At the Eleventh Hour... - An interview with Paullina Simons Few authors cause the stir that Paullina Simons achieved with her debut novel, Tully, back in 1995. The critics raved, the bookshop shelves emptied and everyone who was anyone gave up doing anything else other than reading the book! "You'll never look at life in the same way again," promised a sobbing Company magazine. Tully was the epic tale of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks and her emergence into womanhood, and despite the book's obvious success, Paullina was not going to be pigeon-holed as a certain type of writer. Although her second novel retained the same sensitivity, it was something very different - a suspense mystery, a cross between Donna Tartt and Patricia Cornwell, said the cognoscenti. This book, Red Leaves, went on to establish Paullina as a very definite bestseller. And now there's Eleven Hours. Even faster in pace than anything she's written before, this book will have you hooked from the first page. Didi, a heavily pregnant young woman is leaving the shopping mall to head home on a horribly hot day in Texas. Her normal life of shopping, husband, children, with the extra excitement of the imminent baby, stretches before her ... ... And then she is bundled into a car and kidnapped by a desperate young man. What does he want? Where are they going? Only the excruciating tension of the next eleven hours will tell, as Didi's life hangs by an ever diminishing thread. We met up with Paullina Simons when she was last over in London from her Texas home, and asked her to tell us more! Although you now live in Texas, you were born in Leningrad, and left the Soviet Union at the age of 10. Do you feel wholly American, or is there a Russian heart in you? 'There is a very definite Russian heart in me; that never dies. I think you're born and you live your life with it and you die with it. I'm very much an American - my books tend to be about American things, but inside there's that sort of tortured, long-suffering, aching, constantly analysing Russian soul underneath the happy American exterior. You can tell in my books too - I can't leave well enough alone, everything has to have that spiritual angle to it. 'Having said that, I don't think America is soulless - Americans are happier than the Russians, but that doesn't mean that they're soulless, it just means that they have a better time. The Russian people tend to agonise over everything; like the Irish, they love poetry, they love to get drunk and cry over these beautiful poems. Americans just tend to get drunk!' To backtrack just a little bit, when did it first occur to you that there was this original story, Tully, inside you and that you were going to sit down and write a novel? 'I was in England at the time, actually. And I'd always said, 'I want to be a writer, I really want to be a writer, I want to be a novelist ...!' until one day my then husband just told me bluntly to stop talking about it, and actually do something. 'If you want to write,' he said, 'write a short story, that's how writers get started. And,' he added, 'if you can do it, I'll let you have a computer.' So, two days later this idea for a short story came to me - a girl called Sally Tucker trying to choose between the two guys she was seeing. But when I started writing it, and Sally became Tully, I realised that it was just too big for a short story. It became obvious that this was a whole life I was writing, a full novel. So it really started there. I wrote the first two or three chapters while I was still in England and even when I then left the country I knew that Tully was going to be my first book, I knew that iIf I was ever going to write anything, Tully would be it.' When you start writing, do you know where you're headed or do your characters take you by surprise? 'Well, with Tully I pretty much had to know because it was such a big book, although I have to say that I'd originally pictured a different end for her. As I wrote - and I was only maybe a quarter of the way through the book - I realised that I couldn't have the end I wanted and God, it broke my heart! I was in complete crisis. But as a writer you're a slave to your characters. It's not so much that they take you over, it's just that you have to be true to them. And once you believe in a character then they carry the story along. Equally, they have to be true for your reader. You have to keep your audience in your mind; if you're writing stuff that you know nobody's going to care about then you should rethink what you're doing! And, of course a book like Tully, for example, that had so many readers provoked very different responses from different people. But it made me realise that so long as you write something that feels true to you, you're going to be OK.' Tell us a little more about Didi (full name Desdemona), the central character in Eleven Hours - where did her name come from, is she like you, where did she spring from? 