Daphne Kalotay

Interviewed by Deborah Bennett

Daphne Kalotay, the critically acclaimed short story writer, has turned her attention toward the novel with stunning results. The highly anticipated Russian Winter is set for release in September of this year and is forthcoming in seventeen foreign editions. The story alternates between modern-day Boston and post-WWII Moscow. Kalotay travels comfortably through time and across oceans, closely observing the lives of a Bolshoi ballerina and a host of other artists in Stalin’s USSR—all this despite the fact that she visited Russia only after her novel was complete. In Russian Winter, she expands upon her skills as a miniaturist to create finely wrought characters and gorgeous murals of the unique geography and eras featured in her novel. While Kalotay is serious about her craft, she doesn’t take her work too seriously and confesses to loving a happy ending. A longtime friend of mine from our days in the creative writing program at Boston University, Kalotay and I conversed on a warm summer evening on a porch overlooking a small, little-known pond in the heart of Boston.

INTERVIEWER

The role of the artist in both authoritarian and “open” societies is examined in this novel. Can you talk about your own thoughts on this question and how your philosophy informed and was informed by the process of writing this book?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Growing up during the Cold War, I saw this notion of art as a subversive force a lot, perhaps in a somewhat clichéd way, maybe in movies, or when I started reading widely and encountered all these writers who had been silenced. But what amazed me when I began my research was the level of attention these governments paid to the artist and the arts. And not just the cultural agencies. Stalin himself would go to the opera and come home all up in arms about how Shostakovich was going in the wrong direction and his new work was bad and something must be done about it. There was a conscious, and even fearful acknowledgment of how deeply influential music and dance and theatre and literature could be. Artists were taken very seriously. Here in America we have the luxury of ignoring artists, even controversial ones, if we choose to. And the luxury of being ignored!

INTERVIEWER

This is so true. When I lived in Chile, I interviewed many writers who lived pre-, during and post- dictatorship, and the common theme, whether they could openly acknowledge it or not, was that living in a democracy makes art less precious. Art and artists are no longer dangerous, are no longer crucial to being. And “writing against” something provided a raison d’être.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Actually, in the Soviet Union, a lot of writers who got in trouble weren’t necessarily writing against the government. Not all of them set out to make a grand statement about the regime. Instead of writing about, say, national pride, they wrote about something individualistic or maybe just too gritty, too close to reality. Many were simply expressing things about human nature that were inconvenient to the official point of view and therefore, dangerous.

INTERVIEWER

Another side to this issue is the state-sponsored artist. Your main character’s husband, Viktor, is a state poet and seems untouchable, despite his friendship with the persecuted Jewish composer, Gersh.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

The thing I hadn’t really considered until I did research for this book was how government subsidization of artists might develop them in ways that are not only important but also in ways we might view with surprise. When I read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, what struck me was how the poets would sit around arguing with each other about some theoretical concept, getting all in a lather about something that in an “open” society would be pushed into the realm of some panel discussion at an academic conference. But in her memoir, there would be a fistfight or something. Because they were fulltime poets, that was their official role and they took their jobs very seriously. And why shouldn’t they?

INTERVIEWER

This book clearly involved a great deal of research. You mention several sources that informed the historical and plot elements that shape the book. Can you talk about how your concept of the characters and the narrative changed as a result of the research?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I didn’t want to get too mired in research and reading in a way that would prevent me from actually writing the book, so I tried to work on my own writing at the same time.  One thing I realized early on was that my Soviet characters were behaving, or even just thinking, too freely.  I’d thought I understood how fearful, how constantly wary one would have been given those circumstances, but it wasn’t until I kept seeing, again and again, in memoirs and biographies, examples of the most minute everyday paranoia that I fully “got it”. Harrison Salisbury, I think it was, called it “the habit of suspicion.” It took a while for my Soviet characters to develop the habit more thoroughly.

INTERVIEWER

How did you help them develop that habit? How did you rewrite the earlier sections in a way that created continuity?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

The scene that comes to mind is when Nina, the main character, first goes to Gersh’s apartment, and Zoya, the Soviet apparatchik and sometime paramour of Gersh, is there. When I first wrote it, I knew Nina would be wary, but I only mentioned it a couple of times on the page. So when I looked back, I thought, No. Nina’s fear, her suspicion of Zoya or Gersh—what they could be saying, what might be bait—would come through in every single interaction. I needed to show how it informs their every exchange of the evening.

