Revisiting Siberia through the Edinburgh Book Review…
I loved participating in this in-depth conversation with the Edinburgh Book Review. I’ve always felt an interview can only be as good as the questions the interviewer poses – and in this case, Wander Gubler of EBR really challenged me in the best possible way. It was clear she’d read my 2012 Russian novel The Lost Souls of Angelkov with deep attention and an eye to all the detail, and her questions reflect her intensity and interest. Going back in my mind to Russia – and in particular, Siberia – as I answered Wander’s questions, I was flooded with nostalgia for those long days and nights aboard the rocking Trans-Siberian Railway with my daughter Brenna, drinking tea and vodka, reading, writing, and talking, always talking about what we were experiencing and what might come next. I was working on The Lost Souls of Angelkov during this research trip; it was my second time to Russia. This time, as I journeyed through Siberia, I gained new insight into the character of Grisha. His Siberian story became richer and his character more layered as I learned more and more about Russia’s Asiatic region. Brenna and I were the only non-Russian travellers on board – wait, that’s slightly false, as my father was Russian, but without knowledge of the language or the ability to read Cyrillic, there was little we could do to help ourselves. We fought to understand the complex time system and train etiquette as our journey spanned over 9,000 kilometers and eight time zones – which makes the trip nearly a third of the way around the globe. We were appreciative of the non-smiling but helpful train attendants who silently showed us how to use the samovar at the end of the car for hot water for our tea and packaged soup. Some days these attendants tried to describe, with hand gestures and muted animal sounds (Brenna and I learned this was not to be smiled at – they were very serious in their attempts to help us) what food might be offered by two ladies who, on random days, cooked in the small, usually empty dining car. It appeared everyone else on the train brought huge bags of their own food supplies. Brenna and I usually had to rely on unfamiliar packaged foods we bought from kiosks on train platforms, worrying our way through the long queues with one eye on our train, afraid it might leave without us, unable to understand how long it would sit, engine running, at any particular stop.
Brenna and I sometimes reminisce about those long, monotonous days when time passed almost as if in a fever dream. The shadowed Ural Mountains were often in the distance through the dusty window, and at night, as we passed through tiny villages, the mournful shriek of the train whistle made us sit up and look out at the cold autumn sky lit by the sharp points of the stars.
Oh, Siberia. Thank you to Edinburgh for taking me back.
Please click here for the full interview.