Deborah Swift talks revolutionary Russia and violins with Vanora Bennett
DS: Whilst researching Midnight in St Petersburg you began making a violin as part of your research. Could you tell us something of the process, and also tell us about whether the making of it had parallels to your writing of the novel.
VB: Making a violin is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever done, and something I’d wanted to do for many years before I thought of writing a novel with violin-makers as characters – ever since I was a child and learning to play one. I was scared of trying for a long time too (perhaps there’s a parallel there with starting to write novels, something else I waited for nearly half my life before trying). But, a full five years after I was told the name of the school in Cambridge where I’m now working on my instrument, I finally realised that perhaps the only way I would actually get round to doing it was if I were also writing about it, and started to think about stories about violins – something which turned out to open up all kinds of new writing ideas – and plucked up the courage to ring the school and ask if they’d have me. No problem, they said. And so I began, both the story and the instrument.
Both things are completely absorbing, enough to make you surprised at the time that’s passed while you’ve been concentrating. But in some ways there is nothing less like writing fiction than being at violin school. With writing, you’re on your own. At the school, you’re always a pupil, always with teachers, and always absorbing someone else’s knowledge. You know too little to survive on your own. You’re given a set of violin wood – two matching pairs of wedges in different kinds of wood for the front and back, a series of thin strips of hardwood for the sides, and a block out of which you will carve the scroll. You’re always with other people, always chatting, absent-mindedly, however much your hands and eyes are concentrating on what you’re doing. And you’re supervised to the nth degree and told, at every stage, exactly what to do: which instrument to use and how to hold it, as well as when, even if you think you’ve completed a task, you’re going to need to try a bit harder and make it a bit better. If you get stuck, you just sit back and wait for a tutor to get you unstuck.
But of course there are similarities. Both with writing and violin making, there’s a lot of rough shaping that goes on before you get anywhere near polishing; a lot of craft before you approach art, and a lot of wood shavings on the floor. Often you don’t know what you’re doing, or why, until you see that final shape emerging. There’s an element of mystery about that: the magic moment when something goes right, when all you’ve had beforehand is a vague sense of the form beauty might take; the surprise and joy of actually seeing it materialise. And, perhaps most importantly, in both mediums, it’s relatively easy to recover from terrible mistakes. Just as you can rework a text to remove the horrors you put in a first draft, saving only the parts you finally realise you want, wood turns out to be a very forgiving material which can be mended and coaxed back into shape whatever you’ve done to it.
DS: You are justly well-known for your novels set in different periods of English history, so what made you want to write a book about revolution-era Russia, and what convinced you that this was a story that had to be told?
VB: One kind of answer is that the upheavals of Russia in the revolutionary era made it both a good place to look for stories – because the best stories are born of conflict, and of people testing their mettle against changing circumstances – and a good place to look for violin stories. So many possessions changed hands in those years, and so much was stolen or smuggled away. Among the easiest portables to move were violins, and it struck me that to follow the movement of a violin would be a good way to tell the bigger story of the upheavals and the people involved in them. If you look at the pedigree and provenance of many of the instruments that started coming up for sale in the West in the Twenties and Thirties, a large number had last been seen in Tsarist Russia, subsequently arriving in New York, Paris or London in one of many opaque ways. Even before the Revolution, violins, and violin playing, were one of the few passports out of the ghetto for Russian Jews. I was brought up by my musician parents to the sound of scratchy old 78 recordings of Jascha Heifetz and other violin geniuses of the early 20th century. Their beautiful playing was always accompanied by stories about the Jewish child prodigies who, as a result of practising rather more than I ever did, found themselves hyperspaced out of their humble birthplaces to play music to the princes of Europe.
Secondly, it was only a question of time before I wrote a novel about Russia because, however English I am, and however much I’ve enjoyed writing four novels set in the English past, I have also spent a lot of my life finding out about and living in Russia and am completely fascinated by the place. I studied Russian at school and university, then spent the seven years after the collapse of Communism living in Moscow. I feel very at home in a culture which I find compelling – more claustrophobic and cruel than ours, in some ways, but also more exhilarating, wild, free and beautiful in others. Russians are prone to telling foreigners “you’ll never be bored here.” I never was. I wanted to share my fascination.
Finally – and most importantly – what I started off wanting to write was about the way people who have lost their homeland feel and behave – something that stemmed from my early reporting on refugees. Ever since covering conflicts in the former Russian empire and elsewhere in the world, I’ve been impressed by the resilience and courage with which people forced out of their homes by violence or need adapt and reshape their lives in new settings. I couldn’t help sympathising with people who must, with good reason, feel so alone and unprotected. Nor could I help admiring their underdog courage and determination to survive, especially once I’d seen with my own eyes some of the horrors they’d left behind. In a century which has seen so much upheaval, watching the human spirit survive this kind of test seemed the most interesting possible subject for a writer. So I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book about someone with an impossible past, someone squeezed out of one life and trying to start again in a new place – about the burst of almost insane determination that would propel them into a new orbit somewhere else, and, also, once they were safely there, about the residual fear that would then keep them quiet and panicky, for many years afterwards, fearing that one wrong word or one wrong thought might expose them, and put them back into danger. I wanted to describe the loneliness of that, and look at how difficult it is to break through that second-stage timidity and, eventually, get your courage back to live life to the full and know your own mind and heart.
For a while I thought about making it a modern story, featuring an illegal immigrant in London. But I didn’t want to get caught up in the often hostile platitudes of the contemporary debate about refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants. So making Inna Jewish in Russia on the eve of revolution a century ago (an oppressed minority if ever there was one) had one more plus, for me – it gave her a more “neutral” historical context.
DS: Given that you spent seven years in Moscow, what is it about St Petersburg that made it irresistible for you as a setting for your novel?
VB: Apart from the fact that it is so beautiful, it was basically familiarity that made St Petersburg my setting of choice. Ever since going there at 18, right after my A-levels (having sold my violin to pay for the trip), I’ve spent all the time I possibly can there. I later came to feel especially at home in St Petersburg because of the family who befriended me and pretty much took me in as an extra daughter. I’ve set this story in a flat with their address, on the corner of Hay Market Square, which was once a more mainstream market place but in my time had become a seedy, bedraggled, muddy, open-air sort of place, with shooting ranges in corners and dodgy geezers changing money and old men in brass bands playing sad songs outside the Metro. I’ve changed a lot, of course – they aren’t recognizably there. But I’ve put in a few mementoes of them, including a reference to midnight tea with the delicious cake they like to eat – apple sharlottka.
DS: I was interested to see that one of your own relatives features in your novel. Can you tell us a little about why you chose to include him, and how it affected your telling of the story?
VB: I only found out I had a relative who’d lived in pre-revolutionary Russia when I’d been living in post-Communist Russia for several years, and was at a bit of a crossroads in my own life. I wasn’t sure whether to go on working as a journalist abroad – Russia was so exciting, and it was hard to tear myself away – or to go home and settle down and have a family and a normal life. Then I discovered a fragment of Horace Wallich’s story – where he worked and how he got away from Russia – in a handwritten note written by my dead grandmother in an old book, and tried my best – with very little success – to piece together more about this exciting “new” ancestor who’d been in the same Russian city as me by doing research inside Russia. In the end it was my father in London – who’d never mentioned this ancestor, and whom I’d never thought to ask – who turned out to have known “Uncle Horace”, and unexpectedly filled in the gaps. It turned out Horace Wallich had stayed in Russia too long, perhaps thrilled by all its larger-than-life excitement, and been spoiled for the quiet phlegmatism of life in England. He never quite managed to settle down afterwards. I took his story as a cautionary tale, and decided it was time for me to come home. I’m delighted I did. You could say I’ve lived happily ever after! So writing his story now, and giving him more hope of a future, felt like a way of saying thank you.
DS: Finally, can you give us some insight into what we can expect from your next book? Is it another Russian novel?
VB: Yes, though it’s the “other” Russia this time – a story set among about the emigres who settled in Paris after the revolution, who refused to give up their Russianness, yet were unable to go home – I’m still really interested in that theme of exile and want to take it further.
DS: Thanks to Vanora for giving us these great insights into Midnight in St Petersburg and her writing process. If you live in London and would like to hear Vanora talk more about writing historical fiction you can catch her in conversation with Jane Thynne at the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town on May 14th. Or find out more on her website http://vanorabennett.com/
Deborah Swift is the author of three novels set in the 17th Century – The Lady’s Slipper, The Gilded Lily and A Divided Inheritance (coming soon). A former costume designer for theatre and TV, she now teaches creative writing. You can find her blog, The Riddle of Writing, at www.deborahswift.blogspot.com