Interview with Ariel Lawhon

Posted by Goodreads on February 26, 2018
Ariel Lawhon's historical fiction novels dig into the mysteries behind real-life times, events, and places that may be familiar to us but whose full stories we can never really know. In Flight of Dreams, she reimagined the Hindenburg disaster through the interwoven stories of the people involved. The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress explored the disappearance of a mob-connected judge through the eyes of three women who knew him—and may have been involved.

In her latest novel, I Was Anastasia, Lawhon reinvents the youngest daughter of Russia's doomed Romanov dynasty. One thread recounts a spirited teenage girl's last months before her family's execution at the hands of revolutionaries. The other focuses on Anna Anderson, the woman who spent her life trying to convince the world, often successfully, that she was the escaped Anastasia. Tension builds as clues unfold: Is Anna the real Anastasia? And if not, who is she? Lawhon talked to Goodreads contributor Christy Karras about how and why she meshes fact with fiction, refreshing old stories, and creating new ones along the way.

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Goodreads: Why did you decide to write about Anastasia?

Ariel Lawhon: I never actually planned to write this book. I was about to start work on a book about Alcatraz. I was wasting time on the internet, and I stumbled down this rabbit hole and came across a little bit of history on the woman called Anna Anderson and her claims as to whether she was Anastasia or not, and it was fascinating. It just sank its hook in and would not let go.

GR: Part of I Was Anastasia is told from the end of a character's story to the beginning. How did you choose that structure?

AL: Without talking about the ending too much, it became really apparent that to write the novel the way that it needed to be, one of the stories had to be chronological and one of them had to be told in reverse, because there's a moment when they need to collide, and there was no good way to do that if both of them were chronological.

We all know what happened to the Romanov family in Siberia. The question has always remained: Was Anastasia part of that, or did she escape? So that's the heart of the novel. But the other half takes place after those events.

GR: How did that factor into the writing process?

AL: The movie Memento—I thought it was fantastic. There's a sense that you have, when you're watching that movie, of knowing that what's happening right in front of you is really important but not knowing why. As a reader myself, I like to be really engaged in the process of peeling back the different layers of the story, so when I write, I often try to include some sort of mystery or mysterious elements to keep other mystery lovers engaged. But it was definitely a tricky situation. It was a very fun puzzle to write.

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GR: What books were especially helpful in researching the history?

AL: You could spend the rest of your life reading about nothing but the Romanovs! I read a lot of Helen Rappaport; she's got a great book called The Romanov Sisters, which focuses specifically on the girls, and a lot of it is in that last year and a half of their life. Same with Simon Sebag Montefiore [author of The Romanovs] and Greg King and Penny Wilson. Robert K. Massie is a huge Romanov expert.

GR: I love your description of the Romanovs as a "bag of feral cats." They are! It's fascinating, but they were also crazy. You can also find all kinds of conspiracy theories and ideas online, and people take it so personally. Were you nervous about wading into something people feel so strongly about?

AL: Absolutely. She's this icon in our culture, and it's a little bit terrifying to take that on as a subject. When the animated Anastasia movie came out, I was young enough that it was still within the realm of all the princesses, and so people feel ownership over her, and they feel ownership over her story. They have so much hope and idealism that she could have survived, and did she survive? And there's this part of me, every time somebody says, "Oh, I'm about to read the book," where I kind of want to pull them aside and say, "That is awesome, and I'm so glad. Just please know this is not your Disney princess."

GR: You portray Anna Anderson warts and all, and yet she's a sympathetic character.

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AL: One of the benefits of telling a story in reverse is that you get to meet them at the end of their life, when they are over it. They're cranky and they're tired of beating their head against a wall, and that is where we find her. And we get to spend the next several hundred pages figuring out why she has become that way. Occasionally, people will complain, "I don't think she was really likable at all," but I don't think she has to be to be a great character. I would hope that any of us would say, "If I'd been living that particular life, if I'd been striving for this thing for so long, I'd probably end up the same way."

