What’s in a name? A Q&A with Paullina Simons

Rachel Potter, January 19 2002,
All About Romance http://www.likesbooks.com/paullinasimons.html

Rachel Potter: Our readers and review staff fell in love with The Bronze Horseman. I noticed, though, that the editorial reviews for it and some of your earlier books such as Tully, and Red Leaves were less than enthusiastic, although I do recall reading some nice reviews for Eleven Hours. Can you speculate on this overall discrepancy, and what is it about your writing that makes it resonate with readers but not critics. In particular I’m interested in this last question as it relates to The Bronze Horseman, which is both lengthy and not the typical time period/locale addressed in popular fiction.

Paullina Simons: Ah, Ah, I can tell you what the discrepancy is: many of the reviewers have not read The Bronze Horseman which, I think, is a real impediment to their offering an accurate opinion. Had they read the whole book, even if the plight of Alexander and Tatiana did not move them, they would have at least mentioned, glanced upon, the siege of Leningrad. They would have said a word, a sentence about the historical non-fiction suffering of the people of Leningrad, for how could you not talk about such a devastation in the middle of the novel? It’s like reviewing Gone with the Wind and not mentioning the Civil War, or Exodus without mentioning the state of Israel.

We had made it very easy for reviewers by giving them a press release that talked about the historical background of the book – the German siege in particular – that they could write about without giving away the plot, but I could see many of them could not even be bothered to read the press release.

Eleven Hours was a much shorter book and easier for reviewers to get through, as was Red Leaves. And Tully was my first novel, which gets special reading dispensation among reviewers (most of the time they read first novels.). Tully received wildly polarized reviews: some critics hated it, others loved it. What I find interesting is that of my four books, Red Leaves and Eleven Hours got the warmest critical response yet the coolest reader response, while Tully received decidedly mixed reviews but was the book that was dearest to my readers all over the world until The Bronze Horseman, which received an overwhelming, emotional, intense reader response and nearly no critical reception whatsoever. I have a feeling that a six hundred page book is just too much to ask from reviewers who don’t have the time to read – a detriment in their line of work. My readers, on the other hand, have the time, take the time, and receive the book exactly how it’s meant to be received. Also my publishers – who must read the book before they buy it – and The Bronze Horseman has been bought in more countries and for more remuneration than any of my previous books.

I don’t think about distinctions between commercial and literary books when I write, only when I read. I know that when I read, literary books often leave my heart dry and commercial fiction sometimes concentrates too much on plot. But for a book to be read and re-read it has to have layers and skins, and be enjoyed on a number of different levels-for characters, for plot, for life meaning, and for heart.

Rachel: What I most loved about The Bronze Horseman was the excellent characterization. I felt privileged and honored to be able to meet Tania and Alexander, and I fell in love with them both. There were times when I actually had to stop myself from praying for them, they became so real. My colleague, Nora Armstrong, thought the dialogue was terrific. Talk with our readers about characterization and how you approach writing dialogue.

Paullina: Characters are very hard to get right, because to make them real I need to imagine their life in so much color and I can’t since I haven’t started writing the meat of the book yet. They tend to grow as I continue to write, and I end up going back forty times and re-writing all their inconsistencies so that they fit into the character they have become. (things like, they can’t giggle if they’re not the giggling type or they have to be more manly, or less whiny, or more cowardly.) I only see the characters fully after I finish writing the book. As far as dialogue is concerned, if I see the scene clear in my head then I can hear the people speak and I just write down what I hear. If I don’t see the scene, I write the bare bones of the scene and flesh it out later. Either way, I always go back and re-write a number of times, to make the dialogue more real, more colorful; I cut and add to infinity. I’m glad the dialogue works-sometimes it’s very hard to get just right.

Rachel: Share with our readers how you got into writing. Feel free to go back into your history as far as you’d like. And what’s up next for you?

Paullina: I always knew I wanted to be a writer, ever since I was a little girl growing up in Russia, because books affected me like nothing else, and I always wished I could write something that would affect other people the way I had been affected by my favorite novels. When I came to America at age 10, I had the barrier of learning a new language to overcome, but my dream in life, even in broken English, had been to be a novelist someday. I wrote my first “novel” in English when I was 12-78 hand-written pages called The Legend of Amiromani – a cross between a Star Trek Episode, Rosemary’s Baby and The Great Gatsby. It was very derivative. My mother threw it out years later in her mad rush to clean the attic.
Next for me is the continuation of Tatiana and Alexander’s story called The Bridge to Holy Cross.

Rachel: Most authors tend to have been tremendous readers throughout their lives. Is this the same for you? Are you attracted to the “word” aspect or the story-telling aspect, or both? Given that English is not your first language, how do you suppose this affects your writing – are the words more or less important?

Paullina: I don’t think you can be a good writer without having been an avid reader sometime in your life – words form language and language forms imagination and feelings. Without those two things, how can you write a decent book?

It has certainly been the same for me – I have been a reader all my life; I live by the written word.

In novels, the originality of the construction and the use of language is what makes the book memorable. However, words alone do not make a good book – a novel has to have a story, a beginning, middle and end, a resolution, a conflict, meaning, feeling. You can have a good story without memorable “words” or you can have no story at all with beautiful words, and both books work on some level for readers, but when you have a book that has both, that’s when you remember the book best.

English not being my first language is my weakness and my strength. I sometimes have trouble with the cultural linguistic idioms in English (i.e., I get them all wrong) but what Russian gives me is a visualization of feelings and passion and suffering that English alone does not. I feel in Russian but think in English, so to speak. Russian reaches into parts of my brain that English does not touch.

Rachel: Who are your favorite authors? What are your favorite books? What is your all-time favorite novel, and why?

Paullina: In books as in music, what I love is individual books and songs that move me. I’m not so much into authors as I am into books. East of Eden has to be one of my favorite books of all time, and though I’ve read other books by John Steinbeck and liked them, nothing quite gave me the same feeling. Same with Henry James and Portrait of a Lady. I do happen to have a weakness for E.M. Forster, and Charles Dickens is consistently funny, though I for some reason was quite disappointed in Great Expectations. (my expectations were too high, I think). I was likewise disillusioned with The Brothers Karamazov, though I liked Crime and Punishment better.

One exception to my singular books sentiment is P.J. O’Rourke. I’ve never read anything by that man that I did not love. Some I love more, some I laugh at more, but he is one of the few writers whose books I buy without bothering to find out what they’re about.