What's in a Name? A Q&A with Paullina Simons

(January 19, 2002)

 

In 2001 a book was published that struck a chord with our readers. It was talked up on our message boards and even spawned a discussion group of its own. That book was Paullina Simons' The Bronze Horseman, a World War II novel set in the Soviet Union during the blockade of Leningrad.

When I read this book I was amazed at how much it affected me. I read it and re-read it and then read it a third time for good measure. I hadn't realized how hungry I was for something different until I picked up Simons' book. When I finished it for the first time, I knew that this was the best book I'd read in long, long time. It was certainly the best book I read in 2001, and both the hero, Alexander, and the heroine, Tania, moved right up to the top spots on my list of favorite heroes and heroines.

Since The Bronze Horseman affected me so much, I was eager to interview Paullina Simons, who graciously agreed even though she was very close to the due date for delivering a baby. Most of this interview was conducted before the birth of her baby, but part came after. I only hope to have it together as well as she does when my husband and I are lucky enough to have a baby!

Let's begin.

--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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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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.

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?

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.

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

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.

Favorite books...

Hmm...

Okay. From childhood (before ten) - all read in Russian:

  • The Three Musketeers (first and foremost) by Alexandre Dumas
  • 15-year-old Captain by Jules Verne
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
  • Childhood, Adolescence, Youth by Leo Tolstoy

From adolescence:

  • Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Summer of 42 by Herman Raucher (plus everything else by Herman Raucher)
  • The World According to Garp by John Irving
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

From Adulthood:

  • East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
  • A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Parliament of Whores by PJ O'Rourke
  • Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949 by Arthur Koestler
  • Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
  • Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsythe

What can you tell us about your background?

I was born in Leningrad, USSR, in 1963 and came to America at the end of 1973 when I was ten. I went to a state university in New York, then to Essex University in Colchester, England, and finally got my degree in political science from Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas. I was married to an Englishman from 1986 to 1990 (one child) and then remarried an American in 1994, whom I refer to as my "second husband" (he refers to me as his "first wife") and with whom I have three children. I currently live in Brooklyn, NY.

I know The Bronze Horseman is your fourth novel, and that your first novel, Tully, was published in 1994. Talk to us about your writing and publishing history in general, and then in specific, such as how long it takes you to research and write a book? How much of your life is given over to your writing? Do you do a lot of reading for pleasure as opposed to research?

I don't worry too much about research unless I'm using it as a means of procrastination, which I did with The Bronze Horseman. The subject matter was just too big. Usually I get a few basics down, write the book, and on subsequent edits fill in what research is needed to complete the novel. But researching your book is not writing. Making notes, outlining, plotting is not writing. Talking about your book is not writing. Only writing is writing.

Each one of my books has been different in terms how long it took to finish because so many factors are involved. When I wrote Tully, I still had to freelance to pay the rent. Writing the first draft from start to finish is not the same thing as revising and rewriting and editing and then handing it in to a publisher and editing the book and then copy-editing, and then proofreading it. Tully's first draft took me a year. To get Tully into fighting shape for the potential publisher took me another year. And then it was one more year for editorial, copy edit and proofread to get it published. Red Leaves was about three years from start to publication. Eleven Hours two years from start to publication; however the first draft of Eleven Hours took me only six weeks. The Bronze Horseman was four years from start to publication, three years before I handed it in to the publishers.

When I am in the middle of the actual writing of my books, I don't do any reading for pleasure at all, certainly never fiction. But when I'm in an in-between period, then I read for pleasure as much as my schedule will allow me.

How do you write? Are you more concerned with plotting or characterization? Do your characters ever get out of control and do things you aren't expecting or don't want them to? Did Alexander and Tania appear full blown and moving or did you get to know them over time?

My plot and characters are thoroughly intertwined. Without a story, I don't have a novel, but if my characters aren't fleshed out, what good is a story going to be to anyone? Bits by bits I saw Tully's complicated life, but it wasn't until I was in the middle of the actual writing the book that her character fully emerged. The same can be said for the secondary characters-they all get to be body and flesh when I am in the middle of their life. In very tightly plotted books like Red Leaves and Eleven Hours, the characters cannot ever get out of control because then the story will be changed.

