WOLFHOUND CENTURY is set in an alternate Soviet Russia. What attracted you to this time period?
Russia is huge. Immense. The geography goes on forever. There’s an astonishingly rich Russian art and literature and music, and the history of Russia, both before and after the revolution, is dark and terrible and wonderful: the heights and the depths of what people are capable of doing. Russia’s impact on the rest of the world in the last hundred years has been immeasurable: the revolution, the war against Hitler, the global confrontation of the cold war. And for those of us who grew up before the end of the cold war, I think, the awareness of Russia as an inaccessible, threatening, mysterious ‘other place’ has gone very deep and still resonates.
Why did you decide on alternate history rather than using a real historical time period?
I’d call it alternate Russia, rather than alternate history. The world of WOLFHOUND CENTURY is a long way from our world in lots of ways. Different places, different people. The story opens in a small town. In one direction there’s a vast continent: a totalitarian police state at war; cities of bureaucrats, intellectuals and anarchists; marching crowds, propaganda posters, radio, cinema. And in the other direction, there’s an endless dark forest, and strange, wild things are coming out of it. This is the world of WOLFHOUND CENTURY. The historical Soviet Union and the real Stalin are there, as a kind of undercurrent that reaches the surface from time to time. You don’t need to know Russian history to read the book.
Lom is an iconic character: the police investigator who is so above-board that his colleagues resent him, and he eventually attracts dangerous attention from on high. How did his personality and moral outlook evolve?
Lom grew up in an institution in the provinces, without a family, so he was always going to end up working for the state. The fact that it turned out to be the police rather than something else is an accident of circumstance. He’s not a straight-arrow type, quite the opposite: he’s direct and impulsive, and he has an absolute internal moral compass. If he sees someone being bullied he’ll wade in, even if it’s not safe or politic for him personally to do that. But he doesn’t question the fundamentals of the regime: he’s never really known anything outside it.
Then, when he’s sent to Mirgorod, he encounters people living outside the boundaries of the state – artists and revolutionaries – and he confronts the violence and cruelty that keep the regime in place. He meets a woman – Maroussia Shaumian – who lives in a bleak apartment and works in a factory making uniforms and wants to change the world. It’s about opening up, seeing things in bigger ways, becoming aware that taking human risks is a lot more rich and wonderful than being a tool of the state. And it’s about the call to adventure.
Is “Mirgorod”, the capital to which Lom travels, based on a real place?
Mirgorod inhabits the gaps between St Petersburg and Leningrad, between soft city and hard city.
The sense of St Petersburg as a soft, shifting, unreal city has been present in Russian literature for centuries. I recently came across a passage in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus that captures the essence of this St Petersburg perfectly:
Russia is a sphinx; St Petersburg, the beautiful smile of her face. Petersburg: loveliest of all hallucinations, the shimmering mirage in the Northern wilderness glimpsed for a breathless second between black forest and the frozen sea.
But there’s also another city, Petrograd or Leningrad, which is really hard: a city of hunger and revolution. Politics and assassination and war. The dispossession of the aristocrats and violent struggles between different versions of the future. And these different cities are the same city. They coexist. They resist each other.
This struggle between different cities in the same place and time is at the heart of WOLFHOUND CENTURY. Mirgorod is a huge, sprawling metropolis out on the north-western shore of Russian-ness, on the marshy, shifting estuary of a broad river. It’s St Petersburg (or Petrograd, or Leningrad, if you will) and it’s also Berlin and Prague and Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s, and has shadows of any number of other old, unfathomable, labyrinthine cities in stories. In Mirgorod there are rusalkas and golems (of a kind) and sentient rain.
As it happens, there really is a place called Mirgorod. It’s in Ukraine. Nikolai Gogol published a book of stories called Mirgorod in 1835. But I just took the name.
WOLFHOUND CENTURY is your first novel. Have you been writing fiction all your life?
I came to writing slowly. I was always a reader. I navigate towns and cities by bookshops and cafés. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by books. All kinds of books. Anything I could find. Thrillers, fantasy, SF, Victorian novels, the Greek and Roman classics, folktales, comic books, history, biography, science. Absolutely everything. I’ve never felt anything was off limits. It’s all part of one big wonderful book. I studied literature, I researched and taught it for some years. But it took me a while to realize I was going to write.
I began by writing short stories for magazines, but I wanted to write something that built a large, vivid world, with characters that grew and developed, and that would also work as a tense thriller, an investigation, a race against time. Only a novel could make the space to do all that.