Author: judithheneghan

Reading group questions

I’ve been asked by a couple of reading groups for questions about Snegurochka, so thought I’d post a few here. If you use them with your group, I’d love to hear about it.

  • Snegurochka depicts a young mother’s isolation in an unfamiliar place. What did you make of her difficulties? Are there any other kinds of ‘mothering’ in the novel?
  • The past is a constant theme in Snegurochka. Scenes from Rachel’s earlier life play out in short, discrete, non-chronological sections. How do these sections affect the way you view Rachel?
  • Snegurochka is written in the present tense. How does this influence your perception of events?
  • For much of the novel, Rachel is relatively passive, observing the characters and the city around her. Is she in any way responsible for what unfolds?
  • The main characters are all flawed in some way. What do you think happens to Elena at the end and does knowing this matter to you?
  • Aspects of Ukraine’s past are hinted at, sometimes rather elliptically. The great famine, the purges, the Second World War, Soviet repression and the disaster at Chernobyl are all referenced in the novel. What did you make of the novel’s treatment of this historical ‘backdrop’?
  • Snegurochka means ‘snow maiden’. In nineteenth-century tales she was the child made of snow who melts in the spring. Then, in Soviet times, she became Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter who dispenses gifts at New Year and whose popularity is undiminished in post-Soviet Ukraine. Why do you think Snegurochka was chosen as the title for the novel?
  • To what extent is Kiev a character in the novel?

Life into fiction

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.

Ordinary things

Writers use all kinds of props in their novels. Some use repeated phrases or images to foreshadow or echo or develop an idea. Or they might, as I did, alight on concrete objects that take on meaning during the writing process and, somehow, become utterly indispensable to the story being told.

In Snegurochka there are three quite ordinary, everyday items – late twentieth century ‘consumables’ – that acquire a strange and almost hallucinatory significance.

The first is a box of After Eights. I love them, and what I love most is the packaging. Those dark, waxy sleeves, packed with sweetness yet delicate as gills… Who can resist? Rachel, my main character, hides hand-written notes inside them as a child. As young mother she is given a box by a stranger and the impulse returns.

When I first travelled to Kiev as a young mother myself I didn’t take enough books. Once I’d finished the fattest book I could find – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth – there was little else to read and I was desperate. Then my father-in-law sent me this.

I remember the intensity with which I devoured it, hungry for words, for story, for anything to alleviate the tedium of sleepless nights and long days in a high-rise flat with a baby.  Rachel, on the other hand, forgets to pack a book – she’s not a great reader – but on the journey out to Kiev she picks up an abandoned copy of Jurassic Park. The novel takes hold of her and becomes – something else.

The third item is a pack of Pampers nappies. I took two suitcases of Pampers out to Kiev. Once they’d gone I relied on whatever I could find – unfamiliar brands imported from the Baltic states or Norway that leaked or wouldn’t stick. Rachel, however, is more particular. She wants Pampers in neat piles in the drawer beneath her bed. She needs them.

After Eights, Jurassic Park, Pampers – three branded products – each, in their own way, ubiquitous and banal. That’s why I’m drawn to them. Things are rarely as ordinary as they seem.

The Tsar’s Village

I lived in Kiev from 1993-4 in a block of flats that overlooked an area known as Tsarskoye Selo – the Tsar’s Village. Tsarskoye Selo was a warren of lanes, crumbling cottages and twisted fruit trees bisected by a long, narrow road called Panfilovstev Street. I walked its length most days and often wondered about its elderly inhabitants.  They had lived through the great famine, the purges, the war. No one ever spoke about what they’d witnessed, or endured.

By early 1993 state pensions were almost worthless. Shops were empty and bread queues could be long, but those old cottages had gardens and some even had views of the river.  They were catching the eye of diplomats and the new elites.  The place was dilapidated, but it was prime real estate.

This picture was taken early that spring near the top of the hill by the dump bins.

Twenty-five years later I returned to Panfilovstev Street. Most of the cottages had gone, replaced by embassies and high walls and security cameras and some ripe anti-Putin graffiti opposite the Russian consulate.

However, as I turned in from Lavrska Street I took this new image. I’m standing exactly where the previous dark-coated woman had walked, although this time I’m looking down the hill.

I had expected to find that most things had changed and so they had. Nevertheless, this is the street I remember from 1993 – the street where my character Elena Vasilyevna trudges each day. It’s just a snapshot – it doesn’t show the trampolines in the gardens or the fancy cars in the garages or the security guards loitering in the driveways.  As always, so much stays outside the frame.

I hope Snegurochka captures some of that.

 

 

 

Upcoming events

Tuesday 16 April 2019: Book launch, P&G Wells, College St, Winchester. 6.30pm.

Thursday 25th April 2019: Launch with an interview with novelist Claire Fuller at Burley Fisher Books, 400 Kingsland Road, London. 6.30pm.

Wednesday 22 May 2019: Talk: ‘Conversations in the Old Library’, Pilgrims School, Winchester 7.30pm. Free event but booking essential – let me know if you’d like to attend.

Friday 14 June 2019: Panel event: I’ll be taking part in a panel of Salt authors moderated by Carole Burns at the University of Winchester Writers’ Festival to celebrate Salt’s twentieth anniversary year. Free to attend.

Sunday 16 June 2019: Workshop: I’ll be giving an all-day writing workshop at the University of Winchester Writers’ Festival. Booking at www.writersfestival.co.uk

Friday 21 June 2019: Panel event ‘Out of Place: Where Foreign Lands Become Home’ with myself, Katie Munnik and Carole Burns, 7.30pm, Penarth Literary Festival https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/booking/select/ryoGZmNcXdvK

Friday 5 July 2019: Meet the Authors: New Voices – Claire Gradidge, Judith Heneghan and Beth O’Leary in conversation 7.30pm Winchester Discovery Centre £6 per ticket https://www.hants.gov.uk/shop/product.php?productid=52722&cat=466&page=1

Thursday 31 July 2019: Book group talk at The Cabinet Rooms, Winchester https://www.cabinetrooms.com/event-category/all-upcoming-events/

Monday 9 September 2019: Reading: I’ll be a special guest at Loose Muse, The Discovery Centre, Winchester. 7.30-9.30pm £6 on the door. There’s an open mic, too.

Tuesday 1 October 2019: Authors on Location panel event at Romsey Storytelling Festival with Claire Fuller and Susmita Bhattacharya 7.30pm https://www.hants.gov.uk/shop/product.php?productid=53417

Saturday 5 October 2019: ‘Writing: Naturally’ all-day writing workshop, St Faith’s Hall, Winchester 10.30-4pm https://www.eventbrite.com/e/writing-naturally-all-day-workshop-tickets-69173783649

Thursday 17 October 2019: Meet the author event at Waterstones, High Street Winchester. Tickets £2 available in store.

Thursday 29 October 2019: Writers in Conversation with Carole Burns, 7.30 pm, Nuffield Southampton Theatre’s Campus Café Bar, Southampton University https://www.nstheatres.co.uk/whats-on/writers-in-conversation-judith-heneghan

 

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