Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Q&A with Talia Carner

Talia Carner, author of Hotel Moscow, is here today to answer my questions about her experiences escaping from Moscow in 1993 during an uprising of the parliament, her advocacy for those who need help and her writing. It was the 1993 uprising that inspired the events in Hotel Moscow. 

The book features a protagonist named Brooke Fielding who is an investment manager in New York. She goes to Russia to help teach entrepreneurial skills to Russian business women and while she's there the uprising turns Moscow into a war zone. Promoting capitalism in a country where many hate it is the least of her problems as an incident in her past puts her in danger. 

Why did you decide to write HOTEL MOSCOW when you did? Was there a recent event that drew you back to your experiences in the past?

My escape from Russia in October 1993 launched my fiction writing career. My first attempt was a manuscript set in Russia and that celebrated both the difficult lives of Russian’s and their valor. Unfortunately, the agent who represented that novel retired, leaving the manuscript orphaned. By then I was deep into writing my next novel and had the seeds for the next one. Twenty years later, while on a book tour for my novel JERUSALEM MAIDEN, I was developing a character of a young woman living in New York, a daughter of Holocaust survivors. Brooke Fielding searched for a deeper meaning of her Jewish identity, one unrelated to the Holocaust. I wanted her to confront anti-Semitism so she could examine her worldview and perhaps find answers to questions I was asking, too.

In searching for a situation where anti-Semitism would force Brooke to confront her legacy and identity, it occurred to me that if I sent her to Russia, a very interesting story would emerge. I was curious to follow her on that journey of discovery.

I had done an enormous amount of research about Russia after the fall of communism. I had documented the background of time and place in detail. And I had a trove of my own personal experiences that I had never written about. In fact, not only have I never been a character in my own novels, but I had never borrowed from my own life. In this case, in 1993 I had been caught in the uprising of the Russian Parliament against then-president Boris Yeltsin, was on the run from the militia, and was threatened with jail. The American Embassy whisked me out of the country. The scene where Brooke is playing Scrabble and eighteen Kalashnikovs surrounded her—it happened to me. Since I had served in the Israeli Army, I knew my Kalashnikovs. This was a highly unsafe situation, and I had good reason to flee. But in the Soviet tradition I was accused of running away because I “had something to hide.”

  The other element of the novel based upon my experience was the business skills workshops that Brooke gives Russian women who run their cooperatives. With the perspective of time I was able to reflect back upon the interesting discussions I’ve had that exposed the great divide between our cultures. It was fascinating to place Brooke in those situations and watch her respond to them.

Did you go back to Russia to research the book? If so, what was it like to revisit? 

Russia has changed in many ways, although in many others it has not changed enough—or at all. For example, when I visited in 1993, there were no street-front stores or restaurants; they were hidden in basements or at the top of flights of steps. One needed to know—sort of inside information—where to find them. Since the novel is set during one week in October 1993 and all my research had been done in personal interviews and academic lectures in 1994, there was no need to explore Russia in recent years. 

You've supported many causes with your writing over the years. How has novelizing events helped you draw attention to these situations? 

A novel, unlike a journalistic report or an academic study, takes a reader deep inside the world the protagonist lives in or explores. Its main tool is emotional. An author must loop the reader into the story in the first paragraph and the first page, then continue the emotional roller-coaster with highs and lows, but always with the tension ratcheted upward until an “aha” moment. The reader becomes involved with the subject and perhaps, for the first time, feels it from within, understands those who live in those situations, and often is drawn to taking action.

What accomplishment are you the most proud of - writing or otherwise?

My first career, a combination of advertising, marketing and magazine publishing, was filled with high points, too numerous to list here. But what comes to mind now is the sense of victory I felt when, due to my exposing a major fault in the way the US government classified husband-wife business ownerships as man-owned, the White House assigned an oversight committee to reexamine the existing data. It forced the Office of Statistics to change its classification of such businesses, and the result was that hundreds of thousands small companies that were run at least equally by wives, were now entitled to compete for contracts that favored minorities and women.

Another huge moment in my life was in March 2007, when I was at the UN, presenting my findings on gendercide in China—the singling out of baby girls for death, which was the background for my novel CHINA DOLL. This was the first time in UN history that the topic was presented. That presentation is still available on my website.

What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your novels?

How do you describe the richness found inside yourself? Or connecting with people on levels I had not known was possible? Or learning to listen with heightened awareness? 

Also, I come from a long line of extremely capable women who--either due to society norms or to their own internalization of such norms and expectations—did not reach their full potential. Even those that became successful had been held back from reaching the levels they could have reached had they been genuinely free. It is true for me too, as in my previous career I battled a man’s world. As a novelist, I’ve finally unshackled myself. 

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