August 10, 2014

The Family Romanov Blog Tour: Author Interview + Giveaway

Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming! Today I have a great interview with the author to share with you - and don't forget to enter the giveaway for a chance to win your own copy! (Giveaway open to US only!)

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
Genre: Nonfiction/History
Release Date: July 8, 2014
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade 


“[A] superb history.... In these thrilling, highly readable pages, we meet Rasputin, the shaggy, lecherous mystic...; we visit the gilded ballrooms of the doomed aristocracy; and we pause in the sickroom of little Alexei, the hemophiliac heir who, with his parents and four sisters, would be murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.” —The Wall Street Journal

Here is the tumultuous, heartrending, true story of the Romanovs—at once an intimate portrait of Russia's last royal family and a gripping account of its undoing. Using captivating photos and compelling first person accounts, award-winning author Candace Fleming (Amelia Lost; The Lincolns) deftly maneuvers between the imperial family’s extravagant lives and the plight of Russia's poor masses, making this an utterly mesmerizing read as well as a perfect resource for meeting Common Core standards.

"An exhilarating narrative history of a doomed and clueless family and empire." —Jim Murphy, author of Newbery Honor Books An American Plague and The Great Fire

"For readers who regard history as dull, Fleming’s extraordinary book is proof positive that, on the contrary, it is endlessly fascinating, absorbing as any novel, and the stuff of an altogether memorable reading experience." —Booklist, Starred

"Marrying the intimate family portrait of Heiligman’s Charles and Emma with the politics and intrigue of Sheinkin’s Bomb, Fleming has outdone herself with this riveting work of narrative nonfiction that appeals to the imagination as much as the intellect." —The Horn Book, Starred

1. What inspired you to write The Family Romanov?

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! And 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 invariably during the question-and-answer period of my presentation a hand would start waving wildly in the air. No matter than I’d come to talk about people from American history. Time and again I found myself talking about Tsar Nicholas II’s youngest daughter. Why the sudden interest in Anastasia? I finally got the answer from them. They’d seen the animated movie, Anastasia, and they 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. The Family Romanov is my answer to those middle schoolers’ questions.

It’s also the answer to mine. Once I decided to write the book, I set out to discover the true story of what happened to Russia’s last imperial family. Sure, I was aware of the facts surrounding their murder. I knew about their bodies’ discovery and the results of DNA testing. But the facts didn’t tell the whole story. I suspected there was more. After some reading and research, I came to realize, more than anything, that I needed to find the answer the question that kept nagging me: How did this happen? How did this rich, splendidly privileged family related by blood or marriage to almost every royal house in Europe end up in that Siberian cellar? Something had gone terribly wrong. But what? What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas and Alexandra could have done to change their fate? These were the questions I set out to answer. But doing so, I realized, required a wider lens. I would need to look beyond the Romanovs and their fairy-tale existence and examine the lives of the lower-class Russians – peasants and workers, revolutionaries and soldiers. The result? A book that weaves three strands. The first is an intimate look at the Romanovs themselves. The second follows the sweep of the revolution from the workers’ strike of 1905 to Lenin’s rise to power. And the third – told in their own words – is the personal stories of the men and women whose struggle for a better life directly affected the course of the Romanov’s life.

It’s a big, big story -- compelling, heartbreaking and, at times, downright weird. Imagine this: The Russian royal family is living a fairy-tale existence. The richest man on the planet, Tsar Nicholas II owns one-sixth of the world’s land, thirty palaces, gold and silver mines, five yachts, an endless collection of priceless painting and sculpture, two private trains, countless horses, carriage and cars, and vaults overflowing with precious jewels. The Romanovs have it all! But Nicholas is a man of limited political ability. He’s simply not suited to rule Russia. And his wife, Alexandra, is held spellbound by a charismatic, self-proclaimed holy man named Rasputin. She believes Rasputin can save her hemophiliac son, Alexei, from bleeding to death. Desperate, she will do anything – anything -- including handing over the reins of power to the evil monk. Meanwhile, in the palace there also lives four, beautiful grand duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Marie and Anastasia. But they are kept isolated from the world by their paranoid and overprotective parents. They don’t attend balls or banquets. They don’t have any friends their own age, or suitors, as they grow older. The have only each other. Living in this bubble stunts them emotionally. Even at age twenty, Olga giggles like a schoolgirl and blushes when she sees an onscreen kiss. And with all this craziness going on inside the palace gates, no one is paying any attention to the dark clouds that are gathering outside them. Starving, war-weary Russians are tired of Nicholas and Alexandra’s inept rule. They revolt, and the Romanov’s fairy tales lives come crashing down, leading to ninety days in captivity… a horrific and bloody mass murder… hidden bodies and rumors of escaped princesses. Awesome, right? And every word is true, just as those middle-schoolers demanded.

2. What kind of research did you have to do for the book?

The research for The Family Romanov took four paths – culling through mountains of primary source material -- those memoirs, diaries, depositions and eyewitness accounts – in search great anecdotes and quotes; plowing through secondary sources for information unearthed by other writers; peppering scholars and experts with endless questions; and traveling to Russia. .

I won’t lie. Going to Russia was the best part of the research process. And it most contributed to my understanding of the Romanov’s story. Just walking around and feeling St. Petersburg’s air brought the family closer to me. At Tsarskoe Selo, I wandered down shaded lands and through lush gardens. I didn’t just learn how the place looked. I discovered how fragrant the lilacs are after a rain shower, and how the ornamental bridge creaks when you cross it. I discovered how vast and empty and beautiful the place is. It didn’t feel lived in. And I suddenly imagined that’s how the place must have felt to Alexandra. It was all so grand, but so lonely. No wonder she searched for something more intimate. For the first time I understood her choice to hide her family away in a set of rooms in the small Alexander Palace. I understood her. No historical document could have given me that.

