Jennifer Laam: With Natalya, research was often like detective work

Great films in Hollywood are made from books like this.

The plots of books like this are usually based on fiction,

but this life can only have been taken straight out of an exciting film or great literature!

The Lost Season of Love and Snow tells the story of Alexander Pushkin and Natalia Goncharova – their lives as literature. A first person narrative, this novel focuses not on the life of the Russian genius himself, but that of one of the most beautiful women in Moscow in the 19th century and one of the most hated wives in all Russian history. The denouement of their passionate and promising love is known to anyone who has ever heard of Pushkin. Had Natalia imagined that after their brief marriage, she would be the cause of his unfortunate death in a duel?

Narrated in easily readable, touching and candid language, the novel presents the complex image of an intelligent, charming and ambitious young lady who often finds herself in the centre of intrigue. The Lost Season of Love and Snow is not the story most readers expect. It is a story set in the shadows; her truth about events. The plot unfolds so smoothly and elegantly that you are left with the authentic sense of every image the author draws. With its wonderful descriptions of settings and emotions and extremely well-researched details, The Lost Season of Love and Snow is one of the most powerful and inspiring historical books you will ever read.

Jennifer Laam writes historical prose. Historian by education and traveller by vocation, she has travelled in Europe and Russia and currently lives in California. She has written three novels: The Secret Daughter of the Tsar (2013), The Tsarina’s Legacy (2016) and The Lost Season of Love and Snow (2018). In honor of the release of her most recent book, we talked about inspirational personalities, historical research and her skills in creating historical prose.

 

Jennifer Laam: While Pushkin, as I portray him, isn’t perfect, I believe he is sympathetic and I hope I’ve done him justice

An interview by Valentina Miziiska

Photo: Precious Depictions

 

How did you become interested in Russian history?

I was in college around the same time the Soviet Union collapsed. I was fascinated with the changes happening in that area of the world at that time, and grew fascinated with the history.

What inspired you to write the story of The Lost Season of Love and Snow?

Before I started to write this book, I knew very little about Natalya Goncharova Pushkina, only that she was beautiful and supposedly caused the duel that cost her husband, Alexander Pushkin, his life. Then I read the Martin Cruz Smith novel Tatiana, set in modern-day Russia. In that book several characters reference Natalya in an unflattering way. I started to research her life and grew invested in telling her side of the story.

Russians are very sensitive about their national heroes. And who isn’t? Didn’t you worry about writing a historical novel on the most famous Russian poet?

Alexander Pushkin is a towering figure in Russia and of course that is intimidating. At the same time, he is such an intriguing character that I wanted to create my own fictionalized version of him. While Pushkin, as I portray him, isn’t perfect, I believe he is sympathetic and I hope I’ve done him justice.

Aspiring writers grow up being told to write what they know, but history is unknown. You have to learn everything about the period you describe before writing a single setting/dialogue. How can you write about a period that is long time past? How did you become comfortable with it? Where did you examine the aspects of daily life that helped in creating an authentic backdrop for your novel?

I’m fortunate to live near one of the University of California campuses and its amazing library, including an entire wall of books about Alexander Pushkin’s life and his world. I relied heavily on those resources to research nineteenth-century Russia.

Did you use internet archives or experts?

I utilized the internet and library resources, including T.J. Binyon’s magnificent biography of Pushkin which consolidates much of the recent research and also takes a sympathetic view of Natalya. The biggest challenge was also the part of the process I enjoyed the most: the relative lack of information on Natalya’s life compared to that of her husband. With Natalya, research was often like detective work, using what we do know to make educated guesses about what we don’t.

How did you know when to stop researching?

I needed the first three chapters to be in excellent shape before I could submit the novel to my editor, so I spent at least a month working to get the details right. Once the book was under contract, I had to balance the remainder of my research with my deadline. At a certain point, my gut just says „stop“. I love research, but writing the story must become the primary focus to finish a book.

Do you research and then write or do you sometimes do it in parallel?

I need to do some research in advance to get a sense of the themes, the characters, and the timeline of any given project. Once I feel like I „know“ the story, I write my first draft quickly and try not to research at all so I can just focus on the narrative. After that first draft is done, I know exactly what I need to research further, and then the research and revision occurs in parallel.

How did you decide where to keep the story historically accurate and where to proceed with fiction?

Historical timelines don’t tend to lend themselves to compelling narratives, so like many historical writers, I take liberties with the timing of events. I also make educated guesses about what characters think, say, and interpret the events around them. In other words, I create a fictionalized version of an actual world. I always add an author’s note at the end of my novels so that readers know what is fact, what was fictionalized or changed, and why I made the choices I did.

How did you decide what details to present to the reader directly as narrative and which to show through your character interactions in order to reflect this period of time?

They say great fiction shows the reader what is happening, rather than telling, so I try to make as many historical details as possible flow from the dialogue, thoughts, and actions of my characters. I want to find ways in which the event had an impact on the characters and re-telling focus on how they interpreted the event.

