BOOK SETTING: MOSCOW

I’ve set part of the action of “Ghost Love” in Moscow circa 1989, a time when Communism was crumbling and the Iron Curtain being torn down. This was a bit of a no-brainer. After all, I am a Russian and in 1989 I was fresh out of university, trying to make my way in the world.

A monument to Lenin (one of many). The slogan behind reads, Leninism Is Our Banner!
A monument to Lenin (one of many). The slogan behind reads, Leninism Is Our Banner!

Revolution is many things: disruptive, confusing but also very, very exciting. In the late 1980s Russia underwent its second revolution of the 20th century. Sure it was something of a ‘soft’ revolution – there wasn’t the fighting in the streets and the civil war that marked the revolution of 1917, but in many ways it was just as profound. The move from a centrally-planned, authoritarian Communist state to one which was free-market and democratic (well, sort of democratic) was pretty traumatic and one the old Communist apparatchiks fought tooth-and-nail.

I guess that’s the essence of my story: the struggle my lead character, Tonia, has in moving from the old Communist world to the bright new Capitalist one, from a world of repression to a world of freedom. In a way she mirrors the struggle the whole of Russia had in coming to terms with these changes.

Another Lenin - with a lovely floral display in front of it
Another Lenin – with a lovely floral display in front of him. Red, of course!

Being young when this happened was a great help: the young are much more adaptable. Looking back I can see why my tutors at university (some of them die-hard members of the Communist Party) were so resistant to change: they were frightened. All the certainties that had underpinned their lives were suddenly removed. Since they’d been children they’d been told that Marxism-Leninism was the only true political philosophy and then, almost overnight, there was an ‘oops, no it’s all nonsense’ announcement.

This is me then - standing in front of the Cosmos Hotel surrounded by the mounds of snow, one of which the KGB threw me into! lol
This is me then – standing in front of the Cosmos Hotel surrounded by the mounds of snow, one of which the KGB threw me into! lol

I’ve put some of these characters in my story and though the names have been changed to protect the innocent pretty much everything is true. Just as Tonia is, I was lectured by my English teacher at university to use our lessons with English students as ‘an opportunity to prove to our British guests the superiority of the Soviet, socialist, way of life especially when compared to their rotting Capitalism’. And just like Tonia, I was thrown by a KGB officer into a mound of snow for trying to send a fax, and I watched the attempted coup of 1990 unfold on CNN (pre-Internet, CNN was a great force for freedom). And I do remember waking up to find tanks parked on the lawn outside some Moscow apartment blocks (scary).

Of course, for someone like Tonia (and me) it was a marvellous time. Suddenly the drab, dour Moscow was being brought into the modern world. How excited we were (yes, really) when the first McDonalds opened (with the two hundred metre queue to get in). And what a thrill of going abroad for the first time was – that first visit to the UK, wow! (I will write more about it later).

So what I hope I’ve done in “Ghost Love” is communicate the mix of emotions Tonia experienced as she made the transition from Communist schoolgirl to modern woman. It was fun, it was frightening, it was confusing but boy did you know you were alive!

Re-Blogging from The Creatively Green Write at Home Mom’s Blog “I’VE GOT DESIGNS ON YOU”

Me making Murano glass beads
Me making Murano glass beads

When I’m not writing I fill what little time I have left with creating and writing about making jewelry. I began making Murano glass beads and jewelry pieces because I like playing with colors – just as a writer likes to play with a reader’s emotions. One of my signature designs is my “Matrioshka” bead, which is a riot of bright colors and bold patterns. It also hints to my Russian origins: “Matrioshkas” are the wooden dolls which have a family of smaller dolls nestling inside, they are a favorite toy of Russian children. My “Matrioshka” beads brought me 1st Place in the prestigious UK Bead Magazine competition, in the category of handmade lampwork beads.

When I come to think about it, there’s a great deal of symmetry between writing and jewelry making. Not only are they both engrossing occupations, they’re ones that demand care, attention to detail and become all-consuming. But the similarities go further than that. Writing fiction involves putting together a plot which is coherent, engaging and which seizes the reader’s attention. It’s exactly the same with jewelry making.

“Matrioshka” the Russian doll made into this pretty pendant

For example, this necklace, “Pink Flowers”: it took me quite some time designing how all the individual elements – the glass beads, the silver spacers, the hand-dyed silk ribbon and the clasp – would fit together to make a piece which is coherent, engaging and which seizes the attention of anyone seeing it.

The other thing a good story demands is interesting characters: those who stand out from the crowd and stick in the reader’s memory. The beads I create serve exactly the same purpose; they’re the focus of attention and hence I take great pains in crafting them so that you’re lured to take a closer look. Even the plain beads have their role to play, complimenting the focal beads and enhancing their beauty. Their function is like the ‘supporting’ characters in ‘Ghost Love’: not memorable by themselves but serving to put the passions and foibles of the lead characters in sharper relief.

Coco Chanel once said that perfume heralds a woman’s arrival and delays her departure. It’s exactly the same with good jewelry – and with good fiction. I’ve often lost all track of time when I’ve been engrossed in reading a good book. My hope is that ‘Ghost Love’ will have exactly the same effect on its readers – just like my jewelry pieces on those who admire them.

