August 23, 2011 by markstani
AD Miller’s gripping first novel, Snowdrops, set amid modern Moscow’s grimy, crime-infested underbelly, is longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Golden Dagger. Scroll down for my review. Here is an exclusive Q&A with the author.
1 Congratulations on your ever-growing list of short- and long-listings. The Gold Dagger is the latest. My guess is you didn’t sit down with the intention of writing a piece of overtly crime fiction?
Thank you, and you’re right. I started with the image of the snowdrop—which I thought told you something about the harshness of life in Russia, but could also stand for other, psychological habits—plus the voice of the narrator. I wasn’t thinking in genre. But of course there are crimes in the novel. In fact, the kind it revolves around is in some ways the quintessential post-Soviet Russian crime. I can’t say why without spoiling the story. I am thrilled about the Gold Dagger shortlist.
2 Nor is it is bad to have your first novel longlisted for the Booker Prize. Where were you when you heard, and how did you react?
I was at work. I looked at the press release on my computer screen and thought I might be hallucinating. (We have a four-month-old baby, and I am suffering from advanced sleep deprivation.) I knocked off early to celebrate. Really, I was stunned.
3 I’m not suggesting you might have played a prominent role in knocking off any babushkas, but to what extent is the story – in particular the temptations – borne out of your personal experience of Moscow?
When I did some interviews for the book in France, the journalists all wanted to ask me about my sex life in Russia, on the basis that Snowdrops was surely more or less straight autobiography. As you say, it isn’t. I wasn’t involved in any grand larceny or murders. I lived in Moscow with my wife.
Having said that, there is a lot in Snowdrops that is drawn from personal observation, if not direct experience. I would stress, though, that this book is not an encyclopaedia of modern Russia: it’s a first-person vision of Moscow through the eyes of the narrator. He is drawn from personal observation, too. He’s drifting, self-deluding, lonely, suggestible. I think many of us know somebody like Nick Platt.
4 The novel takes the form of a confessional from Nick, the narrator, to what we assume is his future wife; it struck me as a clever way of invoking sympathy for a broadly unappealing character. Was that part of your original idea, or a narrative conceit you adopted once the writing process was already underway?
I think that with a first-person narrative it’s useful to have an implied interlocutor and I wanted to have one from the beginning. My idea in this case was for the relationship implied in the framing device to reflect and reinforce the themes and mood of the Moscow narrative.
I tried to disorient the reader in various ways. This might seem like a story about scheming Russians and naïve westerners, but it turns out (I hope) to be more morally complicated than that. Similarly, the story is presented as a confession, but the reader might begin to wonder how guilty Nick really feels about the deeds in which he’s been complicit, and whether he fully understands their gravity. They might also ask whether Nick’s feelings towards his fiancée and impending marriage are more complicated than they seemed at the beginning. Perhaps that marriage isn’t impending after all.
5 If your future self had sat down to write this book in, say, five or ten years’ time, how do you expect it would be different? Will Moscow have changed for the better or the worse?
I think the things that don’t change in Russia are as striking as the things that do. I’m sorry to say that it will probably still be a place where power matters more than law, corruption is a way of life and the weak and badly connected get trampled.
6 Do you want to go back?
I’ve been back a couple of times since we left, and will definitely do so again. There are lots of things about Russia that are enticing and exhilarating, as, amid the darkness, I hope my book makes clear. And we have friends there who it would be good to see again in their natural habitat.
7 What are you working on next, and what have you read recently that might inspire you?
I’d like to write another novel soon, but so far all I have really done is eliminate bad ideas rather than fixing on a new, good one. I’d like to write about the nastier aspects of male friendship. The last three books I’ve read are The Brothers Karamazov, The Stranger’s Child and Submergence, a wonderful, strange novel by a friend of mine called J.M. Ledgard (not all my friends go by their initials).
8 Do you know where I can get one of Kalashnikov-shaped vodka bottles?
I know a man who knows a man. I’ll put you in touch.