After the loves and betrayals of The Revolution of Marina M., young poet Marina Makarova finds herself pregnant and adrift amid the devastation of the Russian Civil War, forced to survive on her own resourcefulness. A riveting excerpt from Janet Fitch’s latest, acclaimed novel, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, followed by a deeply thoughtful Q&A on her process with writing group partner and friend, author Rita Williams.
We sat around the table, talking, laughing, Shusha holding Iskra. How I envied Mina in this. She still had a family. Educated people, soulful—a living, breathing organism. My family had not survived the stresses of the revolution. How was it that theirs had? The samovar boiled and Dunya made tea. She poured it out, a pale green. “Chinese?”
Shusha added, “Exclusive to the Yellow Emperor.”
It was dark when Sofia Yakovlevna returned from the queues, a little frail, her sack heavy with provisions. She was thinner and more lined than last year, more bowed, but how happy she was to see me! She hurried to put her sack on the table and embrace me. She still smelled of chicken, though I couldn’t imagine they’d had a chicken in years. Such a warm welcome, and the shock when she saw Iskra in Shusha’s arms. “Yours? It can’t be! Oh, this precious child! Let me hold her. I must.” She immediately took her. “Sweet adorable thing!” As if Iskra were her own granddaughter. Asking her name, her age. “Iskra? Iskra? Like a box of matches? Akh, this revolution, it doesn’t know when to stop!” The baby just kept sleeping. “We’re so glad to have you back in Petrograd, dear. Both of you,” she addressed the baby. “Like old times. I wish Papa were here. Where are you staying?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I just got back today.”
“Is your mother still here? Up next to the Romanian ambassador?”
It was funny, that’s how she recalled our place on Furshtatskaya Street. Though Mina was invited hundreds of times to our house, our parents met only at school functions. “No. My mother’s gone—followed a mystic. Probably heading for Bukhara by now.” The rook, the labyrinth, the treasure.
“And your father?”
I sighed. “Off with Kolchak’s lot, I think.”
“Then you’ll stay here. I insist on it,” Mina’s mother said firmly. “Have some more tea, dear. I’ll get dinner on.” She put Iskra back into Shusha’s arms—“Watch her head, Shushochka”—and picked up the sack from the table.
In time, Mina reappeared through the black cloth curtains from the studio, saw me chatting with her sisters, my damp hair. “Are you still here? I thought I made myself clear.”
“I was just going when Dunya got home,” I said, “and I was chatting with everyone. Your mother invited me to stay.” I tried not to smirk.
“I don’t care what my mother says. Get out and take your brat with you!”
“What’s gotten into you?” said Aunt Fanya. “This is your best friend.”
“No,” she said. “That’s done.”
Sofia Yakovlevna appeared from the kitchen, drying her hands. “We’ll have dinner in ten minutes. Such as it is. Set the table, Shusha.”
Mina was boiling. “Mother, I made it very clear to Marina that we have no room for her here.”
You could hear the chairs squeak. Her mother stood in the doorway, towel in her hands, the same frizzy hair as Mina’s, only tucked back in a large chignon. “Why would you say such a thing? What’s wrong with you? She’s been gone for a year—”
“Let her own family take care of her,” Mina said.
The piercing unfairness of that.
“Why would you say such a thing, Minochka?” her mother said softly.
“Because I don’t want her here.” She was trembling with rage.
“What happened between you girls?” Her mother looked from her daughter to me and back. “You were always such good friends.” She tried to touch her daughter’s cheek but Mina swatted her away. Her face was gray-white with perceived injustice, yet she was unable to tell her mother what the trouble was. I’m in love with Kolya Shurov, and this is his baby. I can’t stand to look at her. Marina ran out on me, she took my man, took everything. She gets everything she wants, but she’s not getting this. No, she would be ashamed to admit it was jealousy. And though she was throwing me to the dogs, I could not bring myself to tear the skin off her shame.
“Let’s vote.” Shusha stood next to me. “How many people want Marina to stay? Show of hands.”
My heart in my throat. The hands went up. In my favor, Dunya, Shusha, Aunt Fanya, and Uncle Aaron. It was a majority, by anyone’s count.
“Stop it, Shusha.” Sofia Yakovlevna clapped her hand over her mouth, and turned away. “My God, what is happening to us?”
Roman stood up, as he would stand to give a speech in a student meeting. “I vote no. Think, Katzevs. You really want a baby in the apartment, crying at all hours? Stinking diapers on the stove? Some of us have to work. It’s just impractical. Less to eat, no sleep,” Roman said. “I say, Mina’s working her heart out, she should have the final say.”
