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Novel gives historical royals a wild and whimsical new life

San Diego writer Jac Jemc is shown in an undated photo. Her new novel, "Empty Theatre," explores the stranger-than-fiction lives and deaths of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his cousin Empress Sisi of Austria.
Courtesy of the artist / FSG Originals
San Diego writer Jac Jemc is shown in an undated photo. Her new novel, "Empty Theatre," explores the stranger-than-fiction lives and deaths of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his cousin Empress Sisi of Austria.

San Diego writer Jac Jemc's new novel, "Empty Theatre," has rave reviews, national press, historical intrigue, royal gossip — and a really long title.

The book is adorned with a painted ribbon that frames and spirals across the front cover. Jemc's indulgent, Victorian-style subtitle fills us in from the starting line:

"Empty Theatre, 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: A Novel."


The book chronicles the wild and messy rise and fall of two cousins, King Ludwig II and Empress Sisi. Ludwig reigned from 1864 until his suspicious death in 1886. Sisi, or Elisabeth, became Empress of Austria in 1854 and ruled until her assassination in 1898.

Jemc was first introduced to the story of Ludwig's life and death when she visited Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany. She began researching more about his life and family, and was similarly struck by his cousin (and friend) Empress Sisi.

"I was really intrigued by these two people who were not quite doing what was expected of them, and had all of these dramatic details filling up their lives," Jemc said. "Things only got weirder and more surprising."

The book is classified as fiction, though the characters and much of the plot is real. Jemc said she "imagined" herself into their lives, but those lives offered up plenty of source material.

"For the most part, a lot of the outrageous things that happen in this book are based in reality," Jemc said.


An example: when Ludwig was a child, he refused to be attended by unattractive servants.

"If someone came to help him put his pajamas on at night or bring him his tea in the afternoon, and they weren't absolutely beautiful, he would pretend like they weren't even in the room with him," Jemc said.

Ludwig long displayed a strong interest in art and beauty rather than matters of state, and was known for his obsession with composer Richard Wagner.

Jemc said that Ludwig had to hide the fact that he was gay from the public eye.

"He had romances with men throughout his life, even though he needed to keep them a secret. I think that is one of the core things that people should know about him, that there's this essence to his character that he is denied from making public or from following through in a way that is ever ultimately satisfying to him," Jemc said.

Empress Sisi had an idyllic childhood spent freely in nature. But when she married Emperor Franz, she had to fit into the conservative Habsburg Empire.

"Her primary job was just to produce heirs — it was a challenge for her to produce heirs — and to be seen by the public, and she didn't appreciate having to just be a pretty face to put on the Empire," Jemc said. "She struggled with the amount of control that was exerted over her."

This tension is seen in Sisi's contentious relationship with her mother-in-law, the Archduchess Sophie, who controlled the care of Sisi's children. While Sisi didn't particularly display a penchant for mothering, she strongly resented her mother-in-law and fought to bring the children closer to her — without necessarily having a plan in place.

"It is true that Sisi wants the children to love her — and wants to love the children more, too — but it is also true that she wants to take something away from the Archduchess in the same way the Archduchess has taken so much from her."
— From "Empty Theatre," by Jac Jemc

When asked about the cinematic, almost Wes Anderson-like cheekiness and satire to the book, Jemc said that when working on the tone of the book, she was more drawn to movies like Sofia Coppola's, "Marie Antoinette."

"I hadn't quite really thought of Wes Anderson, but it makes sense," Jemc said. "Wes Anderson's eye for detail in his set building and in his world building — even though they're often very real settings in his films, it can feel kind of precious. It can feel a little bit twee or like it's trying to make this fairy tale of the world. And I think that it's apt for these two figures who are really — especially Ludwig — who almost saw his life as a play he was living out," Jemc said.

Jemc is a professor of creative writing at UC San Diego, and said many of her students are already skilled at building the worlds around their writing, something she partly attributes to film and immersive role-playing video games.

"My job ends up being more helping them to figure out what of those worlds — that they've spent sometimes years constructing before they've even gotten to one of my creative writing classes — how do you take that world and figure out how much of the world to share in service of the narrative that you're trying to tell?"

As Jemc wrote early drafts of the book, the world she'd pieced together was a bit much.

"I did way way too much research, and the book was at one point more than three times as long as it is now. And the process of editing the book was realizing, 'Okay this book isn't the entirety of the world,'" she said. "So, yes, I absolutely had to take my own advice."

Jemc will appear at The Book Catapult at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21.