Author Annemarie O’Brien Joins Us to Talk About LARA’S GIFT
Today we welcome Annemarie O’Brien to RAoReading, to talk about her debut novel LARA’S GIFT. In this story set in Tsarist Russia, readers learn about a far different time from our own, and meet a strong-willed girl who is willing to fight to achieve her dream of becoming kennel steward, raising and training the magnificent Borzoi dogs., a job not necessarily open to girls during this period of history. It’s a a story of determination that will leave you wanting to know more. In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called it “Engrossing and powerful”.
How did you—an American—come to write a story set in early-twentieth-century Russia?
In 1984, I did my junior year abroad at Denmark’s International School (DIS) to study international business with a focus on East-West trade. At the time, I thought that meant business between Europe and Asia. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it meant business between Western and Eastern Europe!
Today things are very different, but back then Americans couldn’t travel so easily to countries like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Today’s Germany is one single country, but it once comprised two entities: a West Germany and an East Germany. And Russia used to be a republic within the former Soviet Union. Today it’s its own country. There were a lot of major changes going on in the world when I was in my most formative years. DIS was a stepping-stone into that world.
I became hooked on Russia when I took a Sovietology course at DIS that involved a one-week study tour to Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, once again). This experience challenged me more than anything else and nurtured the kind of personal growth that drew me forward, like a borzoi in pursuit of a hare. I learned so much about the world and myself through “the Russia behind the Iron Curtain” and knew this kind of growth was only the tip of the iceberg. So I decided to learn the Russian language and get an MBA in international business, with the goal of going back to do something meaningful. When I did, I was gifted a borzoi puppy named Dasha. Through her the seeds of Lara’s Gift were born.
What kind of research did you need to do in order to write Lara’s Gift?
While many details come from my own experience living and working in Russia in the 1980s and ’90s, I did do extensive research to incorporate rich sensory details into the setting of Lara’s Gift. The most useful books included Life on the Country Estate, written by Priscilla Roosevelt, and Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, written by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia. Another great source of information was a 1914 National Geographic magazine that featured Russia from cover to cover. The single best find was a book called Observations on Borzoi, written by Joseph B. Thomas, about his travels to Russia in the early 1900s, where he spent significant time on the Vorontsov estate, in search of the perfect borzoi. And lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the collective literature of Pushkin, Chekhov, and Tolstoy.
Traditions are extremely important to Lara in this story and yet she’s willing to challenge them to fulfill her calling as a kennel steward. Can you talk about this dichotomy?
When I learned that Smith College Russian language and literature professor Alexander Woronzoff-Dashkoff’s ancestors were the Vorontsovs who bred the famous Woronzova line of borzoi in Russia during the Imperial era, I asked him so many questions. Many of them he couldn’t answer because his great-great-great uncle Count Vorontsov only had daughters. He didn’t have a son to whom he could leave the Woronzova kennel to carry on the family tradition. So even though he passed the estate and kennel down to Praskovia, his daughter, it was her husband and their son who took over. It seemed so unfair to me when I heard this that I often wondered what it would have been like if his daughter had played a bigger role in the kennel. These wonderings led to the kind of “what-ifs” that inspired Lara’s story.
In many ways, while I didn’t realize it as I was writing Lara’s Gift, I see now that her story parallels my own. Like Lara’s father, my father had his own ideas about my future. He didn’t think I needed to go to college. He was raised at a time when women got married and were taken care of by their husbands. So I had to make a strong case to win him over. And when I asked him if I could do a junior year abroad in Denmark, well, that really pushed him to rethink his own belief system. He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the United States. It took some artful persuasion to gain his support to study in Copenhagen, but in no way was I allowed to take the Sovietology course and go to Russia! He worried about my safety there—and feared I might even be kidnapped! Thankfully, my father is open-minded enough and believes that everyone should pursue his own path in life. He eventually reneged on his position against me going to Russia.
The borzoi in Lara’s Gift are as fully developed as the human characters. What is your connection to these extraordinary dogs?
My connection to borzoi dates back to when I was given a puppy named Dasha in 1989 while I was working and living in Moscow. And what an eye-opener it was to live with a borzoi! They are as regal and elegant in manner as the Russian nobility who used to breed them, and as graceful as a prima ballerina.
