Planting the Russian Seed

Childhood books are so powerful. They can imbue us with a passion for something unexpected, but whose effects are lifelong. And sometimes, when you look back, you can see the precise moment when it happened, the exact story that turned you on to something deep and important.

I was thinking about that recently—I’m in the middle of writing a wonderfully intense and involving YA fairytale novel, Scarlet in the Snow, inspired by the Russian version of Beauty and the Beast (known as ‘The Scarlet Flower’) and  I got to thinking about my enduring fascination for all things Russian, and how it all began. It was with a book my father gave me for my eleventh birthday, a book he himself had loved as a boy, and his father before him: a novel by the classic French writer Jules Verne, simply called Michel Strogoff . (In English, it was published as Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar.)

It’s not well-known in English, but the French consider it to be Verne’s best novel. Historical adventure rather than science fiction, it’s full of exciting action, vivid descriptions, thrilling romance,  dark secrets, an engaging touch of humour, great characters, especially the young, brave, honourable Siberian hero, Michel Strogoff, and his beloved, Nadia; and above all a sense of a land as vast as it was dramatic. When I first read it, aged eleven, I already had a few images of Russia, drawn from fairytales I’d loved, such as the Tale of Prince Ivan, Grey Wolf and the Firebird; Fenist the Falcon, Masha and the Bear, The Frog Princess and so on. I was drawn, too, because of my parents’ interest in Russian music and Russian icons, which meant we were familiar with both. But Michel Strogoff turned what had been a liking into a passion.

I read the novel I don’t know how many times, swept away by the grandeur of the story, the fantastic adventure, with its wolves, bears, bandits, iced-up rivers, cruel torturers and traitors. I thrilled to the love I could see developing between Nadia and Michel, both equally brave, each in their own way, and I was swept away too by the description of the journey, which starts in Moscow and ends in Siberia—an exhilerating journey over water and through forest and mountain. Basically, it’s a chase novel, and it has the breakneck pace of that, culminating in an especially unexpected and satisfyingly resolved twist. But it is also beautifully written, as tight and clever as Around the World in Eighty Days, and much more moving. No wonder French critics reckon it’s Verne’s best!

That novel led me directly as a teenager to plunge into actual Russian literature—to Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov, and so on, and it’s a passion that has never left me but only deepened and widened with the years, expanding into modern Russian literature of all types including, recently, the wonderful urban fantasy novels of Sergei Lukyanenko (The Night Watch series; and trust me, the books are infinitely better than the films).

A few years ago, I wrote a novel based on Russian fairytale and history, The Firebird (Hachette, 1999). Last year too, after decades of dreaming about it, I went to Russia for the first time—an amazing and wonderful trip by water, from Moscow to St Petersburg, stopping at towns and villages along the way. And as I stood on the deck of the boat last year, as we glided serenely down the vast rivers and lakes of Russia, past endless forests and ancient towns, I thought of Michel Strogoff, and how wonderful it was that it had brought me here.

It hasn’t ended there. That trip last year has only made me all the more addicted to this extraordinary country and its culture, we’re going again this August, this time as independent travellers. (To which purpose, after years of shilly-shallying, I’m learning the language too and finding it a good deal easier than I’d thought!) What’s more, I’m not only in the middle of writing Scarlet in the Snow, I’ve also written the first draft of an adult novel set in Russia, Trinity, which mixes crime and the supernatural, and am planning to research, on the ground in the countryside around Moscow, a children’s novel set in the Napoleonic invasion.

And it all started with a book given to me on my eleventh birthday. Stories are powerful magic indeed.

What are the roots of your current writerly passions?

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About Sophie Masson

Sophie Masson has published more than fifty novels internationally since 1990, mainly for children and young adults. A bilingual French and English speaker, raised mostly in Australia, she has a master’s degree in French and English literature. Sophie's new e-book on authorship, By the Book: Tips of the Trade for Writers, is available at Australian Society of Authors.

Comments

  1. says

    Michel Strogoff sounds amazing. I might have to pick it up for my boys (and me!). I love that you can pinpoint where your love affair with Russia began. Enjoy your next trip!

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  2. says

    Sophie, I am a deep, life-long Russophile as well! My first novel is a Russian historical thriller, but even my mss not set in Russia are inspired by that unknowable enigma. From Dostoevsky to Yevtushenko to Akhmatova to Pasternak–I love it all.

    The Firebird sounds wonderful! Is it still available?

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  3. says

    It’s interesting that this happened when you were eleven. It’s my own personal, anecdotal, completely non-fact-based opinion that eleven is the age when the magic happens. When one is primed to encounter that thing that will shape your life.

    For me it was Star Wars. For a lot of kids a decade ago, it was Harry Potter. Yours was Michel Strogoff. My son is 10 and I’m excited and also a bit wary about what his will be. Something equally sweeping and adventurous, I hope. (I’ll leave Verne lying about the house, just in case…)

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  4. says

    I remember that novel – vaguely. I was so busy enjoying the rest of Verne and Dumas that this book, unfortunately, did not make quite such an impression on me as it obviously did on you. But I do love Russian literature. I had an even more obscure literary crush when I was that age: Karl May ‘The Adventures of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand’. Cowboys and Indians at its most romantic and adventurous. And probably completely unknown outside Germany.

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  5. says

    So glad you shared about Michael Strogoff. When I was a Senior in high school, I set off on a path of reading the noted Russian authors. This certainly enriched my knowledge about that society & tied in well with studying History at university.
    Great to learn about another book!

