We met up with Paullina Simons to talk in more detail about The Bronze Horseman and about her life in general.
You grew up in Russia, then lived in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Where do you feel most at home?
My blessing and my curse is that I have lived in so many places that I find myself easy to attach and easy to detach from all of them. Russian is what I am, American is what I have become, English is what I happily was and fondly remember. But since I was ten years old, I have never lived in any one location longer than two years. The longest I’ve ever lived anywhere was the Fifth Soviet apartment which is one of the settings in The Bronze Horseman. I don’t belong in Russia now anymore than I belong in Texas or Long Island, or Kansas, or Brooklyn, but when I think of things that affect me: of the songs that I love, or books that I adore, or foods that comfort me, or language that soothes me, invariably, those things are all Russian.
Your books are all very different. Your first book, Tully, was a rich, emotional saga. Your second book, Red Leaves, was a murder mystery. Your third book, Eleven Hours was a psychological suspense thriller. And The Bronze Horseman is an historical novel. What makes them all Paullina Simons books?
I have a certain sensibility that I bring to my writing that comes from knowing two things: what I as a reader like to read, and what as a writer I am capable of. I know my own limits. I know there are things I cannot do. What I like to read, however, and like to write, are stories where the action unfolds for the characters as it unfolds for the reader, where neither the narrator nor the reader knows what’s going to happen in the future, and so we are all along for the same ride. As a reader I like to discover things on my own and make up my own mind about what’s happening to the characters. Mark Twain calls it something very simple: “Begin at the beginning, go on until the end, then stop.” The effect and immediacy of real-time writing cannot be overstated for me as a reader. It’s like watching C-span-once you start, you cannot look away. However, I try to be slightly more judicious than C-span in what I show the reader in my stories.
Also, I enjoy dialogue that’s alive. I like characters that fight, that love, that are larger than life, I like pain and suffering, I like longing and yearning and loneliness, and grief. I like to think of these things and I like to show them on the page. I also grapple in my fiction with recurrent themes: what is the morality for man, for woman, what is the right thing, how far do we deviate, what, if anything, can bring us back? Lies, deceit, manipulation, remorse, conscience, these threads run through all my stories. They are the things that draw me to the stories in the first place.
Your first three books were very much slices of Americana. What made you venture to World War II Russia for The Bronze Horseman?
I have studiously avoided Russia in my previous fiction for a number of conscious and subconscious reasons. My judgmental family is still alive, and my grandfather, when he found out that I wanted to write a book about Russia and the war, said, “Oh, no, I hope you don’t embarrass us all and get everything wrong. I don’t want to be turning in my grave for eternity because of all the lies you wrote in your book.”
” No”, I replied, “I certainly wouldn’t want that.”
But that just about sums up my paralysis while writing this book. And truthfully, I felt that I hadn’t been ready to write about Russia. It’s too personal and too tied up in me with the most important things. We left under egregious circumstances, we thought we would never see Russia again. We came to America seeking a better life, and we found it. All I ever wanted was to be a full-blooded American. So I wrote Tully, who was from the Midwest. She appealed to me because she was American, though she suffered like a true Russian and made everyone else suffer with her-also like a true Russian.
And with Red Leaves, I wanted to do a study on premeditated murder, in a typically American setting, but in a typically Russian fashion. Not a murder mystery, but a character study of murder, and the detective had to be American-but tortured.
With Eleven Hours, I again took a typical middle-class American family about to have a baby, and turned that on its head, with all my Russian slow-cooking thoughts on good and evil, destiny and free will, and God. So I feel that even before The Bronze Horseman, Russia was in all my “American” books.
But finally I found a subject set in Russia that was worthy of my attention and my time and that subject was the siege of Leningrad. I started with two young people in the throes of first love and I added the blockade and then I added right and wrong and destiny and free will and good and evil, and then suddenly I realized that the book was not even about those things first and foremost, but about how difficult it was in the context of the Soviet Union to have the things that we take for granted all over the world. And about how lucky I am that my father’s extraordinary belief in America and his boundless optimism was strong enough to give me and my sister a better life, and a life for our children and our children’s children. Because of his one brave act all future generations of his family now have hope. Unlike all of our contemporaries in Russia.
Now that was a subject worthy of my attention, but it was a frightening endeavour.
Your books evoke very strong reader responses on places such as the reader review sections of Amazon.co.uk, where you see many five star reviews and have readers calling your work their favourite books of all time. Where do you think your appeal lies?
No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. I was a basket case writing The Bronze Horseman. I simply could not think about anything else or feel for anything else for many months. Some of my heartbreak, for Russia, for Tatiana and Alexander, must have come through on the page, the same as my heartbreak for Tully came through in that book. She was as real to me as if I had known her myself, and many readers have said to me that she was real to them-one of the comments I receive about The Bronze Horseman as well.
Who are your literary heroes?
Frederick Forsyth. If you read Day of the Jackal, you’ll know why. You simply cannot look away from that book, which details the minutia of an assassin’s days before a failed attempt on Charles DeGaulle’s life. C.S. Lewis because he is so brilliant and so funny. Arthur Koestler because he made the birth of Israel come alive the way no writer ever made history come alive for me. And Solzhenitsyn because you cannot say enough about the Gulag Archipelago.
Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dumas’s The Three Muskeeteers, Forster’s A Room with a View, Guest’s Ordinary People, White’s Charlotte’s Web, Capote’s In Cold Blood, and non-fiction Truman by Gerald Clarke.
You have also had a huge success internationally. How does reader response differ in the United States and other countries?
Interestingly, it’s about the same. What readers respond to in Australia, New Zealand, England, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Greece, judging from their letters, is a certain immediate sensibility about the characters and the story. “I thought she was real.” “I couldn’t put the book down.” “Compulsive reading.” “She was like a person I knew.” Particularly with Tully, I often receive letters from people telling me of their own troubles similar to Tully’s, all very emotional and very poignant.