Friday, May 30, 2014

Interview with Helen Rappaport, Author of The Romanov Sisters + Giveaway (US/Can only!)

I'd like to welcome Helen Rappaport to the blog today to celebrate the publication of her biography, The Romanov Sisters, from St. Martin's Press. Stick around until the end for a fabulous giveaway that you don't want to miss!

Welcome to Books à la Mode, Helen! Let's get this interview started.

Will you please share a brief bio with us?

Born in Bromley, England, Helen Rappaport studied Russian at Leeds University but ill-advisedly rejected suggestions of a career in the Foreign Office and opted for the acting profession. After appearing on British TV and in films until the early 1990s she abandoned acting and embraced her second love—history and with it the insecurities of a writer’s life.

Helen is a fluent Russian speaker and a specialist in Russian history and 19th century women’s history, her great passion being to winkle out lost stories from the footnotes and to breathe new life and new perspectives into old subjects. In 2005 she was historical consultant and talking head on a Channel 4 documentary The Real Angel of the Crimea about the Jamaican nurse, Mary Seacole. In 2010 she was talking head on a Mystery Files documentary about the Murder of the Romanovs for National Geographic channel.

Since the mid-70's Helen has also become well-known as a Russian translator in the theatre, working with British playwrights on new versions of Russian plays. She has translated all seven of Chekhov’s plays, including Ivanov for Tom Stoppard’s new version that was a huge critical success at the Donmar Season at Wyndham’s in 2008. In 2002 she was Russian consultant to the National Theatre’s Tom Stoppard trilogy, The Coast of Utopia.

A passionate Victorianist and Russianist, Helen is a member of Equity, the Victorian Society, the Society of Genealogists , the Society of Authors, The Biographers’ Club, and Writers in Oxford.

Here's a bit about the new book!

The Romanov Sisters

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle.

Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it.

The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Helen Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

Readers, click "read more" to find out the biggest challenge that went into writing The Romanov Sisters, Helen's top five favorite novels, and her best advice for both writers—and people in general! We're also giving away THREE print copies of this fabulous edition, so don't miss out on that either!

Helen, describe the The Romanov Sisters in six words.

Well, the sisters were: Modest, charming, loyal, dutiful, devoted, and loving.

How did you arrive at writing historical non-fiction? Are there any other genres you’d like to try your hand at?

I’ve always loved history since my early teens at school, and have always had a preference, as a reader, for history, biography, and non-fiction in general. I read very little contemporary fiction, though I love the classics. I came to writing history by a circuitous route, via a career as an actress, Russian translator, and then as an academic history editor. What I learned along the way has informed the way I write in many surprising and useful ways, so I don’t feel any of it was wasted. I have tried my hand at historical fiction once, collaborating on a novel, but real people and real lives are what interest me. I don’t want to make it up; I want to search and search and winkle away at the truth, to the very best of my ability. I love the process, as a historian, of discovering new things.

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

the lastThe four Romanov sisters have been very much in my head and in my heart since I researched and wrote my previous book about the imperial family, The Last Days of the Romanovs, in 2007. Walking around Ekaterinburg and the forest where the family’s bodies were dumped in 1918, I constantly thought about the girls, their lives and their personalities. I had the title Four Sisters—this is the UK title—in my head long before I wrote a line; it was inspired by my great love of Anton Chekhov and is a deliberate allusion to his play Three Sisters.

As a huge fan of first lines, I’d love to hear the first line of The Romanov Sisters. Could you give us a brief commentary on it?
The day they sent the Romanovs away, the Alexander Palace became forlorn and forgotten—a palace of ghosts.
I wanted to set the scene of the now abandoned home that the family had loved so much after they were sent to Tobolsk in August 1918. For me, beginning at the end with "The Room of the First and Last Door" as the prologue is entitled, is often a good hook into the story. What was left behind, the ghosts of that family, now being sent into a very frightening and uncertain future a long way away—for me, this was very evocative as both a writer and a reader. I hope it works!

What was the biggest challenge of writing the book?

