Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Here are some questions and answers from a recent on-line interview - 

What's the best piece of writing advice you've ever been given (and do you follow it)?
      Always leave some part of your writing unfinished at the end of the day, even if it is just the last few lines of a scene. When you sit down at your desk again, knowing your first writing task is a good way to set up momentum for the work that lies ahead.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
The writers I admire most are those who have made a good balance between their work and the lives they lead outside the worlds they must create inside their heads. I have watched a lot of young authors burn out because they lose track of the line between those worlds. You must draw on your own life to create the fiction you write, but you can’t become your own fiction and expect to last long in this line of work.

 Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
I get a lot of emails on the website (inspectorpekkala.com) devoted to the series, and this has given me a glimpse into the kind of people who are reading the books. I suppose I could say that I was writing for them before I even knew who they were, but now that I do now, I have a better sense of who my audience really is.

 Where do you write, and why?
I divide my time between the US and the UK. In each of these places, I have little hideaways where I get my writing done. Now, for example, I am up in my cabin in the woods of Maine. The floors have old Navajo rugs on them and the walls are hung with old black and white pictures, snow shoes, my rucksack and a bamboo fishing pole. I write in different places because I do other work besides writing and this sometimes means I have to move around.

      Kirov outranks Pekkala and is more socially adept, but Pekkala is far more worldly wise. Do you see Kirov as a sidekick figure, or is their relationship one between equals?

They did not begin as equals, but I find as I write (I’ve just begun writing the 5th book) that they are becoming that way. Kirov needs Pekkala’s expertise to solve the tasks they are given by Stalin, but Pekkala needs Kirov in order to be able to navigate through the world of Soviet Russia. Kirov is part caretaker, part translator of the past into the present, and part bodyguard. Pekkala’s skills are such that he has been absolved from having to fit in to the world around him. In fact, he has never fitted in and never could. That is why the Tsar chose him to be his personal investigator, because Nicholas II (who also never fitted in, either among his own people or in his role as Tsar) saw a part of himself in Pekkala. The same is true for Stalin, although Pekkala’s relationship with the dictator is more complex and dangerous.

Are there plans to release your books in Russia? And what do you think a Russian audience would make of them?

I believe there are plans to release the books in Russia. I have been both pleased and a little overwhelmed by how many countries have picked up the books for translation. I’ve had a number of emails from Russians. Most of them are very friendly, but I have had a few people quibbling over things as obscure as the colour of boiler suits. On the same day, once, I had someone write to complain that Stalin was not portrayed sympathetically enough and another message from a different person complaining that he had not been portrayed as enough of a monster. My experience from reading Russian history is that there is very little consensus among the Russians themselves about the details of their past. This is, I know, the long term result of a regime which practiced such profound disinformation, not only on the rest of the world but also on its own people, that people continue not to trust what they are told.

       Pekkala is a Finn; was it easier for you, writing as an outsider, to have an outsider as your protagonist, or were there other reasons behind Pekkala's nationality?

It was definitely easier to write from the point of view of an outsider. At the age of 7, I was sent from America, where my parents were living at the time (although they were British), to boarding school in England. I did this for so many years that I ended up feeling like a foreigner in both countries. Although it made life difficult at times, I think it gave me the chance to see two separate cultures in a way that was different from those around me. You reach this point where you just stop trying to fit in. At first, it is frightening, but it’s something you have to do if you want to stay sane. I suppose there is a lot of this in Pekkala. He found, as I did, that by not trying to fit in and to become something you aren’t, you find more acceptance from those around you than you would if you attempted to be one of them. The reason I chose a Finn as a main protagonist is that the Russians have a particular fascination with the Finns. Even though Finland is dwarfed by the vastness of Russia, the Russians have a healthy respect for the Finns, in no small measure due to what the Finns did to the Russians in the Russo-Finnish war of 1940. But it goes deeper than that. In many Russian fairytales, you will find a Finn performing some magic or other. For the Russians, the Finnish culture holds a certain supernatural quality that I found very useful when writing about Pekkala.

