Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kate Furnivall: Loaded Questions with the Author of The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf

We first interviewed Kate Furnivall last year and since then not only has her first novel The Russian Concubine become a bestselling hit, her interview here at Loaded Questions has become one of the most read of all the interview's we've conducted. Furnivall's first novel, The Russian Concubine, is an enthralling tale that is both entertaining and educational. Fans of her first book will find a great deal of joy in her second novel, The Red Scarf. Furnivall returns to Russia to explore the lives of two very different women who find themselves united in their unfortunate situation, prisoners in labor camp in Siberia . . .

Read my first interview with Kate Furnivall in September of 2007, here.

Kelly Hewitt: The two main characters in The Red Scarf first meet in 1933 while being held at the Davinsky Labor Camp in Siberia. I have been looking around the net for any information about this particular labor camp but have not been able to find anything. Is there a real life Davinsky Labor Camp in Siberia?

Secondly, what kind of resources did you study in order to prepare yourself to write about such a harsh, stark environment?

Kate Furnivall: Davinsky Labor Camp in Siberia is a fictitious name but the camp itself is typical of many of these brutal places where prisoners worked in terrible conditions during the Stalinist years. To learn about these camps I read numerous accounts recorded by those who survived, the most famous of which was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's heartbreaking Gulag Archipelago. This provided a real insight into the way the prisoners were treated and the effect it had on them, both physically and mentally. The main difference is that most of these accounts were written by men, but my Davinsky Camp was a women's prison. So I created more of an emotional support network among the women prisoners because I believe it is important to women to function more on that level. Sofia and Anna's friendship is what keeps them alive.

Kelly: Sophia and Anna, the central characters of this book may have both landed in the same labor camp but it is clear that you have written two characters that come from distinctly different backgrounds. One is the daughter of a Russian Orthodox preist who witnesses her father's death by whipping brought upon by his beliefs. The other is the daughter of a doctor and part of a family that was prosperous and amoung the elite of Leningrad before the Revolution began. The reader finds out through the course of the novel that these two young women are also very similar. While reading The Red Scarf I couldn't help but wonder whether or not you think that, beyond being opposites, Sophia and Anna serve as archetypes, each represent the fate of a great many young Russian women during the Russian Revolution. What do you think?

Kate: Though Sofia and Anna are two young women with very different characters, they are similar in the way they both possess a core of inner strength which enables them to survive. Anna comes from a petted and pampered background and many of these elite young women died because they were unable to cope with the terrible conditions they faced after the Revolution. One of the reasons Anna survived was because of Vasily - not only did her love for him give her strength but also he had prepared her mentally. He had turned her into a fighter. Sofia, on the other hand, was raised in a village and was accustomed to a harsher life. Seeing her father whipped to death put steel in her soul and she was determined not to see another person she loved die before her eyes. So she set out to save Anna.

I agree with you that they are archetypes in that they represent in their different ways the new soviet woman, one who must rely on herself to get things done. The beginning of the Communist regime was ironically the beginning of female equality.

Kelly: I happened upon your blog the other day (click here to visit) and read an interesting post in which you discuss doing research and finding gems like "discovering about the Krokodil, the Russian Communist propaganda aircraft in the 1930s that was painted to look like a crocodile." You went on to tell your readers that you, of course, worked the Krokodil into your work because you couldn't pass up on the image, which is a great one by the way. It made me wonder what kind of resources (movies, books, etc) you frequently turn to while researching Russia during the 1920's and 30s. A lot of your readers appear to be just as enthralled in this time period as you are, where would you send them to do research if they wanted to know more?

Kate: Fortunately in recent years far greater access has been permitted to information within Russia about the Stalinist regime, and many books have been published which proved extremely helpful to me. I strongly recommend everyone to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's whole body of work which is very revealing, not only about the facts of the time but of the mindset of its people. Sheila Fitzpatrick also wrote two detailed and invaluable works, Stalin's Peasants and Everyday Stalinism, in which she includes many first-hand personal stories.

It is only by reading accounts like these that we can understand the Russia of today. I also immersed myself in Russian literature by writers such as Dostoevsky and Pushkin, and loved to get my hands on as many old photographs of the period as possible because a picture can tell more than a thousand words. But traveling to rural Russia and seeing the villages which have barely changed since the 1930s also gave me a real sense of what it was like for Sofia in Tivil.

