twist in the end and Grace Kelly’s wardrobe. What is not to like?

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ALPSTEN

Certainly not singing! I envy people with a great voice though. What a gift. I dabble in painting and dream of following a portrait class, which I suppose is a colourful extension of writing., Every face tells a story. 

INTERVIEWER

Any embarrassing moments?  

ALPSTEN

Too many to tell! Pst!

INTERVIEWER

What is the best advice you ever received?

ALPSTEN

  …certainly the advice of a Parisian friend: shape-enhancing underwear and lights off. 

INTERVIEWER

Any reading pet peeves? 

ALPSTEN

Hm. I want a book to offer me something on every level – plot, pace and prose. That is a tall order. I am guilty of donkey ears to mark a page! 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a theme song?

ALPSTEN

 I Will Survive 

INTERVIEWER

Your proudest achievement? 

ALPSTEN

Keeping my marriage on the road – and my three sons! 

INTERVIEWER

Best advice for writers just starting out?

ALPSTEN

Keep going and explore all those new ways to publication. It’s 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.


  To find out more about Ellen, you can follow her on twitter. Tsarina is currently available in hardback and as an ebook from Amazon and in hardback from Waterstones.

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