I’m pleased to bring a fellow historical fiction author to the interview hotseat this morning. Join me in welcoming author Lisa Williams! Let’s look at her bio and then find out more about what inspired her to write her recent book.
L. Bordetsky-Williams (aka Lisa Williams) is the author of Forget Russia, published by Tailwinds Press, December 2020. Forget Russia is an Editors’ Choice Book of the Historical Novels Review.She has also publishedthe memoir, Letters to Virginia Woolf, The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, and three poetry chapbooks. She is a Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey and lives in New York City.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Lisa: My novel, Forget Russia, is based on my own family history. I wanted to understand the lives of my ancestors and how their lives intersected and influenced my own. My great-grandmother was raped and murdered in a pogrom in a small Ukrainian shtetl by Cossacks shortly after the Civil War between the Red and White armies ended. When the Red army finally was able to take over the Ukraine from the White and Ukrainian Nationalists, the retreating and defeated armies went into the Jewish shtetls and killed many Jews, who they equated with the Bolsheviks. I wanted to understand how this initial trauma affected the subsequent generations of women in the family. My grandmother came to America in 1921 after losing her mother in such a tragic and violent way. She settled in Roxbury, where her father, who had deserted the family years ago now lived with a new wife and children. It is not surprising that shortly after arriving, at the age of seventeen, she married a man approximately eighteen years her senior.
Then, in 1931, she and my grandfather actually returned to the Soviet Union with my mother and aunt, ages five and three. My grandfather, a carpenter, had come to America before the Revolution and had radicalized here. Life became incredibly difficult here during the Depression. It had always been a dream of his to return to the Soviet Union, the land of his birth, and build the revolution. While much has been written about Jewish Eastern European immigrants coming to this country, the experience of those American Russian Jews who returned to the Soviet Union to build the revolution in the early 30’s has been relatively unexamined.
In 1980, I was a Russian language student in Moscow at the Pushkin Institute. When I was there, I had the opportunity to meet the Soviet Jewish grandchildren of the Bolsheviks. Many of their ancestors had been imprisoned, killed, or exiled to labor camps by Stalin. It was heartbreaking to see how their ancestors’ dreams for a better, more equal society had been betrayed during Stalin’s purges. I also, for the first time, saw first-hand, how anti-semitic Soviet society was. On Rosh Hashanah Eve, we went to the only functioning synagogue in Moscow, and a car dashed across the cobble-stoned streets in an effort to intimidate and frighten the Jews gathered there.
My trip as a student to the Soviet Union truly changed my life. I spent three and a half months there, and from the moment I returned, I struggled to find the right form to express the ways that journey changed me. Finally, I realized the novel form would give me the freedom to intertwine the three generations’ stories. I also wanted to weave in a love story with an epic, historical setting, so the novel was the best form for that as well.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Lisa: My character Iosif, a young Soviet Jew, has a photograph of Leo Tolstoy hanging in his room. He is a true intellectual within a distinctly Russian and Soviet context. While he hates the absence of freedoms in his own country, he sees America as a sick and decadent place and imagines Americans only talk about business. For him, America is soul-less in its materialism, and yet the Soviet Union is as he calls it a nightmare where nothing works, and everyone worries that life will get even worse after Brezhnev dies.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Lisa: I did a tremendous amount of research for my novel, Forget Russia, over a number of years. I read accounts of Americans, some of them originally Russian Jews, who went to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. They were heartbreaking accounts of Americans who couldn’t leave the Soviet Union once the purges reached a peak in 1936. Many were imprisoned. I had the opportunity to interview a few Americans who went to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and managed to return to this country. I researched the 1930’s and the living conditions in Leningrad. I also read a tremendous amount about the Ukraine during the Civil War following the Russian Revolution. It was a very unstable place then, and when the White army finally lost control of the Ukraine, as they retreated, they entered the shtetls and murdered many Jews in widescale pogroms.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Lisa: I wrote about 30 or more drafts of the novel over a period of 20 years.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Lisa: I drink a lot of English Breakfast Tea and like to take long walks in Central Park since I live in NYC.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Lisa: I tend to over use the adverbs quickly and slowly.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Lisa: I look up to Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Marilynne Robinson.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Lisa: I tend to write at my desk that is part of my bedroom that also functions as a type of study.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Lisa: I work as Professor of Literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and I really love teaching!
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Lisa: In Forget Russia, I have woven together the stories of 3 generations of Russian Jews journeying back and forth from Russia to the United States over the course of the 20th Century. Forget Russia is a tale of love, revolution, and betrayal. It is epic and historical in its scope. I am proud of that. In fact, the Historical Novel Society chose it as an Editors’ Choice Book.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Lisa: When she was alive, I had a few opportunities to speak with Toni Morrison, and she deeply encouraged me to write. I’d love the opportunity to once more sit down to speak with her.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
Lisa: For me, success means being able to make people understand the suffering and longing of others through my writing. I then hope to inspire my readers to unite and take an active stance against all hate crimes wherever and whenever they have taken place. I also want to highlight the courage, struggles, and importance of the immigrant experience.
Forget Russia is about three generations of Russian-American Jews journeying back and forth, throughout the twentieth century, between America and Russia, searching for some kind of home and, of course, finding something altogether different. It is a tale of love, murder, abandonment, and betrayal. In 1980, Anna, an American college student journeys to the Soviet Union to confront her family’s past. As Anna dodges date rapists, KGB agents, and smooth-talking marketeers while navigating an alien culture for the first time, she must come to terms with the aspects of the past that haunt her own life. With its insight into the everyday rhythms of an almost forgotten way of life behind Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, Forget Russia is a disquieting multi-generational epic about coming of age, forgotten history, and the loss of innocence in all of its forms.
This sounds like a very powerful story and one worth reading to gain a better or deeper understanding of what was happening. Thanks for sharing, Lisa!
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