I’m afraid it would take far too long to answer this in any detail. But overall, the biggest challenge of the book is and remains the fact that I was writing about young lives cut short. Would I find enough material? Would I have enough to say? The four sisters died at the ages of 22, 21, 19 and 17; I constantly panicked that it was a risk trying to do a whole book about them. I had resolved that I would not simply write a cut and paste of existing, well-known sources and that I had to find new material in order to really throw new light on the story. And so I searched long and hard, exhaustively—and in several languages—for rare or previously unseen material. This was the biggest challenge; ironically, in the end, I had almost too much material, and had to cut 5,000 words.

What do you consider your biggest strengths and weaknesses as an author?

I’m very dogged and persistent in chasing down material during the research phase. I work incredibly hard, and long hours, particularly when I am on the trail of something new or exciting or when the writing is flowing. I think research is a real strength of mine; I have very good instinct about how and where to look for new material and it has certainly paid off with all my books. I also think one of my strengths—readers and people who hear me speak about my work all say it too—is my intense commitment to and passion for my subjects. I really do live with them in my head for the duration of the book, and they stay with me. I know that the Romanov sisters will remain an important part of my imagination and my creativity because I felt so drawn to them. As a mother of daughters myself, I felt, by the end of the book, as though they were my own girls. So I guess the ability to identify and connect with my subjects is a strength.

As for weaknesses, well I must have them but honestly, I think my weakness, if it’s considered one, is to work too hard, to drive myself to exhaustion. Writing takes a huge amount out of me. Is that a weakness? Maybe some might consider it a strength. I can’t just switch on and off in 9-to-5 fashion as a writer; my brain and imagination are active all the time, thinking about new subjects and new lines of research, which means I am often awake in the middle of the night pondering things. I think you would have to ask my critics what my weaknesses are as a writer; writing is hard enough as it is and most writers, don’t want to dwell on what they aren’t good at, they want to exploit their strengths.

Good point! Name the top five books that have made the biggest impact on your life or on your writing.

This is incredibly difficult to answer! But the books that stay with me, for different reasons, are: Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Great Expectations, War and Peace, and The Quest for Corvo.

What’s the greatest thing you ever learned?

Oh goodness! That’s impossible. I’d say the best lesson I have learned as a writer and a human being is that in order to live life to the full, both as a human being and in the creative sense, is to always have a curiosity about the world around you and never take anything in it for granted: to relish the scenery, one’s environment, the sky, the flowers, the sea, mother nature—all the things that are good and beautiful and precious about the natural world we inhabit—rather than dwell on all the dreadful things.

That's a lovely thing to discover in a lifetime. How do you react to a negative or harsh review to your books?

Negative or harsh reviews are absolute TOTAL agony for me, as they are for all writers. I simply cannot bear to read negative reviews of my books. They upset me so so much when they are blinkered, biased, ill-informed or just downright mean- spirited. I can’t bear it, because I know how much effort has gone into the writing of that book; how much sheer hard graft and agonizing over getting it right. And then for a literary critic or an armchair Amazon or Goodreads reviewer to come along and destroy all that with one horrible review—well, it’s torment. OK I know that of course some criticism is justified, but I don’t think any author deserves to be savaged. An extremely well-known, well-established writer friend of mine has a rule of thumb: ‘If I can’t find something nice to say about a book, I won’t review it’, and I feel exactly the same. There is a great difference between constructive and destructive criticism. I wish the reviewers who get a perverse pleasure from dissing an author’s work could understand the intense pain they inflict them. It is absolutely mortifying to see one’s hard work denigrated.

Out of all the fantastic books out there, what makes The Romanov Sisters stand out from the rest?

This is much too subjective a question for me to answer. I can only say that I hope my readers will see how much new material, analysis, thought, love, and care has gone into this book. I have worked so hard to give the four Romanov sisters back their true identities as rounded human beings. That is what I hope is clear to anyone who reads it and that they come to know and love the girls as I do.

It's abundantly clear how much effort you have put into the book and I'm sure it shows! Give aspiring writers a piece of advice you wish you had known before getting published.

