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The Family Romanov: Author Candace Fleming’s 2015 BGHB NF Award Speech

fleming_family romanovWhat a joy it is to celebrate with you, to laugh and talk, to make new friends and embrace old ones. Thank you to the Boston Globe–Horn Book judges for honoring this complicated, often dark tale from history. What a remarkable gift you have given me. As always, I am deeply grateful to my Random House family — Barbara Marcus, Lee Wade, Ann Kelley, Rachael Cole, Stephanie Pitts, Adrienne Waintraub, Laura Antonacci, Lisa Nadel, and last, but never least, the exceptionally wise, talented, and invincible Anne Schwartz. Thank you for your willingness to take risks on behalf of my obsessions. Thank you for always making me so much better.

Finally…I have to thank my mother. Back in 1967, the Book of the Month Club mailed her a copy of Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra. She didn’t want it, but she’d neglected to decline the title in advance. And so she crammed it — unread and unpaid for — onto our already groaning bookshelves.

Because of my mother’s carelessness, I am standing here tonight.

I found that ill-gotten book on our shelves just after my thirteenth birthday. I wasn’t interested in Russian history. I was simply bored, and at loose ends, and the book looked very adult, like it might have some racy parts in it. I tucked it under my arm and headed for my room.

“You’re not going to like that,” my mother called after me. “I’ve heard it’s pretty dense.”

She was right about one thing — at six hundred–plus pages, it was dense. But even though it didn’t have any naughty scenes, I loved it. I was swept away by the beautiful, ill-fated family, by the romance and splendor of that bygone era. Looking back, I think I must have skipped the parts about war and revolution; how everyday Russians suffered and died under Nicholas’s policies. Or maybe I chose not to believe them. For me, the Romanovs were, as Alexandra herself liked to say, “all roses and sweet kisses.”

They lived that way in my imagination — roses and kisses — for the next four decades. Then something happened. I began visiting middle schools where I talked about my passion for history, and how writing biography allows me to indulge my curiosity.

“Who from history piques your curiosity?” I asked at the end of each presentation. “Who do you long to know more about?”

Time and again, a student — usually a girl — raised her hand. “Anastasia,” she’d answer.

I wasn’t surprised. I, too, believed in the bittersweet magic of Anastasia’s story — the rich, spirited princess who should have lived happily-ever-after but who was unable to escape her fate. Doomed, her bloodline cursed, hers was a fairy tale turned to tragedy.

Hmm, I thought, this could make a wonderful small book.

And so I launched into creating a pleasant, breezy biography focused on Nicholas’s youngest daughter and propelled by luxurious palaces and endearing, little-known facts. What was Anastasia’s favorite toy? A one-armed, one-eyed doll named Vera. What was her favorite treat? Pickled reindeer tongue.

I stuck close to the main character, confining the story within an Imperial bubble. Just as Nicholas and Alexandra insulated their children from the larger world, I protected my readers from the darkness gathering on Russia’s horizon. I spared them the reasons for peasant and worker discontent; kept at bay the miseries of World War I. Like Anastasia, my readers only occasionally peeked through the distorted surface of that bubble. What they saw remained hazy and nebulous, mere hints at the events sweeping down on the family.

As for Anastasia’s tragic end…well, I decided to avoid the entire incident. Why distress my reader with the violent, messy truth? Instead, I ended my first draft this way: “Three hours later Anastasia and her family awoke to a nightmare.”

That’s it.

No gun smoke–filled cellar.

No bullets, or jewels hidden in camisoles.

No death.

I sent this first attempt to Anne Schwartz.

One of the things I admire most about Anne is her honesty. I can always rely on her to tell it like it is.

“Boring,” she said.

And when I thought about her comment — after I’d finished plotting her demise and pulling out my hair — I knew she was right.

The story I’d sent her was predigested. It lacked depth. It avoided controversy. Yes, every word was fact, but I hadn’t told the truth.

Facts simply are. They can’t be questioned or disputed, at least not reasonably. Anastasia was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. She was born in June. She did wear white lace dresses.

The truth is what we make of those facts; what they show us; what they teach us.

Stating facts is easy.

