Author Interview: Ellen Alpsten author of Tsarina


Today we area excited to talk with author Ellen Alpsten about herself, writing, history and her books.

About the Author:

Ellen was born and raised in the Kenyan highlands, where her father worked as a Veterinary Surgeon. Once a month, the local cinema showed a Bollywood movie and their magic was inspiring: while her elder brothers attended boarding school, she dressed up their many pets (cats, dogs, chicken, geese, a stroppy Polo pony, a wounded Serval cat and at times a baby crocodile) and forced them to listen to her stories.

After her very mediocre A-levels Ellen moved to Paris and studied at the 'Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris', where she won the Grande Ecole’s short story competition with her novella ‘Meeting Mr. Gandhi’. Following her MSc in PPE, she moved to London and worked first as a TV-Producer and then as a News-Anchor for Bloomberg TV London, doing gruesome night shifts on breakfast TV. Her downstairs neighbour thought Ellen worked as an escort as she cantered down the stairs at any godforsaken hour. She also started to write in earnest, every day, after work, a nap, and a run.

Today, she works as an author and as a journalist for international publications such as the German 'FAZ', Vogue, Standpoint, and CN Traveller. Ellen also runs Creative Writing for charities like ‘Refugee Action’, showing how writing helps to overcome trauma, and lectures in the MA Programme of St. Mary’s University. She lives in Richmond with her Swedish entrepreneur husband, her three sons, and Honey, a moody fox red Labrador-Lady.

Her debut novel ‘Tsarina' and its sequel 'The Tsarina's Daughter' – both - published by Bloomsbury – were widely translated and shortlisted for numerous awards.

Ellen is represented by Caroline Michel and is writing her next Historical Fiction series. Once more, she has fallen for one of history’s hidden heroines – stay tuned! 

 JMR-Welcome to the Books Delight, Ellen. Tell our readers where you live, what you do for fun and what does the perfect day look like?

EA- Thanks so much for having me! I live in Petersham, a village in Richmond upon Thames and part of London. We cross the meadows, where Belted Galloways graze – sometimes we smack their bottoms with my son’s school satchel to get past – while the red London double-decker bus drive by in a distance. Never before in my 22 years in this great and unique city did I feel so settled. Petersham resembles to Marie Antoinette’s ‘Hameau’ in Versailles, but that is its charm: lots of crazy characters doing their thing! My fun is all about creation – I love coaxing tropical plants from English earth, trying new recipes or different art techniques. My perfect day would be either waking in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower, seeing an exhibition, lunch, walking around and meeting friends from drinks and dinner; or being roused before sunset for a game drive in the Kenyan Masai Mara – scalding hot morning tea with milk and sugar and then long, hot hours in a shaky jeep. All bones hurt when you return to camp, and already the grass is singing with heat. But never will you be closer to God’s creation, and each minute fills your heart and soul for months on end.

JMR-What’s your favorite historical time period? Why?

EA- I love moments of great change: never let a good crisis go to waste. It’s in these periods that the best stories emerge – such as the Renaissance following the Middle Ages, and the Baroque, just before Kant’s Enlightenment catapulted us into modernity. My current project charts the end of a world and beginning of a new era.

JMR-Who is your favorite historical figure? Why? If you could ask them one question, what would it be?

EA-Good Cinderella stories are unbeatable, so I’d say Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Curie, and my ‘Tsarina’. HOW do you rise from lowly, skinny, and lonely cadet in a Marseille military academy to Emperor of France, writing the Code Civil and laying the groundwork of the Europe we have today. HOW do you emigrate from Poland as a destitute young woman in the late 1800s, study Physics in Paris, overcome all odds, discover radioactivity, and receive two Nobel prizes? HOW does an illiterate serf become Empress of the world’s largest and wealthiest realm, and the first woman to ever rule Russia? My question to them: how can we bottle that strength, resilience, and ambition? 

JMR- How did you come to be a writer of historical fiction?

EA- Upon my return from Kenya, I had very lonely teenage years and found refuge in the library. I’d literally fill a washing basket with books every week, but only remember reading the great oeuvres of historical fiction. This genre offers a triple E of education, entertainment, and escapism – ‘Angelique’, ‘Forever Amber’, Sinuhe the Egyptian, ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Child of the Morning’. How magical to revive the past, seeing it through the prism of our modern days? Mind you, my first atrocious novel, which thankfully is lost, was fantasy with elements of crime.

JMR - You were born and raised in Kenya, studied in Paris, and now live in England; how has this shaped you as a writer?

EA- I am very lucky for this, but it’s also not always easy – carving out a belonging. It has made me porous, soaking up stories. Growing up in the Kenyan highlands was magical – we had no TV, but my godmother sent me book parcels -mostly Astrid Lindgren, whose ‘The Brothers Lionheart’ still make me ugly cry – and once a month, we saw a movie, mostly fantastically colorful Bollywood productions. Both have shaped my love for BIG stories, that hopefully touch my reader deeply. Moving to Paris was a second education – I was a wild child when I arrived. As a student, I worked for a French bestselling writer, Benoite Groult. Her top tip: Be serious about your writing! I came to London for my first job, earning very little money and knowing even less people. Every evening, I wrote for real, honing my craft – the English are the BEST storytellers! - with the goal of being a published author. Life as a writer is a puzzle, and there are still so many pieces missing. Let’s see what comes next…

JMR- Did you visit anyone of the places in your book? Where did you feel closest to your characters?

