Paullina Simons is one of the most generous and endearing writers of our time. At this interview she was wearing a beautiful deep green emerald dress with a delicate Swarovski pendant and earrings that matched her warmth and generosity as she held out her hands to greet us…
What is your earliest memory of reading or of books?
My earliest memory of reading was when I was six or seven and all the other kids were playing in the playground in a little village in Russia, near the Gulf of Finland. I was sitting on my little bed with my feet on the wall, like this (motions) and outside my window it was summer. All the other kids were running down the dusty road but I was in a drab little room trying to read a book and shut everything out. I was probably reading The Three Musketeers. The Three Musketeers and Oliver Twist are the ones I loved most and remember.
I came to America when I was 10 years old reading in English was a chore for me. I read Charlotte’s Web when I was 12 and until then I thought I would never ever be able to read in English. Reading in Russian for me was so pleasurable because I felt and understood the words.
If you could be one fictional character, who would you choose to be?
(Smiles) I would like to be Wilbur the pig from Charlotte’s Web. Why? Because of the question: “what would you like to be a happy pig or an unhappy Socrates?” All he wanted was to win a ribbon so that he doesn’t get eaten. It’s such a simple need. He’s so beautiful.
Has a reader ever told you something about your books that surprised you?
Yes! One reader wrote to me “Mrs Simons, I am sorry but your book was one of the “most stupidest” books I have ever read.” I thought I don’t mind being dumb but single it out as the stupidest book, I thought was a bit strong.
What book was it? The Bronze Horseman (gasps and then laughs). The reader thought that no one called the US, America; they called it the United States. She made me feel that because I was Russian, I did not know how to speak about the United States properly. She made me feel in that criticism, like I was still the fish out of water.
Did you write back to her?
(Smiles and giggles). Yes, I told her that I was sorry for writing “the stupidest book” and thanked her for letting me know. People can get terribly upset with me. There is a scene in The Summer Garden that is very painful to read and women get angry and have said to me “I hate all your books and all your characters. Tully is not a saint by any means but you need to ride out the characters like Alexander and Spence who were difficult characters as well. You are with me for that ride. In Road to Paradise, there was a girl in there that was supposed to go against everyone.
Your books are loved by people all over the world. How do you prepare yourself for fame and manage the anticipation and expectations of your fans?
There is really not that much attention (laughs). It is beautiful and consuming experience. People are going to say things that you are not going to like and you constantly want to explain yourself, or your books, or work, or explain what you meant because you are putting yourself into that discussion, which is a mistake. I learned from experience when people say “I don’t understand why this character did that,” I would say “well this is why…” and they would argue with me, as if I didn’t know. I had to step back.
I don’t want to disappoint my readers or myself. I want them to read a book that is worthy of them but also worthy of the things I feel and sometimes those things are not the same. For example A Song in the Daylight – I felt very close to Larissa. I was moved by her experience but my readers clung to a few things she had done and they couldn’t move on from that because they thought it was unforgivable. …Sometimes what happens is your story demands that you do something that you know readers are not going to like. I faced the same in The Bronze Horseman and in Children of Liberty.
Which part in Children of Liberty did you think people were not going like but it had to go in?
I was worried that Gina was young because people sometimes react negatively. Harry tried to hide his feelings because of that. Gina was just too young and they needed to wait because of the intonation of impropriety. I was worried about my fans but it was right for the story.
But the Russian’s are so good at that…
(Smiles) In my view Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is one of the best books written in man-kind. It is a work of art from beginning to end, a masterpiece. It’s a love story and that is another great example; the Humbert Humbert was so much younger than Lolita but still loved her. The readers loved it because you cannot read pros like Nabokov and not be completely blown away by his use of English. He makes you laugh and he makes you cry.
Does Russian literary heritage play into your writing and are there any particular elements that you aspire to emulate in your fiction?
Modern writers and poets such as Anna Ahmatova and Alexander Blok are extraordinary and they impact me because I carry them inside me and I am moved by the words. When I feel things, I remember how they felt when they felt the same things. For example Anna Ahmatova lived through the blockade of Leningrad and was married to a man whom Stalin took away and then pretended her family did not exist. Her son was shot during the war so her poetry is wrenching. My mother (my father was also in prison) would always quote Ahmatova. In that way it impacted me because I grew up with things that impressed themselves upon my heart and soul and I carry them with me as I write.
Dostoyevsky does extraordinary things that I can only hope to do. How can you manage to talk so well in his book about such difficult subjects such as the meaning of man and his version of God and do it without sounding like he is lecturing or preaching? Dostoyevsky just does it with all of the doubts and arguments; The Brothers Karamazov is a good example of how he makes his characters so real with such complex subjects.
The subject of immigrants reoccurs in a number of your novels, do you believe that there is such thing as a universal immigrant experience and if so what do you think it encompasses?
I think there is an emotional immigrant experience and that is what I am in this new place. Once I was a fish with gills and now I have to breath in this new place. How do I do this? How each person handles that is unique. Some come knowing the language which makes it easier. Others leave Russia or Italy (like Gina) and they settle into a Russian or American ghetto – a neighbourhood that has the familiarity of language, food and books. It is like living in little Russia. My father did not want to do that. That part is different for each person. You want to be American but you also want to retain some of your own culture.
