I couldn’t have written my novel Snegurochka if I had not lived in Kiev for a while back in 1992-4. That’s not to say that one cannot write about a place one has never inhabited – not at all – but those months provided me with the imaginative landscape I needed to seed characters and ideas.
As a foreigner, and a new mother, I was doubly isolated. I spent a lot of time staring out of the window on the thirteenth floor of our apartment block, or pushing my son’s buggy around the streets. Rachel, my main character, does the same, but she isn’t me. I wanted to write a novel set in our flat, using the exterior circumstances of our lives – my partner the journalist, me the new mother – to write about characters who walked in our shoes but who weren’t ‘us’. So before I began planning the novel I made one crucial decision. I gave Rachel a problem that I have never had. And because she had this problem, and because those around her had to fail to see it, everything meaningful about those characters and what motivates them had to change. This was immensely liberating, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who is wondering how to fictionalise an event or a period from their past. One change is enough, if it is significant enough, if it means that the intricate universe of cause and effect demands you detach your character from yourself.
If I stand back and look at Rachel I see a stranger, but one whom I know intimately. She’s not a friend. She’s not a ghost. She is ‘the other’ who germinated somewhere familiar but who unbends and transforms into a character who lives her own life now.