Posts Tagged 'writing'

“More out of books than out of real life”

This quote, from Russian Menshevik Lydia Dan, is one of the epigraphs to my work in progress (one of them), a novel about Russian and Ukrainian revolutionaries.

Lydia Dan, a nice girl from a nice upper middle class family of Russian Jewish intellectuals, ended up touring Moscow factories agitating for workers rights among people she had barely a common language with, staying the night with prostitutes to avoid being picked up by the secret police, marrying not just one but two revolutionaries, losing her child, choosing the wrong side (Trotsky’s Mensheviks over Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and living long enough to see a revolution she dedicated her life to, turn distinctly sour and bitter.

“As people we were much more out of books than out of real life,” Dan says, in an extended interview with Leopold Haimson published in The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries. She means that in her young days, she and her fellow idealists who sat up or walked the streets all night discussing the revolution to come, had seen nothing of ‘real life’. They got their world view from reading Marx and Chernyshevsky and Gorky; the first time Dan actually met a real-life prostitute all she could think about were scenes she had read in Maupassant. They were so busy theorizing about the revolution, and inhabiting its weird, underground, anti-social existence of ideas, that they did not know how to hold down a job, pay a bill, mend a coat, look after a baby…

For me, writing about such people a century later, the quote has a second meaning. Dan and her fellow revolutionaries seem to me like characters out of books: utterly recognisable in their loves and hates and idiocies and heroics, but larger than life, more vivid and interesting, coming from a complete and absorbing world that exists safely between the pages. In other words, fictional.

These last few months in Ukraine, I’ve met the contemporary reincarnation of Dan and her fellow revolutionaries. They are here in all their guises: the ones who made bombs and picked up guns, the ones who wrote heartfelt tracts or disseminated poisonously attractive lies, the ones who looked after the poor and the dispossessed, the ones who spied and betrayed, the ones who were ready to die for ‘the people’ and the ones who killed, robbed and tortured people in the name of making a profit.

Again and again, I keep coming across characters who are straight from 1917.

It’s all amazing, amazing material for my novel, of course. But I realise that maybe I am more like Dan than I thought. My ideas for that novel came more out of reading, than from experience: I thought those revolutionaries were safely between the pages. It is terrifying to realise that the people who are now tearing a country I love to pieces, or trying desperately to hold it together, are in fact, much more out of real life than out of books.

This piece also appears on ABBA today

What happens next

is the question I’ve been asked most often in the last few days.

I’ve been in Crimea for the presentation of the Crimean Tatar translation of Dream Land, my novel about the return of the Crimean Tatars to their homeland in the 1990s. This entire nation of people was deported from Crimea, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1944, and fought a peaceful campaign for fifty years for the right to return.

People want to know if I’m pleased about the book translation (I’m absolutely delighted – I blogged about it previously here), why I decided to write the book in the first place (because I thought it was a fascinating, compelling and important story that begged to be told) but most of all they want to know ‘Are you going to write a sequel? What happens next to Safi?’

It’s always gratifying when readers want to know what happens to your characters outside the pages of the book. I myself find it hard to abandon characters after I’ve created them. The heroine of my first novel, Riding Icarus, so grabbed my imagination that I went on to write two more novels about her.

It’s a bit more complicated with Safi, because although she’s a fictional character, her story is closely based on real events. Dream Land ends in the summer of 1992 on a moment of hope, that Crimean Tatar families like Safi’s will be able to build houses with permission from the Ukrainian authorities and settle in to a new life in Crimea with support and acceptance from their Ukrainian and Russian neighbours. And in truth, this is by and large what has happened, although no one can pretend that prejudice and discrimination do not still exist. I never planned a sequel to Dream Land. I thought that if readers really want to know what happens to Safi, all they have to do is read a newspaper or visit Crimea.

Safi would be thirty-three now, if she really existed. Does she stay in Crimea or does she emigrate? I’ve been asked over the last few days. Does she remember the stories she heard from her grandfather in Dream Land? Does she teach her children Crimean Tatar language? What about her brother Lutfi – does he marry a Russian girl like the one in the book, or does he get involved in radical Islam?

