Elizabeth Kiem’s debut novel, DANCER, DAUGHTER, TRAITOR, SPY, just came out from Soho Teen, and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions!
Please welcome Elizabeth to the blog!
Will you tell us more about yourself and what inspired you to write Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy?
I was shopping another novel, the first I had ever written. A college acquaintance of mine agreed to read it for me. It turned out that this acquaintance had just been made editor of a new teen imprint for Soho Press in New York and was looking for thrilling, mysterious YA manuscripts. Mine (a historical fiction fantasy about Coney Island in 1939) was not quite thrilling enough and not quite mysterious enough and also maybe a little too young for young adults.
Nonetheless, this old college friend liked ‘my voice.’ He asked me if I wanted to write something entirely different for his 2013 catalog. I said, ‘why yes I do.’ I stuck to the southern coast of Brooklyn, but instead of mermaids and carnies I honed in on Soviet defectors and mobsters. Writing about “Little Odessa” still felt like it was just right up the road, literarily speaking, from Luna Park, which made the whole experience a joy.
What do you love the most about your heroine, Marina, and why should we root for her?
I love the honesty with which she recognizes her contradictory feelings towards the rest of the book’s protagonists. She can simultaneously hate and pity her father; distrust and need the advice of Gosha; long for and steer clear of Ben; admire and be confused by Lindsay. I like that she feels all these contradictions and doesn’t let them confuse her.
What aspects of your time spent in Russia, and as a dancer did you incorporate into the novel?
I took ballet lessons at the Bolshoi Theatre when I lived in Russia. At that time, the Theatre was low on the list of government priorities and celebrated dancers gave private lessons, off hours, off the books in shabby studios, to expats with dollars. Today, the Ballet has a budget nearly the size of the Ministry of Defense and just underwent a billion dollar renovation. And you sure as hell can’t get in there without a ticket or a written invitation from the Ministry of Culture.
Will you tell us a bit about your writing process?
I’m very linear. I begin at the beginning and don’t get to the end until its over. I have no gaps. A gap gets filled by rewinding again and again. Like a creek you just gotta jump. I’m not sure why it doesn’t slow me down. But the idea of just “leaving it till later” makes me despair. I can go days without writing. But when I sit down to go, I know exactly where to start.
What authors would you say have influenced your writing the most?
W.G. Sebald, J.P. Donleavy, John McPhee
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald. All my copies are pinioned with post-it notes. Or maybe Anne of Green Gables. There couldn’t be two more different books, could there?
If you could give a piece of advice to struggling writers, what would it be?
Reading is not writing. But it’s a good start.
When you’re not working on your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
Reading and sleeping. Happily, these activities coexist nicely. People who are all: “you can sleep when you’re dead – YOLO!” sort of freak me out. I admire their gung-ho lust for life. But if you think sleeping is overrated, you are missing the bliss.
What was one of the most fascinating aspects of living in Moscow? Have you visited again since moving to Brooklyn?
I loved the moments when it suddenly occurred to me: I live in Moscow. This is my life. Whether that was catching a glimpse the Kremlin stars while hanging clothes to dry on my balcony, or flagging down the car of a stranger (that used to be a normal way of getting around the city) to take me to the train station to meet friends coming in from St. Petersburg, or paying my electric bill at the telegraph office on the corner — the quotidian moments were often the most profound.
I’ve been back a handful of times but never for very long. The last time I was there was 2007 I think, during Putin’s interregnum, when he made Dmitry Medvedev hold his spot. I feel that the city today might be something of a stranger. So to celebrate the release of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, I’ve bought a ticket to Moscow. In fact, if you are reading this today …. I’m halfway there now.
What’s next for you, this year and beyond?
I’m writing a sequel, which will be getting an inspired kickstart from my visit to Moscow. It stars Marina’s daughter, a dancer in Moscow.
Keep up with Elizabeth: Website
About DANCER, DAUGHTER, TRAITOR, SPY:
Marina is born of privilege. Her mother, Sveta, is the Soviet Union’s prima ballerina: an international star handpicked by the regime. But Sveta is afflicted with a mysterious second sight and becomes obsessed with exposing a horrific state secret. Then she disappears.
Fearing for their lives, Marina and her father defect to Brooklyn. Marina struggles to reestablish herself as a dancer at Juilliard. But her enigmatic partner, Sergei, makes concentration almost impossible, as does the fact that Marina shares her mother’s “gift,” and has a vision of her father’s murder at the hands of the Russian crooks and con artists she thought they’d left behind.
Now Marina must navigate the web of intrigue surrounding her mother’s disappearance, her ability, and exactly whom she can—and can’t—trust.
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