About my writing

Because writing is the only thing I am good at. I have tried many other professions but they never gave me the pleasure and satisfaction that writing does and eventually came to an inevitable dead end.

Then one fine day, I just decided to drop everything up and threw myself at the mercy of the fickle gods of the arts. I haven’t looked back since.

Half of my life was spent in Russia and the other half in the USA, I’m therefore fluent in both Russian and English. That means that I can see events and stories from two completely different perspectives.

If I had stayed in my native country, I would never have encountered the neglected memoirs of Russian immigrants or American and British tourists who visited the USSR in the 1920s. These dusty books that I discovered in the basements of libraries and archives have been a big part of my research and a huge inspiration.

However, if I had only used sources in English, my novels would have lacked authenticity. I have therefore been blessed to have a whole world of Russian archives available to me.

But in addition to my dry academic research, I have traveled to all the cities that are mentioned in my books, from Buenos Aires to Hong Kong. The description of a place might only take up several lines of one of my novels, but I have to have a real sense of a place before I can start writing about it.
I believe that all these factors give my novels a very special flavor.

Some of my novels were written in several months—like the ones in the Agent Marge Series. But it took me twenty years to write Russian Treasures.

I vividly remember that the first sparks of inspiration came after I watched the movie Titanic by James Cameron. It filled me with a powerful urge to sit down and write about the Russian ‘Titanic’—the tragic story of an entire country hitting its own ‘iceberg’.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve rewritten these novels. I have no idea why I’ve invested so much time and effort into this story. I just have an unstoppable urge to present it in the best possible shape and light.

Recently, I reread my very first manuscript which I wrote when I was fifteen. Naturally, there was much that was wrong with it, but I was surprised to recognize Klim Rogov in the main character. It seems that he has always been with me.

Where did I meet him, I don’t know. I guess there is an element of him from an old  Robin of Sherwood television series that I watched when I was nine. I could certainly recognize some of Klim’s features and traits in the Robin Hood character portrayed by Michael Praed.

As for Nina Kupina, she’s a mixture of Italian opera singer Lina Cavalieri, Scarlett O’Hara, and myself.

In 1997, my friends rented an apartment in a hundred-year-old house in the historical part of Nizhny Novgorod. The previous owner left an old chest of drawers there and told my friends they could have it along with its contents. In it, I found a vintage postcard depicting a beautiful young lady and immediately realized that this is HER, the heroine of my future historical novel.

 

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Later I learned that the lady who inspired me so much was Lina Cavalieri.

Nina Kupina’s character has undergone significant changes over the years. In my early drafts she was a classic damsel in distress, then she grew into a rather selfish and cruel woman, it was only later that she has matured into the figure that she is now.

I would say that all my characters have grown up and developed alongside me.

To accept that ultimately nobody can help you except yourself.

In my experience, nearly every author hopes to meet some miracle worker who can take them by the hand and guide them to the sacred temple of great literature.

But in the real world, you have to take risks, sacrifice all your time, energy and money (your life per se) to the fickle and inscrutable gods of the arts, and if you work hard enough and the fates are kind to you, maybe they will look favorably on you.

In short, talent, passion, willpower and the utilization of every resource that you have available to you.

I teach literary craft and I can tell right away if my students are just ‘playing at being authors’ or if they are serious about their writing. It doesn’t matter if they are gifted or not at that stage. If a talented person doesn’t practice and make perfect, there is no helping them.

Serious authors are fanatics, and nothing can stop them from moving forward.

However, it’s a sad fact of life that talent and passion are not enough. Developing literary skills takes a huge amount of time and requires the right conditions, and if a person doesn’t have these luxuries, it takes nothing short of a miracle for him or her to succeed.

I only write fiction in my native language. I have a much larger vocabulary in Russian than English and I don’t have to think about grammar and sentence structure when I write. I just let my imagination run wild and enjoy the process.

When I translate my books into English, I adapt them so that any details or in-jokes that might be peculiarly Russian, for example, will be clear and comprehensible to my international readers.

My translations are polished by native English speakers, who are great professionals and I am very grateful to them for their excellent work.

About me

I was born in the USSR, in 1975.

My hometown Nizhny Novgorod was the third most populated city in Russia (after Moscow and Saint Petersburg), but it was rarely seen on the maps. There were way too many military plants, and our leaders prevented foreign spies from using globes and atlases to sniff out our secrets.

