Robert K. Massie: LibraryThing Author Interview
Robert K. Massie is the author of a number of award-winning books of history and biography, including Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and Dreadnought. His latest biography is Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, published by Random House.
Most of your books have dealt with Russian history in some way: how did you first become interested in the subject?
My interest in Russian history evolved from a circumstance in my own family. My first child, my son, Robert Massie Jr., was born with hemophilia. I had a history background from my studies at Yale and Oxford, and I knew a little bit—a very little bit—about the Tsarevich Alexis, the only son and heir to Nicholas II, the last tsar, or emperor, of Russia. Alexis had hemophilia, passed down to him through his mother, a grandaughter of Queen Victoria. This boy's illness led to the involvement of Rasputin as a healer ... and the terrible intertwined sequence of family and political events which led to the fall of the monarchy and the Russian Revolution. Nothing had ever been written about this family and these events from this perspective and I decided to do it. That was forty-seven years ago. My first book, Nicholas and Alexandra, was the result.
Catherine the Great has taken me eight years to write. Over all the years, I have been to Russia twenty times, from the Baltic to the Black Sea to the Urals and Siberia.
What surprised you most about Catherine as you researched her? What do you think will be the part of her story that most surprises readers?
I was most surprised by the intellectual brilliance and sheer honesty of Catherine's writing in her memoirs and her letters about herself, her life, her times, and the people around her. Her descriptions of her childhood and youth—how she spent the thirty-three years before she came to the throne—are every bit as fascinating as her narration of what she did once she got there. I think that women today will be very interested in how she handled the problems of growing up, becoming a woman, dealing with boys, men, and a world in which everyone assumed that men would always rule. I have four daughters who have read or are reading everything. Now they are reading about Catherine.
I was struck by both the high quality and wittiness of Catherine's letters, as well as by the raw, unguarded emotion she sometimes displayed in her writings. Why don't we hear more about Catherine as a writer?
Why don't we hear more about Catherine? Times change, interest in people who lived in the past rises and falls. But Catherine, like Elizabeth I of England, will always be, for new readers, an extraordinary example of a woman who met every challenge and succeeded.
Describe your own writing process for us: when do you do your writing, and how (longhand, computer, &c.)?
For twenty years I have used a computer. Before that, I wrote and re-wrote on a typewriter and my manuscripts were impossibly heavy with white-out.
You must have an extensive research library of your own: what's on your bookshelves?
I apologize, but you don't have time to read and I don't have time to write a list of all the books on my shelves. And still I have many fewer books than my wife, Deborah Karl, who is the best-read person I know.
What books have you enjoyed reading recently?
I used to read Dickens or Trollope before going to bed. More recently, I have twice read Henning Mankell's Swedish detective thrillers. Now I am reading, for the third time, the remarkable twenty book Aubrey-Maturin series of novels by Patrick O'Brian. All of these books take me far away from the world of eighteenth century Russia ... which I go back to the following morning.
Can you tell us about your next project? Is there another biography in the works?
It's too early to talk about a "next book." I'm still thinking about and talking about Catherine.
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
Books by Robert K. Massie
Nicholas and Alexandra (1982 copies)
Peter the Great (1466 copies)
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (1024 copies)
Dreadnought (1012 copies)
The Romanovs: the Final Chapter (690 copies)
Journey (47 copies)
The Romanov Family Album (45 copies)
Peter The Great Part 3 Of 3 (2 copies)
Nicholas and Alexandra Part I (1 copies)
Peter The Great Part 1 Of 3 (1 copies)
Peter The Great Part 2 Of 3 (1 copies)
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