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Jac Jemc on her new novel 'Empty Theatre'


Portraits show King Ludwig II of Bavaria with swells of dark hair, dressed in his reribboned uniform, and Empress Elisabeth of Austria with her spectacularly long hair braided down her neck above her gown. But Jac Jemc has brought them to life in a novel in which the title says it all and then some - "Empty Theatre" - get comfortable now for the subtitle - "Or The Lives Of King Ludwig II Of Bavaria And Empress Sisi Of Austria, Queen Of Hungary, Cousins, In Their Pursuit Of Connection And Beauty Despite The Expectations Placed On Them Because Of The Exceptional Good Fortune Of Their Status As Beloved National Figures. With Speculation Into The Mysterious Nature Of Their Deaths." Oh. Jac Jemc, who teaches creative writing at UC San Diego, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

JAC JEMC: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: As we said, this is a novel, but it draws on the lives of real people. And what was it about these figures from history that pulled you in?

JEMC: Yeah, I think that - initially, I was drawn to Ludwig because of a visit I made to his most famous castle, Neuschwanstein. And when I was there, I heard the story of the mysterious murder that ends his life and became really intrigued and just started reading as much as I could about him but then realizing that there were all of these really compelling, iconoclastic women that surrounded him in his life as well. And so I fell down the Sisi rabbit hole as well (laughter) - two people who were not very good at following the expectations placed on them.

SIMON: Well, and let me ask you about each of them in turn. Ludwig - let me put it this way - didn't seem to have some of the conventional interests that a male heir to the throne was expected to have.

JEMC: Yes, absolutely. So Ludwig's - I would say his two primary interests are building these anachronistic castles that were just kind of these frothy confections perched on mountains or remotely placed on islands that he purchased - and, of course, being Richard Wagner's primary patron for his operas.

SIMON: And Elisabeth, known as Sisi - acclaimed for her beauty, did she feel hemmed in by it at the same time?

JEMC: I think so. I think she resented the fact that that was the only thing that was expected of her, that her primary purpose as empress was to be seen by the public, which was kind of exactly what she didn't want to happen. She wanted a life of privacy, where she could have fun and follow her own rules.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section that kind of compresses her life.

JEMC: (Reading) Born seven years before her cousin, Sisi will always treat Ludwig like a little brother, sharing her own experiences on this parallel path of royal obligation. But her powers of empathy will repeatedly be pushed to their modest limit. The demands placed on an empress are different than those exacted from a king. Sisi will lose an infant, resent a daughter to the point of neglect, suffer the suicide of her son, and suffocate a fourth child with all of the devotion she denied the others. She will flaunt her loyalty to the Kingdom of Hungary even to the point of snubbing the Austrian empire.

(Reading) Deemed the most beautiful woman in Europe in her youth, she will stop sitting for portraits at age 32. In fact, she will stop sitting almost entirely, filling her days with walking and riding to keep her figure trim, shrinking herself to hide from all those prying eyes. Sisi will wander as far away as she can to the countryside of England, Madeira, Corfu, in an attempt to gain control of the life she feels has been stolen from her. Thirteen years after Ludwig's passing, Sisi will meet her own dramatic end on a stretcher in a Swiss hotel, bleeding out from an Italian anarchist stab wound, the ambivalent martyr of Austria's last grasp at remaining a major European power.

SIMON: How do you negotiate the high-wire act between being a - having your facts all in order and being a novelist and taking off from the facts?

JEMC: That was something that really challenged me and that, I think - that extended my writing process. I think that I perhaps departed from the advice that was shared with me to limit my research and really went very deep down into gathering as much information as I could. Ultimately, I think that it served me because it helped me have a really firm grasp on what I thought all of the different narratives were that were being offered about these figures. But there are moments where I had to accept that I was allowed to change what I had found, and that, in fact, that was my responsibility to compress, distort, exaggerate what I had found in my research so that I could better tell the story of these two lives.

SIMON: And both the cousins meet untimely ends. There are some theories still abound. What do you wind up endorsing as a novelist?

JEMC: Yeah, I think that one of the pleasures of working on this book was to think about all of those different theories, to accept that all of those different theories could qualify as truth for the various characters in the book. And then, to take the liberty of suggesting another theory for Ludwig, I left Sisi's end a little more - a little closer to what the accepted understanding of her murder is. But for Ludwig, I took the permission to write him a new one that was maybe a bit more hopeful.

SIMON: Let me ask you a question that was running in and out of my mind as I enjoyed your novel. Millions of people lined up for hours to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth a few months ago. Millions of people are enthralled by what Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have to say. But at the same time, there are a number of very vocal people who say the world should just be over this interest in royal figures. How do you feel? Why do we find royal stories compelling?

JEMC: That's a great question and one that I've been thinking about a lot lately because I'm not particularly taken in by the stories of the contemporary British Crown. In some ways, it's difficult to understand why we have the desire to give empathy to these figures of ultimate privilege, you know? I think there are so many other people in the world who we could be giving a closer eye and thinking about more dedicatedly that are more deserving. But here are these people who should have everything that they could possibly want and are still struggling to figure out how to live their lives and realizing that there's a lesson to be taken from that in terms of looking at our own circumstances and figuring out a way to try and be happy no matter the situation.

SIMON: Against all expectation, we can sometimes be happier than a royal.

JEMC: Yes, I think absolutely. Yeah. I agree with that.

SIMON: Jac Jemc, her new novel, "Empty Theatre." Thank you so much for being with us.

JEMC: Thank you so much.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.