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Friday, December 5, 2014

You Cannot Kill a Swan

And to close out the week, one more interview...

1. Where did the initial idea for You Cannot Kill a Swan come from?

I actually had the initial idea when I was perhaps eleven or twelve years old, after first learning about Russia. I started a picture book about a 17-year-old ballerina and balalaika-player named Amy and her 10-year-old cousin Ginny (a boy), starting in 1917. Obviously, at the time, I had no idea Amy and Ginny aren't Russian names, and later changed Amy into the Russian equivalent Lyubov (Lyuba), and wrote in a plausible explanation as to how her cousin (whose real name is Mikhail) got the nickname Ginny. (This character is just Ginny to me. Changing his name to anything else would've felt very strange.)

I started the real first draft at the end of January 1993, inspired by my memories of having stayed on Cape Cod in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Bob and Ida Vos's autobiographical middle grade novel Hide and Seek. I got the idea to write a book about characters who also went into hiding and had to change residences often, only they'd be hiding from Bolsheviks instead of Nazis. Hide and Seek, like all of Ida Vos's books, is written in (third-person) present tense, which was like a revelation to me. This was years before present tense became so trendy, and I had never realized one could write in present tense. I felt it would work really well for my story too, increase the sense of drama, urgency, immediacy, never knowing what would happen next. I loosely based the first of my characters' hiding places on that two-story hotel room my family had stayed at in August 1991, deprived of things like electricity, ice, and running water thanks to Hurricane Bob.

2. Which part of the publishing process was the most surprising?

Finding out that I'm pretty much on my own regarding marketing! It takes longer than you might expect to build a name for yourself and start making a lot of regular sales.

3. If you could give yourself any piece of advice before you started writing, what would it be?

You need to really immerse yourself into the historical era and setting you're writing about. Do a lot of research from multiple sources, and don't be afraid to create characters who aren't exactly in line with your modern sensibilities. There are ways to create characters who are against the grain in ways which would've been acceptable within the parameters of their given generation. It doesn't mean you have to make them so in line with the status quo of their day that it turns off modern readers. Know when something is an anachronism; don't assume people in a past decade just had, e.g., clunkier answering machines or cassette players. You also never want your story to read like a contemporary dressed up with some historical references and costumes.

4. Plotter or panster?

I'm typically much more of a pantser, though I like to have some kind of general outline, in the form of notes or a table of contents, to remind me of what happens when, and what the basic chronology and events are. I enjoy letting my characters and storylines surprise me as I'm writing.

5. Quiet room or noisy room when you’re writing? How quiet do you need it? What sort of noise?

I tend to prefer music while I'm writing, for extra motivation and inspiration. My writing soundtracks are overwhelmingly music from the Sixties and Seventies, with some Eighties music. One of my books was written primarily to a soundtrack of The Four Seasons and The Hollies, and the second and third of my Russian historical novels have mostly been written with a Duran Duran soundtrack. (You don't have to tell me one of my favorite bands isn't like all the others!)

6. Your writing area/desk: a place for everything and everything in its place or if anyone ever straightened it, you’d never find a thing?
I tend towards organized chaos. I know where everything is on my desk, though it's not in neat little bundles or filed away on other shelves or in cabinets and folders. My maternal grandmother's carefree housekeeping style skipped over my mother and went to me instead!

7. What is your current pop culture obsession (book, TV show, movie, webcomic…)? What are the rest of us missing?

In the last year, I've become a huge fan of The Rap Critic, who has a show on That Guy with the Glasses and Blip TV. He does reviews of songs with music videos, used to do rap mad-libs, makes lists of the worst lyrics he's heard that month and year, and sometimes does miscellaneous videos, like the most haunting songs in hip-hop or the best rap songs of the year. He's very funny, particularly when he's reviewing a song that gets a 0 out of 5 rating, and very intelligent. He often says he wishes mainstream rap and hip-hop would be more intelligent and uplifting, instead of generic club songs, brag raps, and songs objectifying women. I'm far from the only fan of his who's gotten a whole new appreciation of rap thanks to him, and looked up some of the artists and songs he's praised for intelligent lyrics, original subject matter, and hard-hitting topics not often seen these days in the mainstream.

You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan (1917-24) (written as Ursula Hartlein):
Seventeen-year-old Lyuba Zhukova is left behind in Russia when her mother and aunt immigrate to America, forcing her to go into hiding from the Bolsheviks and sometimes flee at a moment’s notice. By the time the Civil War has turned in favor of the Reds, Lyuba has also become an unwed mother. But she still has her best friend and soulmate Ivan Konev, a cousin, and a band of friends, and together they’re determined to survive the Bolsheviks and escape to America.

As Lyuba runs for her life from during the terror and uncertainty of the Civil War, she’s committed to protecting her daughter and staying together with Ivan, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in addition to her best friend and the man who’s raised her child as his own since the night she was born. The race to get out of Russia, into Estonia, and over to America intensifies after Ivan commits a murder to protect her and becomes a wanted criminal.

Once in America, Lyuba discovers the streets aren’t lined with gold and that she’s just another Lower East Side tenement-dweller. Ivan brings in dirt wages from an iron factory, forcing them to largely live off the savings they brought from Russia and to indefinitely defer their dream of having their own farm in the Midwest. And though the Red Terror is just a nightmarish memory, Lyuba is still scarred in ways that have long prevented her and Ivan from becoming husband and wife and living happily ever after. Can she ever heal from her traumatic past and have the life she always dreamt of with the man she loves before Ivan gets tired of waiting?

Buy link:

Author bio:
I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in History and Russian and East European Studies, and am currently pursuing a master’s degree in library science from the State University of New York at Albany. Under the pen name Carrie-Anne Brownian, I've published Little Ragdoll: A Bildungsroman, a family saga set in Manhattan and Hudson Falls from 1959–74 and inspired by the famous story behind The Four Seasons' song "Rag Doll." I've also had work published in the anthologies Campaigner Challenges 2011, edited by Katharina Gerlach and Rachael Harrie; Overcoming Adversity: An Anthology for Andrew, edited by Nick Wilford; How I Found the Right Path, edited by Carrie Butler and PK Hrezo; and The Insecure Writer's Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond.

Under the pen name Ursula Hartlein, I've published You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, a historical saga set in Russia and Manhattan from 1917–24, and And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, a Bildungsroman set in The Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies from 1940–46.

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