Mina smiled at him gratefully.
“We all do our part, Roman Osipovich,” Sofia Yakovlevna said, stiff as a British dragoon, but I could hear the tears in her voice. “Each in his own way. That’s what a family is. When you have babies, you’ll see.”
“We won’t be having any,” said Roman. “Neither of us wants ’em.”
The older woman shook her head as if to clear water from her ears—a bit of news she had not heard, that they’d decided not to have children. Too many blows at once. She lowered herself into a chair and buried her head in her hands.
“All this is beside the point,” Mina said. “Who keeps a roof over all your heads? Me. Who left university to keep this family together? Me. And I’m saying I won’t have her living here. End of discussion!”
Dunya wiped up the spilled tea with her napkin. “Mina, you’re being a perfect beast. It’s like you’re not even a person anymore, you’re some kind of golem.”
“Mama sides with us, don’t you, Mama?” Shusha said, smoothing her mother’s hair. “Please don’t cry, Mama. She’s just being a donkey.”
I wanted to sink under the floor. The last decent family in Petrograd, and I had them at each other’s throats. “Listen, I’ll go. This is no good. Look. I’m leaving.” I took the baby from Shusha, snugged her into the sling.
But Mina wasn’t hearing anything except the blood pounding in her head. “Listen, big shots, you all want to take my place?” She leaned over the table to her sisters, white around the mouth with rage. “You think this is so easy, Shushochka? Fine, why don’t you quit school and you stay here all day? You take the photographs. You keep the studio running. You get in with Narkompros. You keep the film coming, and the chemicals, and coat the papers and develop the negatives and do the printing.” She was weeping. “And I’ll go to school and be in the drama club and write poetry about our brave Red soldiers.”
“How can you be so selfish?” Dunya said.
Mina was speechless for a moment, shaking her head. “No. No. That’s the living end. You can leave with her. Who needs you either?!”
This wonderful family, it wasn’t supposed to go this way. Why had I ever come here? Why had I started this?
Her mother looked so frail, as if the sound of her family’s quarrelling had sucked the flesh from her bones. I was ashamed I had brought such misery here. She shook her head wearily, gazing at the younger girls, and rose, putting her hand on Mina’s shoulder as she wiped her tears. “Whatever we think about this, your sister has given everything to keep a roof over our heads. More than all of us combined. She’s taken your father’s responsibilities on her own shoulders. And if she says no, it’s got to be no.” She looked me in the eye with such regret. “I’m sorry, Marina. But these are terrible times.”
A silence dropped over the assembly. Aunt Fanya and Uncle Aaron looked down at their hands, knowing that they were the ones who were the biggest burden. It was horrible. I wanted to protest, I can bring in rations. I can help in the darkroom. With someone to care for Iskra, I can work. But what was the point? It was over. This was what families did, this was how they survived. They tightened ranks, took care of their own. Much as the Bolsheviks wished to do away with these ties, they were the only ones left. I just wished I was part of it. They were kind, but my membership in their circle had just been a visitor’s pass. I was as much an orphan as any little beggar working a train station. When I’d taken off with Kolya that November night, I had gambled our friendship. Now I had to leave the casino, busted, my heart’s pockets turned inside out. I gathered up my bundle, my pail, my sheepskin, collected Iskra from Shusha, whose face streamed with tears. My baby slept on.
Q&A between Janet Fitch and author Rita Williams
I first encountered Russian literature when I was 18, bereft, confused and lonely in a little ranching valley in Colorado. I’d lost the favor of my guardian who’d decided she wanted me gone, but she said I could bunk in a shed next to the murmuring chickens. I’d fixed it up with burlap curtains and had somehow come across a volume of Russian literature containing Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. His tender, humorous insights gave my heart reason to hope that somewhere, someday, I’d find my people. Janet embodies that ideal. She is my good, true friend, and one of the deepest thinkers I have ever known. She is gifted. Fierce and prolific. It’s been my privilege to meet with her regularly over 20 years, along with authors David Francis and Julianne Cohen. We’ve finished and published our books. It’s a gift beyond imagining.–Rita Williams
Rita Williams: Was there a single event that planted the seed for The Revolution of Marina M. and Chimes of a Lost Cathedral?