PICK A BALE OF COTTON

One of the key events in ‘Ghost Love’ revolves around my lead character Tonia singing in her university choir.

In Soviet Russia schoolchildren were encouraged to perform on stage, and if you had a good voice, that meant being part of the school and, later on, the university choir. As I wrote earlier, if you had talent you could attend a music school in addition to the usual school, but going to the music school cost money, in my case it was 21 Roubles per month (to compare, my Grandma’s monthly pension was 56 Roubles). In my music school the choir met every Saturday and we performed at various celebrations: the Great October Revolution Day (7th November), May Day (1st May) or Victory Day (9th May) being the most important ones in the Communist calendar.

Me in the music school choir second from the top right
Me in the music school choir second from the top right

This is a picture of me trilling away at one of those performances (I am second from the right in the top right corner). How glamorous we all looked in our celebratory write aprons and white ribbons in our hair! You also had to wear long white socks which I used to hate for those occasions (I’d always get cold in them!).

Tonia has a good voice so she’s naturally part of her university choir which features twice in ‘Ghost Love’. The first time we meet her rehearsing for a performance on the Great October Revolution Day – a BIG deal in Soviet times ‒ and, just like my university choir had I’ve made the choir leader an American. Not as strange as it might sound; there were quite a few American Communists in Moscow then, having fled the States to avoid persecution by McCarthy. All of us studying English used to flock to the choir sessions just to listen to her great accent (real English spoken by a real American, wow!) and to learn some of the old American songs. One of them was “Pick a Bale of Cotton”. I suppose the song is a little non-PC now and I’ve tried to communicate this by the observations made by Georgie, the rather outspoken English girl:

They worked hard for the next hour, running through the three numbers the choir would be performing at the Revolution Day Concert in November. Of these ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’ was Tonia’s favorite, she found ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ a little too ponderous for her taste though the occasional asides by Georgie regarding the lyrics – ‘racist crap’, ‘fucking nonsense’ and ‘sentimental bullshit’ being the most memorable – did enliven their performance. And sandwiched between Georgie’s comments and Natasha’s rotten singing – the girl was tone deaf, which probably accounted for her terrible English pronunciation – by the time Mrs Maier called it a day and dismissed the choir Tonia had a monumental headache…”

The one thing about my singing in the school and later university choir, it stood me in good stead when I began to sing jazz (something else which features prominently in ‘Ghost Love’). When I came to England in 1998 I fronted the band performing in the jazz-themed hotel my husband and I set up. An interesting few years which culminated in my recording a critically-acclaimed nuJazz album called “Jazz Noir” (you can watch me singing that great Marlene Dietrich number ‘Falling in Love Again’ if you follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2J5Phukc8Y).

Alas for poor Tonia the consequences of becoming a jazz singer were much more threatening … but to find out why you’ll have to read ‘Ghost Love’!

MOSCOW, MOSCOW, WHERE ART THOU MOSCOW?

Welcome to all new followers of my blog!

As it is 9th May – Victory Day – which is a huge holiday in Russia, I was going to write about my family’s connections with World War II. Unfortunately, when I was in Moscow last time, my mum was not in the mood to look through the old photos which I had planned to use for my blog, so this will have to be postponed until next year. Instead, I thought I would ask you some questions.

What is the primary aim of writing? My answer would be ‘to entertain’. But having finished ‘Ghost Love’ I came to believe there is another task: to make readers pause and think. One of the ways to do this is to set your story in a time and a place with which the readers are probably unfamiliar and by having them vicariously experience events they’ll find it intriguing.

Map of Western Europe with a bit of Russia
Map of Western Europe with a bit of Russia

‘Ghost Love’ is set – in part – in Moscow circa 1990, the time when Communism was collapsing and the Soviet Union was mutating into the Russia we know today. A pretty seismic shift in world politics when the Iron Curtain was drawn back and the Russian people for the first time in a couple of generations reconnected with the rest of the world. So I started writing ‘Ghost Love’ on the assumption that the fall of Communism was engraved in the consciousness of all of us. I was disabused of this when a Russian friend of my children came to visit. We got talking and I was amazed to find he knew nothing about this “Second Russian Revolution”. Having been born post-1990 he’d never experienced life in Communist USSR with its queues, shortages, the mindless adherence to Marxism/Leninism and the complete absence of decent shoes and jeans in the shops (it’s this last item that most annoyed me as a student!). There’s a feeling current in Russia today that the West is somehow seeking to belittle Russia and the Russians so the question we posed to ourselves was: if we don’t know our history why do we suppose people in the West would be interested?

You can see Moscow on the very right
You can see Moscow on the very right

My husband (who can be a very provocative sod when he wants to be) suggested to said friend that the majority of people in the West wouldn’t be able to find Moscow on a map which the young man thought ludicrous. Russia is an important country … everyone knows where Moscow is! So we put the assumption to the test. We drew a blank map showing the outline of continental Europe and asked people we met to mark where they thought Moscow might be located. The results (admittedly drawn from a very non-random and not statistically significant sample of 12 people) were illuminating. The nearest anyone got was 200 miles and a couple … well, the one who twinned Moscow with Paris was suitably embarrassed.

What this told me was that books are important because they get people thinking and that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it? And by-the-by, I’m now busily translating ‘Ghost Love’ into Russian and the first copy is going to my children’s friend!