GR: Tell me something interesting you came across in your research that didn't make it into the book.

AL: There was so much that didn't make it in. The czar and his wife, Nicholas and Alexandra, wrote letters to each other their entire courtship—these very fascinating and, I would say, overboard romantic letters. There was one point, when they were in captivity, where Anastasia and her sister Maria find these very detailed love letters between their parents and they're reading them and laughing at them, and their mother comes in and finds them, and she's so horrified that her daughters are reading them that she throws the letters in the fire. And then they go up the fireplace and out into the courtyard, and all the soldiers that have them under captivity start reading these love letters and laughing at them. That really happened.

GR: Sarah asks: Have you done in-person interviews with witnesses connected to the real people behind the characters?

AL: I learned pretty early that I have to write my own story. And so I decided that I was going to stay with my primary research material and keep the story as close to mine as possible. Because it's very easy to let other opinions, other ideas, other very strong beliefs about how something should be told influence a novel like this, and I didn't want to let that happen. I'm always very careful in my author's notes to say, This is my version of how it could have happened. It's not the law; it's just my idea of how this mystery could be solved. I always, always stay true to the facts that can be verified, and then I tell my own stories in the space between those facts.

GR: Reader Em asked how you choose subjects in general.

AL: I have lots of different colored highlighters and pens, and I just begin reading. And if something is interesting to me—a random detail like, oh, all the Romanov kids had pets—I will highlight it. At one point, with my last novel, In Flight of Dreams, I read that there was a gun found in the wreckage [of the Hindenburg]. I'd never read that before, and I thought, "Oh, hmm, very good to know. I'll highlight it." And that gun went on to become a very important part of the plot.

When it comes to deciding on a story idea, if I have a couple in front of me that I can choose from, I always go for the one that scares me the most, the one that seems impossible, the one that is overwhelming, the one that fills me with dread. Because that means I care about it. It means that I will bring my best effort to the page.

GR: Reader Tiffany asked: What about writing about women specifically appeals to you?

AL: I've always said that if you study history, and you want to know what really happened, go talk to the women who were there. Go talk to the women who lived through it because they remember the small moments. They remember the little betrayals. They remember the humanity of the situation and not just the fighting and the wars and the battles and the weapons. They remember what a moment in history did to the people who lived it, because for the most part, women are the ones who have to pick up the pieces once everything is over.

GR: What other authors do you think do historical fiction well?

AL: Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a lifetime favorite for me. I absolutely love Diana Gabaldon. The Outlander series is spectacular for so many reasons. Her grasp on history and what she's been able to do and what she's been able to portray on the page is staggering.

Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale is another lifetime favorite. And of course, it's got the mystery in there, which is so good. It's nonlinear, which I love. Deanna Raybourn is so much fun. She's one of the first I go to if I want to read a book just for the pure pleasure of reading a book. And it helps that she is truly a delightful person as well.

GR: Are there any books about the writing craft that you love?

AL: I am a huge, huge evangelist for a book called The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. It's technically a book on screenwriting. I kind of adapt his insights to novel writing. I buy a new copy each time I start a new novel, and I work through it again. It's not a how-to; it's not a fill-in-the-blank. It's story based, and so you take your idea and you apply the principles to the idea, which means you come up with a different structure, a different kind of novel every time.

I do always tell people, though, if they ask, that if you find something that works for you, stick to that thing. Because I do think you can kind of O.D. on reading writing books and never actually write.

GR: Reader Misty wants to know: Would it be rude to ask about future books you might be working on?

AL: I have the next novel started. I think it's going to be fantastic, and I'm not allowed to talk about it yet. I have been forbidden [laughs].

Once I've gotten enough of the book under way, and once my publisher agrees to publish it and the ink is dry on the contract, I will begin talking about it. But even then—there's something that happens inside a creative mind where if you put a lid on a pot of boiling water, that pressure translates to an urge to write and an urge to create and an urge to get stuff on paper. If you take the lid off too often, you're letting the steam out, and your brain goes, "Oh, I just expended that energy."