With The Bronze Horseman, I saw a glimpse of Tatiana and Alexander before I began writing the book, and I saw their arc and what they had to go through, but their passion for each other, their consuming love didn't make itself real to me until I was embroiled in their first love palpitations. Somewhere around the Summer Garden scene was when they were both born to me, when she called him Shura. So you can say that their love story was a road of discovery for me as as writer, as much as it was later on for my readers. All the things I wanted to see them say and do, I had them say and do because it brought me so much pleasure and so much heartache.

The Bronze Horseman both the time period and the location (World War II Russia) absolutely came alive. How much research did you do to authenticate the details? Were the small things, like the tram routes and locations of stores authentic? Did you feel you had to get the details exactly right in memory/honor of your family? Many of the Russians I met were still living the Great Patriotic War in small ways. I saw many photograph albums dedicated to people who had died in the war. Do you think that you are still affected by the war even though it didn't happen in your lifetime? And, if so, do you think that it was easier or harder to write about it because of this?

It was much harder to write this book than any other because the plight of the Russian people in general and of Tania and Alexander in particular was so personal to me. The more intimate the details, the harder on the author, I think. And while the central story was fictional, all the peripheral details I could get right, I tried to get right. So the setting, the war, the siege, the starvation, the history was as accurate as I possibly could get it. The real world in the Soviet Union at that time was so dramatic, so larger-than-life, I didn't need to make any of it up. Truth indeed often almost felt like fiction. "This couldn't possibly be true," many people say to me of some of the details they learn about life in the Soviet Union.

Did you base any of the events in The Bronze Horseman on the personal experiences of your family or friends?

Certainly everything surrounding the central story was something that was taken from the life in Leningrad as I knew it, as my grandparents had lived it, as people we knew had lived it. The details of the apartment, the food, the historical details, the blockade itself, the village life, the evacuation, was all personal and non-fiction.

And the longing for love, the confusion and breathlessness of first love, the desperation, the intensity, the struggle with doing the right thing, all true emotions.

Can you give us any information about the sequels and prequels. We've got a lot of people here who are very concerned about Alexander and Tatiana. Can you give us any reassurance?

I do see many many people on various sites who are indeed concerned with the fate of Tania and Alexander, and all I can say is no one is more concerned with their destiny than me, and in The Bridge to Holy Cross, we will have all the answers. As far as the prequel, The Queen of Lake Ilmen, it's a short (250 pages) book about a pivotal summer in Tatiana's adolescence where she meets up with Evil for the first time in her life. I also have a non-fiction memoir called Six Days in Leningrad. There are currently no plans to publish either. I'm hoping that further success of The Bronze Horseman as well as the sequel will propel my publishers to commit to publication.

Are you emotionally affected by what happens to your characters when you are writing about them? And, of your books, which one affected you emotionally more than the others?

I am tremendously affected by what happens to my characters, during and after I am writing about them. Tully was an intense experience to get through, her life really affected me and for a long time I didn't think I could write a book as emotionally draining-and didn't. Both Red Leaves and Eleven Hours were more narrow in emotional scope, while dealing with some of the same issues (good and evil, destiny, freewill, doing the right thing). Of all my books, nothing has affected me quite like The Bronze Horseman. I'd have to say, few things in my life have affected me quite like Alexander and Tania, and it has taken me a very long time to get over them and on with my life.

Have you ever gotten so involved with a character that you couldn't do to him/her what you intended; that you had to rework the book to accomodate your feelings?

Yes, in Tully, I had to re-work the plot and some of her character when I realized in the middle of the book that she could never leave Robin.

Not in The Bronze Horseman so much, because I knew the beginning and the end already. The only thing I had to rework was the epilogue. As you see, there wasn't one, but originally there had been. So there had be closure on things there wasn't before.

Do you think this book would be well received in Russia? Are there plans to translate it and sell it there? It's interesting that you made the male protagonist, Alexander, American. He comes off looking so much better-stronger, smarter, wiser, more courageous-than all the Russian men in The Bronze Horseman. Did you do this deliberately? Did he have to be American? Could he have been English? Or Russian?

I think the book will be very well received in Russia, and yes, we have sold rights to it there and it is in the process of being translated, to be published sometime in 2002. Of course I made Alexander American deliberately-without Alexander's Light, we would have had a flash of Lazarevo and then they both would have been dead-there was no hope without Alexander and his America. Books written with two Soviet protagonists, no matter how intense the love, turn out to be quite bleak. Witness Dr. Zhivago.

