Thursday, April 25, 2024

Q&A with Harriet Crawley




Harriet Crawley is the author of the new novel The Translator. Her other books include the novel The Painted Lady. She also has worked as a journalist and as an art dealer.


Q: What inspired you to write The Translator, and how did you create your characters Clive Franklin and Maria Volina?

A: The inspiration behind this book is, quite simply, Russia. After living and working in Russia, a country I loved, for over 20 years, I felt I knew it from the inside; I felt I had something to say.

When I moved to Russia in 1994 I was a single parent with a son, and a few months earlier I had married a Russian. We lived just outside Moscow, in a wooden dacha surrounded by birch and pine trees, in a village called Peredelkino where Boris Pasternak had lived and written Doctor Zhivago. I sent my son to a Russian state school while I worked as an art dealer.


Later, after divorcing my Russian husband, I moved into the heart of Moscow, where I changed careers and worked in the energy sector, starting a technical publishing company.

Through all these years I travelled, as much as I possibly could. Twice, I boarded the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok, stopping at dozens of cities along the way, including Tyumen, Tomsk, Irkutz, Ulan Ude and Khbarovsk.


I sailed overnight by boat into the White Sea, to a monastery which Lenin had turned into a gulag; I flew south to the Black Sea where I tasted red wine from Crimea; I saw an ice marathon on Lake Baikal and rode horses in the Altai mountains among 4th century BC Scythian tombstones.


In a moment of folly I decided, in mid-winter, to visit the coldest inhabited city on earth, Yakutz in the Russian Far East. I landed there in January 2014; it was minus 52.

I knew I had enough material for a novel, (this would be my fourth novel, fifth book) and I thought I would try my hand at what the great Patricia Highsmith called “suspense fiction.” My setting would, of course, be Russia, but Russia a few years back, in 2017, before this dreadful war in Ukraine.

“Suspense fiction,” at the highest level: the British prime minister eyeball to eyeball with the Russian president. But my main characters would not be politicians, nor would they be spies. I wanted something closer to home. I speak five languages, so it was natural for me to choose linguists.

Why not interpreters? I thought. Those people in shadows, who no one notices, and yet, they hear and see everything.

Interpreters at the top of their game: Marina, the favourite interpreter of the Russian president, and Clive, interpreter for the British prime minister, but also a translator of Chekhov.


Once upon a time Marina and Clive had shared a great love. At a meeting in Moscow between the Russian president and the British prime minister, they meet again, and rekindle their passion. A love story. Deep down, I always knew The Translator had to be a love story.

As for characterization, I wanted Marina to be cleverer than most men (in her opinion), quick-witted and resourceful. I made her single, unmarried, and childless, with two foster sons (one dead, one alive). Her “family” life needed to be simple, unencumbered.


Also, she had to be international and sophisticated, so she speaks several languages, is immensely knowledgeable about literature and art. She is also tough, mentally and physically: a marathon runner.

In Clive I wanted an anti-hero who did not seek the limelight; a man who liked the shadows. But he also had to be a romantic, with a touch of eccentricity.


Clive is quiet, unassuming, but resolute, loyal and brave. His idol is Anton Chekhov, whom he translates. He also works as an interpreter in the British Foreign Office (but hates the word “interpreter” and thinks of himself as a translator, hence the title.)

It was clear to me from the start that Marina and Clive would share not only a great love, but also a passion for language. One of the eccentric features of their relationship is that they play linguistic games, comparing English and Russian proverbs. I had great fun with this and drew on my own studies.

I kept the plot simple: Marina wants to get out of Russia. To do so she decides to betray her country and pass on to Clive state secrets about a Russian plot which, if successful, would bring the Western economy to its knees: Russian drone submarines were about to cut the internet cables under the Atlantic.

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

A: I was surprised about the undersea cables. I thought that internet traffic was carried by satellites. I did not realise that 97 percent of the world’s communications is transmitted by fibre optic cables on the seabeds of the world.

