. . . . . O F A B O O K B A S E D O N A T R U E S T O R Y
My historical novel is probably my main achievement in life and my raison d’être. It is a major work of 515 (January 2010 ed.) pages and said to have Zhivagoesque qualities. Some readers have even asked me if I was related to the singer, because it reads as if I had been there. The answer is no, but I have been in the world of Russian music, which was Plevitskaya’s world decades before my experience.
It took over four years to research and write, but at the time I had lots of other things to do as well. It might have been a year’s work, had I been able to give it priority. But priority can only happen when you get a fistfull of Dollars, which was not flying my way.
I did not make a submission or book proposal to a publisher after I had studied what appeared in the market in those four years. Books are either by very young people with academic qualifications, people known from TV, or writers who have been a brand name for decades.
Reading the submission guidelines of the History Channel spooked me completely. I would have had to disclose everything I know and acknowledge they might have my topic in development already. Nothing could have prevented them (or a publisher who would have received my book proposal) from declining my offer, get their own researchers and writers on the topic and out the door I am. That would have been perfectly legal and maybe even legitimate, if they argued they preferred someone else’s approach to mine. I could not take that risk. If you can go through an agent, the risk is considerably lower, but there is no agent in this town, and even if I could get hold of one, they want young people with academic qualifications. I attended an event where an international agent explained why.
It was clear, that I had to work outside the system. SAMIZDAT it was called in Russia under Soviet rule when works were not submitted to censors and duplicated in secret. With no qualifications in novel writing, I asked myself if I could or should really do that. My confidence was boosted by an online IQ test that awarded me 149, near genius! Holy mackerel, I thought, what a con! Then I did a test for high end IT courses, where I came into the top bracket. They were as overwhelmed as I was, but told me apologetically that there is no job placement for me since I was over 45. As disappointing as it was that the cut-off for the job market was 45 their frankness saved me the substantial fee for the IT course.
After my first shock I picked myself up and said to myself that this is my cue to do what I want: Write the Plevitskaya story. After I had about two chapters I joined the Kensington & Norwood Writers Group to test the water. It struck a chord with them and I considered myself on the right track. I was still concerned that my topic could do the rounds and reach people or companies with oodles of resources. I had no idea how long detailed research and my writing would take, as I could not give it priority.
It was therefore no question that I should use aliases for the famous names who were part of the Plevitskaya life story. Plevitskaya got an alias, so did her friend Serguey Rakhmaninoff and her last husband General Nicolay Skoblin. When I heard, a son of one of the group’s members moved to Sydney to work in the movie industry, I felt confirmed in my caution. His father had been impressed with my writing and had I used the real names, he might have talked; the son might have taken the idea to Sydney before my book was ready. At the time it was in the papers that an iron ore mega magnate had kept his original discovery to himself for 18 years!
In the middle of my work my husband decided to make Russian music again,which we had done professionally for about 11 years. I had done the business side, but now I was to be part of the music, too. So I had to learn to play the bass balalaika. This is a very enjoyable activity, but when you are in the process of writing a book, it can get your mind in a spin. However, what we played was mainly the Plevitskaya repertoire, so it was hugely beneficial for my book which is now available from me (artifex2ATbigpond.com) and from
(I ceased translating and decided not to procede with my German version.)
D I S C O V E R Y
I am often asked how I discovered this extraordinary life story. During my last visit to Germany I ordered a Rakhmaninoff biography to be delivered to my Australian home when we got back. I picked it from a catalogue page. It was a huge catalogue and I had no idea what I should choose. In a spur of the moment decision, I picked the book which had more pages. After all, if I have a book sent all the way from Germany to Australia, I want as much value as I can get.
Several months later, I read Rakhmaninoff’s story and was intrigued. I contained a picture and one paragraph about Gypsy singer Nadezhda Plevitskaya. I became curious why a singer of her standing, a singer who had been big enough to record with Serguey Rakhmaninoff, had been so completely forgotten that we had never heard of her. We had made Russian music professionally for eleven years, had accumulated quite an archive, but nobody had ever mentioned her name to us. A sentence about Plevitskaya’s and her husband’s secret service involvement pointed to a reason. We had met Russian emigrés (escapees in Russian terninology) or their Russian speaking offspring who we suspected of being involved. The Rakhmaninoff biography described his friendship with Plevitskaya and her husband as ‘dangerous company’ but nothing more.