How did you make sure the dialogue reflects its time?

I immerse myself in letters. I try to catch words and phrases historical figures like to use. If historical dialogue was completely accurate, a modern reader would soon be lost. Yet it always strikes me how letters from the eighteenth and nineteenth can sound contemporary in their casual tone and irreverence. For example, I remember writing a scene for The Lost Season of Love and Snow where Pushkin uses the term „arse“ and Natalya is happily scandalized. Later, I read a letter from Pushkin to Natalya where he actually uses that term. That is when I knew I was on the right track in capturing both the language and the playfulness of their relationship.

How much of you is Natalya?

Natalya and I definitely share a romantic outlook on life that can sometimes cloud our decision making. I relate to her interest in literature. And I understand why she found the imperial court so alluring. When I read about the costumes she had worn to balls, I had to elaborate and make her someone we might call a „cos-player“. I’ve gone to Comic-Con in San Diego for the past three years and love dressing up as different characters!

I believe writers sometimes need to slightly change the story or add additional details/dialogues/intrigue to make it more attractive as literature. What do you think about that? Is it possible to achieve total historical accuracy while still telling a great story?

Honestly, I think it is almost impossible to be completely accurate. Even primary sources will differ on interpretations of events. Even facts can differ depending on the person telling the story. I think the historical novelist’s responsibility is to capture the time period and the people involved to the best of their ability and then be straightforward with the readers about what is still unknown.

If Natalya was just a fictional character what would you skip and what would you add to her character traits? 

I would have made her more of a proto-feminist. I would have liked to see her open a school for girls or something of that nature. I think she was subversive in her own way, but it was subtle.

How did you decide the structure of the novel – starting with the end of the great poet and then going back in time to follow the events that caused it? Do you plot your novels?

I wanted to set the stage for the conflict between what I think could be described as an older, more conservative view of Natalya as this uncaring woman who was careless with her husband’s feelings and the way more contemporary historians have viewed Natalya. I don’t tend to plot fully in advance of writing, but this theme guided how I approached the novel and Natalya’s version of the events that led to Pushkin’s death.

Any feedback from Russia about The Lost Season of Love and Snow?

Not yet, but I’ll be curious to hear it.

How long did it take to write this novel?

This was actually the fastest I’ve ever written a novel. I think that’s because it is told entirely from Natalya’s point of view. It took about two years from the time I began writing to the time I had finished my last edits with St. Martins.

Tell us more about your writing process. Do you have a routine?

I try to write most days and first thing in the morning if at all possible. Ideally, I like to review my notes at night before bed and then write when I wake up.

When do you realize that you need to stop revising and your manuscript is final?

It’s a gut instinct. I think there’s a point where a writer knows this is the best work they can do. Personally, I reach a stage where I know that at this moment, revisions will end up hurting not improving and it’s time to let go.

Do you use any beta readers or a critique partner? Which opinion do you count on most?

I have been fortunate to find wonderful readers and critique partners locally, who helped me get through my first published novel and continue to give amazing insight on my works in progress.

What does the editing process with a professional editor of a historical book look like? The editor probably doesn’t have your knowledge. How does he/she know where are the research gaps?

The burden of research and accuracy definitely falls on me, but I was also very fortunate to have a wonderful copy editor for this novel who double-checked for accuracy.

What part of your daily life is writing?

I go back and forth between fitting writing in with a day job and taking a few months away between jobs to focus on writing. At the moment, I’m about to embark on a few months where I will likely not be working full time and can make writing the main focus of my day. Realistically, I will need to return to a day job, but I want one with less stress.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

All the time!

What do you do to overcome it?

I’m most prone to writer’s block when I’m under stress, so I try to overcome it by taking better care of myself and „refilling the well“ by reading, seeing a movie, going to a museum, or just taking a long walk.

Do you have enough time for reading? What kind of books do you like?

I always wish I had more time for reading, but I try to read at least a little every day. I love historical (of course!), but I also really love a good contemporary thriller with a strong female voice.

Which writers helped you finding your writer’s voice?

This is a tricky one because I can’t point to one writer who influenced me in that way. I do think Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible does voice exceptionally well with multiple characters.

What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t know that I remember specifics, but whenever someone gives advice on writing and claims it’s the only way, I’m skeptical. There are many paths in this life. If you write, you’re a writer.

What is your current project?

I can’t talk about it too much yet because it isn’t under contract, but it’s a historical set in the late eighteenth century with an American protagonist. I am excited to tell her story in ways that are reminiscent of my experience with Natalya.

What is your advice for the aspiring Bulgarian writers who read bgstoryteller?

Keep at it! Seek out fellow writers who will read your work and give you honest but tactful feedback. Writing is wonderful work but you will want friends and allies who understand what you are going through. Creating art is the most honorable profession in my opinion, but it can also be the most difficult and isolating. Find companions for your journey and treasure them.

 

Here are some links where you can find more about Jennifer:

https://jenniferlaam.com/

https://www.facebook.com/jenniferlaam.writer/

 

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