Well, that’s an easy one and also a bit of a cliché but it is so so true: The world of publishing does not owe you a living. In the current very tough commercial world you are only as good as your last book and nothing, absolutely nothing is a given.

Now give us your best personal advice—something you wish you had known when you were younger and would offer to your own kids.

This is corny too, but it’s what I’ve always known rather than something I have had to learn. And it is this: Be honest, above all things, in everything you do. And stay true to what you believe in. And believe with a passion.

What are you involved in when you aren’t writing?

When I’m not writing, I am often out lecturing at a variety of venues, and giving talks at literary festivals. I do a lot of traveling around on this score. Otherwise I love to walk the English countryside, to tend my garden and spend time in the company of good friends and the people I love.

What would you say are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

Humility about one’s work. There is no mystique to writing. Writers are not delicate hothouse flowers. Writing is a job, a skill, a craft like any other, and one needs to stay grounded and not get too airy-fairy or precious about one’s writing, especially if you suddenly find you are a best-seller. A moment in the sun as a successful author is lovely, but after that—well, it is back to the grind, and the solitude of the writer’s life, which is far from glamorous.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

Solitude is the main one. Being a writer is not easy if you are very gregarious. It can be intensely lonely at times and you have to get to like being on your own. Displacement activity is the bane of many writer’s lives. You cannot allow yourself to get distracted; you have to be very disciplined; very focused.

The other major occupational hazard is overwork and exhaustion and especially RSI/overuse injuries from too long sitting at the computer. I have paid the price in this regard.

What’s the most interesting comment you have ever received about your books?

I guess the one that sticks in my mind was when I was told by a very successful and gifted writer and essayist that he loved The Last Days of the Romanovs for being ‘novelistic’ in style and reading like a thriller. I was thrilled, as this had been my precise objective in telling the story in the way I did. And coming from him it was praise indeed and I treasure it.

Praise like that is always wonderful to hear. What are your goals as a writer?

To keep my brain and to keep on writing! Just to keep on getting my books published and, most importantly, to earn enough not to have to grow old in penury.

What dreams have been realized as a result of your writing?

A need for self-expression. In my twenties, I wanted to be an actress, but I wasn’t very good at it and gave it up as a bad job. I like to think that through writing, I have found the self-expression I have always craved.

What’s next for you?

A book about the Russian Revolution, for the big 100th. And then I might go back to my Victorians...

Where can you be found on the web?

Before we conclude this interview, is there anything you'd like to ask our readers?

I would love readers who know my interests as a historian, which is fundamentally the Victorians and Late Imperial Russia—e.g. the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to the end of the Russian Revolution in 1918—to tell me what stories from history in that period they feel are neglected and that they would like to see a book about!

It was an absolute pleasure to be able to get to know you better today, Helen! Thank you again for dropping by, and best of luck with future endeavors!


Books à la Mode is giving away a three finished print copies of The Romanov Sisters—that's three winners total. Woohoo! To enter, all you have to do is answer Helen's question:
What neglected historical event from the time period, starting with the reign of Queen Victoria in 1837 to the end of the Russian Revolution in 1918, are you interested in or would you want to see a book about?
Please make your comment MEANINGFUL. Comments solely consisting of stock responses or irrelevant fluff like "Thanks for the giveaway!" will not be considered for entry. Helen and I really want to hear your thoughts! :)

Don't forget the entry eligibility terms and conditions!
Sponsored wholly by the publisher—a huge thank you to St. Martin's Press!
Giveaway ends June 13th at 11.59 PM (your time).
Open to US/Canada residents only. Sorry, rest of the world! Please check my sidebar for a list of currently-running giveaways that are open internationally.
Void where prohibited.
Winners have 48 hours to claim their prize once they are chosen, or else their winnings will be forfeited.
Although I do randomly select winners, I am in no way responsible for prizes, nor for shipping and handling.
As a reminder, you do not have to follow my blog to enter, though it is always very much appreciated ❤
Good luck!