Stories with big gaps get your mind going. You search for the missing links to understand it all. They never leave your mind until you know. That’s how it was with me and the Plevitskaya story. It took more than six years and two relocations until the opportunity to find out more arrived.
I thought of the Plevitskaya story as a spectacular movie (as in bio-pic spectacle). I still entertain that vision and hope, one day someone will option my book. I am realist enough, however, to avoid dreaming about those fantastic figures which you read on the net. I love a give-and- take-situation which is a two way street.
As soon as I get the opportunity, I will post a pitch for speedreaders.
WHERE TO BEGIN?
I kickstarted my research phase and immediately hit a snag. I searched in the online library catalogues for that source which was mentioned in the bibliography of the Rakhmannoff book. It did not show up anywhere, although the entry looked like it was a groundbreaking work which should be there. After a few days of puzzlement I came to realize I had searched for the book’s authors in the spelling which was in that bibliography, the German spelling! Naturally, that could not be in an Australian library!
After I applied English spelling rules to their names their book popped up in the catalogue of our State Library of South Australia. My husband drove me there and we arranged to meet an hour later. After all this, I found the book was nowhere to be seen in the State Library. An attendant shrugged his shoulders; sometimes books went missing. There I was with an hour to kill. As I looked around though, I was delighted to find myself in such a treasure trove. Russian history, the Russian Revolution, and their Civil War must be the most documented phase in history (outside the holocaust)!
From then on I systemized my research. I armed myself with several catalogue numbers of books to check out, and went to the State Library on Thursdays. In between, when the bass-balalaika, the Croatian music, and the paperwork for my husband’s activities and the dreaded housework allowed me, I wrote, re-wrote, edited, formatted.
I had to be focussed in my time management department. If truth be told I remember looking at an invitation, calculating the hours and the expense for gifts. I ignored the RSVP and put the invitation right to the back where it would be forgotten. These people did not deserve that, but I felt it was now time that my goals came first. Socialising has its place, but for a writer it has to take second place in certain phases. That’s not a recipe for enduring friendships, but we live in an egoistic world. I had decided to be part of the world and pay that price. Surprisingly, friendships popped back into active mode after a while.
Like most other authors, I had waves of doubts. Could I really pull this off? Why was it worth doing if being part of mainstream publishing is out of reach and the movie industry in Australia glued to Australian stories, as opposed to a story that has the chance to resonate internationally? Why do this at all? Aren’t there enough books about the last days of the Tsarist empire and the Revolution? What about the Gypsy theme? What vibes may some readers and some movie audiences have about Gypsies?
In the beginning I told people I was writing a book but as it dragged out more and more, I stopped talking about it. One day, a friend asked on the phone ‘when is your book coming out?’ There are people who think that you can write a book and in due course it will appear on the shop shelves! They have been influenced by promotional material that makes it look easy but omits that only one in 1,000 books written in Australia can be taken on by a trad. publisher. The conclusion that all other 999 books must be ‘bad’ does not wash with me.
Last year I explained to that friend how the book business is structured, much like the recording companies with whom we had worked back in Europe. If the book company decides a moderate publicity budget is enough that’s the end of your line, because readers will simply not know you exist. You cannot iuitiate international releases, because the partners of your publisher in other countries are independent companies. In all likelihood they will choose the books they want to publish in theior territory from the list of famous names or events.
These business analyses did not discourage me from researching and writing in parallel. I had often worked in tandem with others; this novel was mine alone, and what would happen to the business side would evolve later – one way or the other.
With computers these days you can go back easily and change something if your later discovery suggests a change in an earlier chapter. The research part was the fun and inspiring bit, the writing felt like work, sometimes.
People talk of writer’s block but I am not sure that this really exists. There exists a block that you cannot write about one specific matter at that point in time but it is, so I believe, not a general writing block. If you took another topic to write about, the writer’s block would evaporate, so I believe.
There were certainly instances where I was not sure what the next paragraph should be. I then went back to the front, re-editing and re-writing. I had developed a group of markers for various categories of tasks. Usually, after you have done some of these things the inspiration to move forward returns. And yes, there was a loose leaf collection of thoughts and snippets that were destined to find a place in the book. It was not difficult to decide where they would go because I worked along the timeline. There were enough ‘foreign’ names and places for my Anglo readership without confusing them through going backwards and forwards. I do not appreciate movies and books which go back and forth, and in the absence of any other criteria, I had decided to write the novel how I would have wanted to read it.