Wandering through the family’s private quarters within the Alexandra Palace also informed the book. I expected to see small rooms furnished in ordinary – some eyewitness said “tasteless” – d├ęcor. The place was described in numerous primary sources – it’s hideous wallpaper, it’s horrible lilac color, its icon-cluttered bedroom walls. So I wasn’t prepared for how homey the space was. These were rooms people lived in. None of it felt royal. It was a country house, rather than a palace. And again, I couldn’t fault Alexandra for her choice. She’d created a nest for her family, away from the prying eyes of the world. What mother doesn’t want to do that? In fact, for the first time I began to admire – just a tiny bit – her decision to turn her back on those royal trappings. I’d walked through her rooms at the Winter Palace earlier – the place she abandoned for Tsarskoe Selo – and they’d been so gorgeous, so regal, so cold. I began to see why she wanted her family to be here instead of there. And it made me rethink those primary sources I read earlier. All had criticized her choice. They called her rooms tasteless because she didn’t want to live between marble walls. They called her selfish for removing her family to country. They called her crazy for choosing a simpler life. I’d bought into their criticism until I saw the Romanov’s home. But now I was questioning those eyewitnesses. Alexandra was growing more nuanced… more complex… more human.

Oh, and there is one last, important discovery from that trip to 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 sources 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.”

3. Are any of your characters ever based on yourself or people you know?

Since The Family Romanov is nonfiction the characters are based on historical accounts. I didn’t make anything up. I did, however, find myself identifying with certain people in the Romanov’s story. I felt a real sadness for the oldest daughter, Olga. She obviously understood what was happening to the family toward the end. She read newspapers and asked questions. And as all hope of escape slipped away, she turned inward. Imagine her sadness, her sense of loss, and her anger. After the Romanov’s murder, an icon was found in the rooms in which the family had been held. On the back in Olga’s hand was written the following prayer. Whether she wrote it herself, or copied it from someplace else is not known, but it must have reflected her feelings during the last days of her captivity:

Give Patience, Lord to us, Thy Children,

In these dark stormy days to bear

The persecution of our people,

The torture falling to our shores.

Give strength, Just God, to us who need it,

The persecutors to forgive,

Our heavy, painful cross to carry

And Thy great meekness to achieve.

When we are plundered and insulted,

In days of mutinous unrest

We turn for help to Thee, Christ Savior,

That we may stand the bitter test.

Lord of the word, God of creation,

Give us Thy blessing through our prayer

Give peace of heart to us, O Master,

This hour of utmost dread to bear.

And on the threshold of the grave,

Breathe power divine into our clay

That we, Thy children, may find strength

In meekness for our foes to pray.

4. Was there a specific person or situation that made you want to become a writer?

The summer I turned ten, my mother instituted a new house rule -- no reading at the dinner table. Without this rule, my father would have forked up salad and read about fly fishing; my teenaged sister would have flipped through the latest issue of Seventeen magazine and picked at her potato; and I would have devoured yet another Nancy Drew mystery along with my pork chop. But my mother -- no slouch of a reader herself -- wanted to hear more than pages turning.

“Let’s talk,” she said.

“About what?” we asked. From my place at the kitchen table I could see The Secret in the Old Attic sitting on the counter where I’d left it.

The four of us looked at each other for a few, long seconds.

Finally my mother said, “Read any good books lately?”

Had we ever. We answered with a flood of titles and an avalanche of plot summaries. It must have been 45 minutes before we got up from that table.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, my family was book crazy. Books excited us. They informed us. They tickled and transformed us.

If we weren’t reading, we weren’t happy.

I remember one Saturday afternoon, my father suddenly leaped to his feet, flung on his jacket and grabbed up his car keys.

“Where are you going?” my mother asked.

“To the library,” he said. “I need something to read. I need a book.”

It’s funny how such a small incident can reveal such a big truth. At that moment, I realized my family didn’t just like books. We needed them. Like food and water, they sustained us. We couldn’t live without them.

Of course, reading stories led to telling them.

I had learned from earlier on that details were the key to a believable tale, and so. . .

I regaled friends with stories about my three-legged cat, Spot. I told my neighbors about the pirate ghost that lived in our attic. And in second grade I told my teacher, Miss Johnson, all about my family’s trip to Paris, France.

Invariably, people believed my stories -- those details, remember?

Sadly, they weren’t true.

Luckily, I had parents and teachers who encouraged my imagination. Instead of calling me a fibber, they called me a storyteller. They encouraged me to write my stories down. I’ve been doing it ever since.

5. What tips do you have for aspiring authors?

Read. Read all kinds of different things – picture books, novels, poetry, sports magazines, newspapers, blogs, the backs of cereal boxes-- and read all the time. Let words -- how they’re used, their bones and music-- seep into you.

6. What's up next for you?

I’m in the throes of a new biography about William “Buffalo Bill” Cody so every afternoon this summer has been spent in imaginary gallops across the Great Plains. I’m also putting the finishing touches on my first piece of science nonfiction about Giant Squid. It’s a picture book, being illustrated by my partner, Eric Rohmann. I’m also looking forward to starting a humorous series for middle graders, and beginning the research for my next nonfiction project, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.

Thanks for stopping by and answering some questions for us Candace!
CANDACE FLEMING is the prolific and highly acclaimed author of numerous books for young adults and children, including the nonfiction titles The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary, winner of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction; Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book of the Year; and The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum, an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. She lives in Oak Park, Illinois. Visit her at

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 Giveaway: The wonderful people at Random House are allowing me to give away (1) hardcover copy of The Family Romanov to a lucky winner! Open to US only!


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