Loaded Questions with Kelly Hewitt
author of The Russian Concubine
I was enthralled by The Russian Concubine by the time I finished the first chapter. The beginning scene offers a harrowing look at life in post-revolutionary Russia after the fall of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Valentina, her husband, and their young daughter Lydia arrive via a train in the blistering cold Russian countryside. What follows is a heart-wrenching scene of death and separation in which the war-hungry men of Stalin herd those who prospered under the old regime like animals.
Kelly Hewitt: The beginning chapter of this book is beautiful in it's imagery of ice and snow amidst the freezing landscape and yet terrifying in the desolation and uncertainty experienced by the passengers of a train, starving and ill. It is so emotionally draining, senseless murder, the harshness of revolution exposed, that I can remember taking a break after reading it to gather my thoughts.
When in the process of writing The Russian Concubine did you write that chapter? Was it something that you wrote first or did you approach that chapter later in the writing process?
Kate Furnivall: The first chapter of The Russian Concubine was crucial to me in setting up the world from which my main characters emerged and it was essential to my own relationship with them that I write it first. I found it quite a harrowing experience and I recall that once I'd written it, it took me a couple of weeks to be ready to move on in my mind to the very different world of China. That first scene is pivotal in explaining the motivations and emotional damage that drives the rest of the book.
Kelly: Your mother sounds like a fascinating woman. I read an interview in which you talked about the fact that, like the character Lydia in your novel, she grew up in White Russia and fled the communist revolution in 1917 by going to China. In that same interview you briefly discussed the part of your mother's life that took place in India and that you couldn't cram it all in one book. Do you intend to write another book based on your mother's experiences? It sounds like she lived a life full of literary possibilities.
Kate: Yes, my mother was a remarkable woman. Despite the many traumas of her life - or more probably because of them - she was a woman with a true inner grit that made her cling on to life and cling on to anything of beauty. She had a strict credo. Don't cry. Don't whinge. Be honourable and focus on what is beautiful in life.
At the moment I have no plans to write about her experiences in India, though, like China, it was also a turbulent and therefore exciting time politically. But I've learnt never to say never. So maybe, one day.
Kelly: Was there any part of your mother's history in Russia and China that she was reticent to speak about?
Kate: Though I grew up knowing that she had spent her early life in China with her mother, Valentina, and her journalist step-father, Alfred, my mother omitted to mention anything at all about the Russian part of her birth or ancestry. It wasn't until much later in life when I was going through her old yellowing photographs of her time in China and I started to write her name, Lily, on the back of one, that she said, 'I was called Lydia in those days.'
Then it all came tumbling out. How she and her mother were White Russians who fled to China after the communist revolution in 1917 and how the shame of being penniless refugees in a foreign land had been so branded on her young heart that she was never able to talk of it.
Our family was of course fascinated by this sudden and unexpected insight into our ancestry, and the release of the long-hidden secret gave my mother much relief and pleasure. It was her tales that prompted me to write The Russian Concubine after her death, an inheritance I knew I had to honour, though I must emphasize that the book's story is pure fiction.
Kelly: I read that your husband Norman began work as a full-time crime writer after your family moved to the countryside. He won the John Creasey Award in 1987 using the pen name Neville Steed. Is he still writing? Do you find that having two writers in the family makes your work easier or more difficult?
Kate: My husband, who wrote as Neville Steed, has always been a huge help to me. He is no
longer writing himself. After having thirteen novels published, he moved on to painting instead, but I value his judgment and he is always the first to read my manuscripts. He is my greatest critic and my greatest support, often coming up with clever solutions when I moan that I've written my plot into a corner.
Also he understands the needs of a writer:- time to be alone and undisturbed with your characters. And he knows that when I'm staring blankly out of the kitchen window with a plate only half washed in my hands, I'm not actually being an idle slattern. The old brain is churning over some vital story point. And he's good with medicinal coffee and chocolate when he sees a glint of white panic in my eyes! So in every way, having a writer husband is a big plus.
Kelly: You've traveled extensively and I think it shows in your writing. A great deal of the Russian Concubine takes place in China, have you been there? If so, what was that like?
Kate: No, I have never been to China. There's a good reason for this. The China I was writing about, the International Settlements and the colonial way of life, are all long gone. I didn't want to go over there and see the city of Tientsin (now Tianjin), on which my city Junchow was based, covered in neon signs and modern chainstores.
Instead I did thorough research for nine months, until I felt I could walk and talk confidently in that extraordinary world of China in 1928. Then I used my imagination. Which must have worked, because so many people familiar with the Far East who have read The Russian Concubine have asked me how long I lived out there. I feel honoured by such remarks and regard it as a privilege to write about a country I have come to love.
Kelly: Lydia falls in love with a gentleman named Chang An Lo, a freedom fighter struggling for change in a very volatile period of Chinese history. In many ways Lydia and Chang are a sort of Romeo and Juliet of the 20th century, both trapped by very different social expectations. Is Chang An Lo one of the parts of the book based on your mother's life that is purely fiction or was there a relationship that somehow inspired the creation of Lydia's love?
Kate: Lydia and Chang An Lo's love affair is purely fiction. My mother was too young for such passions when she was out there! But I was always aware that she felt an outsider in England, not coming to live here until she was thirteen, and so I grew up watching her try to bridge that gap and not always succeeding. So maybe part of my inspiration for Lydia and Chang An Lo's relationship came from seeing that daily struggle to cross the divide and the problems it created.
Kelly: I have already read posts written by fans of The Russian Concubine who are eagerly awaiting a sequel to the book. Can we hope for such a book?
Kate: Yes, a sequel is definitely on its way. I have recently finished a book set in Russia in 1933 that has no connection with The Russian Concubine, but it is another strong emotional epic and will be published in 2008.
And at the moment I am back with Lydia, following the next stage of her life in the sequel to The Russian Concubine. I love discovering where she will take me. I am thrilled to be reunited with my fiery heroine and Chang An Lo, both of whom became such a part of my life. It is a wonderful, if sometimes daunting, journey I am embarking on and my writing-fingers are twitching with anticipation.
Kelly: I am one of those people that find their shelves loaded with books, movies, and CDs. What loads down the shelves of Kate Furnivall?
Kate: What loads down my shelves? I always have a knee-high pile of books beside my bed, and at the moment top of the heap is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love which I am looking forward to. Two books I enjoyed recently were Philippa Gregory's magnificent Boleyn Inheritance and Stef Penney's Tenderness of Wolves. Also Lori Lansen's The Girls. Lori Lansen, like the brilliant Lionel Shriver, can take a difficult subject and make it riveting. But right now I am reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin, set in Pakistan, which is an amazing testament to the human spirit.
So many books to read and so little time. Bring 'em on!