'It's funny, I tell you, I always wanted to name a character Desdemona - a woman whose name would be her greatest punishment and her greatest reward. Because how do you live your life with a name like that! So in Eleven Hours there's this woman named Desdemona and she's the most average woman ever - she's happily married, she's got kids, she's not a celebrity, she's not famous, she's just your average, everyday housewife. And yet she's got this name, this weighted name, Desdemona. Something is going to happen to her! 'To a large extent the book is concerned with fate and the issues you can't control - you think everything is going well and you think you've got a handle on your life, then suddenly you find out that you don't have a handle on anything. I'm probably not as overtly religious as Didi is, but what we do share is this feeling that destiny really rules you. There are forces that act upon us that we have no control over. But it is up to us to deal with what we're given once we find ourselves in those situations.' USA Today described Tully as 'a protagonist as thoroughly American and contemporary as, well, an identity crisis.' Do you think your Russian 'soul' allows you to view American culture from a slightly detached and therefore more acute angle? 'I think what my Russian side allows me to do is to see American culture from a more objective perspective - and a subjective one at the same time. In other words, because I didn't grow up with all the things that Americans take for granted, I am able to look at this and say, 'we're so lucky, we're so fortunate, we have so many things, so many opportunities ...' I tend to be a great optimist when it comes to the United States and the American way of life, I think precisely because I wasn't born into it. It's much easier for people who were to say, '. but look at this and look at that ...' and for me to say, 'yes, yes, you're right, but also look at this.' So that's what it allows me to do.' You once told the New York Times that you worked until four or five in the morning when writing Tully, a book 'written at fever pitch'. Is this still the way you write? Are you compulsive? 'I've got to tell you - I'm like that about everything, and it's not necessarily a good thing. Here's how it goes. I'm sitting there at the computer and I'm procrastinating, thinking 'OK, I've got to start writing, I've got to start writing .' Then I see the card games I have on there - the solitaire and so forth, so I think, 'well, I'll just play one game'. Two hours later ... I'm still trying to get my 52 cards all in a row! So pretty much everything I do is like that! I either don't want to start things or I don't want to stop things; I'm constantly in a state of flux. But yes, I wrote Eleven Hours in the same way - truly at the same speed at which you read it.' Do you think Eleven Hours would have been such an emotive book if you hadn't been pregnant when you wrote it? 'I don't think so. I'm not sure it would have been possible had I not been pregnant and, in fact, I don't think I could have written it any earlier in my pregnancy either. I really think the book is like my nightmare, my nightmare of labour. The book culminates in labour as pregnancy culminates in labour - that thing nobody can help you with. The force of it is so blunt and so incredible, you're desperate for help and yet you're on your own. Nobody can help you with that. You've just got to come out on the other side. 'It was very disturbing writing Eleven Hours. I had so many fears because of my pregnancy - I was afraid to leave the house, afraid to get into the car, afraid of an accident. And yet even the most fragile human beings - and you don't get much more fragile than a pregnant woman with another life inside of her - rise to the endurance test that they're put to. You can't believe the experiences that human beings have gone through and still come out on the other side alive and intact - perhaps even all the stronger for the experience. How do people survive labour camps, the loss of their children .? I don't know, I don't know. But somehow they go on and they live and laugh again.' You once said in an interview that, when you were first pregnant, your mother warned, 'Oh there goes your career ...!' but you don't seem to have taken any notice! 'I did take notice of that when she said it. I was only 23 years old and this was my mother, who'd had her own experience of giving up a career for the sake of her family. So I couldn't just say out of hand, 'no mom, that's completely bogus, I can have both.' But I did just believe that my life was going to work out. And the reason I did it is that I thought that it would. You have to make choices, obviously, but ultimately I thought to myself, if you want to have both, you can do it.' 'But Rich, your meeting.' 'But Donna, my wife.' A very simple exchange in Eleven Hours, but doesn't it touch on the balance we make these days between work and family, business time and family time. Have we got it wrong? 