I’m very pleased to welcome Cathryn Constable who’s debut novel, The Wolf Princess, was published by Chicken House on October 4th, to So Many Books, So Little Time as part of her blog tour.
Over to Cathryn!
When I started writing The Wolf Princess, I had never visited Russia... I didn’t know if I’d ever visit Russia... A trip seemed as likely as getting through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia.
So I was a bit stuck, because Russia kept climbing in to anything I tried to write and then I would have to stop, because I felt I couldn’t write about it because I’d never been. That wretched phrase... ‘Write what you know’ became quite an inhibition for me... I think I wasted quite a lot of time trying to keep my book within the limits of my knowledge and experience rather than my imagination.
But of course, you can ‘know’ things in many different ways. So I decided to use what I ‘knew’ even if it didn’t involve a plane ticket and a visa.
I had read a lot of Russian novels... and I started doing searches on Google for things like ‘abandoned Russian palaces’.
So I found plenty of images... like this one...
And of course, there was the interior in Dr Zhivago...
I suppose what I wanted in the Volkonsky Winter Palace was some mix of Russian-ness with that Miss Haversham vibe in Great Expectations... the version with Michael York as Pip... I adored her house!
There was also a really good website called ‘Nostalgic Glass’... I think the photographer went to various abandoned buildings and somehow got inside and took amazing photographs... One of the completely desolate buildings he visited has, I think, since been taken over and completely renovated as a summer residence for Putin...
I found a couple of wonderful books, too... Petersburg Perspectives with photography by Yury Molodkovets was a fabulous visual reference, even though my book isn’t set in St Petersburg. Still, there were plenty of photographs of grand Russian-ness and it helped me to think of the scale of Russia... Then there was Life on the Russian Country Estate by Priscilla Roosevelt, and a wonderful set of images in St Petersburg by Orloff Shvidkovsky... Some of these I photocopied and put on my pinboard, or else I would just have the books lying around, open. It meant, in a way, that I could choose the mood of the setting rather than remember places I had actually seen. In this case, I think it was more helpful that I didn’t go to Russia until I had a clear sense of what I was writing about.
I watched Russian films, too. The Irony of Fate is an especial favourite... It’s a deliciously bonkers film about a love affair that happens when a man believes he’s come home to his box of a Soviet flat and finds a rather beautiful blonde has moved in. However, he’s in the wrong city having got drunk with his friends and accidentally been put on the plane instead of someone else. After a lot of misunderstandings, and singing of songs, they realise that fate has brought them together.
There is no direct sense of it in my book, although I suppose I did take something of that Blonde Russian Beauty for Anna Feodorovna. And I always love stories about people who get lost...
I also watched, so many times, the film My Tender and Affectionate Beast... based on a short story by Anton Chekhov... I loved the quality of the snow!
And I watched a really good Russian version of Anna Karenina on YouTube. YouTube is amazing for getting all sorts of snippets, although it doesn’t necessarily feel like ‘work’ when you’re watching such things at ten o’clock on a Thursday morning...
Also, I read Journey into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch which is such an amazing book for making you fall in love with Russia... And I had an old cook book from the 70s which was fabulous... I can make wonderful borscht (a bright pink soup made from beetroots)!
I did eventually visit St Petersburg... but in summer... it was 30 degrees and it didn’t ever properly get dark, so it was very different from the snowiness and daytime twilight of The Wolf Princess.
You can go up to the roof of a rather smart hotel on the Fontanka and drink chilled ‘champanskoye’ at 2am. They wrap you up in swansdown blankets and you seem to be in the company of the statues on the roof of the buildings around the Hermitage. It’s thrilling.
Thank you to Cathryn and Chicken House for a wonderful post!