I don’t know the answers. All these things have happened to my friends in Crimea, the ones whose lives in the 1990s inspired Dream Land. It would be nice if I could create happy and fulfilling futures for all these people I love and admire. But this is real life, not fiction.

There’s a fascinating, compelling and important story still to be told about the Crimean Tatar national movement since 1992. About political and social change, about the steady loss of the Crimean Tatar language, and the continuing struggle to uncover and declare the truth of what happened in 1944.

I’m amazed and honoured and touched that so many people have asked me for a sequel. But I’m not sure I’m the person to tell this story. My friend’s daughter in Crimea has just started writing stories. She’s Crimean Tatar, and around the same age now as Safi is in Dream Land. Perhaps she will be the one to write What Happens Next.

The Crimean Tatar cover of Dream Land

The Crimean Tatar cover of Dream Land

This post also appears on ABBA today

Cloud watching

Here’s the word cloud (courtesy of ABCya) for my post on ABBA today.

MyCloudIf you want to find out what all those words add up to, pop over to ABBA for a read. Alternatively, you could aways construct your own text from them…

This is fact

I’ve been reading and writing (one novel finished, the next one in the planning stages) about Russian revolutionaries for so long now, I sometimes have difficulty remembering what is fact and what is fiction.

So it’s extraordinary to walk the blind, stuffy corridors of the Trubetskoy Bastion prison in St Petersburg, and peer into cells where all these people who’ve been locked away in my imagination were really incarcerated. Peter Kropotkin, Boris Savinkov, Vera Figner, Lev Trotsky; so where’s Dmitry Suvorov – ? Oh no, idiot, I made him up, didn’t I…

But the lesson I learn from this experience is that the old truism is utterly true: fact really is stranger and more terrible than any fiction.

What else can I make of it, the various incarnations of Russia’s main prison for political offenders in the Petropavlovsky Fortress, from Peter I’s son to the Decembrists to the Narodniki and SRs and Bolsheviks to the enemies of the revolution? It is such a bizarre mixture of inhumanity and repression and bureaucracy and chaos and idiocy and human error.

In Tsarist times the prisoners were isolated in separate cells, banned from communicating with each other or even the guards. They all did communicate though, by tapping out messages (on the beds, the walls, using spoons, cups, buttons) in an alphabet that they all knew. “The struggle for tapping is the direct struggle for existence,” wrote revolutionary Vera Figner.

The prisoners’ alphabet

Punishment in special cells (up to seven days alone in total darkness and cold) was mainly for attempts to communicate with other prisoners or the outside world. For tapping – three days. For writing notes in books – two days. For writing notes in the bible – four days.

The books and bibles came from the prison library. The only occupation permitted prisoners was, incredibly, reading. Didn’t the Tsarist regime realise the dangers of the written word – how else did they think revolutionary ideas spread? Books in the prison library all had to pass the censor. Nevertheless prison officers regularly found ‘morally dangerous’ works there by Gorky, Saltykov-Schedrin, Zola, Engels, Marx’s Capital…

While locked up in his cell the anarchist Kropotkin wrote up his seminal research into the origins of the ice age. Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects, in which he developed his theory of permanent revolution. Prisoners went mad, set themselves alight with gasoline from the lamps, died of TB and typhoid, were sent off to be hanged, to be incarcerated for years in the Shlissenburg fortress, to exile in Siberia where they met up with other revolutionaries and frequently escaped to Europe – Siberia a sort of vastly inefficient get-out clause for the government, a way of solving the problem of dissidents without in fact solving it at all.

After the February 1917 revolution, the cells briefly filled up with Tsarist ministers. The prison bureaucracy began to break down. Following the October revolution, they were joined by provisional government ministers and deputies, by white army officers, cadet mutineers, monarchists… In March 1918 the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, took over. For three years ‘Enemies of the revolution’ were packed twenty to a cell. There was no prison regime anymore, just whatever brutality the guards wanted to practice. No food, no bedding, no exercise, no books. No rules.

“Opening the window of our flat on Lakhtinsky street in the nights of 1918–1919, we could hear irregular shooting and short bursts of machine gun fire from the direction of the Petropavlovksy fortress”, wrote the academic Dmitry Likhachev. The identities and fates of the 500-600 prisoners during this time are mostly unknown. No one kept records, not like those exhaustive Tsarist lists that form the basis of today’s Bastion museum exhibits. All there is is a handful of names recalled by the few survivors.

The other lesson the Trubetskoy Bastion teaches. That this is the way (must it be?) of tyranny and revolution; in fact, in fiction.


I’m trying to say something

about creativity and mental space and clutter over on ABBA today – inspired by the Russian revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.  Pop over for a read (tell me what you think I’m trying to say, because I’m not sure).

Later I’ll blog more about the two literary house museums I visited: Mayakovsky’s in Moscow and Mikhail Bulgakov’s in Kiev, both extraordinarily inspiring.

In the meantime:

Mayakovsky/Rodchenko sell dummies

I’m in the first person

back on ABBA today, ruminating on the prevalence of first-person narratives in YA fiction.

Having written there that I don’t like first person, I’ve now thought of dozens of examples among my favourite books (adult and YA) that are first person…

Pop over, join the discussion.

Political metaphor

I love similes and metaphors. I’ve just been editing a draft of my new book, and noticing that I use them in practically every other sentence. ‘He looked like a blinded survivor’, I wrote, of a character who has just received an appalling shock. Clearly I don’t see the world as it is, but as it almost is, as it might be; through a sort of double vision in which everything that happens is a comparison to something else.

Alongside the editing, I’ve been reading about recent events in China. It’s a relief, now that I’m out of the country, to be able to open web-pages without wondering if they will be blocked, to do internet searches unhindered by crude word filters.

The friends I made back in China are not so lucky. If any of them are searching sites like weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) this weekend, they will find the warning coming up even on the apparently innocuous word ‘blind’, that ‘According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, these search results cannot be shown’.

‘Blind’ is not a metaphor. It’s a possible reference to the dissident who escaped house arrest in China two days ago, and who happens to have lost his sight. As far as Chinese official media is concerned, Chen Guangcheng’s escape has not happened. It’s a non-story; a blind spot. His name, or those of his family and friends or the village from which he fled, have disappeared from the media, from on-line vocabulary, along with ‘blind’, ‘embassy’ (he’s assumed to have sought protection in the US embassy), ‘consulate’…

In their place something else has appeared on weibo: a cute story about a little mole who escapes with the help of his friends the mice from some not-very-nice wolves. Lest you miss the point: moles are, of course, famously blind.

Under political systems like China’s, similes and metaphors are not a matter of literary style. They are the only way of telling the truth. When you are not allowed to describe the world as it is, your mind has to find other devious and inventive ways of expression.

We had conversations in China about how repression can lead to great literature; Bulgakov, for example, writing in the Soviet Union his story of a dog’s heart transplanted into a human. The Chinese writers were depressed. Not in China, they said. Not yet. We lack the imagination, the courage…

I don’t think the story of the mole is great literature, but it is, obviously, an extended metaphor. The little tale ends with the mice spreading the news of the mole’s escape ‘but they couldn’t decide whether the escape was a victory, or whether it was just the beginning of more hardship.’

As far as I know, Chinese government censors have yet to block searches on weibo of the word ‘mole’. As I continue to edit my MS for excessive use of simile and metaphor, I am humbled by the use Chinese writers make of literary devices, and I worry for my friends, and for all their colleagues in China.

Another type of shoe

Somebody at the Royal Ballet loves me. How do they know I’m writing a novel about ballet? Because surely they must have had me in mind when they decided to broadcast a whole day of live rehearsals and conversations with the company backstage at the Royal Opera House.