'I think sometimes we do really have it wrong and thank God I'm lucky enough to be married to a man who has that balance well in hand. It's my greatest happiness to have that in my life, but I do see a lot of marriages, a lot of families, where the balance is truly sad and unequal. In the end the family becomes almost like two lives: the mom with her kids at home and then the dad out making a living - although perhaps he's in a better position to have a life outside too. 'Once you get into a routine it's hard to pull back and think, hold on, let's look at this differently. I work from 10am to 6pm at home, and so I do hear my kids downstairs. But it's still 10 till 6 of their waking hours and I do sometimes think, 'oh my gosh, there's another person taking care of them - although I'm just here, up in my room, I'm not with them.' And then I see other moms walking along the street with their babies and you wonder, have I got it right?' Your first novel was an epic, the demands of the plot in your second novel, Red Leaves, must have constricted you more, and you seem to be getting tougher on yourself with every book - in your latest you've given yourself literally eleven hours of time within which the whole story is contained. It's as if you set yourself a new challenge each time! 'Yes! A smaller scope each time! I already have it all planned - this is how it goes: the next time it's going to be a short story for, say, a magazine; then a feature article for a newspaper; then it's going to be a 500 word column in Newsweek and after that I'm reducing myself to a Day in the Life in the Readers Digest! I'll be able to compress my life into a paragraph! 'More seriously, my next book, The Bronze Horseman, is - I don't want to say 'epic' - but more of a Tully-type novel. It tells the story of a Russian girl and an American soldier during World War II - a story of great love during a time of immense tragedy.' The Bronze Horseman - An interview with Paullina Simons The Bronze Horseman is a love story of extraordinary power - tragic, triumphant and utterly compelling. It is set against the spectacular backdrop of Leningrad, at the time of the invasion of Russia by Hitler, when Leningrad, known as St Petersburg, was taken siege. Paullina draws on her early years spent in Russia to tell the story of the Metanov family, who live a hard and impoverished life, but who still find room for love and romance. However, when Tatiana first meets her sister's boyfriend, Alexander, she knows immediately that for her, the path of love will involve only sacrifice and denial. As the grip of winter closes as relentlessly as the advancing German army, so Tatiana is forced into ever more desperate measures in order to survive - both physically and emotionally. And as her impossible love for Alexander grows, so his own extraordinary secret story is revealed - a story that could spell death for anyone who hears it. In much of her book, art imitates life. Paullina's own grandfather survived Leningrad during the first terrible winter, along with her grandmother's mother. Since the Revolution, her own family lived in the rooms depicted in the novel, and she herself was born and raised in those rooms, until the family left Russia for America. We met up with Paullina Simons to talk in more detail about The Bronze Horseman and about her life in general. You grew up in Russia, then lived in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Where do you feel most at home? My blessing and my curse is that I have lived in so many places that I find myself easy to attach and easy to detach from all of them. Russian is what I am, American is what I have become, English is what I happily was and fondly remember. But since I was ten years old, I have never lived in any one location longer than two years. The longest I've ever lived anywhere was the Fifth Soviet apartment which is one of the settings in The Bronze Horseman. I don't belong in Russia now anymore than I belong in Texas or Long Island, or Kansas, or Brooklyn, but when I think of things that affect me: of the songs that I love, or books that I adore, or foods that comfort me, or language that soothes me, invariably, those things are all Russian. Your books are all very different. Your first book, Tully, was a rich, emotional saga. Your second book, Red Leaves, was a murder mystery. Your third book, Eleven Hours was a psychological suspense thriller. And The Bronze Horseman is an historical novel. What makes them all Paullina Simons books? I have a certain sensibility that I bring to my writing that comes from knowing two things: what I as a reader like to read, and what as a writer I am capable of. I know my own limits. I know there are things I cannot do. What I like to read, however, and like to write, are stories where the action unfolds for the characters as it unfolds for the reader, where neither the narrator nor the reader knows what's going to happen in the future, and so we are all along for the same ride. As a reader I like to discover things on my own and make up my own mind about what's happening