There must have been a temptation to paint Stalin as nothing more than a monster, but instead you made him a human being. How did you go about researching his character?

There are a number of fantastic books about Stalin, the best of which were written in the late 1990’s, when the Russians released tons of material which had previously been classified. This opened a window into Soviet culture, and also into the life of Joseph Stalin, that had previously been impossible. Sadly, and yet somehow typical of the ebb and flow of Russian culture, many of those files have now been re-classified as secret. The window has closed. I doubt it will open again in my lifetime.

      Several times you mention the will to self-destruction in the Russian psyche. Do you think this is a Russian twist on something universal, or is there something uniquely self-destructive about the Russian national character?

I do think there is something peculiarly self-destructive about Russian culture. One of my old history teachers once said – Nobody defeats the Russians except the Russians. What he meant by this, I think, was that the Russian capacity for violence against its own people is so extraordinary that it becomes difficult for people to grasp. As Stalin himself once said – One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic. We simply can’t grasp the magnitude of what Russia has endured, at its own hands and at the hands of others. That is what makes it possible. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Beginning February 15th of 2012, I will write something for it every week.

I hope you enjoy the blog. Please write and let me know what you think, by clicking

on the ‘Contact Author’ icon on the website. If you have questions, I will do my best to

answer them.

The question I’ve been asked most often since I began writing the series is how I came

up with the idea for Inspector Pekkala.

Here is the story –

During the mid 1990’s, a friend of mine was present at a construction site in Russia

when a backhoe unearthed the body of a soldier. The dead man was laying spread

eagled on the carcass of a horse which had been buried at the same time. The man

was wearing a long greatcoat, tall boots and had a thick leather belt across his middle.

The clothing and the body had been preserved by the soil so that the man appeared to

be partially mummified. Upon examination of the corpse, it became clear that the rider

had been buried around the time of the First World War. It also seemed clear, from the

fact that he had been laid to rest along with his horse, that the man had probably been

buried on the same spot where he had been killed. The man’s belt buckle, which clearly

showed the double-headed eagle of the Romanovs, identified him as a soldier of the

Tsar’s Army. However, because of the location, which was not on what would have

been the front lines during the Great War, the man must have been buried after, not

during, the war. This would have placed the soldier’s death at some time in the early

days of the Revolution, when soldiers still loyal to the Tsar, known as the Whites, fought

pitched battles with the Bolsheviks, who became known as the Reds.

During the course of the construction, several other bodies were discovered, all of

whom were similarly dressed and, presumably, had been killed during the same battle.

After the bodies had been re-interred, my friend was given one of the belt buckles as a

souvenir. He then passed it on to me, and I still have it.

For every book, there is always some unexpected catalyst that sets everything in

motion. Waiting for these catalysts to take hold is like standing in the path of a gently

falling meteor shower. Ideas will come hurtling past, but they don’t hit you, so eventually

you forget them. But then some image or some anecdote will strike you right between

the eyes. From that point on, the formation of the book becomes like the making of a

pearl inside an oyster. The grain of sand embeds itself inside the oyster. The oyster is

not trying to produce a thing of beauty. It is trying to survive. The pearl is the product of

pain. It is the same with these stories. Once they have snagged like a fishhook in your

brain, you have to find a way to work them loose.

Holding that buckle in my hand made me think of the tens of thousands of people who

were swallowed up in that revolution whose stories have never been told. Russian

history, perhaps more than any other country, is layered with so many lies, denials,

discreditations and rehabilitations that there is no one version of that country’s past. The

only reliable stance to take is that nothing about it is reliable. And yet you know that the

truth is in there somewhere, woven into the fabric of these deceptions.

For months after I began writing The Eye of the Red Tsar, the first book in eth series,

that rider galloped through my dreams. It became an act of self-preservation to conjure

back to life the story of that buckle, and of the man who wore it to his death.