Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy (Soho Teen). She has worked as a journalist for Reuters, NPR, and CNN, and as a communications consultant for UNICEF. She currently lives in Brooklyn, where she writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
What inspired you to write this book?
Elizabeth Kiem: I have been interested in Russia since I was a teenager. In other words, since the 1980s. At that time, the Cold War seemed to be on autopilot and few imagined a Russia that was not a predictable, if suspect, superpower foe.
But the Soviet Union surprised us. In the late ’80s it made a rapid and turbulent lurch from “stagnation” to “reform” to terminal collapse. By the time I got there, the Soviet Union was technically one month dead. My time in Russia was spent with Muscovites my own age. I experienced a pivotal moment in their coming of age, all the while reliving their youth vicariously, imagining a childhood that became almost as familiar as my own.
I wondered if I could translate that era for another generation even further removed from it. That’s what this book is — an attempt to capture Moscow at the end of an era. In it, Moscow is as important a character for me as Marina Dukovskaya.
What attracted you to studying and writing about Russia?
EK: I give that credit to Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was among the defecting dancers whose breathtaking beauty was matched by bravery. He made me want to be a dancer (and ultimately I did). But more than that — he made me want to be Russian. Or at least a persecuted artist. Clearly I was young and romantic, but not so dreamy as to really believe that I could in fact become a persecuted Russian. Instead, I pursued the tools that might at least let me in their company. I studied Russian language, literature, and history in college for two years and then set out to live there. I’ve been writing about why I did so ever since. But I still haven’t had a conversation with Misha Baryshnikov.
What advice would you give a young adult interested in writing?
EK.: Dismiss fear and banish expectations. Write exactly what and when you like. Don’t worry about completing anything, publishing anything, or even perfecting anything. Just let it flow. You can’t move out of your comfort zone until you find your comfort zone. You are young. You have all the time in the world. Find your voice. It’s like singing in the shower.
Did a particular teacher foster your interest in writing?
EK.: My eighth grade English teacher was Lynda Gray. She was as particular about grammar, syntax, and vocabulary as she was about understanding the themes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Scarlet Letter. She sat on a high stool in front of the class, elegant but stern. She had great legs and a wink. She drilled us on gerunds, as I recall. We had spelling tests. I probably enjoyed my Creative Writing class, with its free verse and geometric poem exercises, more. But without question, it was Ms. Gray’s structured curriculum that taught me that readers have higher expectations than many writers themselves. She remains my high bar. She wrote to me this morning to recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel.
The title of your debut has a very John le Carré ring to it. Are you a fan of Cold War thrillers? Any that you would recommend to YA readers?
EK: I’m a fan of espionage atmospherics. Whether it’s the interminable rain of interwar Paris, the starry skies of borderland Romania, or the shifty eyes of Warsaw’s tram-drivers — that nuanced intrigue of Inter-War Europe and, later the Iron Curtain’s stage, has leant itself to some killer writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a big reader of Cold War thrillers, or even spy novels more generally. It just means I have many of those titles in my list of “comfort books,” particularly Alan Furst and David Downing. I would recommend any of them to YA readers, since I was that age when I first read Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (admittedly for the sexy parts, not the spy parts). Right now, I’m reading Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, which features a young woman recruited by MI5 in 1970 and very consciously channels both Jane Austen and le Carré. Hello, teen readers!
Why do you think Young Adult fiction is so important?
EK.: I am a YA author by default, not by nature. Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy appealed to a YA editor and, well, voilà. To be honest, I believe that all fiction is important. YA fiction is important in that it makes a concerted effort to champion that importance to an audience already distracted by other activities, concerns, and questions they consider just as or more important. I think teenagers today are perhaps the most difficult audience to entrance. I have one of my own. So while I don’t believe that young readers need to have a unique and specific library, I heartily cheer the emergence of a robust canon of great novels written with them in mind.
Are you working on anything now?
EK.: I am. A sequel to Dancer, Daughter that stars Marina’s own daughter, a dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet in modern-day Moscow and New York.
If you were a bookseller, is there a book you would say YA readers just have to read? (Besides your own, of course!)
EK: The all-time best greatest espionage tale, Harriet the Spy.
There’s also one must-read for YA readers who also write: Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche. It’s a (fictional) anthology of (fictional) histories by a selection of (fictional) writers through different eras of one (fictional) island nation’s (fictional) history. As inventive as Cloud Atlas, but even more recognizable to high school students who are accustomed to uneven samplings as curriculum. Wildly clever and puzzling as well.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
EK: Agatha Christie, Ellen Raskin, Larry McMurtry. Talking about uppity old ladies you can’t help but love.
Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy by Elizabeth Keim (Soho Teen, Hardcover, 9781616952631) Publication date: August 13, 2013
Learn more about Elizabeth Kiem at dancerdaughter.com
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