to the characters. Mark Twain calls it something very simple: "Begin at the beginning, go on until the end, then stop." The effect and immediacy of real-time writing cannot be overstated for me as a reader. It's like watching C-span-once you start, you cannot look away. However, I try to be slightly more judicious than C-span in what I show the reader in my stories. Also, I enjoy dialogue that's alive. I like characters that fight, that love, that are larger than life, I like pain and suffering, I like longing and yearning and loneliness, and grief. I like to think of these things and I like to show them on the page. I also grapple in my fiction with recurrent themes: what is the morality for man, for woman, what is the right thing, how far do we deviate, what, if anything, can bring us back? Lies, deceit, manipulation, remorse, conscience, these threads run through all my stories. They are the things that draw me to the stories in the first place. Your first three books were very much slices of Americana. What made you venture to World War II Russia for The Bronze Horseman? I have studiously avoided Russia in my previous fiction for a number of conscious and subconscious reasons. My judgmental family is still alive, and my grandfather, when he found out that I wanted to write a book about Russia and the war, said, "Oh, no, I hope you don't embarrass us all and get everything wrong. I don't want to be turning in my grave for eternity because of all the lies you wrote in your book." "No", I replied, "I certainly wouldn't want that." But that just about sums up my paralysis while writing this book. And truthfully, I felt that I hadn't been ready to write about Russia. It's too personal and too tied up in me with the most important things. We left under egregious circumstances, we thought we would never see Russia again. We came to America seeking a better life, and we found it. All I ever wanted was to be a full-blooded American. So I wrote Tully, who was from the Midwest. She appealed to me because she was American, though she suffered like a true Russian and made everyone else suffer with her-also like a true Russian. And with Red Leaves, I wanted to do a study on premeditated murder, in a typically American setting, but in a typically Russian fashion. Not a murder mystery, but a character study of murder, and the detective had to be American-but tortured. With Eleven Hours, I again took a typical middle-class American family about to have a baby, and turned that on its head, with all my Russian slow-cooking thoughts on good and evil, destiny and free will, and God. So I feel that even before The Bronze Horseman, Russia was in all my "American" books. But finally I found a subject set in Russia that was worthy of my attention and my time and that subject was the siege of Leningrad. I started with two young people in the throes of first love and I added the blockade and then I added right and wrong and destiny and free will and good and evil, and then suddenly I realized that the book was not even about those things first and foremost, but about how difficult it was in the context of the Soviet Union to have the things that we take for granted all over the world. And about how lucky I am that my father's extraordinary belief in America and his boundless optimism was strong enough to give me and my sister a better life, and a life for our children and our children's children. Because of his one brave act all future generations of his family now have hope. Unlike all of our contemporaries in Russia. Now that was a subject worthy of my attention, but it was a frightening endeavour. Your books evoke very strong reader responses on places such as the reader review sections of Amazon.co.uk, where you see many five star reviews and have readers calling your work their favourite books of all time. Where do you think your appeal lies? No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. I was a basket case writing The Bronze Horseman. I simply could not think about anything else or feel for anything else for many months. Some of my heartbreak, for Russia, for Tatiana and Alexander, must have come through on the page, the same as my heartbreak for Tully came through in that book. She was as real to me as if I had known her myself, and many readers have said to me that she was real to them-one of the comments I receive about The Bronze Horseman as well. Who are your literary heroes? Frederick Forsyth. If you read Day of the Jackal, you'll know why. You simply cannot look away from that book, which details the minutia of an assassin's days before a failed attempt on Charles DeGaulle's life. C.S. Lewis because he is so brilliant and so funny. Arthur Koestler because he made the birth of Israel come alive the way no writer ever made history come alive for me. And Solzhenitsyn because you cannot say enough about the Gulag Archipelago. Favorite books? Steinbeck's East of Eden, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Dumas's The Three Muskeeteers, Forster's