Friday, February 17, 2023

Q&A with Vesna Goldsworthy


Photo by Liz Seabrook



Vesna Goldsworthy is the author of the new novel Iron Curtain: A Love Story. Her other books include the memoir Chernobyl Strawberries. She lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to write Iron Curtain, and how did you create your character Milena?


A: Iron Curtain is my third novel and my sixth book. Insofar as there is a shared thread linking them, it is the encounter between Europe’s East and West, reflected both in big world politics and in individual lives.


We read history backwards: in the mid-1980s the rapid collapse of communism in Europe seemed far from predictable – even among the supposed experts. When I moved to London from what was Yugoslavia it was as though the Cold War might last forever, or even heat up.


I had long wanted to revisit that “time before;” to investigate the shaping of today’s divisions using a fictional form. I had the desired setting -- the “wallpaper” if you like -- and I knew I wanted to write the political story by using a love story, a bit like Doctor Zhivago or even Gone with the Wind!


Milena was my attempt to turn the stereotypical East-West expectation on its head. She has the wealth and the privilege, while her Western lover is an impoverished and ostensibly Marxist poet.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Milena and Jason?


A: My characters’ names bear the echo of their founding myth: that of Medea, a barbarian princess who falls in love with Jason, betrays her father, and is then betrayed herself. Euripides’ play was the subject of my first exam in comparative literature at Belgrade University.


Whenever I saw versions in Western theatres, I couldn’t help being aware of its East-West geography, where Greece, which I knew as a Balkan land, is appropriated by the West as the cradle of its civilisation: the European Golden Fleece is taken from us.


The dynamic between Milena and Jason is determined by their differing notions of destiny. Jason believes in free will, in seizing any opportunity, whereas Milena knows both the burdens and the privileges of an unfree society. To say more would be a spoiler!

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that particularly surprised you?


A: Iron Curtain is a novel in two parts: the first takes place in an unnamed East European country, an amalgam which contains elements of just about every Soviet satellite (some of my compatriots like to think it’s former Yugoslavia – but that’s the one country east of the original Iron Curtain that it isn’t!). I was fortunate in that I had travelled to most of the countries that inspired me.


The second is a 1980s London and English life beyond the city, both of which I encountered for the first time in the mid-1980s. I didn’t think I needed much research for either, but I couldn’t be more wrong.


I was amazed by how much I had forgotten of that Britain, of the patterns and texture of everyday life. It wasn’t easy to achieve immediacy and avoid anachronisms. I had to retrace so many things – the cooking, the coins, London’s architecture, train timetables, you name it.


The Washington Post’s reviewer of my first book, Inventing Ruritania, noted that I had done enough research to start an academic department. That book was a study of the use of the Balkans by the British and American entertainment industries. I was fascinated by the way the “Wild East” of Europe inspired hundreds of novels and films – vampires, spies, Orient Express murders.


I had known that Iron Curtain would be a sort of “Ruritania writes back.” Whereas the writers I once studied often cared little for Balkan authenticity (in her Murder on the Orient Express Agatha Christie describes mountain peaks in what is just about the flattest part of the Balkans), I wanted my communist Ruritania to be “spot on,” however paradoxical that may sound.


Q: James Smart's review of the novel in The Guardian says, in part, “Tense, brooding and often hilarious, Iron Curtain finds bright sparks as well as bleakness in the cold war’s dying embers.” What do you think of that description?


A: It captures so well what I hoped to achieve in my bittersweet tale of love and revenge. When I shared the review on my social media platforms, I remember writing “tense, brooding and often hilarious,” and a friend shot back with “and that’s just you.” It is so gratifying when a reviewer is on the same wavelength.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am afraid nothing very much. It always takes me a while to get down to something new. Since the British publication of Iron Curtain last year, I have had both the highs of many great reviews and the lows of near blindness, an eye condition which hit me out of nowhere. My life often seems like a mixture of triumph and disaster.


Two successful operations later, my vision is again perfect and I am back at my keyboard, tinkering. Soon something will start coming out of that.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I can’t wait to see how this book will be received in North America. I have had a couple of bestsellers in Europe, my books have been much translated, and have had radio and theatrical adaptations, but have somehow, and with the possible small exception of that first one, failed to catch fire across the Atlantic.


Imagine my surprise when I started reading the first US readers’ reviews of Iron Curtain and they are not just good, but, more importantly, I feel completely understood. These readers see certain aspects of my book even more clearly than over here.


It might help that my story is timely – I hope it sheds light on the deeper background to what’s happening in Ukraine and eastern Europe now as the travails of an often-overlooked region affect us all.  


As we now know, celebrations of the so-called end of history in the 1990s were premature. I don’t take anything for granted but I am cautiously optimistic that I’ve unlocked the code this time.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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