But you haven't written about anything; you've just talked about the story. I know people who will not talk about it at all for that reason. Now that I think about it, the longer I write, the less I tend to talk about something as I'm doing it. I think because writing is just hard, and so I've got to hold onto every scrap of momentum I can get.

GR: Writing isn't easy for you?

AL: No, no, no, no. Writing is SO hard. And I think it gets harder for every book, hopefully because I'm getting better and my expectations of myself are higher. But man, there are days when it's one word at a time. Anastasia was the hardest book I've ever written. And I would sit there and think, It could be awesome, or it will be the worst book ever written. And I think to let yourself sit in that tension is really important when you're creating something new.

GR: Anything else you'd like readers to know?

AL: I'd like to say thank you. Thank you. This is amazing to me. I was the little girl who grew up wanting to be a writer, and the fact that I get to do this now is strange and amazing and baffling and wonderful, and I'm just gobsmacked every day that this is my job.

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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message 1: by Maryann (new)

Maryann Fox Will you reconsider the idea of a book about Alcatraz in the future

message 2: by Melinda (new)

Melinda Taylor I am so eager to read this book. Anastasia has always been a mystery to me ever since I heard of her back when I was in elementary school after WWII. My daughter adopted a little girl, who I immediately fell in love with, from Russia. She was named Anastasia and immediately my curiosity about Anastasia Romanov came back. Thank you for writing about her.

message 3: by John K Bostic (new)

John K Bostic This looks like a great read...but I checked it out on Amazon and it's a $19 ebook. Simply too expensive for me.

message 4: by William (new)

William Richardson This sounds like a good book, will check it out and probably get it from my library.
Love what you said about women remembering all the things about what happen in history because they are the ones who have to pick up the pieces.

message 5: by William (new)

William Richardson John K Bostic wrote: "This looks like a great read...but I checked it out on Amazon and it's a $19 ebook. Simply too expensive for me."

Try the public library

message 6: by Abby (last edited Mar 22, 2018 10:22AM) (new)

Abby Vincere I bought this book on preorder; i should have it by next tuesday! Im super excited to read this one, and reading this interview has only reassured me i made the right choice splurging to buy this book and have it shipped to me on its release date.

I have been disappointed before (i preordered colleen oaks Wendy Darling books on an excited whim and ended up not loving the series as much as i thought; and more recently bought Passion of Marie Romanov on a whim, and hated it when i finally read it) buying books i havent previously read, but im very hopeful about "i was Anastasia". Reading a book, regardless of its subject matter, can sometimes be like having hours of conversation with the writer. You have to be able to "get along" so to speak, in order to truly enjoy the book. Reading this interview has fairly convinced me that this author and i are going to get along just fine! And im thrilled, eager for a good read.

The second she mentioned Thirteenth Tale, i brightened right up. I love that book!

One thing though. Anastasia isnt really a Disney Princess. She recently became one only because Disney bought Fox, but the odds of her being on a coffee mug or disney Tshirt are like NIL. Disney company did everything to make the film fail when it came out by Don Bluth in 1997. They arent going to promote it now that they own it, they will probably try and bury it grom public eyes. Which is a shame because its a really good movie, better than some of theirs.

message 7: by Plewis16 (new)

Plewis16 Anna Anderson and her husband once came to a family reunion in Virginia. He attended the meetings but she sat in the car the whole time, a car filled with newspapers and other trash. Very sad.

message 8: by Bob-Mary (new)

Bob-Mary Templeton Tochee' Sir William. Lol. Comments Are Entertaining Too!

message 9: by Greta (new)

Greta This book looks so interesting! Who else wants to read it?

message 10: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Maday Lucy wrote: "I bought this book on preorder; i should have it by next tuesday! Im super excited to read this one, and reading this interview has only reassured me i made the right choice splurging to buy this b..."

