Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Q&A with Suzanne Parry




Suzanne Parry is the author of the new historical novel Lost Souls of Leningrad. A former European security specialist, she is based in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Lost Souls of Leningrad, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: The seeds of the novel were planted decades ago when I spent a college semester in the USSR. On an excursion to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), I came face-to-face with the Soviet Union’s wartime experience at the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery where roughly 500,000 of the 1 million casualties of the Siege of Leningrad are buried.


Seeing the rows and rows of mass graves made the World War II disaster very real to me. After that, I felt it was a tale that needed to be told. Nearly 40 years later I began writing the story.


The characters appeared as soon as I sketched the plot. Sofya, the saga’s heroine, as well as teenagers Yelena and Pavel are mostly imagined. Admiral Antonov is an amalgam of military officers I knew from my years at the Pentagon. Little Sasha, energetic and sunny but sometimes annoying, is the character most like me. When I created Alyosha, the young boy Pavel rescues, I imagined a quiet, tentative child whose world falls apart repeatedly.


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprise you?


A: Yes, I did extensive research both before I started writing and through the first couple of drafts. I knew the general facts about the Siege of Leningrad, but needed a deeper familiarity to create the intimate perspective I wanted for the story.


In 2017, I traveled to St. Petersburg and was able to refresh my memory and examine many of the sites in the novel. I drove out to Lake Ladoga to see the route evacuees took to escape the city.

There I found that the newly constructed Museum of the Road of Life had just opened to the public. It documents in great detail the effort to resupply Leningrad and to evacuate starving citizens during the long siege. Examples of the trucks and barges used to cross the lake are on display.


The Road of Life was always essential to my story, but I was surprised at the size of the undertaking. Tens of thousands of Soviets worked in bitter conditions to try to save Leningrad. In the winter of 1941-42, there were six lanes of truck traffic moving across the frozen lake, ferrying civilians out of the city and bringing food back in.


Q: The author Debra Dean said of the book, “This is historical fiction that feels ripped from today’s headlines.” What parallels do you see between the events in the novel and today’s news?


A: There are several connections between the novel and events today. First, the same horrors of war experienced during World War II are now happening in Ukraine. Obviously, there is not a particular city in Ukraine that is besieged and being starved in the way Leningrad was 80 years ago, but the suffering and trauma of war is the same.


One interesting fact relating to today’s events is that Vladimir Putin is actually from Leningrad and no doubt intimately familiar with the city’s history. When he bombs Ukrainian civilians, I can’t help but wonder if he thinks of Leningrad. Probably not.


The second important parallel is that we are now living in a time when authoritarianism is on the rise. Especially now, when democracy is under attack, it is important to consider what life looks like when you don’t have an open and free society.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make any changes along the way?


A: I rewrote the last chapter many times before settling on the exact ending. But, without giving too much away, I knew from the start that I wanted it to be uplifting.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Another Soviet World War II story, but one told from the perspective of a single character. She is a prideful Soviet bureaucrat who makes a devastating mistake which forces her to evaluate the flaws of her beloved Communist Party and confront her personal failings.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I have lived in five countries besides the US: the former Soviet Union, Belgium, Sweden, Singapore, and Germany. I’m an avid runner, coached high school cross country for 15 years, and have run marathons in more than 20 countries.   


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment