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Vanora Bennett – The Thames Valley History Festival Interview

by Rosie Hayes

Vanora Bennett is a British author and award-winning journalist.  Having learned Russian and been hired after university by Reuters, she exchanged the classical-music life of her family for the adrenaline-charged realm of conflict reporting.   She now leads a more sedate life in North London with her husband and two small sons.


She has written two non-fiction books about her experiences as a journalist and four novels set in the English past.  Her latest novel, ‘Midnight in St Petersburg’,  set in Russia, is her fifth.

Your heroine, Inna, is a Jew in Russia on the eve of revolution. Why did you choose this historical context rather than a contemporary view of refugees, asylum seekers or immigrants?

It’s funny you should ask that, because I did think about making it a modern story featuring. among others, an illegal immigrant in London. For a while I was very enthusiastic about joining in the contemporary debate about refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants, and sharing the knowledge of one strand of immigrant life that I have access to through speaking Russian. I even wrote a first version with twin stories, one contemporary and one historical.

The contemporary version featured a certain Olina the Cleaner, who was pretty close to a real-life Ukrainian illegal immigrant I’ve talked to in London, whose situation we’d discussed at enough length for me to feel I knew and could portray. But my then publisher liked the historical violin part of my initial story more than the modern illegal immigrant part, and the idea of twinning the two stories went by the board.

I subsequently moved publishers, but I’d become, I suppose, less confident that I could articulate the plight of the modern immigrant in a way that other people warmed to. So I decided to rethink the story and build the illegal immigrant part into the historical part of the plot.

Making Inna Jewish in Russia on the eve of revolution a century ago (an oppressed minority if ever there was one) became a way of giving her plight a more “neutral” historical context and made it feel easier to tell her story with the sympathy I personally feel for those shut out of their homeland. But I still have a secret hankering to have another go, one day, at Olina the Cleaner’s story in modern London!

Why did you choose the fictional family to be instrument makers?

Well, first, I love the idea of instrument makers – people quietly and peacefully transforming dumb bits of wood into something that will make music. That transformation feels to me like good magic, or a kind of alchemy – a positive, healing, simple act. I believed that a family doing something so innocent would be the perfect background for a person with a troubled past, providing a place she could gather herself and have time to work out what she could become in the new life she’d stumbled into.

And, secondly, I’d always rather wanted to make a violin myself. The book became my excuse – after years of dithering, I finally enrolled in a violin-making class. And, now that the book is finished, I’ve also got a violin that has got the first coats of varnish going on to it – the best possible memento of writing this book.

In what ways do you believe people are affected by the loss of their homeland?

This is a question that my early work as a reporter, often writing on refugees, made me think a lot about.

A person who has lost their homeland is someone with an impossible past, someone who’s been squeezed out of one life and is trying to start again in a new place. What I saw, among the people I reported on, was, typically, a burst of almost insane determination, early on, that would propel them into a new orbit somewhere else, and, then, once they were safely there, a residual fear that would kick in and keep them quiet and panicky, for many years afterwards, fearing that one wrong word or one wrong thought might expose them, and put them back into danger.

I wanted to describe the loneliness of that, and look at how difficult it is to break through that second-stage timidity and, eventually, get your courage back to live life to the full and know your own mind and heart.

Ever since covering conflicts in the former Russian empire and elsewhere in the world, I’ve been impressed by the resilience and courage with which people forced out of their homes by violence or need adapt and reshape their lives in new settings. I couldn’t help sympathising with people who must, with good reason, feel so alone and unprotected.

Nor could I help admiring their underdog courage and determination to survive, especially once I’d seen with my own eyes some of the horrors they’d left behind. In a century which has seen so much upheaval, watching the human spirit survive this kind of test seemed the most interesting possible subject for a writer.

What does early 20th century Russia have to offer us?

Stories, I suppose! And extremes. The great roller-coaster of repression and revolution made early 20th-century Russia the most extreme and exciting place I could imagine, as well as the most tragic. Wild ideas flourished. For a decade after the Revolution, the arts flourished side by side with civil war, famine, and almost unimaginable hardships.

People on both sides of the White-Red divide lived intensely. All those upheavals made it both a good place to look for stories – because the best stories are born of conflict, and of people testing their mettle against changing circumstances – and a good place to look for violin stories. So many possessions changed hands in those years, and so much was stolen or smuggled away.

Among the easiest portables to move were violins, and it struck me that to follow the movement of a violin would be a good way to tell the bigger story of the upheavals and the people involved in them. For me, it was only a question of time before I wrote a novel about Russia because, however English I am, and however much I’ve enjoyed writing four novels set in the English past, I have also spent a lot of my life finding out about and living in Russia and am completely fascinated by the place.

I studied Russian at school and university, then spent the seven years after the collapse of Communism living in Moscow. I feel very at home in a culture which I find compelling – more claustrophobic and cruel than ours, in some ways, but also more exhilarating, wild, free and beautiful in others. Russians are prone to telling foreigners “you’ll never be bored here.” I never was. I wanted to share my fascination.

Have any of your experiences as a journalist helped in the creation of this book?