INTERVIEWER

I felt scared for the characters sometimes.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

The randomness of persecution is unnerving. In all the memoirs and biographies I read, you’d see examples, on the one hand, of people saying daring things and nothing would happen. On the other hand, you have some tiny comment that causes someone to lose his job or get kicked out of an organization. Even with censorship—it wasn’t always, say, “this sort of comment or style in a poem will lead to this…” Sometimes the work got past the censor, and sometimes people got sent to the Gulag.

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk a little about the persecution of Gersh?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

The time period I chose really impacted my decision to include anti-Semitism in the novel. It was the end of Stalin’s life, and he was extremely paranoid. Golda Meir came to visit and she had a vast number of supporters, a visual reminder that all these people supported a state allied with the U.S., which was an enemy. The stance of the government shifted so quickly—from liberating Jews to persecuting them. Suddenly there were more and more repressive actions against Jews in the Soviet Union.

INTERVIEWER

The character of Zoya is so fascinating because she manages to reconcile her love for Gersh with her love of the Party.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Some of my early readers said they didn’t understand who Zoya was. But I think people like her existed, so I worked hard in my final edits to express how she reconciles those contradictions. A Russian woman who left the USSR in the 1970s read the book for me and blessed it by saying, “I knew people like Zoya.”

INTERVIEWER

So even though you didn’t know a Zoya, you intuited that she existed. You write so convincingly about your characters, and they are all so different from you in key ways—age, sex, nationality, religion, profession, adoption status. What did you draw on to create credible characters and credible narratives of their lives?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I’m glad you found them convincing. Thanks. I imagine I’m like most writers in that we’re tuned in to our empathic imagination in a particular way. You just ask yourself how you’d feel, think, act, be, if you were that person. In some cases I asked for help. For instance, I had some male friends read the book to make sure there was nothing there that a man would never think or do.  And I spoke to a friend who is adopted to make sure Grigori’s thoughts about his parents made sense. I think we can almost always find something in ourselves that’s similar to some quality or experience we want our characters to have, and we draw on that. But I do rely on my reading friends to help point out anything that doesn’t seem quite true. As for the trajectories of the characters’ lives, sometimes the plot dictated what had to have happened already, where it had to happen, etc., so I built on that “knowledge.”

INTERVIEWER

I found your descriptions of youth and age to be particularly skillful. In half the narrative Nina’s a young dancer in her teens and early twenties. In the other half, she’s an octogenarian who’s wheelchair-bound and experiences great physical pain on a daily basis. Your description of both the physical ailments that plague the elderly, and the attitudes that may develop or harden with age, read very naturally. They provide a wonderful contrast with the younger version of Nina, who realizes too late that her naïveté obscured her vision of her own country and the pain and suffering of those around her. What did you draw on to portray Nina’s youthful and elderly selves?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I wonder if you’ll still think that when you’re old! The older Nina is based in part on my grandmother, who’s a much more joyful and optimistic person than Nina, but also very strong-willed and opinionated. She’s never had to deal with physical ailments as severe as Nina’s, but I’ve watched her change physically. As for the youthful Nina, she’s so different from the person she grows into that I worried some readers might find it jarring. But I’ve been young and naïve and in love, so I drew on that.

INTERVIEWER

I’d love to hear more about the origin of the book.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Ten years ago I was trying to write an autobiographical story about falling in love with another grad student back when I was doing my PhD and immersed in Russian literature. The Russian theme led me to the ballerina idea, and I based the ballerina partially on my grandmother, since she’s someone who, along with my father, survived both the Holocaust and the Hungarian revolution and then escaped to the West. I think I thought of the jewelry stuff because, in real life, my boyfriend had given me this little tiny emerald. So I started writing from there, but it was already too much and became a big long mess that never worked as a story. But I knew I had something and still wanted to write about Nina and the Russian professor and the girl—who ended up working in an auction house rather than studying literature. I suppose it was my way of trying to figure out how those experiences of hardship, in World War II and under the communist occupation, affected my own family.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk about the trope of the jewels? I found it a really clever device, using the auction of Nina’s jewels to set the narrative in motion. I looked forward to the opening of each chapter with the curious, clinical descriptions of the jewels at auction.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

It’s a gimmick I used to keep myself going when the book was still in the early stages and a huge mess. Those headlines let me trick myself into thinking there was some sort of order to the thing. They were a type of scaffolding, and when the book was done, I considered taking them out.But I liked that they were these dry, factual details, full of numbers like price and weight, and then in the chapters themselves, the reader discovers their non-tangible, emotional significance. I liked that contrast. So I kept them.

INTERVIEWER

What a gift those gems were then, giving you some incentive to keep going.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I was keenly aware of that. I centered each description on the page, made it look nice, one at the beginning of each chapter, even if the chapter was a mess.

INTERVIEWER

You keep talking about the novel as a mess, when it’s so tight. Do you think writers always see their work not solely as the finished product, but comprised of all its incarnations? The way that parents always see the young child in their adult child?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Yes, that’s probably true. But I do know that at a certain point, when I was basically done and I was reading through the chapters, I realized that I had a good sense of where things happened and why and that they were there for some reason and it wasn’t just some snowball rolling forward, getting bigger. However, you never lose the feeling of having to wrestle with something big and messy.

INTERVIEWER

I’m sure one reason it felt so big and messy is because a complicated mystery drives the plot. How did you learn to unravel that mystery—the right amount of discovery with each chapter while still generating suspense for the reader?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I didn’t know myself the full mystery for a long time, so I had to keep writing around it and be willing to change things if I needed to. There were these little bursts where I’d figure something out and then I had to go back to make sure everything still made sense. But as for where and how to mete out the bits of information, I’m not sure I necessarily mastered that. I don’t read mystery novels myself, so I didn’t really have a model. I just did what felt right to me.

After the novel was finished, a few folks who read it told me they felt the beginning was slow and I needed to drop a few more “clues” earlier on. So I moved some of the “mystery” stuff up front, in some cases full chapters appear earlier than I’d originally had them. Then I worried I’d messed up the whole structure. Who knows which way was best?

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk more about structure. So much contemporary literary short fiction seems to be about withholding satisfaction from the reader. We rarely get an ending in the traditional sense. Novels, by contrast, are more likely to follow the classic narrative structure and provide true resolution. As someone who has written a lot of short fiction, what are your thoughts on endings in general and on the need or obligation to satisfy a reader’s desire for resolution?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

That’s an interesting observation. I’ve always found endings difficult, mostly because I rarely, if ever, know where a story is going or even how I want it to end. And in stories, there’s less happening, or less that’s already happened, so you have less to work with. I think that’s one reason it’s harder to come up with a satisfying ending.

The novel was difficult in that it was so much more complex in terms of multiple plot lines and time periods and protagonists, but at least I had a vague idea of where I was headed. I knew Nina had to end up in Boston somehow, and that Grigori and Drew would each have to grow and change in some way. Also, given the tragic things that happen in the course of the storyline, I knew I wanted a “happy” ending.  Happy, but realistic.

I spent years moving all the pieces of the puzzle around in my head, and once I figured it all out, after years of near misses, I was talking with my friend Chris, who reads a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and asked her if she thought it was a satisfying read. This was an early incarnation, in which Nina realized her mistake but didn’t try to remedy it, or even get the chance to remedy it.  Chris immediately said it wasn’t fair not to give Nina that opportunity. So as for the obligation to satisfy the reader, I don’t necessarily feel obliged to anyone other than myself in an overall, general, conscious way, but I do want to satisfy a specific, astute, caring reader, like my friend Chris.

INTERVIEWER

How wonderful to be Chris! Why was a happy ending important to you?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

First of all, because I’m a wimp! I hate really sad endings. When I reread books that I love and I know a terrible scene is coming—sometimes I just can’t bear it. I think that’s the next hurdle I have to overcome as a writer. To let something awful happen, something irredeemable. I notice when I read stories with subtle endings, where it’s obvious something horrible will happen off the page, I try to convince myself the writer didn’t actually intend for that and so it doesn’t have to happen.

At the same time, I don’t like the trend of writers being taken more seriously if their work is unrelentingly sad. Yes, life is sad, and horrible, and unfair things happen. But life is not only like that. There are joyous moments, and wonderful things happen too. So if I have the power in fiction to make something happen, I’d rather have some sort of nice resolution.

INTERVIEWER

But Daphne, some of your characters meet brutal ends.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Living in the Soviet Union meant a brutal life. Brutal circumstances brought brutal ends for people. Still, there’s a sense of hope at the end of the book.

INTERVIEWER

While your novel delivers a clear-eyed view of the brutality of life in the USSR, it’s also a verbal portrait of a landscape. The description of Russia in particular is key to evoking a time and place that are foreign to most readers. Your descriptions of small details, like the chicory in the coffee or the lusciousness of a tangerine in the middle of winter, go a long way toward painting a picture of privation. Can you talk about the use of description in this novel?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

It’s interesting you point out those particular details. I think food is a powerful way to connect with the reader. Those details stayed with me while I was doing my research. For instance, I read that in the absence of coffee, people drank chicory. That had a sensory effect on me. I remembered years ago, visiting a friend in Italy, and how her uncle used chicory in place of coffee beans. I could picture that, and as long as I could picture a few key things, I could go on and paint the whole picture.

Other details became enmeshed with a vague vision I had of what it might have been like over there. I visited Hungary in the 1980s, and remembered how it felt to see armed guards on every corner. I remembered the dingy courtyards, and the apartments with beds in every room.  And that was nothing compared to post-war Moscow! A friend who read the book said the Moscow scenes are more evocative than the Boston scenes, and I do think I worked harder on those to ensure the reader could picture things and not feel lost.

INTERVIEWER

How fascinating. I would disagree though. Boston is lovingly evoked—the neighborhoods, the winter, the clothing warranted by the season. The prevalence of Dunkin Donuts!

In terms of Russia, though, you were working with second hand information. You chose not to visit there until after your novel was finished—after it was sold to a publisher, in fact. Why was it important for you to restrict your knowledge of Russia in that way?

First, I should say that if I’d set my novel in St. Petersburg instead of Moscow, I would’ve gone there before writing. St. Petersburg hasn’t changed physically as much as Moscow has in the past ten, fifteen years. Even the Bolshoi Theatre was being renovated. Just last year it was still under scaffolding. And I don’t speak Russian, so I had no illusions of connecting with people in that way to find out things I couldn’t learn otherwise. Without the language and never having immersed myself in the culture, there’s definitely a lot I don’t know, but I worried that seeing Moscow as it is now would blow apart the version I’d managed to construct in my mind through old photos, travelogues, and memoirs. I didn’t feel much incentive to get over there.

INTERVIEWER

What surprised you when you finally saw the city? Do you feel you saw it the way, say, Nina would see it if she were to return in the present day?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

One thing that surprised me was that many of the images I had in mind were still there—the old women guarding the rooms of museums or manning the turnstiles at the subway. The size of the city and the width of the boulevards also struck me, though I’d seen all that in photos. One scene in the book has the characters driving in the snow down the Arbat, which used to be a main drag in and out of the city and a main shopping street circa 1948. Now, though, there’s the New Arbat and the Old Arbat. The New Arbat is a big boulevard, while the old one’s a pedestrian mall.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you would’ve drawn the characters and the setting differently had you visited Russia before or during the writing of the novel?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Hmmm…maybe. If I’d gone and lived there for a while, learned Russian and discovered things I still don’t know. The Russians I know are here in Brookline, or my friends, a subset, and what I know of Russian-ness comes from them and from literature and research. That’s a very different thing from being immersed in a culture.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed that questions of language and translation come up frequently in the text. Why was this important to the story and to the development of the characters?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

Translation is a pet interest of mine, not just because like all writers I love language and words, but also because it has to do with interpretation, something I think all writers are attuned to. Not just linguistically, but also how a story or character is interpreted, or misinterpreted. Translation is important in the novel because it’s an act of empathy. It requires you to imagine someone else’s intention. It’s such a generous act, the opposite of narcissism. Grigori is empathetic this way, not just as a translator, but also in his daily life. He really is an interpreter. He wonders how it must feel to be Zoltan, he tries to see things from Nina’s perspective, he tries to imagine what Drew must be thinking. He wants to give voice to those diarists at the end.

Nina herself lives more than half of her life in translation, speaking a second language. She speaks very well, but you’re never the full, “true” version of yourself when you’re being heard through an accent, or using a limited vocabulary. This goes back to what I mean about being a writer and having your work interpreted by the public. There’s that moment when you read a critic’s summary of your story, and you think, “But that’s not what it’s about at all!”  But it’s too late; it’s out of your hands.

INTERVIEWER

Derek Walcott once said to me that it’s the writer’s job to ensure there are no misreadings of the work, that we must craft it in such a way that there can be no doubt about how it should be read.  But that seems unrealistic to me.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

We have to believe that while we’re writing; otherwise we wouldn’t spend hours and hours trying to find the perfect word or phrase! But as soon as it’s published, you realize that’s not the case.

INTERVIEWER

Going back to what you said about Grigori’s empathy and his attempts to imagine things from others’ perspectives, I think you’ve touched on a phenomenon of adoption. Out of necessity, adoptees often imagine the conditions of the parents who chose not to parent them. I wonder if you see this aspect of Grigori’s character as springing from his own adoption?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I was actually thinking that as a result of his migration from one culture to the next, he’s an interpreter. But you’re right, he’s always wondered about those people. Whatever bits of information he has make him speculate even more about his biological family.

A friend of mine who was adopted was given some very basic details about her biological family. Because they were so few, I was always aware of how important hey were. They were proof that those people existed and she made whatever she could out of them.

INTERVIEWER

Grigori’s main body of work consists of translations of poetry. Two other characters are poets, and several of the characters’ poems are included in the book. Can you talk about the role of poetry in this book?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I suppose I romanticize poetry, because good poems get right to the essence of things, in beautiful, mysterious, elusive, intangible ways. I think that’s why I particularly like haiku.  People make fun of it, but a good haiku is this magical crystallization of what I could spend an entire novel trying to communicate. And yet poetry is so often viewed as this quaint and useless thing that people only look to when they need something to read at their wedding.

I didn’t include poetry in the novel for any specific, conscious reasons, and I don’t really know what role it plays, except that in Zoltan’s case it’s shorthand for the marginalized, esoteric character he is, the kind of person people easily overlook. In contrast to Viktor, who’s this popular guy because he achieves state-sanctioned success. I spent a lot of time being embarrassed by the poems in the book, but in the end I had to include them. I showed some writer friends a version of the book with only a few lines here and there, no full poems, and it wasn’t convincing.

INTERVIEWER

Embarrassment comes up so much when talking about poetry. I think there’s something inherent in contemporary America’s concept of poetry that makes people feel insecure as readers and certainly as writers. That good poetry must necessarily reside in a rarified realm.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I gave Drew that insecurity about herself as a reader of poetry. I’ve spent so much time in academia, and because I know poets and hear good poetry, I’m able to feel and hear tits magic, but I’m not able to create it. So you feel that sense of smallness. But a friend told me something Joseph Brodsky once said, which I’m probably paraphrasing horribly: The striving for perfection, the effort of trying to create a good poem, or even just knowing what would make a good poem, whether or not you can actually do it, is what makes life worth living.

INTERVIEWER

I suppose that is true for all of the arts. Why did you choose a dancer, a composer, and a writer as the artists living under Stalinist Russia? Was there anything about these particular arts that you found crucial to revealing the experience of the artist under mid 20th century communism?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

In terms of the arts, ballet is probably the most visible, recognizable example of the public face of Soviet achievement. It’s an incredibly beautiful, glamorized art form that obscures an uglier truth. The Bolshoi itself is a powerful and recognizable word. But I wouldn’t have made Nina a dancer if I weren’t a dance lover who’s been reading dancer autobiographies for decades. It was an excuse to read more books about dance and watch a lot of ballet. I also think I chose the three art forms I know best. I took a lot of dance classes when I was younger, played in an orchestra up through college, and I’m a writer. Like most people, I think I appreciate music more easily than the visual arts. I don’t know as much about painting or sculpture or photography, so I would have found it more difficult to write about those things.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that you say that about art, and yet somehow you felt comfortable writing about a completely different culture and era.

DAPHNE KALOTAY

It’s funny because that was partly out of necessity. I’d decided the story had to take place in a certain time and place. If I’d decided I had to have a painter, I would’ve done enough research to create that character. I would’ve drawn on what I know as a writer in the same way I drew upon my family’s experience in Soviet Hungary to create the more extreme and dark, post-war Russia.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned Drew’s insecurities about poetry earlier. She confesses that she prefers poetry with a recognizable rhyme scheme and meter, as if a confession is warranted. If you had to make a “confession” about your own feelings about fiction, what would it be?

DAPHNE KALOTAY

I prefer simple but rigorous language, writing that’s precise and artful and not consciously showing off. I think that’s why I tend to prefer British writers to American ones. Here, there’s a certain praising of “beautiful” writing, which I often find over-written or vague. That quasi-poetic style. I was reading a book review the other day where the critic said the best thing about a certain novel was its “gorgeous sentences”. My first reaction was, Oh god, that sounds awful. The Brits sculpt their sentences carefully but without any virtuosic display.

INTERVIEWER

That isn’t particularly embarrassing as a confession!

DAPHNE KALOTAY

What I said earlier about happy endings might qualify. Also, like everyone, I love a good story, but I tend to prefer a simple plotline. Too much suspense makes me uncomfortable, and I hate feeling like I need to turn the pages fast. When I was reading the proofs of my novel, I was uncomfortable for most of Part Two because so much was happening there. I don’t need more than vigorous language and a compelling protagonist to keep me reading. And humor. Even the saddest book has to acknowledge that life is absurd.

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One comment

  1. Julie Adamson

    I visited Moscow and Leningrad (as it was then) in 1983 when people were just starting to talk about the past and how their families were affected. Not saying much yet and still with a glance over the shoulder – but changes were on the way. Your wonderful ‘Russian Winter’ creates, I believe, a truthful and moving feel for the times. I can’t imagine how you felt when the book was finished, after all the years of research and writing and living with the characters. An extra small touch of delight for me was a reference to haiku which I also love. Thankyou so much for this book which I could hardly put down, yet also wanted to read slowly to absorb the detail. I wish you every success for future writing.

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