TORONTO (Reuters) - British author Simon Sebag Montefiore is well known for biographies and historical works but the critically acclaimed writer has now turned to fiction with a new book set in 20th century Russia.
The author of “Young Stalin, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” which is being made into a film, and “Catherine the Great & Potemkin” has just launched his first novel “Sashenka,” an intimate family story about a woman and her children.
During a visit to the annual International Festival of Authors in Toronto Montefiore, 42, spoke to Reuters about his love affair with Russia and switching from fact to fiction.
Q: What inspired you to write the novel?
A: “I wanted to write a novel that told about the women and the families - the intimate story rather than the story about power. So this is the result. I have always wanted to write it. It’s a plot I have been mulling over for years. The background is real and accurate but the story of the women and the children are all invented characters.”
Q: What is your fascination with Stalin?
A: “My fascination is really with Russia and the Caucasus . The Caucasus is where Georgia is, and where Stalin came and it’s the most sort of wild, romantic, chivalrous, violent fascinating crossroads, border lands between the Muslim south, the Persian Ottoman empires and Russian empires. So it is a very exciting place, that’s what I love to write about.”
Q: How has the experience differed from writing history books?
A: “Totally joyful! It’s a sort of risk for a historian to write a novel, and you kind of half expect everyone to say why would I do that. In writing the book I came to love Sashenka and her children and I actually cried a lot when I was writing. It has been a wonderful release for me, having written these three huge history books based on archival research. It’s just been a joy to imagine and make up things.”
Q: How does your Jewish background influence your work?
A: “A lot of western people write books about Russia but I feel that they could never quite get the Russian soul right. That’s why I chose to write about a Jewish family because my mother’s family came from the Russian empire. So in the book, the almost real characters are like people in my own family, so I felt very comfortable writing about that.”
Q: What is your process as a writer?
A: “I exist in a state of total chaos and free fall at all times. I have children and I work from home. When I have time I write and a lot of the time I am kind of stressed that I haven’t got enough time. But I love traveling, so I’m happy about that, and also as a writer it’s a lovely thing that anyone reads your stuff and cares.”
Q: Would you call this a historical novel?
A: “This isn’t really about knowledge but you can learn a lot about the history of Russia in the 20th century and a lot about what’s happening today. It’s really about women in a special time in an amazing place, about different sorts of love and it’s about the past as every family has one. But in Russia, often the past is sort of laden with terrible memories, terrible crimes and terrible wounds.”
Q: What’s your secret in bringing the past alive?
A: “I am a storyteller and in my history books and in my fiction I want to tell a story and make it interesting for people and exciting and so I guard that as my mission as a writer.”
Q: Are you working on anything new?
A: “I am going to do a sequel about the same family in the Second World War. They are great characters I have grown to love so I want to continue them. I am also writing a book on the history of Jerusalem now as a historian, so I have been spending a lot of time in Jerusalem in the old city, which I adore, one of my most favorite places in the world, along with Toronto, of course.”