I grew up with spaniels and retrievers and dreamed of becoming a veterinarian as a kid. So I thought I knew dogs. Dasha was like no other dog I’d ever experienced. The differences made such an impression on me that I suppose I couldn’t help but let them seep out in Lara’s Gift. It was important for me to “show a true borzoi on the page” and do justice to the breed.
The hunting scenes in this novel are particularly vibrant. Have you ever encountered a Russian wolf?
Only through pictures! The material I used to develop the hunting scenes comes primarily from three sources. If you’ve ever read War and Peace, written by Leo Tolstoy, you may recall a borzoi hunting scene. If you’re a fan of Alexander Pushkin, you may have read his poem “Count Nulin,” which offers a lovely description of a borzoi hunting scene and which introduces Lara’s Gift. The most important primary source comes from a translation of “The Perchino Hunt,” written by Dmitri Walzoff. All three sources date back to the Imperial era, and each writer approached the details from his own personal experience with borzoi. Literary fodder from writers like Tolstoy and Pushkin doesn’t get any better.
What are you working on now?
While I have a number of story ideas in my head and some jotted down in files, my focus at the moment is on two stories. The first one is set in Thailand and is in the final throes of revision. Without giving too much away (call me superstitious!), this story came to me in a dream that likely rooted itself in one of my biggest fears.
I am also currently in research mode for the companion story to Lara’s Gift. This story is set primarily in the Gorbachev era and draws heavily upon my own experience living and working in Russia at that time. Since my whole world revolved around Russia and all of its changes during the 1980s through the ’90s, I suspect this story will have a lot of heart, as well as come more easily to me.
You work a full-time job and are a mother of two children. How do you find time to write?
There never seems to be enough hours in the day to do all of the things I set out to do. Because I probably take on more than I should, I’ve actually become more efficient with the time I have, out of necessity.
Working full-time and being a participatory parent doesn’t leave me a lot of spare time. So I’m very conscious of the time I set aside to write and I do my best to be productive with it. I rarely ever experience writer’s block. I simply can’t afford it time-wise. When I sit down to write, I show up and produce. It may not be the kind of quality writing that’s publishable, but it’s generally something I can work with in revision.
I’m also a huge fan of scheduling my time. It keeps me focused and on task. If I have something written down in my calendar, it’s more likely to get done. Making lists is another tactic I use. I get a huge sense of gratification that pushes me toward the next goal whenever I cross something off of my list.
When my kids were little, I used to be able to write in my studio. Now that they’re older they don’t respect the boundaries I’ve tried to set up around that space nor have I done a good job enforcing them, no doubt from guilt. If I need to immerse myself into the world of my characters, I often have to leave home to do it. So I’ve mastered the art of writing anywhere: coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, airports, planes, and even in my car.
What drives me the most is my firm belief that if you want something badly enough, you’ll make time for it.
This is your debut novel. Have you found anything surprising about the publishing process?
When I was a kid, the publishing world seemed so far away from my grasp and almost otherworldly. So I’d have to say that the biggest surprise for me is actually how small this world is and how everyone seems to know everyone in it. And I’m always pleasantly surprised with how supportive the children’s publishing world is. Across the board, I’ve met countless good people in children’s publishing. You won’t find this in any other industry. It’s almost like we’re all drinking the same Kool-Aid!
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
My father used to tell me that I could do anything, if I put my mind to it.
So I grew up believing this.
He also told me to follow my heart, and happiness will follow.
So I grew up believing this, too.
And most importantly, he told me to never give up on my goals and to trust in myself.
This is the advice I now give to my daughters and hope they will give to their kids, too, because it’s never failed me.
It’s also the advice I’d give anyone, not just aspiring writers. And while it wasn’t my intention as I wrote Lara’s Gift, it just so happens to be its theme. Without my being conscious of it, my beliefs and way of living seeped through onto the page without me even realizing it until well after the copyediting process!
It’s a good message for anyone, especially kids, so I’m glad this little piece of me made it into the story. I hope it gives readers the courage to make the right choices for themselves and to live their life following their own passion.
If you want more information about Annemarie, her book or resources, click on these links:
Web page: http://annemarieobrienauthor.com
Book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whcIDqxCq9g
Many thanks to Annemarie O’Brien for joining us today and for this wonderful book.
Lara’s Gift is aviailable in your favorite bookstore or library now.
Thank you readers for joining us, too. Please share your thoughts in our comments section.