Blog tour: Tsarina

Welcome to the blog tour for Tsarina, Ellen Alpsten’s exciting debut novel, published by Bloomsbury. 

Shining the spotlight on one of history lesser known empresses, the storytelling in this book is amazing and I am happy to be able to take you behind the scenes through a Q&A with the author herself.

Hi Ellen! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Tsarina

A: Thanks so much, dear Silvia – so kind! I am incredibly excited about this launch and delighted with all the interest ‘Tsarina’ gets. I hope that no-one who reads her story shall ever forget her again, and that the book offers readers something on every level, touching them deeply. 

Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: 'Tsarina' - my UK/US debut novel – tells for the first time ever the extraordinary story of Catherine I. of Russia – NOT Catherine the Great – who rose from serf to Empress, while the nation morphed from backward nation to the beginnings of a modern superpower. 'Tsarina' is the most extraordinary rags-to-riches tale - sex, power and ruthlessness - but also the story of the birth of modern Russia, of a rising Empire in turmoil and change, of the madness of war, the reckless brutality of monarchy set against the colourful backdrop of the wild and passionate world of 18th century Russia, where nothing is as abundant and worthless as human life.

What made you decide to tell the story of Catherine I. of Russia?

A: I ‘discovered’ Catherine I. of Russia when aged 13 and reading ‘Germans and Russians’, charting the millennial history of those two people, who despite two horrendous wars share a deep mutual fascination for each other. When I had matured enough to REALLY write, I realised that, incredibly, there was no book about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel. Nothing! She is ‘my’ Tut-Ankh-Amun: who had always been there, but the Tsars before and after shed so much light, that she slipped into the shadows. Still, she set the scene for everything that was to happen politically thereafter – a century of female reign in Russia.

How much research did you have to carry out for this novel? Is that something you did before you even started writing or was it more of an ongoing process?

A: Both! The research was vast and writing ‘Tsarina’ an all-encompassing task. I read for almost a year before writing the opening sentence of ‘Tsarina’ – watching experimental movies such as ‘Russian Ark', immersing myself in the 17th century Russian travel diaries of a German merchant, trawling letters of foreigners at the Russian Court such as Mrs Rondeau, and, last but not least, devouring Prof. Lindsey Hughes’ FABULOUS tome 'Russia in the time of Peter the Great'. I also read Slavic fairy tales, which open up a people’s imaginary, helping me to dwell ever deeper into the strange, shocking, sensuous world that is the Russian history, and the Russian soul. Seemingly insurmountable contrasts are casually combined and lived out without any qualms. The time of writing, I always had a least half a dozen books lying one next to my PC! 

If your novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the roles of Marta and Tsar Peter I?

A: What a wonderful question – I SO hope that happens! I modelled my ‘Tsarina’ on the young Sophia Loren, a stunning, tall, strong-boned woman and ideally would like to find a fresh face for her, though visually Lili James comes close, her hair dyed dark? As Peter young and old I could imagine father and son Skarsgȧrd!

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: A scene I love is when Marta takes her fate in her hands and leaves Moscow on horseback. I admire how she pushes her luck, making things happen, even if it means playing her very last card, and risking it all. I accompany her mentally on her travels through a war-torn, western Russia and enjoy the suspense when she reaches her destination: has she taken things too far? More difficult I found the battle of Poltava – it is such a pivotal point of the Petrine history and quite ‘male’ in its appreciation. Yet Catherine always allowed me to give things a female, emotional twist. 

Is there anything that did not make it into the final version of the book?

A: More than anything! About 300 pages were culled in several rounds of brutal edits, which is schizophrenic work. You know the text so well, but have to read it completely afresh, each time. You, today, read the probably 30th version of the manuscript. An early ‘Tsarina’ draft compares to the first Mercedes Benz from 1886; the final, published book to a Bugatti Chiron. The responsibility to do my best, always, extends far beyond my agent, my editor, or my publisher. The person I owe most to is the READER. They give me their time, an ever-diminishing resource. 

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: Yes! I am unable to leave Catherine’s world, the Russian Baroque, and all aspects of that period behind. I have just finished writing a ‘Tsarina’ sequel, which I loved doing – it is once more about a Romanov and once more a very first novel proper about her. There is too much on Catherine the Great! The ‘Tsarina’ sequel is again a very modern book: my young heroine struggling to do things her own, admittedly hard way, blending her becoming who she is with Russian spirituality and soulfulness. Yet writing the follow-up was daunting: proving not to be a one trick pony can be harder than doing the first trick at all. I now draft book three of my Russian series. So many books to write, so little time! My paternal grandmother, whom I never met, was also a published author – unusual for her day – before she married and had six children, as it was in those days. What a joy to be a woman today, in this much more open, equal, and accepting world. 

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I have just finished ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ by Christy Lefteri and am now on ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ by Natasha Pulley. I am eagerly awaiting ‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel on my beloved overdrive app on my Kindle (if my son doesn’t nick it – he reads ‘The secret garden’ and ‘Travels to the centre of the earth’). 

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I am grateful for any interest there is in my work – there is such an overload, people getting bombarded all the time with bigger, better, brighter sensations. We all compete for an ever-shortening attention span. I actually like social media, news that inform, images that inspire, and people are curious about a ‘literary lifestyle’ – but, yes, it does infringe, eating into the scant working hours one has. Mostly, I write in the morning, with my mind fresh, and the ‘lid’ to the imaginary world - once I read the writing from the day before - opening easily. Emails, any postings, reaction etc. happen in the afternoon. 

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Be serious about your writing - and keep on going. Writing is a muscle that gets stronger when exercised. James Patterson wrote a self-confessed million words before his first novel got published. Stephen King wrote already as a ten-year old. Already finishing a novel is a tremendous achievement – well done! Today there are so many more ways to publication – explore them all. 

Many thanks for your time!


  1. Huge thanks for the blog tour support Silvia xx


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