Thursday, June 4, 2009

Why I Love to Write About Russia

A couple of years ago, I discovered a book called The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall, mainly because I really, really liked the cover. Since then I have waited for each new book by this author to be released. I was therefore very pleased when Kate agreed to write a Why I Love post for us!

I love to write about Russia because I am part Russian. This may sound like a simple statement but for me it’s a very complicated one.

I’d always thought I was English through and through. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I discovered that my grandmother, Valentina, was a White Russian. She had fled across Siberia with her two-year-old daughter, Lydia, hiding in forests by day and travelling only at night to escape the fury of the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution in 1917.

This came as a shock. In fact you could have knocked me down with a babushka. Russian? Me?

How do you cope with a discovery like that? I was forced to rethink myself. I devoured everything I could lay my hands on about Russia. Books, films, paintings, and of course travelling to the country itself to see it with my own eyes. I was mesmerised. By its fascinating history, its breath-taking geography, its amazing art and literature and by the passion of its people. Above all by its dramatic and often bloody politics that loomed so large over the world throughout the twentieth century.

Then my mother died and in an odd sort of way I felt I had inherited her story – and that I mustn’t waste it. I thought long and hard about her perilous journey as a child from Russia to China to India and finally to England, where she kept secret her past as a Russian refugee. I was hooked. It was too good a story to walk away from.

That’s how The Russian Concubine and Under a Blood Red Sky (The Red Scarf in USA) came to be written. I wanted to celebrate the Russianness of my ancestry. And now the publication of The Concubine’s Secret (The Girl From Junchow in USA) this summer takes me back to Moscow where my grandmother lived for part of her life.

The Russian Concubine was the start. Though set in 1928 China, the shadow of Russia drives the story, and when I’d finished it Under a Blood Red Sky grew in my mind. It is a love story set entirely in Russia in 1933, totally immersed in its culture, its conflicts and its communism. It explores how the powerful bonds of love, belief and friendship shape people’s lives. I took great pleasure in writing The Concubine’s Secret because it is the sequel to The Russian Concubine and continues the story of Lydia Ivanova in Russia. I felt a deep connection with this wilful Russian creature and wasn’t ready to let her go.

All three books study the concept of the outsider. Isolation and loneliness are themes that recur. As do characters who come from one country and live in another. A Russian who lives in China, a Dane who lives in Russia. Even a young woman who strives to become part of a rural village that sees her as an outsider. This, I realise, came from seeing my mother never quite fitting in, though at the time I didn’t understand why.

One of my problems with writing these books about Russia is that I adore doing the historical research. Imagine it. Sitting all day reading, preferably on the lawn in the shade of a beech tree, and calling it work. What could be more blissful? I make hundreds of pages of notes but only use a small fraction of them in the finished books. Yet I need them. The notes I make are part of the process. I have to feel so familiar with the Russian world I am about to create that I can move around in it with ease and confidence. I fill my head with every little detail of the time I’m exploring.

I am often asked how much of The Russian Concubine was based on my mother’s and grandmother’s lives. It was a decision I had to make – where to draw the line between fact and fiction. I didn’t actually agonise over this. I used the factual situation of my mother and grandmother as Russian refugees in one of the International Settlements in China – and even used their real names, Lydia and Valentina – but the whole story is pure fiction. As is the return to Russia in the sequel The Concubine’s Secret (The Girl From Junchow in USA). But I loved writing about a time in that country’s history when a whole new Russia was being formed under the hammer of communism. It was a momentous era.

As you can tell, I have found myself on a rollercoaster of addiction to all things Russian. My house is filling up with matryoshka dolls and my shelves with books by Tolstoy, Chekhov and Bulgakov. But I’m not ready to climb off this rollercoaster yet. I have one more Russian book to write – but this time set in the tsarist regime of the Romanovs. And then? Who knows? I can’t see a time when I won’t love to write about this magnificent country.

For me the exciting thing is that Russia has bought my books and they will soon be published there. My stories are going home.

Thanks to Kate for such an interesting piece. Kate's newest book is being issued under the title The Girl from Junchow on June 2 and under the title The Concubine's Secret in the UK on June 26.


  1. wonderful post! I need to add The Russian Concubine to my wish list.
    Its nice to learn a bit about the author behind the book.

  2. How intriguing! I've had The Russian Concubine on my shelf for a while. Looks like I need to give it a try!

  3. The Russian Concubine is a book that I've always wanted to read...and honestly, I don't know why I haven't yet! I love Russian history-it's so rich and totally fascinating. This post was great- so interesting! Thanks:)

  4. Great post! I've been wanting to read these books. I too love Russian history. My great grandparents were Germans from Russia who immigrated to the US. I always wonder at their story.

  5. I loved this post. I, too, am half Russian and love reading Russian historical fiction. It's nice to know there are authors who can write great stuff on this subject!

  6. Wonderful post.
    I too am of Russian descent.And writing.So ofcourse my work must have Russian characters.

    And just like my Russian ancestors who wrote, I need to have a complex plot.

    I don't think being Russian is really a nationality.More of a race. And I am sure the enigmatic Russian psyche is genetic.

    Good luck and have fun writing!