Saturday, September 9, 2023

Q&A with Kristen Loesch




Kristen Loesch is the author of the new novel The Last Russian Doll. She lives in the Pacific Northwest.


Q: What inspired you to write The Last Russian Doll, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: At the outset, I was determined to write a novel set in Russia that connected somehow to my academic background in Slavonic Studies, particularly post-Soviet society and politics. My first attempt was in fact a contemporary YA thriller set in Moscow, but it was never ready for publication!


After setting that first book aside, I pivoted to historical fiction, and I think this decision was rooted in my profound admiration (/adoration) of some of the great works of classic Russian literature from the 19th and 20th centuries. I hope and believe that that their influence on The Last Russian Doll comes through.


As for the characters, I started out with only Rosie. I plucked her out of that discarded YA thriller and made one of the heroines of The Last Russian Doll; I just felt she had much more to say and do and couldn’t quite leave her behind.


The character of Tonya was primarily inspired by the well-known Russian fairy tale Vasilisa the Beautiful, which is about a downtrodden young woman and her talking wooden doll. It’s this fairy tale that also inspired the larger doll motif in my novel – I wasn’t originally planning to make dolls such an important part of the book, but they sort of took over!


The overall cast list is vast, so I won’t delve into the inspiration behind each character here – I feel sometimes like I could write whole spin-off books on each one! -  but I urge anyone who’s interested in any particular character to reach out to me via my website ( and ask away.


A number of readers have asked about Natalya specifically, so I’ll add that Natalya is one of those extremely rare characters who popped into my head fully formed, both in terms of personality and appearance, and what her role was going to be in the plot.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the novel says, in part, “Loesch moves seamlessly between the expansive dual timelines, slowly establishing the connections between Rosie’s quest to solve the mystery of her family’s murders and Tonya’s efforts to survive the Bolshevik Revolution.” What do you think of that description, and did you write the novel in the order in which it appears?


A: I appreciate that description immensely; I hope it looks easier than it felt! Interweaving the two timelines was one of the major challenges of writing the book; there were so many moving parts, so many tiny critical pieces, and of course it all had to take place against the tumultuous and ever-changing political backdrop of 20th century Russia.


Yes, I largely wrote the novel as it unfolds; I did occasionally remove one strand (for example Valentin’s POV) and work on it separately before reinserting it into the full manuscript. But a novel with multiple narratives and timelines is supposed to feel like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle while playing a game of chess, I think, and I often remind myself that when something is effortless, it’s not going to feel nearly as meaningful when I finish.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I had some preexisting knowledge of the larger history and politics of the era, thanks to my degree work, but I didn’t have as much as I thought I did, to say the least!


I started researching very broadly, honing in on the places and moments I wanted to bring to life in the book, and I quickly discovered that historical nonfiction, although brilliant in many respects, does not give you the on-the-ground perspective you need to write fiction.


That only comes, at least in my experience, from reading primary sources, memoirs, diaries, and other writing from the period you are hoping to recreate. The tedious minutiae of daily life, perhaps the most boring details imaginable in a way (what did you eat for breakfast? What shoes are you wearing?), are ironically what bring a character, and a story, to life.


In the course of my research, I discovered so many facts and stories that astounded me. For example, I was particularly intrigued, and moved, while learning about storytelling in the Soviet labor camp system, and the way it was so valued as entertainment that political prisoners could use their storytelling ability as currency, trading stories for favors and goods or protection from criminals.


Anyone who’s read The Last Russian Doll can probably tell what an outsized impact that discovery had on me, and consequently the novel.


Q: In your Author’s Note, you write, “The continued reexamination of this history is absolutely necessary, not only as a way to grapple with and learn from the past, but also as a lens through which to critically view and fully understand the present.” Can you say more about this?


A: Absolutely; this is something I strongly believe. History is one of my first loves (my undergraduate degree is in history), and one of the most fascinating things about it is that the more you challenge what you think you know about the past, the more you discover how wrong you are.


Therefore you have to be willing to challenge. You have to be willing to dig deep and get messy and deal with uncomfortable ideas and discoveries. That’s how a person learns - and also how a society learns.


When you have a society where that process is undervalued, or worse yet, discouraged, or even worse yet, forbidden, then the lessons of the past are lost. That loss is a dishonor to people who lived through that history, and it also compromises our ability to think critically about the world as it is now.


In the case of Russia, I won’t repeat what I said in my Author’s Note, but I urge all readers of The Last Russian Doll to inform themselves even more about the Soviet regime and especially the Soviet camp system, if they’re interested. That history is the subject of some debate in Russia today and in a strange way, it hangs in the balance; it remains to be seen how much of it may eventually be buried.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a second historical novel, set in 20th century China. Publication is still a ways off at this point but I’m enjoying the process hugely.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I loved writing the tiny fairy tales that appear in The Last Russian Doll so much that I now hope and plan to write an entire collection of them!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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