Alison Anderson is the author of the new novel The Summer Guest, which includes among its characters the writer Anton Chekhov. She also has written the novels Darwin's Wink and Hidden Latitudes. She is a translator, and her work includes Europa Editions' The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. She lives in Switzerland.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Summer Guest?
A: I had been wanting to write a sort of “tribute” to Anton Chekhov, and it was while reading his letters that I discovered the story of Zinaida Lintvaryova, and his friendship with her family over two summers in Ukraine.
It seemed a perfect way to keep a certain respectful distance, by refracting my own admiration for Chekhov through a fictional diary - plus I found Zinaida’s story fascinating, although tragic.
Q: You are a translator and the novel also features a character who’s a translator. What role do you see translation and language playing in the novel?
A: I think I wanted to make the everyday life of literary translators more apparent to the general public—I’m not always sure people realize what it involves. So this was one way of doing it.
Also, every form of writing is a form of translation—of experience: Zinaida translates her experience as a blind woman onto the written page, which Ana then translates from Russian to English, which I then translate, so to speak, for the reader, who in turn “ translates” my words into a story she either relates to, or doesn’t, based on her own life experience, expectations, previous reading, etc.
So language facilitates this process of translation while at the same time being the reason the whole process is necessary, if that makes sense.
Q: Can you say more about what you see as the right balance between history and fiction when introducing an actual historical figure into the novel?
A: I was very respectful of historical fact; the fiction is all in Zinaida’s record of her feelings, her conversations with Chekhov and others. Most of the events in which Chekhov participated in the novel actually happened.
Some writers might take greater liberty with the truth, but I felt that so much is known and scrutinized about Chekhov that it was necessary to keep everything as plausible as possible.
It seems to me that the less one knows about an actual historical figure, the more “poetic” license one can take; I did take some, but only when I felt it was, as I said, perfectly plausible. With Zinaida, obviously, as so little is known, I was able to take more liberty.
Q: Did you plot out the structure of the book before writing it, or did it develop more organically as you wrote?
A: I had a rough idea where I was headed but some of it, particularly the ending when Ana travels to Ukraine, did develop organically - particularly as the conflict started there in 2014 as I was rewriting, and I felt I had to include reference to contemporary events to make the story believable. So that was a rather exciting plot turn I hadn’t expected.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Another historical novel! This time set in revolutionary France. A little closer to home, but very complicated and a lot of research involved. I’m still at the research stage, no promises it will turn into a novel but I’m hopeful and above all very interested in the project.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m hoping The Summer Guest will lead readers to (re)discover Russian literature, and Anton Chekhov’s stories and plays in particular - for all the reasons I’ve outlined, both openly and more subtly, in the novel.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb