RUSSIAN WINTER by Daphne Kalotay ( Click on the small photos above to enlarge)
- Daphne Kalotay, the author of the sweeping new novel RUSSIAN WINTER, has so graciously agreed to an interview. There is so much I’d like to know about the story behind the story. Let’s jump right in.
- How was the idea for RUSSIAN WINTER conceived?
Russian Winter began as a short story about a graduate student living in Boston, studying Russian literature; she helps a former Bolshoi ballerina pack her apartment in preparation for a move to a nursing home, and in the process discovers a mysterious necklace that seems to have some connection to the student’s Russian professor. It was a long, complex story that needed the space of a novel in order to fully explore all of its themes.
- How long did it actually take for you to write the book?
In terms of actual writing and redrafting, after years of just thinking about how to turn the story into a novel, I’d say it took 5 years of writing and revising, and then one more for editing.
- Your sense of place in Russia seems spot-on. What did your research consist of? Did you travel to Russia?
Most of my research was in the form of reading-history texts, biographies, memoirs, travelogues, social/cultural/political histories. I looked at old photographs and watched films and interviews. Also, I had traveled in communist Hungary as a child and in the early 90’s and therefore had a firsthand glimpse of a version of communal living. I didn’t travel to Russia until after I’d completed the book, when I wanted to fact check; before that, I was worried that present-day Moscow would look so different from the postwar version I’d created in my mind that I would become confused and lose my vision of it.
- I love the addition of the intricate pieces of jewelry. Can you share more about this with us? How and why?
For a long time I wasn’t sure where the jewelry idea came from; only later did I realize I might have been recalling a time when I was studying for an exam in Russian literature while my boyfriend, a fellow student, went to do volunteer work in Colombia and returned with a very tiny emerald for me. I still have it somewhere.
But there’s another possible explanation I recently thought of: Nina is a Russian ballerina, and what’s the most recognizable Russian ballet but Swan Lake, whose signature melody played in the little jewelry box I was given as a girl.They still make those same music boxes, with the little plastic ballerina who spins around to Tchaikovsky’s music when you wind the key at the back. So perhaps that’s where the jewelry idea came from.
I tried to think about the kinds of jewels Nina might be given-typically Russian things like malachite and amber, but also fancier pieces when she became famous, after she arrived in the West. And at some point ( I no longer recall why) I decided she should put them up for auction. As soon as the idea came to me, I became excited, because I thought it would be fun to include descriptions of the jewels as they would appear in an auction catalog. It gave me something to look forward to at the start of each chapter-how to work a specific piece of jewelry into the course of that chapter. I tried to let them crop up in an organic way, and in most cases it happened naturally and everything fell into place. But if you look carefully, you’ll see that there’s a chapter in which the jewelry that’s featured in the catalog description doesn’t fit into the narrative. It’s a mistake, in a way, but I decided to leave it, since it too occurred naturally. And I’m all of natural imperfections.
- You have created some very memorable characters. Are any of them based on real people? I especially enjoyed the crusty character of Viktor’s mother, called Madame.
In fact, Madame is based on an actual person, my grandmother’s mother-in-law, whom I never actually met. She had been a member of the upper class before the Soviet occupation, and when everything was equalized, she clung all the more strongly to her sense of superiority, insisting, for instance, that she be addressed with some German title indicating she was the wife of a doctor. In my novel, that title became the Imperial “Your Excellency.”
- This is your first novel. I hope you are working on something new. Are you?
Yes, I’ve been working on a novel set in modern-day Boston, about professional musicians. I still haven’t figured out how best to tell their story, but I’ll keep working on it!
- Thanks so much for sharing Daphne!
I was lucky enough to be in on this fine novel since it was in manuscript form. And, I got to see the three covers being considered. That was so exciting. I am adding the two covers to this page so you will be able to see the challenges faced when deciding. I have to say I love the cover chosen. It is beautiful and worthy, but the winter scene with the snow is my favorite. I am hoping they may choose it for the paper version.
Thanks for a great interview, Daphne! We’ll be waiting anxiously for your next novel.