On national history and family history
The early Soviet period contains answers to questions I’ve been asking myself. My books have helped me to understand what happened in my own family. For example, the origin of Zuleikha was my personal motivation to try to work out exactly who my grandmother was. Her family were dispossessed and exiled to Siberia, and that’s where her austere character was formed. My grandmother isn’t in the book and she’s not the prototype for the heroine, but immersing myself in that material was my attempt to find out about her and understand her.
There aren’t any prototypes for A Special Train to Samarkand either, but there are references to my paternal grandfather’s history. He was one of many siblings in a peasant family and after 1917, he was given up and sent to a children’s home. He was taken from the Volga region to Samarkand on one of the “Dzerzhinsky” trains. That’s how he escaped, although half of the children died on the way. After the war, my grandfather wanted to give up his own third child to a children’s home because it was a time of hunger. Fortunately he didn’t though, because that third child was my father. The question that has always upset and haunted me is this: why do good people suddenly give their children up to children’s homes? How is such a thing possible? Now that I’ve immersed myself in the materials, I’ve started to understand why.
On the one hand I write novels in order to answer personal questions. But on the other, my family’s history is interlaced with that of other families, and similar to theirs. Perhaps through the personal I’m trying to answer questions that might trouble other people.
From historical events to ordinary people
In constructing a novel, I try to combine two things: the first is history on a grand scale. All my novels could be called historical; I try to make them all historically accurate. The second is the history of ordinary people. I’m very interested in how ordinary people — whether it’s an illiterate Tatar peasant woman or the head guard of a special train — develop, change, perish and re-emerge within that history on a grand scale. These two strands — the pattern formed by the fates of ordinary people and historical events — are what I try to weave together in my novels.