For those unfamiliar with your fiction, how would you describe your debut novel, The Russian Tapestry?
The Russian Tapestry is based on my husband’s grandparents, Marie and Alexei Serov. It’s a love story set against the turmoil of WWI, the Russian revolution and civil war.
Marie Kulbas, the daughter of a wealthy Estonian merchant, is a young law student, excited about her new life in the vibrant city of St Petersburg. Ahead of her is a life of invitations to glittering balls, sumptuous midnight suppers and ballets in gilded theatres. This idyllic world however is threatened by the start of the war and the departure of her beloved brother and fiancé to the German Front.
Alexei Serov is a Colonel in the Tsar’s Army. From a long line of professional soldiers, Alexei is a fine horseman and an excellent shot, fiercely loyal to his country and to his men. His allegiance to the army surpasses everything, including his duty to his wife and daughters. His role is clear, until he meets Marie and emotions rise in him that he’s never felt before.
Running parallel to the story of Marie and Alexei is the tragic tale of the Romanov’s and a cast of supporting characters whose lives become entangled. As war escalates, and their world starts to crumble, they each discover a love that they will cling to in their search for a path to safety.
You have written of The Russian Tapestry: “It’s the weaving and threading of anecdotes recited at family dinners with lessons in history.” Many aspiring novelists run into difficulties trying to turn family history into a novel that will also appeal to readers outside their family. What advice do you have for making family history appealing as a novel for a wider readership?
For a book to have appeal the characters must face mounting conflict. No conflict, no story! It makes little difference if the characters are real or fictional, if they’re just ambling along with little conflict in their lives, then there is no appeal for the reader to continue with the book.
In The Russian Tapestry, the setting of war and revolution creates a natural backdrop for conflict. All the characters in the book are forced into situations that require inner strength and resilience for them to survive. Alexei and Marie have the mounting problem of being in relationships with other people when they first meet. In real life, they met during the civil war but for the interest of story telling I have them meet years earlier at the start of the war. That way, even as their attraction grows, their obligations and circumstances keep them apart, adding tension and obstacles to them coming together.
What is one of your favourite novels, and what makes it stand out for you as a reader?
I’m lucky that, as a bookseller, I’m exposed to a wide range of books. I read widely – both fiction and non-fiction – and especially love discovering talented emerging writers. It’s hard for me to pin down one favourite book, but if pressed I’d choose The Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. It literally took my breath away and since then, I’ve read all her books. I love her skill in seamlessly weaving history (often choosing real life characters) into her fiction. Vikram Seth is another one of my heroes along with Tolstoy and Hugo for their sheer ability to write epic novels.
Writing a historical novel set in another country, as you did with The Russian Tapestry, can be challenging to do well. What were some of the challenges you overcame when writing The Russian Tapestry?
Starting out I knew very little about Marie and Alexei’s life other than a skeleton of family anecdotes bandied across the dinner table. When it came to writing The Russian Tapestry, the main problem I had was how to fit what I knew about Marie and Alexei’s lives in the context of historical and cultural background.
Researching proved problematic. Although there is a plethora of books on the Western Front, there are hardly any books in the Australian market on the Eastern Front.
As for cultural nuances, my husband is a second generation Australian and grew up in a household with no Russian cultural influence. We had travelled to Russia in our twenties, but of course visiting a country does not give one the familiarity with a culture as growing up with it.
I started by reading whatever I could get my hands on. Russian novels proved great help in reference to cultural nuances. By chance I came across a set of WWI encyclopaedias that proved a god send in providing me with extensive diary entries, essays and factual information on the Eastern Front.
Together, the Russian novels and the encyclopaedias became the foundation for which I could then build my setting. It was tough and I still worry I did not get all the references to culture right. Having said that, I’ve since had plenty of Russians who have read and enjoyed The Russian Tapestry contact me, so maybe I’m worrying unnecessarily.
What has it been like for you making the transition from unpublished novelist to published novelist?
The Russian Tapestry would not have had the success it enjoys today without the enthusiasm and dedication of the editors, publishers, designers, sales team and publicist that work tirelessly to bring the book to the attention of readers. Ultimately the goal of any writer is to have their books read (this is also the scariest aspect since you’re opening yourself to criticism) and to have a major publishing team behind me is certainly preferable to trying to do it on my own.
As for my day-to-day life, little is changed. We own and operate 6 stores (5 book stores and 1 news agency). I generally work 3 days in Your Bookshop stores and juggle that with looking after my family and writing. It’s hard when time is at a premium but having been published twice, and knowing that I have a publisher, who’s interested in my work, gives me the discipline to push through even as I feel like giving up.
What kinds of stories did you enjoy as a child and teenager, and have these had a significant impact on how you write your own fiction now?
Growing up, we didn’t have the range of books available that young adults enjoy today. As a young girl in Iran, I enjoyed Roald Dahl and had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but the first book I remember being immersed in was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. I was ten at the time and stayed up all night to read it. After that I read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell which I suppose set me on the path to reading epic historical fiction.
If you could bring a fiction writer back to life for one day for the sole purpose of discussing fiction writing, who might you choose and why?
I get amused when asked these questions because I often fantasise about being a Doctor Who companion and visiting 19th century authors in the TARDIS. If I was to meet any author, it would be a toss between Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy and I wouldn’t bring them back to life but travel to meet them in their lifetime.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’ve just finished the first draft of my next novel. It’s different to The Russian Tapestry and my memoir, Under a Starless Sky, in that it’s not steeped in personal family history.
Keeping with the theme of history and migration, it’s a story of three generations of women in one family and the tragedy that tears at the fabric of their relationship.
You can read more about Banafsheh Serov and her fiction at www.banafshehserov.com.
The Australian Literature Review