Interview with Susana Aikin, historical novelist and filmmaker

Susana Aikin is a historical novelist and Emmy-Award-winning filmmaker. Today, she kindly took some time out of her busy schedule to tell me how she went about researching and writing We Shall See The Sky Sparkling, which was awarded the 2019 American Fiction Award for Best Historical Fiction.

Susana’s directorial eye is much in evidence in this sweeping saga. Her attention to period detail transports the reader on a filmic journey that is both astonishing and tragic. We Shall See the Sky Sparkling is a powerful meditation on the sacrifices women have made in pursuit of their dreams, sadly, as relevant in the early 21st century as a hundred years ago.

Book cover for We Shall See the Sky Sparkling by Susana Aikin. Shows a beautiful brunette woman in a purple Victorian dress, wearing an ornate hat decorated with a purple ostrich feather.
We Shall See The Sky Sparkling by Susana Aikin

The title of your book is fascinating – it’s unusual and evocative. Can you tell me a little more about how you came to choose it and how it resonates with the novel and your protagonist?

This is an interesting question—actually, the novel had a different title originally that Kensington’s editor, John Scognamiglio, didn’t think was the best fit, and so he asked me to propose others. We Shall See the Sky Sparkling was one of my alternative propositions—it is part of a quote from Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya, where towards the end of Act IV, Sonya consoles her uncle’s despair with the following words, “We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.” It’s meaning—you might suffer in this life, but will reap its benefits in the beyond—sort of resonated with Lily’s life, where she strives so hard to pursue her passion that we feel her goals must be reached at some point, even somewhere over and above her short life span.

Although We Shall See the Sky Sparkling is a historical novel, some of its themes are unfortunately still very current. In particular, I was struck by the similarities between Lily’s experiences and the #metoo movement. How did it feel to find your novel suddenly part of this awful Zeitgeist?

It definitively felt strange to find myself in the middle of the #metoo movement at the time of the novel’s publication, since I had written the story before the first Harvey Weinstein scandal hit the mainstream. In male literature a woman who has undergone this type of situation is mostly always portrayed either as a victim or as someone who probably deserved it. I wanted to flesh out a character who is neither, and who is capable of carrying on with her life and her ambition with fierce dignity in the aftermath of such scarring.

The #metoo movement has resulted in a painful awareness for women that this sort of abuse has always been going on. The fact that this sexual predatory phenomenon is still today so hard to control also speaks of the difficulties women might always have in pursuing careers and artistic goals. It is therefore best that all women be aware of this, and that we understand how important it is to support each other.

You grew up in the shadow of quite a thrilling ancestor. Writing about real people can be challenging, and I wonder how much more challenging it is when they’re part of your family. What did you do to gain the necessary writerly distance from Lily so you could tell her story? And how did it make you feel unearthing the terrible experiences she had and then reliving them?

Actually, the first thing I had to do was step back from the prejudices and biased opinions of my family members, so a more ‘authentic’ Lily could form in my mind before I could write about her. Then, as I got more and more engrossed in the novel, I began to feel that ‘someone’ was actually informing me about her story, and that that someone might be her, since I started writing sequences I had never planned in the beginning, or even imagined about my ancestress’ life. And these sequences felt very definite, and flowed out naturally, one after another, first as images forming in my mind, that later translated themselves into scenes on the page. It was weird but fascinating—sometimes I mused about whether I was pulling information out of my family’s collective unconsciousness, or even from my own DNA.

By any yardstick, and in any period, Lily was an astonishing and brave woman. What impact did she have on you growing up, and how much of her has rubbed off on you?