Nizhny_novgorod Nizhny Novgorod. A view at the confluence of the Oka and Volga Rivers

I became a writer because my dad blackmailed me: “I won’t tell you another fairy tale unless you write down the one I told you before.” So, at first, the fairy tales were his creation, but then I decided that I could do better (which was an obvious overestimation at the time).

 

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Me and my parents, 1982

Oh yes, definitely!

Good children’s books were scarce in the Soviet Union, and to get them for me, my mom had to go to the library, which was an hour drive from us. She would come home as a proud and successful hunter. There was no bigger pleasure for me than to rummage through her bag and take out shabby but precious books about brave Indian warriors and far away kingdoms.

In 1990, I watched Gone with the Wind – it was an emotional shock for me. I was dying for a chance to read the novel and, finally, I found it at the region library.

It was “a special item” and I couldn’t borrow it, so everyday after school, I came to the reading room, sat down in the corner and read, covering my face with my long hair so nobody could see my tear-stained face.

“I want to be like her,” I thought while looking at the black-and-white portrait of Margaret Mitchell on the back cover.

 

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Gone with the Wind, the Russian edition, 1991

I made my first published appearance in the local newspaper Nizhegorodskaya Pravda (Nizhny Novgorod Truth) with a story “One potato, two potato.” It was about harvesting at the state farm. I was 15 years old.

My first published book was a YA novel about modeling business. All my friends were involved in the glamorous world of fashion, TV, and radio broadcasting, so I had plenty of materials. The book was published chapter by chapter in the local weekly newspaper.

My first hardcover book was published by a major Russian publishing house Eksmo. It was a cozy mystery, which I wrote only to get my foot in the door. I was 26 years old.

I got a law degree because I had no idea what major to choose and my dad said that lawyers are well respected and make good money. I even tried to get my Ph.D., but it required writing long boring papers; instead of that, I wrote a historical novel about coup d’état epoch set in 18th century Russia. It turned out to be my only unpublished book.

 

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At the university, 1993

My first job was at the Small Enterprise Equity Fund founded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development – it was one of the first foreign companies in Nizhny Novgorod back in the 1990s.

I got the offer because somehow I convinced the bosses that I speak English, which was not quite true. Being an administrative assistant at SEEF made me a master of answering phone calls, making paper copies, and brewing up coffee.

All my friends thought I settled down in a paradise. SEEF’s office boasted imported armchairs and desks we could see only in the movies. It was wealth beyond imagination – SEEF spent $10, $20, or even $50 for staplers and paper clips. For comparison, my monthly salary was about $80 per month working part time.

While working at the law firm office, I consulted walked-ins, went to prisons, and died of boredom at judicial hearings. In fact, being a criminal lawyer has nothing to do with mystery stories and movies. None of my clients were cunning evildoers or innocent victims. They were thieves, drug dealers, and domestic tyrants.

Having enough of criminal law, I became a corporate lawyer at the First Exemplary Fund. Its only purpose of existence was to reap benefits from poorly executed privatization laws in Russia.

The government gave all citizens shares of the state enterprises, but most of the people had no idea what to do with their securities and often sold them for pennies or exchanged them for a bottle of vodka. One could obtain a whole factory for the price of a truck with liquor.

For two years, I was teaching at the Nizhny Novgorod State University. Students loved my classes – I told them how to divide assets in a divorce or how to do paperwork if one inherits a fortune. I explained what they needed to know about business agreements using simple but intelligible example – one part of the kids were sellers of sausages, another part were buyers, the third group were sausages, and the fourth were railroad cars that carried the commodity around the classroom.

Now I am an owner of the largest educational website for Russian-speaking authors, The Writer’s Guide, with an audience of more than 1.6 million visitors. It consists of more than 200 articles, lectures, courses, and webinars on writing craft.

My husband Paul is Russian American, and we met in the Internet in 2000. I was very impressed with his intelligence but for a long time I had no idea what he looked like. Finally, Paul emailed me his picture – he was aiming at something with his gun. I can’t stand weapons, but Paul’s arm muscles looked very nice and I decided to ignore the minor imperfections.

We lived 6,113.81 miles apart, and it took two years of daily phone calls, emails, and visa rejections before Paul managed to bring me to the United States. Now I live in Lakewood, CA.

When I came to America, I didn’t drive and barely spoke English. What a start for a writer and an Angelino-to-be! Everything was strange to me: prices, the system of measurement, food, road laws, the way how people treat police, teachers, officials, high education and so on.

It took me several years to learn the ins and outs.

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Me at the Huntington Botanical Garden, 2008

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