Gina is only 14 when she lands in Boston. You were 10 when you arrived in America, how much of your experience is there in this book?
The feeling of what it’s like to be an immigrant is all over Children of Liberty and one of the reasons I wrote this book. The experience is so foundational to me and I thought it would also make a great story that this woman from the old world comes in as a young girl and does not how to behaviour, what the rules of etiquette are and what governs interactions between men and women. She just knows what she wants and she wants Harry, but Harry is beyond and above her and complete unattainable. Harry also knows it but also knows how young she is. I thought this a very compelling story.
Gina’s plight was a compelling one as she was trying to remake herself into the kind of women that perhaps Harry would love. That is something my mother also did when she came from Russia trying to be an American woman.
The teachings of the anarchist Emma Goldman threads its way through Children of Liberty. To quote Emma, “Liberty is the only human adventure worth striving and living for.” Do you particularly relate to Emma Goldman and her teachings? Was that a conscious inclusion?
Tremendously. Emma Goldman’s anarchist was extremely appealing to women and the reason was because women were so strained at that time both physically and socially by things they could and could not do. Then suddenly there was Emma Goldman who was a brutally unattractive woman. I am sorry to say this and yet she’s talking about love. She was self-centred and had lovers all her life. She is saying we need to be like a man – free, work, love (like a man) and that we don’t have to marry if we don’t want to. Her brand of anarchism was very appealing which is why she had such tremendous female audiences.
Did you remove anything major from this story that might be used for material in the next book?
No I didn’t. I wrote the whole thing all at once. It was supposed to be a story and then it became an epic and I promised my publishers it was going to be [small]!
The next book is going to begin in the middle of that life. On May 29th, 1919 we all know what happens… (Laughs) so there is a lot that has to happen in between.
Children of Liberty is a prequel to The Bronze Horseman and is based around the lives of Alexander’s parents. How would you describe Children of Liberty as a book because it is a lot more than just a prequel?
I wanted it to be completely fresh so if you had not read The Bronze Horseman you could read about these two people and they are different people to how they appear in The Bronze Horseman. When you are at the start of your life you don’t look at life the same, like my mother. You are sfull of hope and believe anything could happen. When Gina and Harry were young, they were filled with joy for the future before life showed them what it was really about.
You have said you don’t know anyone as intimately as you know your characters Tatiana and Alexander. Do you feel the same connection with Harry and Gina?
Yes, absolutely. The more I wrote about them and the more clear they became to me, the more I felt oh my goodness I don’t recognise them from the characters later in the books. I feel for Gina and her quest with Harry to find her own life.
Do you see a lot of yourself in Gina?
I see more of my Mom. Perhaps I see someone who came to the United States with lots of hope and wasn’t able to work things out as much as she would have hoped for. I myself have been nothing but blessed by America. Everything I have is because of what my Dad did for me and because of the United States. I work hard. There are so many people in Russia who don’t get published and even the ones that do get published; no one knows who they are. I feel blessed.
All your books have a female protagonist and a strong male partner or presence. Will your next book perhaps have a male protagonist?
That is a good question. I felt that The Bridge to Holy Cross and in The Summer Garden was from Alexander’s perspective, once he came back from the dead, so to speak. Also Detective Spencer in The Girl in Times Squareand in Red Leaves – the books were from their point of view. I clearly write about women because I see and feel them but I also include these complex men. Harry as well, the second half of Children of Liberty is mostly about Harry rather than Gina. We are in Harry’s head. We can still imagine what is in Gina’s head but it is mostly in Harry’s.
Do we meet Alice again in Book 2?
Oh definitely, Alice has to come back. I didn’t make Alice someone who was easily disregarded. She was somebody very real. It was not an easy decision for Harry to leave Alice and move on. It was the same with Darsha, (Tatiana’s sister in The Bronze Horseman). I don’t take the easy black and white route. Darsha truly loved Alexander but he clearly did not love her. There is a moment in The Summer Garden that Tatiana says “one day she must thank God because Darsha did not die before she knew love.” And I just felt she had that in her life and knew what it was like to love. I knew a lot of people wanted Darsha to die so that Tatiana and Alexander could be together, but that is too unfair.
Our last question: If you could suggest three MUST-READS for our members what would they be?
(Smiles) definitely Bring Up the Bodies by Hillary Mantel because she is incredibly evocative in portraying a time and a place with language that makes it all come alive. That is an amazing feat to make history interesting. The second book is just awesome!
The second book is my own personal choice because I have a very weak spot for Steven Martin’s Shopgirl. It talks about loneliness, love, isolation and trying to connect with other people. Taking something from people for yourself and not understanding that when you take from them and can hurt them. I really think the book is a miniature gem. I re-read it every few years and still find it amazing.
I also found Tony Morrison’s Sula to be an evocative, heart-breaking, beautiful piece of work about her experience growing up in Ohio. She made it a novel but it is heart wrenching from beginning to end. It is a different experience of growing up black in Ohio. It’s extraordinary but purely for just a beautiful, delicious, gorgeous read, you can’t go past The World According to Garpby John Irving. I love that book. It was one of my favourites when I was younger.
Thank you from all of us, and all your fans at TheReadingRoom.com.
You can find all Paullina’s books from her author profile page and don’t forget to write a review.