At the Eleventh Hour
Although you now live in Texas, you were born in Leningrad, and left the Soviet Union at the age of 10. Do you feel wholly American, or is there a Russian heart in you?
‘There is a very definite Russian heart in me; that never dies. I think you’re born and you live your life with it and you die with it. I’m very much an American – my books tend to be about American things, but inside there’s that sort of tortured, long-suffering, aching, constantly analysing Russian soul underneath the happy American exterior. You can tell in my books too – I can’t leave well enough alone, everything has to have that spiritual angle to it.
‘Having said that, I don’t think America is soulless – Americans are happier than the Russians, but that doesn’t mean that they’re soulless, it just means that they have a better time. The Russian people tend to agonise over everything; like the Irish, they love poetry, they love to get drunk and cry over these beautiful poems. Americans just tend to get drunk!’
To backtrack just a little bit, when did it first occur to you that there was this original story, Tully, inside you and that you were going to sit down and write a novel?
‘I was in England at the time, actually. And I’d always said, ‘I want to be a writer, I really want to be a writer, I want to be a novelist …!’ until one day my then husband just told me bluntly to stop talking about it, and actually do something. ‘If you want to write,’ he said, ‘write a short story, that’s how writers get started. And,’ he added, ‘if you can do it, I’ll let you have a computer.’ So, two days later this idea for a short story came to me – a girl called Sally Tucker trying to choose between the two guys she was seeing. But when I started writing it, and Sally became Tully, I realised that it was just too big for a short story. It became obvious that this was a whole life I was writing, a full novel. So it really started there. I wrote the first two or three chapters while I was still in England and even when I then left the country I knew that Tully was going to be my first book, I knew that iIf I was ever going to write anything, Tully would be it.’
When you start writing, do you know where you’re headed or do your characters take you by surprise?
‘Well, with Tully I pretty much had to know because it was such a big book, although I have to say that I’d originally pictured a different end for her. As I wrote – and I was only maybe a quarter of the way through the book – I realised that I couldn’t have the end I wanted and God, it broke my heart! I was in complete crisis. But as a writer you’re a slave to your characters. It’s not so much that they take you over, it’s just that you have to be true to them. And once you believe in a character then they carry the story along. Equally, they have to be true for your reader. You have to keep your audience in your mind; if you’re writing stuff that you know nobody’s going to care about then you should rethink what you’re doing! And, of course a book like Tully, for example, that had so many readers provoked very different responses from different people. But it made me realise that so long as you write something that feels true to you, you’re going to be OK.’
Tell us a little more about Didi (full name Desdemona), the central character in Eleven Hours where did her name come from, is she like you, where did she spring from?
‘It’s funny, I tell you, I always wanted to name a character Desdemona – a woman whose name would be her greatest punishment and her greatest reward. Because how do you live your life with a name like that! So in Eleven Hours there’s this woman named Desdemona and she’s the most average woman ever – she’s happily married, she’s got kids, she’s not a celebrity, she’s not famous, she’s just your average, everyday housewife. And yet she’s got this name, this weighted name, Desdemona. Something is going to happen to her!
‘To a large extent the book is concerned with fate and the issues you can’t control – you think everything is going well and you think you’ve got a handle on your life, then suddenly you find out that you don’t have a handle on anything. I’m probably not as overtly religious as Didi is, but what we do share is this feeling that destiny really rules you. There are forces that act upon us that we have no control over. But it is up to us to deal with what we’re given once we find ourselves in those situations.’
USA Today described Tully as ‘a protagonist as thoroughly American and contemporary as, well, an identity crisis.’ Do you think your Russian ‘soul’ allows you to view American culture from a slightly detached and therefore more acute angle?
‘I think what my Russian side allows me to do is to see American culture from a more objective perspective – and a subjective one at the same time. In other words, because I didn’t grow up with all the things that Americans take for granted, I am able to look at this and say, ‘we’re so lucky, we’re so fortunate, we have so many things, so many opportunities …’ I tend to be a great optimist when it comes to the United States and the American way of life, I think precisely because I wasn’t born into it. It’s much easier for people who were to say, ‘… but look at this and look at that …’ and for me to say, ‘yes, yes, you’re right, but also look at this.’ So that’s what it allows me to do.’