Or else I’m just extremely lucky or (for once in my life) on trend.

Anyway it’s brilliant. There’s that saying, about there being three things so fascinating that you can watch them forever: fire burning, water running, somebody working. I feel like I’ve been watching all three here. The skill and perfectionism and determination of these people; their energy and grace.

When I was a little girl I went to the ballet matinees in Manchester: Coppelia, Giselle, La Sylphide. The audience was mostly other small girls in princess dresses, with their long-suffering mums.

I was in love with the romantic stories, the gauzy skirts. Everything was as utterly impractical as I thought fairytales were supposed to be. I hated hearing the thump of pointe shoes on the stage. It seemed entirely wrong that these floating ballerinas actually weighed something; it was like seeing the strings and pulleys behind stage scenery, or the green screen in movie special effects.

Later I decided traditional ballet was ridiculous, with its old-fashioned mime gestures and daft tights, tutus, tiaras. The strict ballet steps seemed like a strait-jacket, trammelling the natural exuberance and promise of movement. I’d given up princess dresses, and while I still adored fairytales I preferred their dark and violent side. I discovered contemporary dance and acrobatics, and probably didn’t see another classical ballet for fifteen years.

I can’t really remember why I decided to write a novel about ballet. But what fascinates me now is what I hated as a child: how it actually works. The weight of the dancers; the physical effort and skill; what can be achieved within the strict confines of classical ballet. In ballet, I now think, there can be no half-measures. The only ballet dancers really worth watching have got to be exceptional; perfect. It is that demanding an art.

I’ve been fortunate enough to talk to a couple of ex-Royal Ballet dancers, but today’s broadcast from the Royal Opera House gives such a great insight into all sides of ballet: not just the dancers but the choreographers, repetiteurs, musicians (wow! those pianists), notators (who have to understand the arcane language used to record choreography) wardrobe mistresses and all, working to pull together something as ephemeral as a dance performance.

They’re not going to change the world. You could say what they are doing isn’t important (like all art; like writing a novel), but I think most people would envy them the opportunity they have to give themselves to something so completely, heart and soul.

Oh, and the shoes. I found out that dancers get through two or more pairs of ballet shoes a day. Who makes all those shoes? Hopefully not forced labour in China.



Huge thanks to the organisers of Bookstock, for inviting me to take part in an evening of readings and bookish discussion in London on Saturday. There was a wonderfully wide range of writers, a great compere, a fabulously engaged audience and some terrible literary jokes…

Here’s a snippet of me reading from a new novel:

(The title, in case you were wondering, is a literal translation of the Russian name for ladybird. But I’ve been told the book will never be published under this name, since no one buys novels with ‘god’ in the title, and even if someone did want to they’d hardly be able to since it’ll automatically be shelved in bookshops under ‘religion’…)

More video from the night here.

Who has a right to comment?

There’s a really interesting debate here about the merits of analysing young adult books for the beauty (or otherwise) of their prose.

It reminds me of my friend, who was absolutely outraged when I told her that an adult book group had recently read Dream Land and then invited me to discuss it with them. if her book group had chosen a YA book, she said, she would have walked out in protest.

Yes, I have supportive friends.

Her point (I think) was not so much that Dream Land, or any other YA book, is unworthy of serious discussion, but that discussion by adults is a kind of contradiction in terms, showing the book is not doing the job it was written – or marketed – for. As a book for teens, the people who should be reading and discussing it are teenagers themselves.

I don’t myself see why engagement from children and teens has to exclude engagement from adults, although I do think that many well-read adults will read and analyse a book in a different (not necessarily more sophisticated or valid) way than younger readers.

But my friend does have a point about these debates over YA literature, which all too often resemble all the other debates about young people today – i.e. completely lacking in input from the people in question. When an articulate teen does join the fray the response is one of David Attenborough-like hushed awe to a sighting of a rare, theoretically cherished but rather misunderstood elusive beast…

Shhh! It might run away!

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

%d bloggers like this: