Today’s and tomorrow’s posts both touch on the war in Ukraine and feature interviews with an author and a publisher who have a marked affinity with the country. In today’s post, Judith Heneghan talks about Snegurochka, her debut novel for adults (she was already a prolific children’s author when she wrote it), which is set in the Ukraine of the 1990s, shortly after the breaking-up of the Soviet Union. The novel was published by Salt in 2019.
Q: Snegurochka is set in Kiev in the 1990s. Briefly, could you describe what it’s about.
A: Snegurochka is the story of a young English woman, Rachel, who lives in newly independent Ukraine in 1992 with her journalist husband and their new baby. Isolated, unable to speak Russian or Ukrainian, she develops a crippling fear of the balcony at their apartment. The city below is distrustful of foreigners and reeling from economic freefall, but her own needs create dependency and soon she is caught in a frightening endgame between the elderly caretaker, a money launderer and the boy who lives upstairs. Each is defined by their past, but Rachel doesn’t know how, until it is too late. All she wants is to keep her baby safe.
Q: It is a very powerful novel. Does it draw on personal experience?
A: Yes, I am drawing on personal experience, in that I lived in Kiev (as we called it back then) with my journalist husband and our new baby. This allowed me to use my own memories of places and public events. However, the characters are all invented; we were far too boring. I have placed made-up characters and their problems in some real environments with many fictitious scenarios and outcomes. I think this is how much fiction is written – it’s a potent mix of experience and imagination. I am drawing on my memories of how hard it was to make friends, to find nappies, to navigate a city where people still carried the legacy of famine, invasion, suspicion and, of course, Chernobyl.
Q: Have you visited Kiev again since you wrote the book? Had it changed?
A: I did visit at the end of 2018, although I chose not to go back before then, while I was writing the novel, for fear of recent changes diluting my memories of thirty years ago. And it was such a joy to find that what I loved about Kiev remained – the exquisite churches and monasteries, the broad, tree-lined boulevards, the cobbles and cafes and the over-priced (still) Bessarabsky Market. However, what had made it a difficult place to live had changed. Now people seemed open, welcoming, happy to smile, to talk to strangers. Young families were everywhere. There were, also, new memorials and shrines to those who had lost their lives in Crimea and Donbas since 2014 – another layer of history now ran through the city’s streets – but the atmosphere was vibrant, forward-looking, hopeful.
However, one theme of the novel is the way we as foreigners might think we know a country and a people. My impressions in 2018 were superficial, and of course any place is much more complicated than that.
Q: You must feel particularly horrified by the war in Ukraine. Are there people (especially writers, but anyone) there you are in touch with? Are they safe?
A: The war is utterly horrifying. I think most Europeans feel this, and of course when one has lived in a place that is being bombed, there is more to imagine, and perhaps it is less easy to forget. But the journalists we mixed with back in 1992 have all moved on, and I had very few Ukrainian friends because of the language barrier. So no, I’m not in touch with people there now. I watch the news, feeling helpless, as do we all.
Q: If the novel were to be made into a film, who would you choose to play Ruth? And Lucas?
A: Absolutely no idea! Lucas is described as looking like the Marlboro Man, if anyone remembers those ads…
Q: Are you working on a new book now? If so, can you describe it very briefly?
A: I am working on a new novel, yes. It is set in the Catskills, in Upstate New York, in a small, hippyish commune-style community on the verge of folding. It has young strangers in it, and a river, and mountains and pickups and dogs…
Q: Who are your own favourite authors – both classical and contemporary?
A: Oh, I feel a list coming on… in no particular order, Elizabeth Strout, A M Homes, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Sebastian Barry, Colm Toibin, Joseph O’Connor… less contemporary (and the loves of my late teenage years) John Steinbeck and Thomas Hardy.
Q: I understand that you teach creative writing. What would be your top three tips to would-be authors?
- Learn the conventions so that you can break them.
- The scene is the queen (unless… see above).
- Don’t worry if you don’t have a plan.