San Diego author pens moving novel on mysterious 19th-century royals
Jac Jemc’s novel ‘Empty Theatre’ was inspired by the lives, and strange ends, of King Ludwig II of Bavaria and the Empress Sisi of Austria
It’s only about halfway through our interview when local writer and professor Jac Jemc admits she doesn’t understand people’s insatiable fascination with royalty.
“I don’t pay attention to any of it, British royals and stuff like that,” says Jemc, from her home in North Park. “Not even just royals, but I would also say I’m not even a history person. I say that with some trepidation because I know how that’s going to sound now that I’ve written a historical fiction account of two royals.”
That being said, Jemc has just released “Empty Theatre,” one of the most engrossing and entertaining historical novels in recent memory and one that just happens to be about two semi-obscure 19th Century royal figures.
It’s a tale that blends straightforward, sequential storytelling with undertones of satirical irreverence, or, as she puts it, “presentational flair.”
It’s a historical epic that could potentially appeal to both readers fascinated by royal figureheads, as well as to those who find themselves antipathetic to the brazenly cushy lives of regal families. Yes, it’s the type of source material that begs to be adapted by filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos or Wes Anderson.
Still, Jemc is correct in that “Empty Theatre” is a departure for her. Her first novel was an award-winning horror novel and she could have simply followed that up with another spooky tale, but she says she wanted a challenge.
“I was just as surprised as anyone that I was interested in working on this project,” says Jemc. “But I think it probably says something about how you don’t really care about something until you find your way into it.”
To get a sense of just how much is going on in Jemc’s new book, not to mention its cheeky tone, one need only look to the full title of the novel: “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.”
So much for spoiler alerts, but it does serve to handily sum up the plot. What’s more, Jemc begins the book by laying out — in the form of a succinct, bullet-pointed prologue — most of the major events of the two protagonists’ lives, including their strange, untimely deaths. However, the fact that the reader knows these things are coming does not deter from the enjoyment of the novel. Even with that being said, it still begs the question: What’s up with that paragraph-long title?
“Initially what I wanted the title to be was this long German word, ‘Gesamtkunstwerk,’ which means ‘total work of art,’ and my agent was like, ‘absolutely not,’” Jemc says laughing.
Jemc goes on to explain that she sold the book to her publisher (Macmillan Publishers) as “Total Work of Art,” but still felt that the title didn’t fully encapsulate the story. She settled on “Empty Theatre,” a nod to Ludwig’s penchant for wanting to see operas with no one else there. When her publisher suggested a subtitle to the book (something like “Empty Theatre: The Ludwig and Sisi Story”), Jemc suggested the paragraph-long title as a nod to Victorian titles like, for example, the title of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ which was originally a paragraph long.
“I thought they’d never go for it and was so excited about it when they did,” Jemc says.
Jemc happened upon the story of King Ludwig II and Empress Sisi in 2014 while on vacation in Germany. While there, she went on a tour of the hilltop Neuschwanstein Castle, a fantastical palace commissioned by Ludwig II which is said to have inspired the Cinderella castle at Disneyland.
“You have to take a guided tour of the castle and you get this whole narrative about his life,” Jemc recalls. “I just became fascinated that this was a king who really only cared about the arts — things like paying for (Richard) Wagner’s operas and building these big castles that were often odes to other kinds of architecture that he loved. He just wasn’t very good at doing the rest of his job.”
“It was just really fascinating to me — this demise of such a romantic figure who was so obsessed with operas and these sprawling, epic and dramatic stories,” Jemc continues. “The fact that he had such a dramatic end himself seemed so apt, but also heartbreaking.”
Within this process, Jemc discovered Elisabeth of Bavaria, nicknamed Sisi, who was Ludwig’s cousin, closest confidant and an empress and queen herself. Jemc says she became intrigued by the divergent ways in which they ruled and the misunderstood lives they led in private.
“They were just both these iconoclasts in this interesting line of royal history and who were both closely linked to one another,” Jemc says.
Unlike Ludwig, however, Empress Sisi is becoming something of a pop-cultural icon, with multiple books, both nonfiction and fiction, devoted to her. Often portrayed as something of altruistic predecessor-in-spirit to someone like Princess Diana, Sisi first became the subject of a series of Austrian films beginning with 1955’s “Sissi” (Jemc calls them “Disneyfied” versions of her life). More recently, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Austrian empress, who is now the subject of a TV series (“The Empress”), a miniseries (“Sisi”) and even a film (“Corsage”).
“So far all these other projects haven’t done any major damage to the story I’m telling,” says Jemc, adding that she’s watched “The Empress” and thinks the recent projects are getting closer to capturing the “rebellious spirit” of Sisi.
“She didn’t really show up much to be the figurehead that they wanted her to be and the things that she did care about, she really had to fight to get the attention and support she wanted for those things,” Jemc continues, pointing to the empresses lobbying for things like mental health services and building hospitals. “For a long time, she was treated as if these were just little whims of hers, but I think they were very pointed and strategic; a way to use her power to do some good.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Jemc received her masters in fine arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before heading to Europe for residencies at a number of prestigious writing programs. She published a number of short story collections before moving to San Diego in 2019 to teach creative writing at UC San Diego. This was just after releasing “The Grip of It,” a horror novel centering on a couple living in a haunted house.
These days, while she’s primarily focused on juggling her academic career and promoting her new novel, Jemc says she plans on getting back into horror writing for her next project, moving from a haunted house to the story of, as she puts it, a “haunted painting.” While this could be seen as Jemc getting back to her writing roots, she adds that writing “Empty Theatre” has helped prepare her for what she envisions as a horror novel steeped in history and which will span centuries.
“That’s one of the exciting things that’s happened since I had the opportunity to work on ‘Empty Theatre,’ realizing that I could have access to a whole different body of language, body of images and metaphors,” says Jemc. “Working on this book felt like an interesting opportunity and it’s one that I hope to take forward in future projects.”
The Book Catapult presents Jac Jamc
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: The Book Catapult, 3010-B Juniper St., South Park
Phone: (619) 795-3780
Combs is a freelance writer.
Sign up for the Pacific Insider newsletter
PACIFIC magazine delivers the latest restaurant and bar openings, festivals and top concerts, every Tuesday.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Pacific San Diego.