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Powell's Q&A

Simon Montefiore

Describe your latest project.
My latest book is a novel entitled Sashenka that spans three generations of women in a Jewish-Russian family. It is a story of love, death, betrayal, adultery, children, family, redemption, and the past, from the sumptuous wealth of Tsarist Petersburg via the elite of Stalin's Kremlin and continues to today's Moscow of oil-rich billionaires. The novel's heroine is Sashenka, herself a rich baron's daughter, who becomes a Bolshevik and then a member of Stalin's elite. She is also the mother of two adorable children, and a devoted wife who embarks on a wild affair that unleashes a disastrous series of events. Decades later, a Russian Oligarch hires a young female historian to research the archives and investigate the story of Sashenka. The historical elements in this novel are accurate, and the stories are based on true accounts, though the main characters are invented. Sashenka is a celebration of love and family, with great female characters that I myself came to love. As for material, I have drawn from my own experiences as a war correspondent in the Caucasus in the early '90s and 10 years worth of research I did in the Moscow archives. Since I am better known as the author of three history books about Russia, it was a fresh delight to write fiction, and something of a risk, and I adored writing it. Even better, it is now being translated into Russian, which is something of a vote of confidence.

  1. Sashenka
    $4.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Sashenka

    Simon Montefiore
    "[T]he tale is thick and complex, and the characters' lives take on a palpable urgency against a wonderfully realized backdrop." Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "As a tale of the Soviet dream turned nightmare, Sashenka is unforgettable, but its ambitions — and rewards — are even greater." Wall Street Journal

    "[An] intriguing portrait of the people who brought down the czars and went on to serve the Soviet state during Stalinism." New York Times


  2. Young Stalin (Vintage)
    $9.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Young Stalin (Vintage)

    Simon Se Montefiore
    "The most complete, accurate account of the tyrant's early years-a fascinating tale of life in the revolutionary underground, drenched in violence, fear and deceit, filled with a rogue's gallery of bandits, double-agents and terrorists." The Seattle Times

    "[A] gripping read....The book provides a wealth of serious and scurrilous detail, creating a memorable portrait of one of the 20th century's greatest monsters." The Telegraph


What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Scarlett O'Hara, because there would be never a dull moment, but the first rule would be: never marry her. I only like bad villainesses, so Becky Sharp would be fun. One of my favorites would have been the gorgeous, pleasure-loving but doomed courtesan in Zola's novel Nana.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I was once a gold miner in a small mining town in South Africa called Welkom. I've done many strange things, including making toilet seats in a factory and being a rather disastrous investment banker.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I think a tremendous writer that everyone should read is Isaac Babel and his short stories about the Russian Civil War called Red Cavalry. Also, Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, starting with his novel Palace Walk. He is the Arabic Tolstoy.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
Of course they are. Storytellers tell stories better than anyone. Writing fiction is all about making an invention into something so real that the reader cares about the characters.

How do you relax?
Walking and gardening with my children, and reading, of course. Also, I love sitting in cafes drinking coffee and wandering endlessly through bookshops.

How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
My mother loves books, and she is responsible for my love of reading. She often suggests lovely books, and it was she who gave me the stories of Guy de Maupassant, the greatest short story writer of all time, master of the twist in the tale. He wrote a great novel called Bel-Ami, which everyone should read, about the worlds of finance, journalism, and sex in 19th-century Paris.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes, many. I was in Cuba and went to see Ernest Hemingway's home there — I adore his writing. I was in St. Petersburg and visited Pushkin's apartment. He is the ultimate literary hero and genius.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.

I love novels that tell the stories of families with great intimacy over many years. My own Sashenka, I hope, is a tribute to these great masterpieces. Here are my "Favorite Family Novels," some of which are series of novels.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

The Comedie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac

÷ ÷ ÷

Simon Sebag Montefiore is a historian of Russia and author of Potemkin: Catherine the Great's Imperial Partner; Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar; and the bestselling Young Stalin, awarded the 2007 Costa Biography Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography. Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Montefiore lives in London with his wife, the novelist Santa Montefiore, and their two children.

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