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?