Janet Fitch: No. Books evolve. You aren’t hit by lightning and say, “I’m going to write a book about that!” These books began, I’d say, in two places. In one reality, they began as a short story set in the 1920s, published in Black Clock—about a Russian émigré, Marina Makarova, working as a hotel maid at the Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. I loved that story, and when I started exploring expanding it into a novel, I realized I didn’t know enough about her, about her experience during the Russian revolution, to write that book. Also, every time I inserted a backstory scene my writers’ group loved that and begged for more. When the backstory is better than the front story, I say–eject the front story and write the backstory.
But I’ve always loved Russian literature, Russian history … I took Russian in high school and college. The fact that I chose to write about this Russian woman, albeit in Los Angeles, wasn’t without precedence.
RW: Can you share where your title came from and what it means?
JF: It’s from the Russian legend of the Lost City of Kitezh, which was so good and true that when it was invaded by the Mongols in the middle ages, it sank beneath the surface of Lake Svetloyar. And if you are faithful, upon the midnight you can hear the chimes of its cathedrals. To me it’s a metaphor for the inner self, which sometimes you can hear, and sometimes you despair of ever hearing again. It’s a theme in the book.
RW: Did you work from an outline? If not, how do you know what the arc is of such a large series with so many characters and locales?
JF: No, I don’t ever work from an outline.It would bore the hell out of me. For me a book is a voyage of discovery. If I’ve already discovered it, I wouldn’t need to up anchor.
But I do map things obsessively. I have a kind of topography of a book in my mind, noting the players in the different scenes, the time of day, the location, indoors/outdoors and so on. I organize it symphonically—the mood changes, the changes in orchestration. I map the experience I want the reader to have. but not mapping ahead—more just keeping track of what I have already, so that it’s in my head going forward.
I also used Scrivener, which allowed me to toggle between my research and my chapters—so I could go back to a character’s face, or a photograph of a street, or a timeline of political events—while I was writing.
RW: What was it like to live and breathe Marina Makarova for 12 long years?
JF: An immersive experience, to be sure. I’m still signing checks 1919. It’s like having a second self. She’s very different than I am—I’m low-drama and err on the side of caution in my personal life. Who am I? I don’t even have a clear picture of myself—I’m just a cloud of opinions and sensations. My characters are always more real than I am. Marina Makarova She is passionate and very confident, with the stoicism of the Russians, very sure of who she is. I’ve learned a lot from her—above all, that life makes infinitely more sense when you accept your own nature and don’t try to contort yourself into someone you think you should be. I’ve become much more Russian in my thinking after 12 years of being her.
RW: The Revolution of Marina M. begins with Marina in California, yet, at the end of Chimes of a Lost Cathedral, she’s still only 21. How are you going to get her to California?
JF: Never say never, but I don’t feel the need to get her to California. I wanted the reader to have a sense of where the book is being written from. As I’ve said, I’m a very topographical thinker. Where is extremely important to me. I needed to locate the adult voice of the book to be able to write that story. I chose 1933—when she is 33—because the events of the book would be well over by that time, and she would have the distance of memory if I needed it. I chose California because I think that’s where she would have ended up—a place of freedom that’s almost mythic. I chose Carmel because it was an artist’s colony back then, and she would seek out other artists. It was the Depression in America, which would have frightened her, reminding her of the queues and hardship of the Civil War years—causing her to retreat to a place she could grow her own food and fish and be independent.
RW: In our current national discussions about sex, it seems to be something foisted upon women as victims. Marina Makarova picks her partners, owns her body and enjoys sex. Can you give some insight about these choices and how you go about writing about sex?
JF: I was excoriated in a major review for the amount of sex the teenaged Marina has. I think the reviewer was shocked not at the amount of sex but that some of it isn’t creamy and dreamy, but harsh and dangerous. And that it was a 17-, 18-, 19- year-old girl. I wanted to ask, “How old is your daughter?”
Sex is a keystone of a girl’s development into womanhood—and its theater. Of course there would be lots of sex in the book. Marina is a passionate person, romantic, adventurous, it would be ridiculous not to follow her there.
Sex scenes are scenes—meaning something has to happen between the characters, and not just someone getting off. Something changes, so that the character cannot go back to the way it was before. It has to matter.
The most important thing is that a character has sex, not body parts. You use the senses, you observe closely, you use internals, all the things you do in every scene. You keep the reader in the body of the character, thinking her thoughts, experiencing through her senses, keeping the world alive.
RW: Can you talk about history–how you write both a vivid work of fiction that still is historically accurate?