Kelly: It is fascinating that you have only recently become aware of your largely Russian heritage and even more amazing that you have written The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf as a way of connecting with such a big part of your family's past. How is it that you just recently found out about your Russian roots? What would you consider to be the ultimate experience of your heritage.

Kate: It was about ten years ago that I discovered that my grandmother was a White Russian who fled from the Bolsheviks in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. I knew that my mother had lived in China for many years as a child where she had an English step-father, but she had never revealed that her mother was Russian.

It came about like this. I was going through her boxes of old sepia photographs, writing the names of the people on the back, and when I wrote "Valentina and Lily" on one (Lily was my mother's name), my mother commented, 'I was called Lydia then'. Astonished, I asked for more and out it all came like unplugging a dam. All the secrets kept for so many years. How they had fled across thousands of miles of Siberia, surviving by eating tree bark and worms, travelling by night until they came down into China where they were penniless refugees. The shame of it had kept her silent for so many years.

It was an amazing thing to discover and made me re-think myself and who I am. As I delved into research to discover more, I have been powerfully affected by the inner resilience of my ancestors in the face of brutal hardship and I hope that a small part of it still remains within me. In The Red Scarf I try to convey something of this inner strength in the characters of Sofia and Anna. To walk through the streets of St Petersburg, as I did last year, gazing down at the Moika Canal or up at St Basil's Cathedral, the knowledge that my grandparents did the same so long ago touched me deeply and forged a connection that I cherish.

Kelly: Your readers certainly aren't complaining but do you ever foresee writing a novel about a different region of the world or a different time period?

Kate: Yes, most definitely. I already have something totally different planned out in my head. But first there will be at least one more book set in Russia.

Kelly: I know that your mother played such a large role in inspiring your first novel The Russian Concubine. Are there traces of her life and experiences in The Red Scarf?

Kate: There are no specific references to my mother's life in The Red Scarf, except the hardship of the journey that Sofia undertakes which echoes the hardship of my mother's escape from Russia. But it was very much my mother's interest throughout her life in different philosophies and religions that influenced my decision to use the clash of belief systems - between Communism, Russian Orthodoxy and superstition - as a background against which the story is set.

Kelly: The Red Scarf has been getting stellar reviews, especially from regular readers who were big fans of The Russian Concubine. That's two books in a row that have been met with much deserved acclaim. Do wake up in the morning sometimes and pinch yourself?

Kate: Do I pinch myself? Absolutely yes! Every morning when I pick up my pen. The Russian Concubine and The Red Scarf have become bestsellers in the US and the UK, and also in many other countries. They have so far been translated into 16 languages. Yes, their success has taken me by surprise, but to know that my stories are being read and discussed and argued over by so many people is what every writer dreams of. I regard it as a privilege. To prompt further thought about the situations and issues I describe in my books is important to me, to encourage readers to probe further. I like to think my characters help people to open doors they haven't been through before.

Kelly: I noticed that your new book has two different titles, The Red Scarf in the United States and Under a Blood Red Sky in the UK. Was there strategic decision made in having two different names?

Kate: Titles can be difficult. The decision to use two titles was taken by my publishers. My UK publisher, Little Brown, and my US publisher, Berkley, could not agree on one title, so it was decided to use two quite different ones. I admit this can be confusing. Readers sometimes think they are two separate books, but I do my best on my website to point out that they are the same. Nevertheless I still have horrible visions of readers buying them both on the internet without reading the story descriptions, and ending up with the same book between different covers.

Kelly: The last time we spoke you made a great many of your fans (myself included) very happy by sharing with us the fact that there would be a sequel to The Russian Concubine. I am sure that this is the last thing you want to be asked right after the release of a new book but how is that sequel coming along?

Kate: I am happy to announce that I have just completed the sequel to The Russian Concubine and that it will be published in June 2009. But with conflicting titles again! In the US it will be called The Girl From Junchow and in the UK it will be called The Concubine's Secret. It has been exciting getting involved with Lydia once more and discovering where she would take me this time. To all The Russian Concubine fans out there I want to say, "The emotional journey continues. And yes, Chang An Lo does ..." No, no, my lips are sealed.

Read my first interview with Kate Furnivall in September of 2007, here.


Marg said...

I loved The Russian Concubine, and coincidentally enough I am starting Under a Blood Red Sky today!

Great interview!

Kelly Hewitt said...

Thanks Marg,

I really loved The Russian Concubine too. All of my university duties now done for the holiday, I am planning on diving right in.

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