Last Exit to Leningrad

By Monique Farmer
March 31 2001

Settled in Brooklyn, Tully author Paullina Simons has finally called on her Russian heritage, writes Monique Farmer.

Inspiration can strike in many forms. A snatch of conversation. An intriguing newspaper clipping. A pivotal event. For Paullina Simons, inspiration always comes in the form of a vision. The vision doesn’t always appear to order, and its timing is usually odd, as it was with Simons’s latest novel, The Bronze Horseman. It was 3am, her husband was sleeping beside her and her third child lay in a bassinet at the foot of the bed …

” I was up to my neck in revisions and up to my neck with babies. I had seen something on television about Russians and I was filled with this longing for Russia. We were living in Texas and there’s nothing Russian there; no Russian comfort food. It was at that moment that I suddenly saw them, I saw the siege of Leningrad [now St Petersburg], I saw them next to each other, they were very close and very in love.”

The “them” Simons saw were a beautiful, petite, 17-year-old blonde she would call Tatiana, and a dashing 22-year-old army officer she would name Alexander. The setting was late summer, 1941, and the world of these young lovers was about to be torn apart, not only by the start of a 19-month siege of Leningrad by the Germans, which would claim the lives of more than 600,000 people, but also by the fact that Tatiana’s beloved older sister was in love with Alexander, too.

The Bronze Horseman is more than just another wartime love story. It’s an evocative portrayal of the impact of war on an ordinary Russian family. Their deprivation and hardship is extraordinarily moving. It’s impossible not to feel their pain and growing despair as the siege drags on. If readers find the 637 pages emotionally draining – and hugely rewarding – spare a thought for the author.

” If there are parts that seem real to you, it’s because I lived through them when I wrote it,” says Simons, from the Brooklyn, New York, apartment she shares with her family. “I’m writing this book, I’m crying, you can’t even imagine.”

There had been considerable pressure on Simons to produce a book drawing on her Russian heritage (she moved to America with her parents at the age of 10). She successfully avoided the subject three times – first in 1994 with her debut novel Tully, about the interwoven lives of three schoolfriends; then in 1997 with the murder mystery Red Leaves; and in 1998 with the thriller Eleven Hours, about the kidnapping of a pregnant woman.

Then came the vision and Simons was finally ready – and unstoppable.

” Once the thing happens in your head, there’s never enough time for you to write. Before you see it, five minutes is too long. You can be sitting in front of the screen for 10 hours and nothing will come to you. [With The Bronze Horseman] it wasn’t even that I was focused; I was obsessed. I didn’t go online, I didn’t talk to people, the only thing I did was write the book.” She pauses. “And I think I might have cooked dinner for my family.”

Simons was so obsessed, in fact, that she also wrote a 150-page prologue, a 100-page epilogue, and still felt she hadn’t done her vision justice. So she rewrote the prologue as a prequel, created two sequels from the epilogue, and bashed out a screenplay as well.

” It’s kind of hard on my family,” says Simons, a warm and affable interviewee. “There’s no way to avoid it. Passion does not, unfortunately, turn off at 5 o’clock.”

Simons grew up in a two-room Leningrad apartment with her parents (an engineer mother and civil-lawyer father), an uncle, aunt and cousin. When she was five, her father was arrested for anti-Communist agitation during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. During Yuri Handler’s imprisonment, he learned English and, despite scare stories from his family about the United States, became determined to give his wife and child a better life in the West. The move was, to put it mildly, a massive culture shock.

” When my dad first came to America, we once went to a party … and my father walked around the table and finished the leftovers on everybody’s plate. I think that feeling of deprivation, and the feeling that you’re lucky to have so much, that shapes you inside and you carry it forward forever.”

Similarly, 10-year-old Paullina’s first visit to an American supermarket was mind-blowing – so much food, so many choices. For her first birthday in the West, she asked for bubblegum, an unattainable luxury in Russia.

Simons had grown up hearing tales of the Leningrad siege – her paternal grandfather survived the first deadly winter largely on potatoes supplied by his family, before he joined the Red Army in 1942. Researching the subject meant returning to Russia for the first time in 25 years – Simons says it was a life-changing experience.

” I saw the people we loved still living the same life that we had left. I was filled with this feeling that had my father thought that this was the best that we could do, then we could still have been there also. Communism is now behind us 10 years, yet the people’s lot is basically the same as when we were growing up.”

She was surprised to learn that World War II still has an “enormous presence” in people’s lives. “Everywhere you look people talk about it like it just happened. They still talk about people who died in it. They talk about Hitler with venom still. It’s amazing when you come from a place like Texas where people can barely tell you which century World War II took place in.”

She returned to America feeling “tremendously guilty … I don’t think I appreciated all the things that I had built and had. I felt like I wasn’t living my life to its full potential, that I was given this unbelievable chance and I was somehow squandering it.”

Not that Simons’s life as a young immigrant had been easy. As the only Russian girl in her class, she endured endless “Better dead than red” jokes. She struggled to learn a second language. She feared that she’d never be able to read an English book without looking up every word in a dictionary. Books had always been her sanctuary, her dearest friends.

“My books were the things that transported me out of my communal apartment, out of my life where there was no TV, no toys. I remember always thinking, these characters are immortal, they will live in me until I die. Imagine having that kind of power over anyone’s memories? I remember thinking as a child, ‘If only I could be a writer, if only I could be immortal’.”

Immortality came via a political-science degree, then a job as a financial journalist. An unexpected period of unemployment gave her the time to expand the first two chapters of a book she had begun four years earlier. Two years later, she finished and sold Tully; in Australia alone it has sold more than 120,000 copies. Simons has been writing – and having babies – ever since.

Fans will have to wait for the sequel to The Bronze Horseman – it’s due out in England in late 2002 and, hopefully, here about the same time.

” Apparently, it’s not soon enough for anybody,” Simons says with satisfaction. She’s in discussion with her agent about whether it’s better to sell her screenplay or to sell the book as a film property. The latter might be more profitable, but Simons is worried about the loss of control, of a studio casting her beloved characters badly.

” This book is like my dearest child. I feel very scared for it, and very worried about how well it does. I don’t want anything to ruin it.”