A New Jersey native, award-winning author Daphne Kalotay grew up in a multi-cultural family—a Canadian mother and a Hungarian father, a fact which no doubt influenced her writing. She attended Vassar and went on to earn a Ph.D. in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Boston University. While at BU, she won the school's Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from The Henfield Foundation. Her first book was a collection of fictional pieces, Calamity and Other Stories. Kalotay is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Skidmore College in New York. Russian Winter, her first novel, was a finalist in the James Jones First Novel competition. Visit her website.
Read Susan Ideus's review of Russian Winter for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan Ideus
Posted on 08/30/2010
Russian Winter is an enchantingly complex and multi-faceted story. Where did your ideas come from, and how long did it take you to map out a story-line? How long did the entire writing process take?
The entire process took 10 years, from inception to publication. The book began as a semi-autobiographical short story about the winter I fell in love with a fellow grad student, back when I was studying Russian literature as part of my Ph.D. I wanted to write something atmospheric that would capture that rare emotion of falling in love for the first time—but I needed more of a plot and, since the idea of Russia brought to mind ballet, decided to include an aged former Bolshoi ballerina. Her mindset I based on members of my own family who survived WWII and the Soviet takeover of Hungary but have retained a certain natural paranoia due to their experience. I'd often considered writing about this part my family history but found it easier to do so in this disguised, Russian, form. And though I worked on the story for years, I eventually had to admit that it needed to become a novel. Not including my research and preliminary notes, it took about four years of intensive writing to turn it into the book it is now.
Where did your characters come from? Were any of them persons with whom you were acquainted? If so, did you use diaries or interviews? If not, how did you conceive them in your mind?
Nina is in certain key ways based on my grandmother, who was never a dancer but has the same fiery personality and shares certain experiences with Nina—most notably, living with a mother-in-law who was in denial of the new political order. Her husband's mother was a very proud woman who still viewed herself as nobility and could not accept that, now that the class system had been equalized, she was no longer a person of stature. Though she too was Hungarian, she insisted on being addressed by an old-fashioned German title that indicated that she was a doctor's wife. In my novel this real-life mother-in-law became Viktor's mother, who wants to be addressed as "Your Excellency," and whom Nina calls "Madame."
Did you "know" the characters first or the story?
While I "knew" Nina and her mother-in-law in a very basic way, at first the other characters were very unformed, which is unusual for me. Also unusual was the fact that I knew certain plot points—though not how they would all fit together. I knew Nina had to end up in Boston, which meant she would have to defect somehow, but I didn't know how she would do it. Over the years I wrote outlines and did lots of brainstorming in order to figure out the story. It says a lot about the creative process that the character of Drew began as a grad student in her twenties and ended up a divorced auction house employee in her thirties.
I know that you studied writing and teach writing, but do you also have a history background? The historical detail is woven into the story so seamlessly. Did you do many hours of historical research in preparation?
I'm not a historian and even now don't consider myself at all an expert on Russian history. I had to do a lot of reading—years' worth—in preparation. Much of the specific research I did (and I think this is true for most writers) probably never even appears in any identifiable way in the pages of the book, but all of it was necessary in that it became the invisible scaffolding that supported the story as a whole. Without that knowledge base, I wouldn't have been able to create a believable fictional world—not only because it would have lacked the necessary historical details, but also because I wouldn't have felt I had the authority to go ahead and make up a story in that time and place.
Speaking of working things in seamlessly, was it a problem for you, as you wrote, to switch from past to present in the course of the same chapter? You certainly made it very easy for me, as a reader, to follow.
Because much of the book consists of flashbacks, I knew early on that I'd have to figure out a way to move easily into the past, from Boston to Moscow, at any point. But at first these shifts were technically awkward; I thought I needed to overtly signal each shift, or give an explicit reason each time I leapt back to Russia, which just made it feel clunky. In fact, a couple of readers of an early draft urged me to just set the entire story in the past. But after a while the back and forth rhythm of moving between time and place started to come naturally to me. I don't know why, but I could feel when a shift ought to take place, and imagined each place and time very clearly.
Much of the richness and depth of this story is contained in the details (not only historical), and there are many—from the knowledge of jewelry and gemstones to the intricacies of ballet. How much of this knowledge did you possess before you wrote the book, and how much of it required in-depth study?
I'm a big dance-lover and have been reading ballerina memoirs since I was a girl—so I was happy to have a reason to read even more of them. I watched lots of ballet videos (and continued to attend the ballet here in Boston) and read a number of books about the Bolshoi and Soviet ballet specifically. I was awarded a year-long research grant and spent my days in the library. I borrowed a number of books on jewels and gemstones and read through auction catalogs. I also interviewed employees at the local auction house, since that was a topic I wasn't very familiar with. And I spoke to amber specialists and spider specialists when I realized I needed to know more about the novel's key pieces of jewelry.
Is there any one thing you would like your readers to take away from the beautiful telling of this story?
I hope readers are reminded of the great power of the arts—music, dance, poetry—and the fact that, though in our society such things are often viewed as secondary rather than necessary, they are civilizing forces that contain and express our humanity.
Do you have a writing ritual? A favorite place, time of day, use a computer, pen & paper? How do you make it work for you?
I like a room with good light and no distractions. Mornings are always good, because my mind is fresh and hasn't yet become cluttered with the business of the day. Preliminary and experimental writing I do by hand, with pen and paper; I have notebooks all over the apartment and in every purse and backpack, and can never remember where I've written what. When I'm already into a project, and have the thing typed into my computer, I work on my laptop from draft to draft. I have a big messy desk, and also an ironing board I bring my laptop over to when I need to stand up for a while.
Now that Russian Winter is completed, do you see another book in your future? Are you a writer who always has ideas germinating with that thought in mind? Do you journal or write daily to capture your thoughts and feelings?
Yes, I've been working on another novel, set in Boston, about professional musicians. It too has been germinating for years and began as a short story. While I don't have any daily writing habits that I'm rigorous about, I do keep a journal where I record my mood and thoughts and any interesting events—though I'd surely be mortified if anyone ever read it!
Finally, because all of us at Story Circle Book Reviews are such avid readers, I'd like to know what you read for pleasure and for relaxation. Who is your favorite author in terms of inspiring you as a writer?
For the past decade or so I've found myself most inspired by British novelists, most of them women: Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Isabel Colegate. Jane Gardam is a more recent discovery. These writers have such rigorous language and are so perceptive about human nature. Also, they understand that a sense of humor doesn't diminish the seriousness of one's topic. For all of those reasons, I enjoy their work immensely.