You once told the New York Times that you worked until four or five in the morning when writing Tully, a book ‘written at fever pitch’. Is this still the way you write? Are you compulsive?
‘I’ve got to tell you – I’m like that about everything, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. Here’s how it goes. I’m sitting there at the computer and I’m procrastinating, thinking ‘OK, I’ve got to start writing, I’ve got to start writing …’ Then I see the card games I have on there – the solitaire and so forth, so I think, ‘well, I’ll just play one game’. Two hours later … I’m still trying to get my 52 cards all in a row! So pretty much everything I do is like that! I either don’t want to start things or I don’t want to stop things; I’m constantly in a state of flux. But yes, I wrote Eleven Hours in the same way – truly at the same speed at which you read it.’
Do you think Eleven Hours would have been such an emotive book if you hadn’t been pregnant when you wrote it?
‘I don’t think so. I’m not sure it would have been possible had I not been pregnant and, in fact, I don’t think I could have written it any earlier in my pregnancy either. I really think the book is like my nightmare, my nightmare of labour. The book culminates in labour as pregnancy culminates in labour – that thing nobody can help you with. The force of it is so blunt and so incredible, you’re desperate for help and yet you’re on your own. Nobody can help you with that. You’ve just got to come out on the other side.
‘It was very disturbing writing Eleven Hours. I had so many fears because of my pregnancy – I was afraid to leave the house, afraid to get into the car, afraid of an accident. And yet even the most fragile human beings – and you don’t get much more fragile than a pregnant woman with another life inside of her – rise to the endurance test that they’re put to. You can’t believe the experiences that human beings have gone through and still come out on the other side alive and intact – perhaps even all the stronger for the experience. How do people survive labour camps, the loss of their children …? I don’t know, I don’t know. But somehow they go on and they live and laugh again.’
You once said in an interview that, when you were first pregnant, your mother warned, ‘Oh there goes your career …!’ but you don’t seem to have taken any notice!
‘I did take notice of that when she said it. I was only 23 years old and this was my mother, who’d had her own experience of giving up a career for the sake of her family. So I couldn’t just say out of hand, ‘no mom, that’s completely bogus, I can have both.’ But I did just believe that my life was going to work out. And the reason I did it is that I thought that it would. You have to make choices, obviously, but ultimately I thought to myself, if you want to have both, you can do it.’
‘But Rich, your meeting.’
‘But Donna, my wife.’
A very simple exchange in Eleven Hours, but doesn’t it touch on the balance we make these days between work and family, business time and family time. Have we got it wrong?
‘I think sometimes we do really have it wrong and thank God I’m lucky enough to be married to a man who has that balance well in hand. It’s my greatest happiness to have that in my life, but I do see a lot of marriages, a lot of families, where the balance is truly sad and unequal. In the end the family becomes almost like two lives: the mom with her kids at home and then the dad out making a living – although perhaps he’s in a better position to have a life outside too.
‘Once you get into a routine it’s hard to pull back and think, hold on, let’s look at this differently. I work from 10am to 6pm at home, and so I do hear my kids downstairs. But it’s still 10 till 6 of their waking hours and I do sometimes think, ‘oh my gosh, there’s another person taking care of them – although I’m just here, up in my room, I’m not with them.’ And then I see other moms walking along the street with their babies and you wonder, have I got it right?’
Your first novel was an epic, the demands of the plot in your second novel, Red Leaves, must have constricted you more, and you seem to be getting tougher on yourself with every book – in your latest you’ve given yourself literally eleven hours of time within which the whole story is contained. It’s as if you set yourself a new challenge each time!
‘Yes! A smaller scope each time! I already have it all planned – this is how it goes: the next time it’s going to be a short story for, say, a magazine; then a feature article for a newspaper; then it’s going to be a 500 word column in Newsweek and after that I’m reducing myself to a Day in the Life in the Readers Digest! I’ll be able to compress my life into a paragraph!
‘More seriously, my next book, The Bronze Horseman, is – I don’t want to say ‘epic’ – but more of a Tully-type novel. It tells the story of a Russian girl and an American soldier during World War II – a story of great love during a time of immense tragedy.’