You might like A Lifelong Passion: Nicolas and Alexandra - It's a book of the letters they actually wrote to each other and reveals their whole life from their courtship to death. It was very good and interesting. I was Anastasia sounds fantastic too. I'm putting it on my book list.

message 11: by Chris (new)

Chris Caughey When one who is ill looks frantically to find a way to be special to be different, to be oneself they reach out to anything...and anybody else to become.

message 12: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Excited to read this new book!

message 13: by Janvi (new)

Janvi Thanki Really loved this interview. Especially when she said "When the ink is dry on the paper", I love the way words are played with, something so simple can be expressed so beautifully. Really looking forward to read this book and great to know her creative process and how she comes up with ideas and works with details.

message 14: by Janvi (new)

Janvi Thanki William wrote: "...
Love what you said about women remembering all the things about what happen in history because they are the ones..."

Yes, I agree. I love the way she observes the little details too.

message 15: by Janvi (new)

Janvi Thanki Cindy wrote: "Lucy wrote: "I bought this book on preorder; i should have it by next tuesday! Im super excited to read this one, and reading this interview has only reassured me i made the right choice splurging ..."

Thank you for the suggestion! Definitely putting it on my reading list.

message 16: by John M. Kramer (new)

John M. Kramer I think this she ("Anastasia") was my neighbor in Charlottesville, VA. Hmmm. Interesting sounding book.

message 17: by Kenneth (new)

Kenneth Durham John K Bostic wrote: "This looks like a great read...but I checked it out on Amazon and it's a $19 ebook. Simply too expensive for me."

I totally agree, John.
It is blatant corruption for publishers to charge the same price, or even more, for a digital copy of a book. The costs compared to printing a physical copy are miniscule, and therefore I refuse to buy ebooks from greedy vultures who place themselves between me and my favourite artists simply to gouge money from me.

I wish there was a service for ebooks like is for musicians, where all funds go directly to the artist and they generally sell their product for a small amount but allow us to give more if we feel it is worth it.

I will not be held hostage to corporate corruption!

Dear Ariel Lawhon,
I have always loved the mystery and romance surrounding the Romanovs and would love to read your novel. Is there not some way I could send you a few bucks and you email me a digital copy?
I am disabled and live on a restricted income well below the poverty line and reading is one of the few joys in my life.

message 18: by Patty (new)

Patty I read a biography on Anastasia after my girls and I watched the Disney movie which we loved. When I seen that Ariel mentioned the Thirteenth Tale Which Id My Favorite Book. I Am In. I am Looking Forward To Reading This book on Anastasia.

message 19: by Dywane (new)

Dywane I LOVE iT?

message 20: by Abby (new)

Abby Vincere Plewis16 wrote: "Anna Anderson and her husband once came to a family reunion in Virginia. He attended the meetings but she sat in the car the whole time, a car filled with newspapers and other trash. Very sad."

That IS sad! I never heard that story before.

message 21: by Abby (new)

Abby Vincere Cindy wrote: "Lucy wrote: "I bought this book on preorder; i should have it by next tuesday! Im super excited to read this one, and reading this interview has only reassured me i made the right choice splurging ..."

That sounds fascinating! I'll have to look that up!

message 22: by D.raghavendrarao (new)

D.raghavendrarao What is the cost of the book Anastia and how it can be purchased.

message 23: by Phuong (new)

Phuong Cindy wrote: "Lucy wrote: "I bought this book on preorder
I like it so much and have an Eroforce eBook I also love.

message 24: by JOhn (new)

JOhn Watson In her most recent novel, I Was Anastasia, Lawhon rethinks the most youthful girl of Russia's bound Romanov administration. One string relates a vivacious adolescent young lady's last a very long time before her family's execution on account of progressives. Assignment Writing Service

message 25: by Robotmaaier (new)

Robotmaaier Expert Now this is a book I want to read.

message 26: by Law (new)

Law Writers Lawton’s historical works of fiction novels dig into the difficulty after real-life times, events, and places that may be aware to us but whose full stories we can never surely know.
regards: law Assignment writing help

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