There were a few instances where I had the feeling I was hitting a wall. Then I took a break (from writing), cleaned the house or did some other practical work while thinking about which direction to take. This is a fascinating strategy, because when you finally do find that key to unlock the scene which has been in your head in an amorphous shape, it gushes out into your manuscript as a satisfying result.
I was glad I was not commissioned because this way, there was no haste coming into the equation. In journalism or as a ghostwriter you can do things more quickly because you have got the facts to hook your writing on, but novel writing in this instance meant that I had to do story and character development while I was at it. Haste is not helpful there, and maybe this is the reason why so many movies and books have become predictable. In my sometimes cynical way, I believe that when the ghostwriters are getting behind in their schedule, they take out the rule books and end up with predictable twists and clichés. That’s my opinion of course, maybe someone proves me wrong one day.
My book progressed quite well but I was still only half way through when I picked up a pamphlet in the State Library. It stated, the building was going to be demolished and rebuilt. During that time everything would be closed and no books could be retrieved from storage.
Incredulously I stared at the pamphlet. The operation looked like demolishing my activities for more than a year. Increasingly, information became available on the internet, in English, German, and French which I can read, but also in Italian and Spanish which I can guess, or Turkish and Polish which I could not. I put the Turkish scribe through three online translation engines but the content remained a mystery. It is my humble hope, that those who are dealing with security issues will never use these computerized translations. Maybe someone did prior to 9/11?
These small bits of information in webpages, sometimes contradictory, could however, not replace research in books. Luckily, the Adelaide University has a library and an online catalogue so I could shift my Thursdays to their library. The first time I went, I was apprehensive they may not admit me, but luckily, South Australian society is still somewhat open.
We lived in a very noisy area at the time and my research days felt like a holiday that straightened out my brainwaves. I still miss these.
And so it happened – I one day I had done it. My book
L A P L E V I T S K A Y A
A G y p s y S i n g e r i n T s a r i s t R u s s i a a n d i n E x i l e
I added a diagram how historic personalities, which appear in the book or are mentioned, related to each other. I had originally sbribbled that up for my own clarification.
It was impossible, not to mention how the aftershocks of the Russian Revolution affected my life. (They have since led to the death of my brother.) I understand why someone argued against it, but my guide was the old saying ‘he who pays the music calls the tune’. As long as my book is samizdat, it is me who decides what goes in there or not. Should the book move out of samizdat, we’ll all dance to another tune.
Even though my Plevitskaya book is finished, I potter around the internet or read books which I had not discovered before. It is still staggering how much contradictory information is out there. That is quite normal for all matters where espionage plays a role, but it is still surprising to read: A soldier’s memoir from the Civil War says ‘Plevitskaya turned our beloved Skoblin’ and a music book says ‘Skoblin turned our beloved Plevitskaya’ – they mean turning Red (bolsheviki). In my book I develop the situations in a way that the reader can reconcile these contradictions. I was tempted to correct websites but did not do it. Contradictions add to the mystery and interest.
I have used information from what I believe are the more credible sources, and then created scenes and characters according to my experience in Russian performing circles as well as from stories of people I knew who had been near the places and times. Have I got it all right? My scholarly friend V. Filatov thinks so. He went over it with a fine toothcomb and found nothing that could be claimed as wrong.
This is it for the time being. I will now proceed to develop a movie pitch posting for speedreaders and compile my readers’ comments for upload.
Please write to me if you enjoyed reading this (artifex2ATbigpond.com). I always love to hear from readers of my book. We do not mail out songs, lyrics, or autograph cards, only my Plevitskaya books, CDs, or our recent concert video (pre-payment required).
Anybody is most welcome to use my scribe in the media or on the web, provided a reference to me and my Plevitskaya novel is included. If it is not, it constitutes breach of copyright.
(N.B. the website which still shows up in search engines users.bigpond.com/artifex2…etc has been deleted by the ISP. They only sell domains now).
The 2011 revision ($ 18.95 US) with American spelling contains some updates as new research has come to light. I have also taken into account friendly advice about some parts towards the end of the book which some people thought showed room for improvement.