On Writing, with Linda Holeman
Linda Holeman's newest novel is the meticulously researched The Lost Souls of Angelkov (Random House Canada), a story set in 1860s Russia.
Linda talks to Open Book about her family connection to the book's subject matter, Russia's unique political history and her sunny writing environment.
Tell us about your most recent book, The Lost Souls of Angelkov.
The genesis of the novel comes from a few snippets of my own Russian family history. It’s the story of a kidnapped child of an aristocratic family, set amidst the chaos and ruin brought about by the 1861 serf emancipation. The serfs were also known as souls. While Russia is tilting on its axis, the characters struggle for existence on the crumbling estate of Angelkov, outside of St. Petersburg. And everyone on Angelkov — from the countess to the lowliest of those who serve her — is lost, for reasons resulting from both political upheaval and personal tragedy. Allegiances shift, the secrets everyone carries grow heavier, and the novel reverberates with the echoes of both loss and hope.
Your novel is set in Russia in the 1860s, which was a period of great social and political turmoil for Russia. What is it that inspired you to write about that period in Russian history?
There are a lot of interesting times politically in Russia, but I couldn’t find anything fictional written specifically about the actual events taking place during the Serf Emancipation of 1861. This particular time — moving from the centuries-old order of master and serf to the new order of freedom — was rich and full of intrigue. The political and societal changes affected not just the serfs, but the aristocracy and wealthy landowners who depended on the serfs to help run their land and lives. One more plus was that while researching the era in great depth, I discovered Serf Orchestras. As always, this was highly exciting to me because I hadn’t heard of them before.
I particularly like uncovering historic events and circumstances which aren’t well known, and the time of the emancipation with its confusion and anarchy and changing roles kept getting more complex the deeper I went. I felt it was a great topic that readers might enjoy.
Can you tell us about the research you do when you’re working on a novel?
Ah, research. With historical fiction, I find it takes me as long — or perhaps longer — to do the research as it takes me to write the novel. The research never ends; there seems to be something to confirm right until the manuscript goes to print.
First, I find as much information as I can about the country and the era I’ve chosen for my novel, although the information keeps coming continually through the entire writing. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a lot written about a certain period in a certain part of the world; I like the challenge of digging up out-of-print books and finding tiny but interesting particulars unexpectedly. I read non-fiction for the facts and fiction more for issues such as social context. I try to time it so that partway into the writing of the novel I do my travel research. It works to experience the country at this stage, because by then I’ve explored a great deal through my reading.
This means I already have certain knowledge of what to expect, and I also know what I’m hoping or need to uncover for my own story. The plot and characters are established, although still fluid, because I’ve come to understand that the travel will create changes. Much of what I’ve written is confirmed, but there are always surprises, and it’s these surprises that can take the novel in another direction. For example, when working on The Lost Souls of Angelkov, I wasn’t planning to have any of my characters Siberian. But as I travelled through that part of the world, I was so taken by Siberia’s austere beauty and the distinctness of its people that I knew, as my train rumbled along, that it would be Grisha’s homeland. So I wrote a whole new weave into the novel after returning home.
What is your ideal writing environment?
I need to be in my office in Toronto or in Santa Monica in order to write effectively. They’re both full of natural light — important for me — and I have everything I need close at hand. They’re quiet and somehow serene; I find it difficult to be creative and productive in busy, noisy environments. I’m easily distracted, so definitely not one on those writers who can work in coffee shops or on park benches!
When you’ve finished the first draft of a novel, who are your first readers?
I never share my work with anyone during the writing process except my partner, because I totally trust his honest and informed opinion. I hand the first completed draft over to my agent for her thoughts, and after that it reaches the editor.
What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?
Don’t give up. Perhaps it sounds trite, but in most cases first-time publication is as fraught with challenges as writing the book. It’s difficult to find an agent to take you on with no publication experience. For fiction writers, it helps to have been published in short story form in journals and so on, but of course not everyone is a short story writer. It’s a long hard slog — both writing and getting published. There’s just nothing easy about it. It takes persistence, optimism, and some good friends to cheer you on/up while you’re receiving rejections — because inevitably you will at some point — and then to celebrate with you over good news!
And I hate to tell you that the determination and perseverance necessary for a career in writing never ends. I write every day, staying at my desk until I have 1,500 to 2,000 words written… whether I feel like it or not. It’s simply part of the craft; without the daily self-motivation and discipline the next book doesn’t get written.
What are you working on now?
A novel set in Portugal — Madeira, Porto Santo and Lisbon — in the 18th century. It’s a rich time in Portugal’s colourful history with much potential for conflict: slavery, religion, new colonies throughout the world and a massive earthquake. Oh, and a lot of wine.