But telling the truth? It means piecing together the threads of humanity that join the past to the present, that make us one people even across centuries.

It means taking what is unfamiliar or difficult to grasp — like turn-of-the-twentieth-century Russia — and making it commonplace for twenty-first-century readers.

It means finding human themes in narratives, and writing stories — honest stories — from those themes: loss, grief, loneliness, joy, anger, love.

Above all, it means searching for something greater; telling a true story that not only connects with readers but also strives to say something about the way we live today.

What is Anastasia’s story about? I asked myself. Truthfully about.

It’s not merely the story of a pampered princess whose life comes to a bad end.

It’s about a princess’s way of life that comes to an end because something had gone terribly wrong. Something I’d chosen to ignore. What forces were at work? What personalities? And was there really nothing Nicholas or Alexandra could have done to change their fate?

I pawed through my research. I had six pages of facts about Fabergé eggs; twenty-six more devoted entirely to descriptions of the Winter Palace; twelve detailing Anastasia’s elaborate baptismal ceremony.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, didn’t rate a single note. Neither did the voices of Russian peasants or workers. Lenin got just three mentions. World War I got ten.

I had work to do.

I would have to go deep — deeper than facts about reindeer tongue or white-lace dresses. I would have to dig in the rubble of well-known history for stories that had gone untold, voices that had gone unheard. Peasants and factory workers. Shop girls and soldiers. Priests, office workers, and cleaning women. They were part of the truth, too. So were the Romanovs’ guards. So was their firing squad.

I didn’t figure all this out overnight, and I didn’t figure it out by myself. Rather, it was a process of thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, questioning and questioning and questioning again. Anastasia faded into the background. Other lives moved to the forefront. At times I was resistant to the material. Did I really have to delve into Nicholas’s anti-Semitism? Did I really have to explore Alexandra’s radical Orthodoxy? Did I really have to describe the deaths of those beautiful children?

I did.

In the end, The Family Romanov may not satisfy those middle-school students’ curiosity in the ways they’d anticipated. It’s not a royal fairy tale, and it certainly isn’t all “roses and sweet kisses.” There’s not even a single mention of Fabergé eggs. But it’s the truth, or at least what I made of it based on the facts and my interpretation of them. It answers my questions.

What is the Romanovs’ story truthfully about?

It’s about what happens when a government does not respond to the needs of its people, when faith supersedes fact and ninety percent of a country’s wealth is held by 1.5 percent of the population.

After the book was published, I heard from lots of people telling me they’d gained a new perspective from reading it. I also heard from people who did not like my version of the truth. “You ruined the Romanovs for me,” wrote one young woman.

I can commiserate. Writing The Family Romanov sort of ruined them for me, too. But it taught me that lives are always more complex, more tangled, than the myths and fairy tales that arise from what we want them to be. In the end, it taught me that there is a difference between fact and truth. And to write a credible and compelling story, you need both.

From the January/February 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB15.

Candace Fleming About Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming is the winner of the 2015 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award for The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and 
the Fall of Imperial Russia and the 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Award for The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. Her latest book is The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell (all Schwartz & Wade/Random).

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Comments

  1. Sylvia Waugh says:

    You have made me want to read this book. I did read Nicholas & Alexandra, many, many years ago, after my mother abandoned it (coincidence is a strange companion). But my thinking is also involved in many other ways.
    I hate dividing English Literature into English and American etc. If a book is written in the English language, it is an English book.
    There is also the matter of trying to find a time in life when happiness can ignore the future. I think I was completely happy up to the age of six. I could ignore everything outside my own immediate family. What those grown-ups had to say about The War was irrelevant. We were well-fed, on home cooking, well-clothed and well-shod. Not Romanov luxury by a long chalk – but a seemingly safe haven. Obedience was the only requisite. I might even have preferred the boring version!

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful description of a torturous process you never gave up on. I, too, was fascinated by Nicholas & Alexandra and the tragic ending of that family. I knew I was going to be the one who discovered Anastasia, alive and well and living in the United States. But never, in my wildest imagination, could I have wended my way through the process you did to arrive at such a wonderful book. “Facts simply are. The truth is what we make of those facts.” Congratulations on a tough job, beautifully done.

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