Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Q&A with author Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport, photo by Stephen Bristow

Q: What are some of the greatest misperceptions about the Romanov sisters, and what surprised you most as you researched the book?

A: I'm not sure one can talk of “misperceptions” per se, it's more a matter of a general lack of knowledge about them. Until now the sisters have always been an adjunct to the bigger story of their parents and there was so little known about them. 

People still, generally, are only are aware of the superficial details: that they were young, lovely, charming but essentially rather dull and uninteresting. Aside from the extrovert Anastasia the girls were indeed essentially very modest, even private about themselves and their feelings so people knew little about them.

It took a lot of hard work and searching to go beyond that bland image and find out what they were really like, but even then one will never entirely know, as they were always so circumspect in their letters and diaries. 

I don't think “surprise” is the right word to describe what I found out during the research. There are no shock revelations, no scandals, no hidden secrets -- it was more a growing sense of pleasure at getting to know the sisters through lots of telling details. By the end they felt like my own daughters.

It was a growing sense of love and understanding, culminating in an overall sense of four very distinct and different personalities behind the traditional view of them as a bland collective.

Q: You describe the family as affected by "a fatal excess of mother love." Why was that, and how did it affect them?

A: Well, the fatal excess of mother love was of course Alexandra's for Alexey. It was her obsession with Alexey, of protecting him from harm and making him well again when he was sick that made her fatally vulnerable -- it opened the door to a series of mystics, quacks and healers, culminating in Rasputin. 

This in turn was irrevocably damaging to Alexandra's reputation as tsaritsa and her refusal to disassociate from Rasputin ultimately led to a massive swell of public opinion against her. It even extended to her own family, with several members of the Romanov clan plotting to have her removed from power during the war years.

Mother love drove Alexandra so remorselessly -- irrationally even -- that I do believe it largely contributed to her own downfall, and that of the family.

Q: You've written many books about Russian and European history. Are there any of the historical figures you've studied who have intrigued you perhaps more than the rest, and why?

A: Well, I don't write about any subjects unless they challenge and intrigue me -- see for example Lenin, who for me as a female and non-academic author, was a huge challenge. What fascinates me about Lenin is how he is still perceived in some ways as “the good guy” of the revolution when in fact he was as ruthless, cruel and amoral as all the others! 

I’ve always found Queen Victoria endlessly fascinating.

But I am also drawn to people from the footnotes -- unknown people whose stories have never been told. For example, I have a particular fascination with my Victorian con-artist and fraudster, Madame Rachel of Bond Street -- the subject of my book Beautiful For Ever. Her story took a huge amount of work to winkle out, as it had been lost to history.

But again, the more a subject eludes me, the more I try to chase them down. I love the whole process of research and detection and winkling away at the truth.

Q: As someone who's worked as an actor and a writer, how do the two professions complement each other?

A: Having been an actor certainly is a huge bonus in terms of public speaking and giving author talks. I feel very comfortable up there on the podium and really enjoy it.

It's very important for an author to really communicate with their audience and I work hard to make my talks interesting and engaging. And of course the one compliment I always get is that people can always hear me as I project my voice well!

But acting also taught me, instinctively I think, to look at every book I write as a scenario, to write history as a story that is as gripping and engaging as any novel, but of course without making it up.  I always have a very strong visual and narrative sense with every book I write and think the narrative has to be dynamic and well constructed, as any film script might be.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A project I have long been planning, which is tie-in book for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017.  It will focus tightly -- that scenario approach again! -- on events in Petrograd that year, as seen through the eyes of the many British and American eyewitnesses who were in the city. 

But it isn't all about John Reed! I have a whole cast of wonderful and largely unknown characters whose fascinating testimony will be totally new to readers.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Only that I hope very very much to finally make it over to the USA, maybe next year, to meet some of my American readers. I would love to give some book talks on the U.S. lecture circuit.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating to learn what Helen Rappaport is up to. Her tireless energy and intellectual curiosity produces entertaining and informative works. I am a big fan of her books and wish her all success with The Romanov Sisters.