This is hard to calibrate. Our family was quite conservative, and the women, although intelligent and opinionated, tended to conform to the norm, so an ancestress like Lily belonged to semi-hidden, dark, cautionary-tale material of family lore. But I remember that when I first heard about her—I must have been 11 or 12 years old—and her journey to Russia, I immediately thought, ‘Yes, Russia! That’s where I would have gone too.’ So my first experience of her was identifying with her geographical choice, although I ended up going to a very different country later myself. Then, as my life unraveled around artistic career choices and risk taking, I frequently thought of her, and of the ‘reckless streak’ I might have inherited from her—hoping too that I wouldn’t end like her, dying so young and having lost so much. Now looking back on my life, I see clearly that my restlessness and dreaming big might have come from her, and that the idea of having her in my blood possibly emboldened my life choices.

We Shall See the Sky Sparkling is something of an epistolary novel. Archives, and particularly family archives, often have frustrating gaps in correspondence, and they can often be one-sided. How did you go about bridging any such research gaps?

The family had very little written material related to Lily—just about 4 or 5 short letters. The rest was hearsay from older family members closer to her generation. Much speculation went on among the women of the family about her life and her adventures, though. In those conversations our collective imagination never ceased to feed the legend. There was also a bunch of documents that had been unearthed by an uncle and one of my cousins: birth and death certificates, evidence of the request for a passport, things like that. Then there were the pictures of her as a younger daughter, or as an actress onstage, and later, dressed to the nines in a St Petersburg photo studio. Strangely, when you put all these things together, there is a magical conjuring of the person, and for a moment you feel you fully intuit their story and their essence. All you have to do is grab on to that feeling and never let go of it until you’re finished writing.

Writing about women in historical novels can be fraught with difficulty. There’s a temptation, and often pressure, to remould female protagonists so they behave in ways more in tune with 21st century women. Was this something that came up for you and how did you deal with it?

Yes, there was, particularly in scenes of unfairness or abuse. Colleagues, mentors and friends who were following the writing felt often angry and desperate when Lily’s life came to difficult moments and she didn’t react the way people think modern women should. It was interesting to see that men, in particular, were many times more upset than women about this. It took me a while to realize that people react this way because we as a culture have only recently begun to see certain scenes and circumstances from women’s angles, and that it is not easy to experience abuse from the point of view of the abused—in fact, it can be quite painful. But I stuck to my guns, because I knew that in the case of Lily’s story, showing the rigid rules and constriction of the age, and the difficulties an independence-seeking woman had navigating through them, was not just an essential part of the story, but a statement in itself.

Sid Smith, the author of Something Like a House, which is set in China, never went there and argues that the only ticket needed for research purposes is a library ticket. Can you tell me about your approach to researching the different locations in your novel?

I wouldn’t even say a library ticket these days, but just a computer with internet. I am not sure I would have even dreamt of writing this novel without Google. Google text, google images, google maps, google translate, google earth… Plus, of course, Pinterest, Wikipedia, and the zillion awesome information portals the internet holds. Having said that, I will add that the amount of research on all level of materials I had to do for this novel consumed me for three years. I lived with a humongous map of Russia and Siberia spread over my kitchen wall—the kitchen being my writing place at the time—and an enormous magnifying glass. I scoured with it daily in search of endless Trans-Siberian railway stops, the location of remote towns, of fabulous lakes and rivers, of old czarist prison camps, mining villages… I had to know everything about Siberia, about St Petersburg, Vladivostok. I felt more comfortable with the London locations, of course, although I also did extensive research on the theater districts of the time, both in West and East London. I can say I’ve never travelled to more fantastic places than in those three years—without stepping away from my kitchen.

As a filmmaker, your directorial eye is very much in evidence—from the wide pans of vast landscapes to zooming in on the fine details of a period library. How much of this was conscious? And how much do you think your film background brings to your writing?

My filmmaking was also about telling stories. Stories that are important, moving, that can shift the viewer. Writing, although being a different medium, also shares the same objective. But my filmmaking made me fall in love with images, colors, textures, shafts of changing light, sweeping camera moves, all-revealing, clipped dialogues. And all this I have felt a need to bring into my writing. Every time I start writing a scene, I find myself approaching it like a film director—What angle am I seeing it from? What are the textures and the colors in the room, or out of the window? How does the light fall on the subjects? How do we perceive the changes in the protagonist’s eyes when flooded with emotion? It comes naturally to me, although it is sometimes not easy to translate. I hope that as my writing develops, I’ll be able to get better at it.

Can you tell me about your films, The Salt Mines and The Transformation, and the accompanying book, Digging Up the Salt Mines, and also what you’re working on currently?

The Salt Mines and The Transformation are two of my best-known films (documentaries, actually) and Digging up the Salt Mines was my first book—self-published—where I wrote a memoir about making a documentary with a community of transgender people living in garbage trucks by New York’s Hudson River at the end of the 1980s. Making this film was a life-changing experience for me, and I really wanted to capture the memories of that experience in writing. This memoir then led me to fiction.

Cover of Digging Up The Salt Mines: A Film Memoir

Now I’m writing another historical novel, Ella’s War, about an American woman who joins the International Brigades as a driver in the Spanish Civil War ( 1936–39.) The novel is sort of a coming-of-age-in-a-war-zone story, with the protagonist being a rich, bratty girl who joins in to spite her high-handed military father, and ends up soaking up the reality of a bitter, devastating war that became a precursor to World War II.

Finally, can you tell me what your favourite three books are, and why?

OH-MY-GOD, this is the hardest question!! I couldn’t possibly choose from my endless list, but I’ll throw in the first three that come to mind at this moment—The Alexandria Quarter, by Lawrence Durrell, for its exotic settings and its beautiful poetics; Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin, for its fierce and heart-breaking honesty; The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for its passionate ethical debates and its raw characters.

And finally, thank you again, Helen, for this opportunity!

About the book: We Shall See The Sky Sparkling

Set in London and Russia at the turn of the century, Susana Aikin’s debut introduces a vibrant young woman determined to defy convention and shape an extraordinary future.

Like other well-bred young women in Edwardian England, Lily Throop is expected to think of little beyond marriage and motherhood. Passionate about the stage, Lily has very different ambitions. To her father’s dismay, she secures an apprenticeship at London’s famous Imperial Theatre. Soon, her talent and beauty bring coveted roles and devoted admirers. Yet to most of society, the line between actress and harlot is whisper-thin. With her reputation threatened by her mentor’s vicious betrayal, Lily flees to St. Petersburg with an acting troupe—leaving her first love behind.

Life in Russia is as exhilarating as it is difficult. The streets rumble with talk of revolution, and Lily is drawn into an affair with Sergei, a Count with fervent revolutionary ideals. Following Sergei when he is banished to Vladivostok, Lily struggles to find her role in an increasingly dangerous world. And as Russian tensions with Japan erupt into war, only fortitude and single-mindedness can steer her to freedom and safety at last.

With its sweeping backdrop and evocative details, We Shall See the Sky Sparkling explores a fascinating period in history through the eyes of a strong-willed, singular heroine, in a moving story of love and resilience.

More information and details of stockists from the publisher, Kensington.

About the author: Susana Aikin

Photo showing Susana Aikin, wearing an open denim shirt, with a black vest and trousers. Her hair is long and brown and she has a friendly smile.
Susana Aikin, Author of We Shall See The Sky Sparkling

Born in Spain of an English father and a Spanish mother, Susana Aikin is a writer and a filmmaker who has lived and worked in New York City since 1982. She was educated in both England and Spain; studied law at the University of Madrid, and later Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. In 1986 she started her own independent film production company, Starfish Productions, producing and directing documentary films that won her multiple awards, including an American Film Institute grant, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and an Emmy Award in 1997. She started writing fiction full time in 2010. She has two sons and now lives between Brooklyn and the mountains north of Madrid.

Photo Credit: Luis Malibran

You can find more information about Susana and her work on her website.

Connect with Susana

Twitter: @Susana_Aikin

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/susanaaikin/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/susanaaikinauthor/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7098521.Susana_Aikin

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