EA- My husband is Swedish, so I know how the extreme nature in the Baltics influences peoples’ characters 😊. TSARINA is as contrasting as the Russian Soul itself, casually combining seemingly insurmountable contrasts: callous cruelty and overwhelming empathy; overt hostility towards all things foreign, yet selfless hospitality to strangers; freezing, interminable winters - zima –, and the summers’ long white nights. We visited St. Petersburg once I had finished the first draft, and fell under the city’s spell. There, TSARINA is everywhere. She grows up in an izba, a rickety hut – such as the first house of their new city that Peter and her shared – but dies in a Palace, surrounded by unimaginable splendor. She suffers every humiliation imaginable but finds a new home in the Tsar’s heart. You get her ‘can-do’ spirit in this city of breathtaking beauty that was raised from a fly-infested, fever-ridden marshland.

JMR- Ellen, tell us about your books, Tsarina and The Tsarina’s Daughter.

EA- I call them my ‘Romanov Rollercoaster’: the first books ever about the unique century of female reign in a Russia, a country dominated by a brutal patriarchy.

 “Tsarina” tells the extraordinary story of Catherine I. of Russia – NOT Catherine the Great – who rose from serf to Empress, while the country morphed from backward nation to the beginnings of a modern superpower. It’s the most extraordinary rags-to-riches tale - sex, passion, love, power, and ruthlessness - but also the story of the birth of modern Russia. It tells 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. Her daughter Elizabeth lived the opposite of her mother’s life, falling from riches to rags, before she rises from rags to Romanov. At her father’s death, Russia is a limbo, caught between the past and the future. Masks fall, friends turn foe, and every step might lead my heroine into an abyss. But then, an incredible love story makes her who she always was, even if she faces a heartbreaking choice to survive and triumph.


JMR-What projects do you have in the pipeline?

EA- My terrific agent Caroline Michel is about to offer my next Historical Fiction series -  for my current girl, we go 1000 years back, building a bridge from myth to modernity and witnessing the hour 0 of Europe. She survives a lethal conflict between old and new faith, before a sheer impossible love story makes her create greatness. It’s once more the first novel about this woman, who’s by chance an ancestress of my husband.  It was a privilege piecing her story together.  All in all, I have my next six books mapped out.

JMR- Tell our readers how to find you on social media and the web. (include links)

EA- Find me on Twitter as, on Instagram as and also on LinkedIn as I am dabbling with TikTok:, where I have FOUR followers 😊. Will you be my fifth one? We live and we learn…

JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t?

EA- Ha! That’s a dangerous one. I can talk about my girls until the cows come home. So, here we go: How did you discover ‘Tsarina’ and how come her extraordinary story was overlooked so far? 


Marta’s rise from the illiterate, illegitimate serf to first ever reigning Empress of Russia, which morphed from backward country to superpower – fascinated me ever since reading a book called ‘Germans and Russians’, when aged 13. It charts the millennial hate-love of these two people. When I had matured enough to be an author, I was stunned to see that there was nothing  about her: no thesis, no biography, no novel.  I believe I was destined to find her, a bit like Howard Carter ‘discovered’ Tut Ankh Amun. If ‘my’ Catherine’s reign was brief – two peaceful and prosperous years, an exception in the Russian history – she continued Peter the Great’s strive for discovery and improvement. His death left his realm stuck mid-reform, settling into a fragile peace with its belligerent neighbours, its government at the mercy of foreign fortune-hunters. Her final act was to finance Bering’s ships, allowing the explorer the quest for his eponymous strait.  Not the worst thing to be remembered for… 



 JMR-Thank you, Ellen, for stopping buy. Readers, I've included a buy link for Ellen's book, Tsarina's Daughter below.

Here is some praise for Ellen's books:

Alpsten's colourful narrative does full justice to her extraordinary career ― Sunday Times

With its sprawling canvas and huge's an entertaining romp through the endless intrigue, violence and debauchery of court life.' ― Mail on Sunday

The extraordinary life of Catherine I of Russia is brought to life in Alpsten's colourful novel. ― Sunday Times, Summer Picks

An epic cloaked in ice and snow, and technicolor on page ― 'La Stampa' Italy

A beast of a book and not for the faint of heart - glorious. ― Daily Express

This is the ultimate Cinderella story of an illiterate peasant girl who becomes the empress of Russia. It makes Game of Thrones look like a nursery rhyme. ― Daisy Goodwin

As detailed as the jewels and enamel inlay on the creations of Faberge...[a] crisp, elegant fictional account of history, woven with emotion and brio.' ― Adriana Trigiani

Luscious...Alpsten has clearly done some brilliant research. It reads like Game of Thrones without the dragons. ― Natasha Pulley

[Alpsten] recounts this remarkable woman's colourful life and times. ― Count Nikolai Tolstoy

Tsarina should come with a health warning - once you start, you cannot stop! Hannah Rothschild


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