Russian Pride

Source: The Advertiser
November 17, 2007 12:00am

FOR Paullina Simons, “Australia is very, very exotic, and I am fascinated by the beauty there”.

For many Australians, the Leningrad-born, New York-based writer is just as exotic and fascinating. Or at least her books are – we buy them by the bin load, more than 100,000 copies a time, and while she has sold more than two million books in 19 countries, her sales here make up nearly half of them. So it’s hardly surprising that she now publishes in Australia before anywhere else, or that her third trip here coincides with the release of her ninth book, Road to Paradise.

Australians seem to identify with her complex characters and epic romances edged with menace. “It’s a people thing,” she says with quiet pride. “I think they respond to the truth in my books, and the love.”

Her first novel, the Kansas-set Tully in 1994, was panned and praised by American critics with equal passion, but embraced here with unforeseen fervour. “The Australian sales for it essentially grew by word of mouth.” she says. “They really kick-started my career around the world.”

Simons’ readers are dedicated, and internet interactive. Queues at her signing sessions are always long and at her literary events fans can become emotional.

Which is why there was some excitement last year when a newspaper suggested she was moving to Australia. That bemused Simons, but she doesn’t rule it out completely: her life has consisted of dramatic relocations. The longest she has lived in one place since leaving Russia in 1973 has been five years. That makes it close to time up on her present home on the outskirts of Northport, a small town on Long Island.

Family roots shape her values, influence her books. Her eldest child was born from her first marriage to an Englishman, another three from her marriage to her high-school best friend Kevin Ryan, a writer whose work includes seven Star Trek stories.

The children, ranging from 20 to five, “get along pretty well”, she says, “although life is sometimes emotionally messy”. As is her larger family history. She’s still mourning her grandfather, who died this year at 99. He survived the siege of Leningrad before joining the Red Army in 1942, and had a profound influence on her.

Equally influential are her parents, now in North Carolina. As a boy in World War II, her father was evacuated to Stalingrad in the mistaken belief he’d be safe. Instead he experienced the worst rigours of war. Then in 1968, he criticised the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

“He was clearly not in favour of events in Czechoslovakia and he wrote to Pravda to say so. He was in prison for a year in Leningrad, did two years in a gulag then was exiled for two years, then we emigrated during a period of detente in 1973 on an Israeli visa. Once we got to Vienna, we were free of Soviet controls and changed our destination to America,” Simons says.

She was 10, spoke no English and was picked on at school as a “red spy” and “commo”. School was a battle she had to fight alone. “I was an only child,” she says. “And so was my sister.” There’s a 15-year gap between them, “and by the time she was two, I was already in college”.

That was a state university in New York, from where she fled a failed love affair to Essex University in England, met her to-be husband, returned with him to Kansas University where she graduated in political science, then lived in England for five years, working as a financial journalist.

After her marriage ended in 1990, she returned to the U.S. with a child and an unfinished manuscript. That became Tully. And she became what she’d always wanted to be, a full-time writer.

Which brings us to Road to Paradise, a coming-of-age road trip “where two young girls go on a mission from one coast to the other, but get derailed by the ‘bartered bride’, who they reluctantly pick up along the road. Before they realise it, it is too late to escape the danger and risk”. The bartered bride refers to Bedrich Smetana’s comic opera, and the book was going to be a reworking of that tale before it evolved into a “character-driven novel about love and friendship”. As with all Simons’ work, there’s an edginess of mystery. And the protagonists cross America in a canary-yellow Mustang, as their creator did during her research.

“It was the most canary, most ostentatious, yellowest Mustang you’ve ever seen – I can’t tell you how many people beeped and gave the thumbs up as I drove, because in America the ‘stang is a symbol of speed, of throwing caution to the wind,” Simons says.

Road to Paradise is actually her second book this year after Tatiana’s Table, released in April. A coda to The Bronze Horseman trilogy, it was based around recipes for meals mentioned in those books. In it, she writes of Tatiana hoping “her end product will be better if all its parts are good. Form and substance. She feels that way about many things in life”. She laughs when I mention it: “There is my whole philosophy of life . . . I’m talking about every single thing that is ever made by anyone, and about the effort that you make in all areas of your life – it’s the little pieces that make the whole.”

So you’re an ordered person? “Completely chaotic in every way you can imagine,” she says. “Order is the least of my being. I want it, I wish for it desperately, I desire it. I don’t have any controlling measure. It’s 100 miles a time all the time.”

Tatiana who, I suspect, has some Paullina in her, also says she “didn’t want other people to notice her eccentricities”.

“I don’t have any eccentricities,” Simons fires back. “None. I am very non-eccentric. Eccentric is somebody who has the identical suit in his closet times 17 . . . eccentric is when you look at other people and you say ‘God, that’s weird’. And no one would do that about me.”

So her l-endowed Christian name? “That could be eccentricity,” she admits. “My mother, when we came to the U.S., spelled my name Polina, the Russian way, but everyone called me Po-liner. I hated that so in eighth grade I changed it to Paulleena, just to be clear. By ninth grade, I realised that was a bit excessive so I changed it to Paulina but kept two ls because I liked the look of them. I still do. It’s me.”

Paullina Simons will talk about her book at the Stamford Grand Hotel, Glenelg, on Sunday, November 25 (book at Angus & Robertson, Glenelg, ph: 8376 1112) and the following day at a literary lunch at Track Restaurant, Norwood (book at A&R Norwood, ph: 8331 0946).

In her words

Extract from Road to Paradise, by Paullina Simons (HarperCollins, $32.99*)

When we spotted her a second time, we couldn’t believe it was the same gal. I slowed down, we looked. Can it be? we said. It is. Should we stop? No, no. No hitchhikers. But she waved to us; recognised us. Look, it’s fate, I said. What are the chances of running into the same girl in different states, hundreds of miles apart. I don’t believe in fate, said my friend Gina. Come on, I said. You gotta believe in something. What do you believe in? Not fate, said Gina, pointing. And not her.

I cajoled. We’ll give her a lift down the road. When it stops being convenient, we’ll let her off. I saw her in the rearview mirror running toward us. Running and waving. That frame is on every page in my helpless head. Seeing her get closer and closer. This is what I keep coming back to: I should have kept going.

If only I hadn’t gotten that damn, cursed, awful, hateful, hated car. How I loved that car. Where was it?

Family first . . . Paullina Simons’ roots shape her values and play out in her books.
Picture supplied by KEVIN RYAN