What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
The extent to which you couldn’t make this up. I did this enormous amount of research, and I kept thinking how genuinely strange, as well as everything else, the story was. There are points of low farce where it’s a little on the nose. The one I always return to is the Kornilov affair, the proto-fascist military revolt menacing St. Petersburg in August, and there’s this one extraordinary exchange between Lavr Kornilov and Alexander Kerensky. They’re talking at cross-purposes. They’re misunderstanding each other in a way where if you wrote it as a novel or play, the editor would send it back saying, “You can’t stretch the credibility this much.” There are points in the narrative where you just gape — the one telephone line in the Winter Palace that was still alive, the provisional government kind of huddling under the table to use it.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
I was disappointed that I didn’t have more on the art and fiction of the period — I wanted to make it substantial but not off-putting — and about one or two very extraordinary individuals. The first draft was much, much longer, as they tend to be. In winnowing it down to a narrative with its own propulsion, some of that had to go. I had to restrict myself to a few references and a few phrases here and there. That was one of the things I was agonized about.
Conversely, it might sound odd, because I was expecting it to be moving, but the process was more moving. I found myself moved by researching and then writing in a way that was different and felt even more urgent and kind of blooded than I expected it to. And I hope that comes across. Not that I expected it to be a bone-dry book, but I felt like the sense of urgency was even greater than I expected it to be.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
It could be many people, but someone who’s been looming very large to me for years now is the painter Toyen, who was extraordinarily transgressive about gender and refused to be pinned down in a certain structure of patriarchy. Toyen was instrumental in setting up the Czech surrealist group in 1934; shielded a partner during the Nazi occupation; and remained active at 70.
I always loved the Surrealists. Discovering them in my early teens was a very momentous experience for me. I have a particular love for drawing as opposed to painting, though I like painting, too. I find myself endlessly compelled by Toyen’s brutal dreamscapes in pen and ink.
Persuade someone to read “October” in less than 50 words.
The narrative of the Russian Revolution is as urgent and strange as that of any novel, and October is the key political event of the 20th century. We need its memory in these bleak, sadistic times. This is an attempt to tell the astonishing, inspiring story.
This interview, conducted by email, has been condensed and edited.