A Room with a View, Guest's Ordinary People, White's Charlotte's Web, Capote's In Cold Blood, and non-fiction Truman by Gerald Clarke. You have also had a huge success internationally. How does reader response differ in the United States and other countries? Interestingly, it's about the same. What readers respond to in Australia, New Zealand, England, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Greece, judging from their letters, is a certain immediate sensibility about the characters and the story. "I thought she was real." "I couldn't put the book down." "Compulsive reading." "She was like a person I knew." Particularly with Tully, I often receive letters from people telling me of their own troubles similar to Tully's, all very emotional and very poignant. On-line reader reviews of your books often cry for sequels. Do you have any sequels planned for any of your books? Planned, no. Written yes. What have you found to be the most gratifying part of being a professional novelist? Without question it has been the reader response. Writing is such painful , tortuous work, and such fears overwhelm me when my blood is on the page and I think no one will get it, no one will care, no one will feel it, no one will understand because I've failed, I didn't do it justice, I did it wrong. Readers have kind hearts. Those who don't enjoy the books by and large keep to themselves-bless them. And those who enjoy the books and let me know make what I do worth every drop of blood. What do you think is the most common misconception people have about the life of a novelist? That it's easy, that it's glamorous. That it's fun. I will say this-physically, it's not the hardest job you can do. In my experience, waiting tables is the hardest job you can do. But emotionally, writing is draining from first to last. The endless drafts upon drafts, 27 of them for The Bronze Horseman alone, and the endless scene revisions, the endless word revisions. I'm still sitting here embroiled in the U.S. first pass proofs, trying to figure out if Tatiana should say it "lightly" or just say it. Once Gutenberg and his metal plates gets to my book, that's it, for all centuries, for all eternity. Lightly, or not lightly. Forever on the page. Frankly I don't need that kind of pressure. But then.when things work, when you cry, when you laugh, when suddenly your previously dead character springs to life, it's fantastic. All the isolation, all the loneliness is washed away for a few moments. What is your work-day like? When I'm writing is I get up at seven I go and write, I dress the kids, then I go and write, I write all day until dinner, I don't have lunch and I don't pay bills. I do nothing and think nothing, no phone calls, no online, no breaks no movies, nothing. I make dinner, I put the kids to bed and I go and write, from nine in the evening until two or three, or four in the morning. I get up at seven and begin again. That kind of heat can't be sustained for long, but with The Bronze Horseman it continued well into the sequels and the screenplays, and the revisions for the British publication and revisions for the American publication. When I'm not writing in earnest, or when I'm doing research as a method of procrastination, I am in my office from nine to five doing maybe a couple of hours of actual writing and other things like bills and Internet. How big a part does research play in your writing process? Research is a very handy tool for procrastination. I can't write this, I say, I don't know what they looked like in WWII or I don't know what they dressed like, or what language they spoke, or what the Germans were doing. I don't know this, and that, and suddenly a year goes by and I've written 235 pages of my novel and I'm still on the first day of war. I said to my husband, "But the siege of Leningrad lasted 900 days. If every day is going to take me 235 pages." He said, yes, but maybe I could skip days 563 and 789. I was writing the first day of war for a year because I was hiding behind the research, and I was hiding behind the research because I was paralyzed with fear. Finally when the fever got me, I was writing many pages a day, and I didn't care about any of the research. I made up what I needed, then went back and filled in the details. For Tully, I wrote the book first, then on third, fourth revision, found out something about the Kansas Social Services and was pleased that it didn't contradict with my story. For Red Leaves, I actually had to learn a little bit about police procedure in New Hampshire and about Dartmouth College because I knew nothing at all about them, and after all they were the story. Eleven Hours I wrote first, then talked to the SWAT guy and used only the details and asked him only the questions that did not contradict with my narrative. Do you sometimes find your characters and stories invading your own life? You could say that. It is hard to let go. With The Bronze Horseman, it was worse than with any other book, including Tully.
About Paullina Simons