Category: Blog

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.




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