JF: Writing historical fiction is like writing two books—the history and the novel. But it’s important to me that the novel is in the foreground, and the history recedes. It’s about people living in history. I hate when writers lick the wallpaper, worshipping the description of things as they were. The characters in that time knew how a telephone worked, they knew about the cars and so on. It was important for me to write the time as if I were Marina—to note what she would note, and not dwell on things she wouldn’t—yet still keep the reader informed. It’s a delicate thing but when it’s not done well, it ruins the book for me.
The Russian Revolution was a huge challenge—to make sure the reader can follow the intricate politics of the time, to decide what events to include and which to leave alone. Which would affect my character’s life, and how would I introduce them? Sometimes it’s a rumor in the street, sometimes it’s something a better informed character shares with Marina, and sometimes it’s an event which is directly experienced—it’s how people live in history. It’s all around us. Introducing it naturally and not as a high school history textbook is the most important part.
RW: You have talked in the past about writing being about making decisions. What has happened with those many other chapters of this novel that you have set aside?
JF: Writing is nothing but making decisions. A thousand decisions a day. You have to commit and commit again, and if you were wrong, you just pull it out and start again.But until you make a decision, to go this way instead of that, you have nothing at all.
There are many files on my computer representing directions and forays which never made it into the book. This happens when you don’t outline. You go a little way down a road before you decide it’s not working. For instance, I had a whole “intermezzo” section where various secondary characters in the book had their own point of view chapters, which ultimately came out—eight chapters I don’t think the book missed at all. The father, in hiding in Petrograd, Varvara on a Cheka raid, Mina, the mother, even Arkady, as I recall.
The Revolution of Marina M. began as a novel in verse, so the verse chapters are still there. But honestly, once I pull a scene or a chapter out, the novel heals over. I would never have a “director’s cut’ of a book I’d finished.
RW: You created an ongoing “Writing Wednesdays” series on Facebook Live. What was your motivation?
JF: I began Writing Wednesdays when The Revolution of Marina M. came out, just to use my Facebook author page a bit more. My publisher suggested it, taught me how to do it. I love DIY things, so the Facebook Live was perfect for me.I wasn’t teaching at the time, and I had excess teacher capacity, so I started doing these little writing tip videos, and being a creature of habit, I just kept doing them.
I am largely self-taught writer—I don’t have an MFA, I had to learn to do everything the hard way, I probably wasted a decade learning to write—and if I can shorten that time up for others, I want to do that. Not everyone can afford to do graduate school. But there are a lot of good writers out there who just need a little information.
RW: I have worked through my own book with you, and you have worked through. Would you care to comment on the way that working closely with other writers, supports you, as opposed to that old trope of being a writer, alone in a garret?
JF: Sure. Yes, disclosing all, we have been in a writers’ group together for about 20 years now. Writers have always worked closely with other writers—not necessarily as an organized group, but informally reading work aloud to each other or showing each other pages, discussing the work … Very few writers go without this kind of support. Anais Nin, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell exchanged work at various times. Rimbaud had Verlaine. Chekhov showed his stories to Tolstoy. People write alone, but generally depend on other writers, or their spouses, or a childhood friend, someone who can give them a new perspective on their work. Very few writers are absolute loners, no matter the trope.
RW: You recently started your book tour. What was like for you to launch it at L.A.’s Skylight Books?
JF: The first reading was at my local bookstore, Skylight Books. I used to live right around the corner during the punk era, when I was learning to write. I’d come into the store—in an earlier incarnation—and browse and read and dream. So it was lovely to begin the tour there. So many people from all the various parts of my life—my best friend from elementary school and her mother, two of my closest friends from junior high, various eras of students, relatives, and writer friends from my current life, all together. It was a dream.
RW:What’s next for you and your work?
JF: Right now I am writing a couple of short stories, a noir story set in the desert, and a sci-fi one and mulling ideas for my next book.
Janet Fitch’s first novel, White Oleander, a #1 bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club selection, has been translated into 28 languages and was made into an award-winning feature film, starring Michelle Pfeiffer. Her second novel, Paint It Black, hit bestseller lists across the country and was also made into an acclaimed film, directed by Amber Tamblyn. Her third novel, The Revolution of Marina M., begins an epic journey through the Russian Revolution, which continues with her latest, Chimes of a Lost Cathedral. She lives with her husband in Los Angeles.
Rita Williams is the author of If the Creek Don’t Rise, a PEN Center USA Finalist in 2007. Her work has appeared in Best Food Writing, Los Angeles Times, O Magazine, Saveur, Utne Reader and The Rattling Wall. She is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is currently writing a novel about a trucker.