November 18, 2018

Author Visits a Time of Russian Upheaval

Janet Fitch’s best-selling novels, “White Oleander” and “Paint It Black,” are set in contemporary America, but her newly published and much-anticipated novel, “The Revolution of Marina M.,” is about a remarkable young woman who finds herself in Imperial Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution. Fitch, who grew up on Los Angeles and studied history at Reed College in Oregon, talked to Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch about her new work.

Jewish Journal: What inspired you to write a novel of and about Russia?

Janet Fitch: In fiction, things never take a straight line. After I’d finished “Paint It Black,” I wrote a short story about a woman who was a Russian émigré in Los Angeles in the 1920s. That character was Marina M. I thought: I’d love to write more about her, but I realized that I didn’t know her well enough — what her memories were, what her dreams were. And so, before I knew it, I was writing a novel set in the Russian Revolution.

JJ: I understand that you intended to become a historian. What inspired you to become a novelist?

JF: I was intensively studying history with the goal of academic writing, but I woke up suddenly on the night of my 21st birthday, sat bolt upright in bed, and decided that I wanted to be a novelist. History fascinates me, and so when I decided to become a novelist, it was only a matter of time that I would write a Russian novel. I am one of those people who is obsessed with Russia.

As a kid, anything that people didn’t talk about, that’s what I was interested in.

JJ: How did you conduct the research for “The Revolution of Marina M.”?

JF: Much of the research was conducted in books, and especially memoirs by women who lived through the events of that era. But I also went back to Russia in 2007 and took an apartment in St. Petersburg. I was there in the summer, and people said, “We are really not ourselves in the summer.” So I went back again in the winter. I just walked around and looked at things and touched things, walked the streets, went into the courtyards, and lived like my character, Marina.

JJ: Many American Jews are descended from men and women who escaped from czarist Russia. Is that true of your family, too?

JF: My family came out of Russia in 1905 after a pogrom that I didn’t know anything about until I started writing my novel. My father’s family came up from Galveston [Texas] to Omaha [Neb.], my mother’s family were New Yorkers, and none of them talked about it — it was a forbidden subject. Now that I know what they endured, I understand why. As a kid, anything that people didn’t talk about, that’s what I was interested in.

JJ: The very word “Russia” has taken on a new resonance during the Trump era. Does Russia mean something different to you today than it did before the Donald Trump presidency?

JF: I grew up during the Cold War, and I visited Russia for the first time during the Soviet era. You never saw the American president assume that Russian intelligence was more accurate than our own — it’s like “The Manchurian Candidate” or something. But I always differentiate between a leader and a people. The Russians are wonderful, and there are many things we can learn from them, especially now that we’re beginning to look more like them.

JJ: Do you feel that the Russians have any nostalgia for what happened in St. Petersburg during the Bolshevik Revolution, all of which figures so vividly in your book?

JF: Oh, no. The three legs of the old Romanov dynasty that ended in 1917 were autocracy, Orthodoxy and Great Russian nationality. It’s all being revived by [President Vladimir] Putin in Russia now, and it’s a horror to watch.

JJ: Did it take courage to undertake an 800-page novel in the era of the 280-character tweet?

JF: I didn’t know it was going to be so gigantic when I started to write it. There were times when I was utterly petrified. I felt as if I were building a Gothic cathedral all by myself.