Probably all of them – because what I loved most as a journalist was testing against experience my expectations of how a situation might pan out, and how people might “tick”, and I’m sure some of that sifting and weighing has become part of my everyday stock-in-trade when thinking about fictional situations too.

But, specifically, my experience covering lots of small wars in different parts of the globe gave me what feels unusual experience for someone of my generation and comfortable Western upbringing – of actually seeing and knowing a lot of people who have been uprooted, feared or faced violence, and managed to adapt; and of having seen, and occasionally, briefly, experienced myself, the random cruelty of the way of life they needed to escape.

What inspired you to study Russian?

I always wanted to, and I’ve never quite known how to explain why, even to myself. I loved Russian and gypsy and Jewish music as a child – in some ways my fascination with Russia was a sound-track. I also loved a Russian Easter cake that a cousin used to make.

And I had an imaginary friend called Mr Katchinsky – which must be a kind of Russian name – who I believed lived under the stove in our kitchen and who we had to feed Smarties to in a saucer. So I couldn’t have been happier when it turned out that the French teacher at my secondary school was a White Russian emigree, and wanted to teach me Russian.

How did you find out about your Russian ancestor?

By accident. When I was in my early 30s, and had lived in Russia for years, I picked up a book about Faberge in my mother’s London house, during a weekend break in England, and found it had handwritten notes in the margins in my dead grandmother’s writing. I was intrigued – and still more intrigued to find out the notes were all about the St Petersburg life of someone called Horace Wallick. Wallick was the maiden name of my grandmother’s mother.

Piecing the story together, I realized Horace must have been that great-grandmother’s brother. It was only after months of searching for a bit more of his story in Russia that I came home to London and found that I’d forgotten the most obvious port of call in my search – because my father heard out my story about the mystery ancestor who’d lived and worked in pre-revolutionary Russia, smiled a bit, and said, “ah, you must mean Uncle Horace.”

Was your dream always to be a writer?

I think so. At least, I remember being a child and being told, by all kinds of well-meaning adults, that you couldn’t become a writer until you had had some Life Experiences. So I didn’t try writing much fiction until I got to my thirties, but I did sign up for a job as a foreign correspondent that gave me plenty of world travel and upheaval, and Life Experiences galore. I guess it was all training.

This is your first historical novel set in Russia. Was this any easier to research than your other historical novels set in England?

Yes, in many ways. My English novels are all set in the much more distant past – the latest one is in Henry VIII’s day and they go back in time as far as Chaucer. And, when it comes to lifestyle, the past really is a foreign country. To write the English medieval books, I had to know so much stuff I would then discard – about how people ate, drank, dressed, communicated, even went to the loo.

But with the Russia book I was writing about people very like the authors I’d studied at university: people living in streets I’d walked, going to concert halls and theatres I’d spent the evening in, and eating in restaurants I’d eaten in. They felt extraordinarily modern – and they were; some of them even had telephones!

Thanks to my years of reading Russian books, I already knew everything about the everyday details of their lives – when they took their boots and hats off, what they said when they wanted to wish someone luck, why they wouldn’t kiss across a threshold, what they’d be likely to eat and drink, who they’d automatically like and hate and why. I also knew a fair bit about what they were likely to be reading and talking about. I felt right at home with them.

You are appearing on a panel about the Tudor queens. What interests you about the Tudor era?

It’s the most fascinating period in English history – the dramatic soap-opera moment when we became the England we have known ever since. The moment most people are most curious about, when they think about the Tudors, is Henry VIII’s fateful choice of a second wife and break with the Church of Rome. But I found myself equally attracted to the quiet start of it all – when a widowed French princess, briefly married to England’s Henry V, after he’d conquered her country, was left so alone in her adopted country that she began an affair with a relatively humble Welshman who was her servant.

That man was Owain Tudor, and their eventual marriage gave rise to the line of Tudors who, a few generations later, by a strange series of sideways moves and twists of fate, took the throne of England. I liked the unexpectedness of that story.

What do you like about events most?

The unexpectedness, too – the surprise question that raises a subject you’ve never thought about, the way you’re exposed to new ways of approaching things. And it’s fun being on a panel, where some of that unexpectedness can come from your fellow-writers, who’ve spent so much time thinking about subjects quite like yours – but in their own unique way. You can learn so much.

What makes your event special, unique or controversial?

We’re going to have plenty of unexpectedness. Two of us have looked at the start of the Tudor era, writing about Catherine of France and her love for Owain Tudor, and two have looked at Henry VIII’s last queen, Katherine Parr. I can guarantee we will turn up full of pet theories, arguments, bits of arcane knowledge, and surprises for our colleagues and au

Thank you for your time Vanora,  look forward to seeing you at The Thames Valley History Festival 2013.



Find out all about Vanora Bennett  @

Vanora Bennett is a guest author at the Thames Valley History Festival

Vanora will be speaking at Bookend Brides: Tudor Queens First and Last, Thursday 7th November, at 7.30pm

Tickets are £7.50 (10% discount with advantage card) available in October.

If you buy tickets to two different events you get a third event free.

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