Tuesday, 15 September 2015

I kept an open mind, but sooner or later the idea came knocking at the door again ...

Interview with Vanora Bennett
by Karolina Małkiewicz

Vanora Bennett is a British journalist and writer, the author of  "Portrait of an Unknown Woman", "The People's Queen", "Figures in Silk", "Blood Royal", "The White Russian and Midnight in St. Petersburg".

Karolina Małkiewicz: Vanora, you have written two novels set in Russia or about Russians, four English historical novels and two non-fiction books about your experiences as a journalist. What inspired you to write these books?

Vanora Bennett: I have always loved writing, and started my career as a journalist working in Russia just after the Soviet collapse in 1991, so a preoccupation with things Russian and a fascination with how the past affects the present came naturally. Luckily for me, I'd started to learn Russian even before university, since a French teacher at my school was from a White Russian family and had chosen to teach me her first language, so I'd been exposed to that melancholy emigre way of thinking from very early on.

KM: "The People's Queen", "Figures in Silk", "Blood Royal" and "The Portrait of an Unknown Woman": your books tell about the time of the Plantagenets and Tudors – why did you decide to choose this part of English history?

VB: At first by complete coincidence! While I was working in Moscow in the early 1990s, I retuned to London for a weekend and went to an exhibition of drawings by the German artist Hans Holbein, who painted at the English court of Henry VIII in the mid-1500s. His portraits of the Tudor-era new rich – big unrefined men with great slabs of red-meat face and calculating eyes – reminded me so much of the Moscow new rich I was seeing emerge all around me that I bought the catalogue and read every word of it on the plane back to Russia. And there, somewhere in the small print, was a mention of a fascinating and far-fetched theory about a secret story that was hinted at in one of the pictures. I did what I could to find out more, and began to wonder how that story would look if it had really happened that way... and before I knew where I was it was turning into a book. It was really "about" the religious wars of the time, Protestants vs Catholics, which I discovered were absolutely absorbing history – but it also had a love triangle, a new and less positive view of an English hero, the Catholic Sir Thomas More, and a portrait of Holbein. 

It was such fun to write that I decided to go on. The great soap-opera moment of English history is Henry VIII's change of wives and decision to take England out of the Church of Rome, and my first book was set then, but I was a little scared of going straight for that iconic moment and found I preferred the untold stories of people further from the centre stage. And I found myself very interested by questions of reputation and power change – how one political narrative wins support and power, while another is doomed and fades away (again not unnatural after my time reporting in Russia, where such apparently dramatic change had come so fast) – and it was easy to find examples writing about the Middle Ages, when there were so many changes of regime. So I went backwards through time. It wasn't all that easy – life in the Middle Ages was very different from modern life! – and my technique for being able to think my way into a time was to always have a character with an artistic reputation and a body of work you could look at for another perspective. it made it easier to work your way into seeing people's personalities. So I had William Caxton the printer in one book, and Geoffrey Chaucer the great comic poet in another, and Christine de Pizan, the first French professional woman writer, in a third. Especially with the Chaucer book, the People's Queen, it was a tremendous help to have this other less historical viewpoint through which to examine my characters. But it was inevitable that, sooner or later, I'd go back to thinking and writing about Russia...

KM: "The White Russian" and "Midnight in St. Petersburg– why did you decide to write about Russia and Russians in exile? What fascinated you in this country and these people?

VB: So my most recent two novels have been set in early 20th-century Russia, which has given me a chance to revisit the Revolution, and Rasputin, and wartime Petrograd, which I had stayed in a lot several generations later both when it was called Leningrad and St Petersburg, and whose writers and artists I loved – a way to explore both my love of that side of Russian life and my scepticism about the hierarchical and autocratic way Russian politics and policing seem to be. 

As a journalist I spent a lot of time covering the first 1990s war in Chechnya, and came away from Russia with quite negative views about the Russian state's attitude to smaller peoples and minorities and generally to anyone who veers away from the expected norm. Making the heroine of Midnight in St Petersburg a Jewish girl in 1917, and a refugee from violence in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in southern Russia, someone viewed with suspicion because of her dark looks and foreign-sounding name, was a way of telling the same story I'd encountered in real life through my modern Chechen friends' experiences.

As for writing about exiles, it's kind of the same thing. My musician parents had a very international friendship group, so, growing up, I met many, many, central and eastern European and Jewish exiles from one kind of bad history or another, each with more memories than they felt comfortable with it and no way home. So I felt right at home in the world I chose to write about in The White Russian – the Russian emigre circles of Paris in the 1930s, poverty-stricken and paranoid, and, with the second world war coming, genuinely penetrated and infiltrated by Stalinist agents waiting to do more damage.

I think all the drama of novel writing comes from putting characters into a situation where they face conflict and showing how they deal with it and grow – and these are all not just conflict situations par excellence but also ones I felt relatively familiar with.

KM: What is the most interesting or maybe surprising fact you came across in your research for your books?

VB: Well, I learned to make a violin myself while writing about my Jewish heroine Inna becoming a violin maker in St Petersburg – and now have a violin to play on, a fact that still surprises me! I went to a workshop in Cambridge for about 3 years and finally finished the violin last year...

KM: Why did you choose this kind of literature? It must be very difficult because of doing detailed historical research. How do you do your research for your books? Which genre is more difficult: historical fiction or non-fiction?

VB:  In many ways the research is the most fascinating thing you can do. it can be hard to leave the library and actually start writing... Also, I started by wanting a factual framework to write within, because I came from journalism and was scared of writing about people and their feelings without any facts! But In the end I came to agree that it was hard researching the minutiae of daily life at a time when everything was so different. It was a relief to return to Russia in the age of electric light and the phone...

KM: Are there any other areas of the history you would like to write about in your future novels?

