We’re back and delighted to have author Annemarie O’Brien with us for our first post, talking about her soon to be released debut novel LARA’S GIFT.
Kissing The Earth: Hi Annemarie! We are thrilled to have you as a guest at Kissing The Earth and curious to find out more about the vivid, richly drawn historic setting of the Russian countryside where LARA’S GIFT takes place. Can you describe it for our readers and then talk a little about how you researched the details of this setting?
Annemarie O’Brien: During the height of the Imperial era, Russian royalty lived rather large and often owned several grandiose properties throughout Russia. Lara’s Gift takes place just prior to the 1917 Revolution on a country estate in the Tambov region of Russia, southeast of Moscow where the real Count Vorontsov family owned several estates. From archives of the museum that honors the Vorontsov memory, the Vorontsovka estate is described as follows:
It was a beautiful place with a tree-lined entrance leading to a large, two-story house. Situated on the high banks of the Tsna River, it was surrounded by a large park with cascading ponds leading to the river below. The estate was comprised of the stone manor house, a church, outbuildings, greenhouses, stables, the kennels, and other dependencies.
While many details come from my own experience living and working in Russia in the 1980s and 90s, I did do extensive research to incorporate rich sensory details into the setting of Lara’s Gift. The most useful books included: Life on the Russian Country Estate by Priscilla Roosevelt and Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia. Another great source of information was a 1914 National Geographic magazine that featured Russia from cover to cover. Another great find was a book called Observations on Borzoi by Joseph B. Thomas about his travels to Russia in the early 1900s in search of the perfect borzoi where he spent significant time on the Vorontsov estate. And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the literature of Pushkin, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.
For a visual image of rural Russia at that time, watch the movie, Doctor Zhivago directed by David Lean. He did a fabulous job re-creating Imperial Russia. Also check out my book trailer of Lara’s Gift (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whcIDqxCq9g) where most of the photos were taken in Russia. But best to read Lara’s Gift where I hope you’ll feel planted in this landscape and experience it first-hand through Lara’s eyes.
KTE: Yes, Reading LARA’S GIFT definitely brought to mind for me images from that gorgeous film, Doctor Zhivago. So, another question; how much do you think the culture and lifestyle of the area where LARA’S GIFT is set, is connected to the landscape? I guess another way to ask that question would be: how do you think this Russian landscape shaped, influenced and impacted the local culture?
AOB: The Russian landscape greatly shaped the local culture in the setting of Lara’s Gift. I don’t believe this story, as far as specific details go, could have been told anywhere else in the world or even in a different period of Russian history.
Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff, one of Count Vorontsov’s descendants said it best:
In LARA’S GIFT, Annemarie O’Brien preserves the past by submerging us in a time and place that is now gone and where we are held captive by its beauty and elegance, as well as its contradictions and inequalities. She vividly reconstructs everyday estate life—the echoes of distant church bells, the sounding of the horn, the stark cruelty of the hunt, and the joys and pain of birth.
Or take a look at Suzanne Massie’s well-researched book, The Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia. In it, you will become convinced that there is no other place on earth quite like Old Russia where its traditions were influenced by both eastern and western customs with an outcome that made them uniquely Russian.
I’ll give you an example. In Lara’s Gift, pay attention to the birth scene just after Lara fetches the mid-wife. Every detail in this scene comes straight from the research documented in Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia who lived among the peasants in the early 1900s to better understand them and their superstitious beliefs. Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia offers so much detail that I had originally incorporated into Lara’s story and eventually cut out to keep the story moving. I left just enough (and maybe some!) to keep the Russian flavor.
KTE: There is a romantic, almost fairy tale appeal to the landscape you’ve recreated. How much did the rich literary traditions of this area influence you in your writing?
AOB: Good question. The rich literary traditions of Russia did influence my writing, specifically Pushkin. For example, when Lara goes off to hunt for mushrooms, I borrowed a few lines from Pushkin to describe her surrroundings:
The forest all in gold and purple clad;
The wind-sough’s whisper in the treetops breezing,
The brooding sky with swirling vapor sad,
The virgin frost, the sun’s infrequent glinting,
And hoary winter’s distant ominous hinting.
I also sprinkled lines from Pushkin to emphasize the setting and Lara’s emotion in the scene when Lara worries she’ll never see Zar again:
Once again there hang beclouded
My horizons, dark with rain;
Envious Fate, in malice shrouded,
Lies in wait for me again.
I even dare to change a few words in the last two lines of Pushkin’s poem below when Lara hears wolves howling in the distance and worries that something bad is going to happen:
Down the dismal snow-track swinging
Speeds the troika, and the drone
Of the wolf-pack’s frightful howling
Numbs me with its hungry tone.
I’d also add that I was influenced by the works of classical Russian composers, as well as by my fascination for Palekh art, Russian fairy tales, and the Russian language.
KTE: Has the Russian landscape changed much since the early 1900s?
AOB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question. But I suspect there are small villages in the outer most regions of Russia that have not changed much since the 1900s. And then there are places like Moscow which has certainly morphed into a major cosmopolitan center not unlike New York City.
I can share this from Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff who describes what his family’s estate looks like today:
Today, only the park remains. The estate has disappeared and so have its owners, victims of revolutions, wars, and the great political and social changes in Russia during the twentieth century. A small museum in the neighboring village of Vorontsovka preserves the memory of the families and dogs that once lived there.
Behind the leadership of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, the Russian landscape has certainly worn many faces since the Tsar last ruled Russia.
KTE: Your connection to the setting and culture seems exceptionally strong. I’m curious if this landscape holds any personal importance to you?
AOB: Yes. Although I am not Russian by blood, I feel my heart and soul belong to old Russia. I easily connect and relate to Russians and feel at home there.
I spent a good ten years of my life in this part of the world and grew from the challenges I faced in the privatization and capital market development work I did. For sure, my experience living and working in this part of the world inspired the story behind Lara’s Gift and enriched my life in a way that a formal education could have never achieved.
Thank you, Kissing the Earth for inviting me on your blog to share my views about the Russian landscape in Lara’s Gift!
KTE: Thank you Annemarie for joining us and for all of your wonderful insights on this fascinating landscape.
Win a Copy of LARA’S GIFT!
Readers, leave a comment and share this post on some social media platform by midnight PST August 4th to win a copy of LARA’S GIFT! For every share or comment, your name will be entered into the pot. The winner will be drawn at random and announced here at Kissing The Earth on August 8th. Be sure to leave an email address where we can contact you.
For more opportunities to win a copy of LARA’S GIFT and/or a manuscript critique by Deborah Halverson from Dear Editor, check out these internet sites on these dates: Fiction Notes (7/31); Kissing the Earth, Quirk and Quill, or Simple Saturday (8/1); Coffee with a Canine, Dog Reads, or World Reads (8/5); Dear Editor (8/6); Word Spelunking (8/7); Random Acts of Reading (8/8); The Hiding Spot (8/9); and Beth Fish Reads (8/13).
For more information about LARA’S GIFT, check out:
For a Teacher’s Guide:
To view the Book Trailer:
Annemarie O’Brien has an MFA in writing for children & young adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing courses at Stanford Continuing Studies, UC Berkeley Extension, Pixar, and DreamWorks. She also edits children’s books for Room to Read, a non-profit that advocates literacy in developing countries. Her debut novel, LARA’S GIFT comes out on August 6, 2013 with Alfred A. Knopf of Random House and has earned a starred review from Kirkus.