A Few Quick Questions With…F J Curlew

I appreciate Curlew taking the time to do this Q&A, I hope you enjoy it and she says something to tempt you to give her work a try. I didn’t ask her everything I wanted to, because it would’ve spoiled things for the rest of you (and, frankly, I need the mystery).

Tell us about your road to publication — was your plan/dream always to become a novelist and your education/other jobs were just to get you to this point, or was this a later-in-life desire?
                     I would love to be able to say that I had always dreamed of being a writer, but no. I was a primary school teacher who had barely enough energy to read at the end of the day, let alone write! I got sick, could no longer work, but was determined not to allow that to take over my life. I decided to study creative writing at the Open University, predominantly to keep my brain active. I found out that I was quite good at it and completed the standard and advanced courses with distinctions. I haven’t stopped since. Not only has writing given me a purpose, I also absolutely love it. Whatever else is going on in my life my stories can take me away to places of my imagination. How fantastic is that? I can’t not write!
I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But out of all the ideas floating around in your head, why’d you latch onto this one — what was it about these characters, this idea that drove you to commit months/years to it?
                     I lived in Ukraine for four years and was left with so many stories, feelings, experiences. To say the country touched me would be an understatement. I used what I had seen and heard to write some short stories for my OU coursework.They were well received and I knew there was more to come. A novel was scratching away at me. In Kyiv I had met, and spent time with, quite a few street-kids. Two of them have haunted me ever since – the two who would become Sasha and Alyona in the story. Their lives were…awful, and yet they had this innocence and grace to them. I placed them in a feasable scenario around which I could write a thriller and sprinkled them with a little bit of magic because I felt they deserved it. I hope my story has done them justice.
The Holodomor provides a lot of background to one of the stories here. As I told you before, this is the second book I’ve read this year influenced by that. You have a character say why we don’t know much about it in the West – could you tell us a little more about our lack of awareness about it, and why it captured your attention?
                     The Holodomor was something that Stalin wouldn’t show to the West, or own up to. It didn’t happen. It was all lies. And that carried on through the subsequent Soviet years. Anti-soviet propoganda would result in a stint in the gulags or death. Best to keep quiet. Despite having lived there I hadn’t heard of it myself. It wasn’t until I was researching more about the lives of Ukrainian street-kids on You-tube that I came across the Holodomor. I was horrified. My social conscience is strong and I am politically motivated. Of course I had to use it! It wasn’t until 2006 that the Ukrainian parliament recognised the Holodomor as a deliberate act of genocide. There is now a Holodomor monument in Kyiv.
What kinds of research went into the construction of this concept and the world? What was the thing you came across in your research that you loved, but just couldn’t figure out how to use? (assuming there was one)
                     A good deal of the events are actually based on things that I had first hand experience of, or stories I had been told. Of course there was also a hefty amount of research done. I read accounts of the Holodomor, Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book “McMafia” helped greatly with facts about the Mafia, and I spent hours trolling through videos and news clips about all things Ukrainian. I read Shevchenko and listened to Yarmak (Ukrainian rap) to get me in Ukrainian mode. There actually wasn’t anything I came across and loved that I couldn’t use, except perhaps a horse-riding, sword-yielding Cossack!
(yeah, that’d have been hard to fit in)

Who are some of your major influences? (whether or not you think those influences can be seen in your work — you know they’re there)

                     Andrei Makine, Leif Davidsen, Sofi Oksanen. Of course there are many others, but for Eastern European stories, definitely them!
One of the things I appreciated most about the cast of characters was Maggie. Most books like this would have Nadia befriend a fun-loving local woman, instead, you provide her an Austrialian friend. Can you tell us anything about that choice (or anything else you want ot say about Maggie)?
                     Ah, Maggie! I hadn’t factored her into the story at all to begin with. Planning isn’t something I do very much of as I prefer my stories to unfold as I write; my characters to lead the way. Maggie popped up and said, “Hey! Over here! Write me!” She was a lot of fun to work with. A wise woman who lives life to the fullest and offers her own unique perspective on everything from men to politics. I think it was important for Nadia to be able to have that in this story. A friend, a confidante, an opposite. Someone to guide her strength to the surface. The expat in her becomes a core element of the story. A local wouldn’t have had the same impact.
What’s next for F. J. Curlew?
                     I seem to be working my way through the countries I have lived in! I am currently writing a novel involving Estonia’s journey from Independence to Soviet occupation and back to independence again. It’s quite a challenge because Estonia is important to me. I lived there for seven years and I love the wee place. I want, no need, to do it justice. Suffice to say hefty amounts of research are being done. My central characters are an old lady and a young drug addict. That’s all I can say for now!
Thanks for your time—and thanks for Don’t Get Involved, I enjoyed it, and hope you have plenty of success with it.

My thanks to F J Curlew for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including the book) provided for it.

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