VB: I'm not sure – I am writing a non-fiction book about an aspect of Russian history at about the time of the Revolution now, and have thought I might like to try my hand at something contemporary next, perhaps about, or featuring, the many Russians living in London now. So I'll have to see how things develop and whether I get a new historical idea I feel excited about...

This is the Polish cover of
"Portrait of an Unknown Woman"
Published by ŚWIAT KSIĄŻKI
Warsaw 2009
Translated by Joanna Puchalska
KM: Which character of your novels you like the most and why?

VB: My favourite character by a long way is Holbein, in my first novel, PORTRAIT. He sort of wrote himself – big and rough and workmanlike, on the surface, but with a genuine greatness of spirit and intellectual finesse too. I loved the way he soaked up knowledge, and the passion he brought to his work, and the passion with which he fell in love, too.

KM: Which of your book was more difficult to create? Why?

VB: The hardest book to write was the third of the English stories, about Henry V's French wife – I think I underestimated how hard it was going to be to find out about the medieval French history of the period (since France was defeated there is surprisingly little written about it in France)... and it was a dark story about loss and madness which it felt hard to put a shape to. I originally envisaged it more as the story of three women in wartime – a princess, an artist, and the fighter Joan of Arc – each having different responses to danger. But perhaps not unnaturally my publisher was most interested in the princess! So I had to think it out again in an attempt to rebalance things. I hope it worked out OK in the end!

KM: How did you become a journalist?

VB: Again, by accident  I heard as I was finishing my university degree (and wondering what on earth I could do as a job when all I could do was Russian) that Reuters news agency wanted to hire Russian speakers. It turned out to be true, so even though I had done no journalism they sent me to journalism school for a year and trained me. Once I started work, they sent me, not to Moscow, but to Paris, and then to Asia, and then to Africa! But by then I was up and running.

KM: If you could go back in time and become any historical figures, who would it be and why?

VB: Oh, so many people! Probably a man, though that is hard to imagine from my female point of view – Gandhi or Nelson Mandela? I think I would enjoy being an explorer – I had a great-great-great-grandfather who was a botanist in Imperial India and our family legend says he was the first to import rhododendrons into Britain (by wrapping them in brown sugar and putting them on board ship to England) and that he recognised that you could make tea from India tea plants... 

KM: How do you think whether any of the modern women could become a character of the novel? Which one and why?

VB: It would be quite hard I think as modern women have expectations (thank God) that they can have so much power over their own lives, while in the past they had to work within the framework set down by their men. I think the reason that Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn, has become so popular among modern readers is that she followed her own ambition so ruthlessly – but she was incredibly rare for her time. I suspect if that modern women found themselves in a historical novel, they would very soon also find themselves being suspected for their independent mindedness, and probably end up being burned as witches, so there would not be a good outcome!

KM: When did you start writing? When did you realize that you wanted to start writing?

VB: I wrote stories and poems, the usual children's things... I think I realised I wanted to write more than news stories for Reuters when I was working in Africa, where frankly I was a little bored and lonely and had time on my hands. I started to try and write a long magazine-cum-book version of a trip I'd been on, got obsessed, and realised time was passing very quickly as I got absorbed in my project and that I must be enjoying myself a lot!

KM: How does your ordinary day look?

VB: Chaotic – I do try to keep to a timetable and write a regular amount every day, but I also have two children and an ancient house and a part-time job and a thousand calls on my time, so it often doesn't work out exactly as I planned.

KM:  Do you have any unusual writing habits?

VB: None, except gallons of black coffee.

KM: What kind of books do you like reading? Do you have a favourite author or a book? Whose prose do you feel closest to?

VB: I love big stories – whether it is Dickens or Emily Bronte or Tolstoy or Bulgakov. I have recently gone back a lot to Tolstoy – Anna Karenina having been my favourite book as a child, not, I hasten to add, because I loved or even was very interested in Vronsky, but mostly because I though the idealistic and sensitive Levin a most extraordinary character.

KM: Have you ever been to Poland? What do you associate with Poland?

VB: Ooh, yes, I have! And I loved it. I went for a week on a Polish government trip for four journalists, and saw – Warsaw, Krakow, and Mazuria, which I thought especially fascinating and beautiful and have indulged a fantasy for years since of going to live by the side of a beautiful lake there. Several years ago I shared a flat with an English girl who had fallen in love with all things Polish, which fed my interest in Poland. Through her I met several very interesting people including the writer Pawel Huelle and the film maker Pawel Pawlikowski – my friend, whose name is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, has since become the leading literary translator in England from Polish, including of a biography of the journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski who was my absolute hero for many years while I was a young journalist going to some of the same very remote places. I imagine Poland being full of pianists playing Chopin in parks, and when I was visited was delighted to discover this wasn't quite just a romantic fantasy, as we heard exactly this during a visit to one of Warsaw's beautiful parks. 

KM: I must ask you: what do you think what happened to the Princes in the Tower? Did king Richard murder his two nephews? If it wasn't him, then who did?

VB: I see you're saving the best if hardest question for last, Karolina! I suppose logic does dictate that king Richard killed them... but my heart wants to believe he didn't. There is a wonderful book by Josephine They called The Daughter of Time which rehearses the case for the boys being killed not by King Richard but by the next King of England, Henry VII. It is a good and compelling case. I read it as a child and it made a huge impression on me. I fictionalise one of the many other conspiracy theories that still exist about this historical mystery in PORTRAIT OF AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, and in my second novel FIGURES IN SILK/QUEEN OF SILKS have Richard III as a minor character - but leave the door open. Perhaps the real attraction of thinking about this historical mystery is that it will never be solved for good – and will go on being exciting to hypothesise about. 

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for all your comments. Feel free to contact us. We promise that we'll try to answer all of them.