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  6. says

    I always wanted to write YA because that was the point when books were most powerful for me. They didn’t even have to be particularly spectacular books, it was just the process of being a teen and reading something new or thought-provoking or coming across an idea for the first time. It can be very powerful.

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  7. says

    The childhood book that turned me into a real reader was Calico Bush, by Rachel Field. First published in the 1930s, though I found it in the late 60s, at about 10. I had read voraciously before that, but Calico Bush spoke to me like the Bobbsey Twins and Happy Hollisters never did. It’s the story of Marguerite, a 12 y.o. French girl orphaned on board a ship to the New World, who must support herself by “hiring out” as a servant to a young family headed north to homestead along the Maine coast. In Maggie, I explored a time and place both new to me, and yet she was a young girl like me, afraid and brave at the same time. I still cherish my copy, and highly recommend it.

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  8. says

    It was reading Little Women and then Pride & Prejudice that made me fall in love with storytelling and want to write stories with great family dynamics.

    I think Pride & Prejudice was also the beginning of my fascination with stories that involve secrets and the power they wield both when they are kept and when they are finally revealed.

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  9. says

    Sophie,
    Thank you for sharing your passion for Russian culture and literature. For me it all began with J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye. From there I discovered the work of Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth. As a young adult I discovered an affinity for family sagas (the genre which I write) and became a devoted reader of Anne Tyler, Alice McDermott and Alice Munro, though I read all genres. Thanks again for this post.

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  10. says

    I love Russian stories! My favorite authors are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekov and Pushkin. I love their fairy and folk tales also. I’ve read most of Verne’s books but didn’t know about this one. Thanks for the review. I’ll have to go look this book up now.

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  11. says

    I always loved fairytales as a child. Once I exhausted my libraries selections, I moved on– burning through mythology, then ghosts, and then King Arthur. After that I was bummed until I discovered adults had fairytales, but they were called Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I tackled Lord of the Rings at thirteen– patiently reading through the long descriptions but, at the end of the last book, I was so anxious to find out what happened to Frodo I began speed reading. :D From that experience I learned I love the detail, but it’s the action that turns the page.

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  12. says

    I LOVED Verne as a child–he was my introduction to science fiction–but I’ve never heard of MICHEL STROGOFF! Now I’m a bit sad, because I probably would have loved it–but of course, there’s no reason I can’t go read it now.

    Scott O’Dell was a huge influence on me as a child, especially his book ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. It’s been getting a lot of press lately in light of the author’s death, but JULIE OF THE WOLVES was another one. They both made me love stories with rich inner dialogues, since the main characters spend so much time with little but animals for companionship. You’d think I would have grown up to write stories about Native Americans from all the books I read as a child.

    The real story that made me want to write came a little later, when I was a teenager. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut was the one that made me realize the power of words, and I’ve been wanting to harness and replicate that power ever since.

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  13. Sophie Masson says

    Thank you all for your wonderful comments–great to hear about all your own influential reading passions. It’s so interesting, isn’t it, thinking of the genealogy of our inspiration, and the ripple effect those books have had on us..
    Lindsay, the Firebird is out of print but it is easily available as a digital audio book on audible.com(the audio books branch of amazon), and it’s really nicely read! It may also be available as a used book at abebooks.com

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  14. Ronda Roaring says

    Sophie, that’s a great story. It reminded me of a boy I was asked by a local school district to tutor because he had been absent from school a lot. He was 12 and was required to write a paper on a favorite author. He chose Ruth Stiles Gannett who wrote My Father’s Dragon. It just so happened that Gannett lived near us. This student called her on the phone and interviewed her. She was gracious, and he did a great job on his paper. Authors really can have a significant impact on us as human beings.

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  15. says

    I’ve just finished reading a book of Russian fairy tales to my daughters. We loved them so much! This post brought that back and inspired me to find more such tales to read to them.

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  16. says

    Thank you for a wonderful post, Sophie – I can pinpoint a few key books in my childhood too. I think my love of fairytale retellings began with Eleanor Farjeon’s Cinderella tale, ‘The Glass Slipper’, which I absolutely adored. I’m about to read it to my own daughter, who was christened Eleanor (after the writer) and called Ella (after the character in the book).
    I also loved Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken, Elizabeth Goudge, so many wonderful childhood writers …

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  17. says

    On the subject of initial reader inspiration, mine was Owen Wister’s ‘The Virginian’, a story of the old west. What captivated me was his evocation of the open country. The picture he created for me of his hero sleeping in the saddle during the long, long trek to see his sweetheart has stayed with these me sixty years since.

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  18. Rudy San Miguel says

    Hi Sophia,
    Love your post! Michael Strogoff sounds awesome and will be looking for it.

    My love affairs with novels goes in waves. I find myself looking to repeat the experience of discovery with something completely new every couple of years. Currently, I getting into His Dark Materials series and everything in the parallel reality genre, leading me to write my first novel. This story follows a protagonist jumping between four different lives in parallel realities.

    Thank you again for your post.

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  19. says

    What a great story. And one that made me suddenly remember The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – a book I read when i was really young and has stayed with me forever. Thank you for jogging my memory.
    I loved your tale of how you became interested in Russian everything, and have a great time there again!
    Patti

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  20. says

    I must confess to being awed at the early reading habits of my fellow commenters. In my family, there were very few fairy tales and no classics. I was raised on Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and the occasional dog book. Mary Stewart, Paul Gallico and Lynn Reid Banks also featured, though the only book by any of these three authors I remember is “The L-Shaped Room”. Perhaps it is time I went back and reread these to see if I can trace my writing roots. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, Sophie.

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