I spend hours fact-checking on the internet, reading research papers and books, picking up many surprising facts, for example the astonishing speed at which information is transmitted through undersea cables: data travels at 300,000 kilometres a second.

I was also surprised to learn how worried governments are all over the world about the security of these undersea cables and their vulnerability to both Chinese and Russian attack.


But for Western Europe (and to a certain extent the United States), Russia poses the greater danger. Over the past 20 years there has been a massive increase in Russian submarine activity, a fact that has been noted by the Pentagon.

In the UK in 2017 a paper called Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure was published by the Policy Exchange think tank with a forward written by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret), former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.


This research paper warns of the vulnerability of these undersea cables to Russian attack, and if such an attack were to happen it would deal “a crippling blow to Britain’s security and prosperity. The threat is nothing short of existential.” The author is this alarming report was, at the time, an unknown member of Parliament by the name of Rishi Sunak.

I spent a whole year researching the book. Luckily for me I had a friend who had been in the Royal Navy, and he was able to put me in touch with experts. I had to learn everything from scratch: the various parts of a battleship, Navy protocol when a VIP comes on board, and a great deal about submarine warfare.

Also, I needed to understand the inner workings of the Kremlin, and of 10 Downing Street and of the British embassy in Moscow. I had hours of interviews with journalists, former politicians and diplomats who had worked in these places and gave me first-hand accounts of how things are organized, and also who would be in attendance, for example, at crisis COBRA meetings.

I also had to study cyber warfare, learn a new terminology used by hackers, and get my head round the astonishing capabilities of that ubiquitous computer: the mobile phone.

Q: Xan Smiley of The Economist called the book a “fast-paced thriller with a chilling ring of authenticity and an eerie closeness to present events in Ukraine.” What do you think of that description?

A: I was flattered by this comment. If the novel has “authenticity” it is because I lived and worked in Russia for 20 years, and I have tried to bring places to life with accurate and detailed descriptions, and to give the reader an insight into how ordinary Russians react and think, and to show the bravery of so many Russian (and remember, my story is set in 2017, when some opposition was possible).

As for “an eerie closeness to present events in Ukraine,” I take that as a compliment. The war in Ukraine is being conducted by drones in the air. In my story, the Russian high command uses underwater drones. But the tactics are the same: to destroy and destabilize the “enemies” of Russia.

Disinformation plays a key role in this present war between Russia and Ukraine, and so it does in my novel. I write about the “research centres” set up by Russia’s FSB (security service) which have only one purpose, to meddle with elections in the US and in the UK, and generally spread disinformation.


We know for a fact that the main disinformation centre in Russia operates out of St. Petersburg, but I invented a new centre in Moscow, a five-story building where an army of young Russian hackers are employed with only one purpose: to spread fake news throughout social media, launch bot attacks on various websites, etc., in order to create confusion, sow doubt, and weaken our Western democracies.

Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I knew that Russia could not succeed in its attempt to destroy the Western economy, but it might do us great damage; exactly how much was an open question, even in my mind, until the very end.


Also, the fate of my main characters was in their hands and not mine. I had no fixed plan, and I let Marina and Clive and General Varlamov (deputy head of the FSB, Russia’s secret service) take the lead, and I followed.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A sequel but set in the present day.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is a mistake to believe that every Russian supports Putin. They don’t. But nor can they protest or speak out; if they do, they will go to prison.

It is another mistake to think that Russia is not being seriously damaged by this war; sanctions are biting, prices are rising, and young Russian men are dying in great numbers.


I feel strongly that we must stay by Ukraine’s side and support their war effort, until they can bring Russia to the table more or less on their terms. You may think this is wishful thinking, but I believe it is the only honourable way forward, both for Ukraine and for Western democracies. If we fail here, then so many other small countries (Finland, the Baltic states, Moldova) are at risk.

Finally, it saddens me greatly that I shall never go back to Russia while Putin is in power, and while the country is a police state. But that could, and, I believe, will, change.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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