There's some pretty strong sensuality between Tatiana and Alexander, yet I would hesitate to call these passages "sex scenes" (we generally prefer the term "love scene" anyway) because the emotions at that point in the story are so high. The feelings, in a way seem to overshadow the sex. Why did you feel the need to write these scenes so thoroughly and in such detail?

As far as the sensuality between Alexander and Tania, we needed to see that as we saw everything else in the book - we saw their falling in love, we saw Tania's turmoil over her Dasha, we saw all the little intimate moments the two managed to squeeze together in Part I, and we saw all we could of death on a mass scale and on a minute scale. How could we have seen and witnessed so much death and then suddenly skipped through joy and life and happiness? Lazarevo was the point of my whole book-how simple their love was and how universal and how passionate and how difficult to achieve in a place where Ideology is placed above Humanity. We saw it all and it made Part IV and their eventual denouement so much more rending, because we had so much invested in them. We saw them in acts of such intimacy that their heartbreak became ours.

The Bronze Horseman seems to contain a fair amount of Biblical references and imagery. I was particularly struck by the last few paragraphs which seem to invoke the 23rd Psalm. Alexander and especially Tatiana both have a number of Christ-like characteristics. I assume this was all deliberate. Would you talk about why you did this? Was this for literary merit only, or did you mean to say something about the value of faith and religious belief?

There are many evolutions that a book goes through before it becomes what it is when you read it, and so the religious imagery started slowly in the first drafts and grew. Certainly by the final passes, it was a major theme in the book. I did this for several reasons. Tatiana exhibited from the beginning many Christlike qualities. That was unintentional at first; to be the person she was so Alexander could love her the way he did, she had to possess traits that he had been unable to find in his Soviet life with other Soviet women, traits like lack of vanity, selflessness, honesty, great strength in the face of great suffering. The Soviet society at that time was punctuated by atheism and ostensible godlessness: one couldn't be an intellectual and believe in God, one couldn't be a communist and believe in God, so the thoughts went. So Tania had to be unlike other women in his life for him to be so drawn to her.

And while Tania may not be perfect in the eyes of some of my readers, certainly Alexander thinks she is perfect, in a godlike way, and a number of times in the book when he describes her or thinks of her, he does so in exalted terms, almost disbelieving that someone so good not only showed herself to him, but loved him so much in return. "Love is, when he is hungry, you feed him," she says to him. "I was hungry and you fed me," he says to her.

The last line is straight out of St. Mark's gospel. This is what St. Mark thinks Christ offers the world.

"You are my miracle," Alexander says to Tania. "God sent me you to give me faith." As George Bernard Shaw tells us, God performs miracles to strengthen our faith, and I for one believe him.

"Tatiana was order. She was finite matter in infinite space. Tatiana was the standard-bearer for the flag of grace and honor she carried forward with bounty and perfection in herself..." Alexander thinks of her. And in Lazarevo with the old ladies, when he defends her helping them all the time, he says, "She does enjoy it [taking care of them]. Next she will be on the floor washing your feet. But even the disciples poured wine for Christ once in a while."

That is a direct reference to the Last Supper.

"Alexander went to Lazarevo on faith." When Tania crosses herself during the blockade, she is oddly comforted by it, "as if you're not alone," she thinks, after a long rumination on God and communism. When Marina, on her deathbed, asks Tania what is like to feel so much for someone else, Tatiana replies, "It's as if you're not alone."

And there are many many other references that taken together will add up to the theme, that indeed God and faith was important in the life of people who truly loved one another. Also, that even in a godless society such as the Soviet Union, good people like Tatiana, naturally exhibited godlike features, without training or any religious instruction.

As to the penultimate passage in the book, I agree with you, it bears some of that comforting, heartbreaking Psalm 23 imagery and syntax, all subliminal. First I wrote it, and then realized it echoed something that was very familiar.

All this was about Tania. What about Alexander's own Christlike imagery?

First of all, to make myself happy, I thought of the Joan Osborne song, "What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on the bus..." The stranger on the bus I loved because Alexander and Tatiana's first meeting took place in and around the bus. But we can't forget, on a more serious note, that it is Alexander, not Tatiana, who lays down his life so that she could be saved. That's as Christlike as you can get. However, in his personality, Alexander is not Christlike. He is a believing sinner. Tatiana is an ostensibly non-believing non-sinner. They both have a number of things in common, however: they both are made of steel, and they both do the right thing, even when it is very difficult. Their moral compass is not colored in gray.

 




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