Your books have received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, the Historical Novel Society, Booklist, and People magazine and you have been praised for your ability to seamlessly weave historic events into your stories; when you were a student at St. Stephen’s did you imagine you would one day become a successful author?
Absolutely not; that’s why it’s so funny to look back now. I was always a big reader but being an author sounded so fancy and specialized. I didn’t know anyone who wrote fiction. I thought you had to be a super brilliant, super intellectual, very sophisticated person, you had to know people in publishing in New York, and you had to be really connected. I never put together the idea that here are these books I love to read, and there were real people who wrote them, most of whom were living totally regular lives. It felt to me like a totally separate world, and even in college, I had no idea what career I was going to have. My parents said, “major in the classes you love and, you'll figure it out.” The classes I loved were history classes (which was true at St. Stephen’s as well). [When I graduated] I decided to try publishing. I worked about five years at an academic publisher, doing nit-picky work, editing other people’s writing, and fixing the grammar and it was during that time, in my 20s, that, in the back of my head, I started saying: it would be cool to write a book someday, I wonder if I’ll ever get up the nerve to do that? How do you even do that? And then, in my late 20s, when I was working as a journalist, I went to a friend’s wedding, and I sat next to a woman in her late twenties who I didn't know, and she told me that she had just published a book. [It was a book] about a single girl living in the city. She didn’t look particularly glamorous, she looked like a normal person, and that’s when I said, well, she doesn’t have any better connections than I do, she just did the work of writing the book and if she can do it, maybe I can too. Sometimes that’s all it takes is to meet one other person that makes a profession accessible.
Another thing that pushed me to start writing was that I had my daughter, my first child, and I decided that I wanted only to work part-time. I had more time to myself, and I thought, if I do not at least try this, then I never will, and I will always be angry at myself if I don’t at least attempt to write. There was something about being home with a baby, no offense, but a lot of it was really boring, so when I was with her, and she couldn't talk, I would be thinking of story ideas. Never would I have thought that I would be at my most creative with a baby in the house, but there was something about that change in lifestyle that prompted me to say, now is your moment, go for it, but it took years to get anything published. I did not tell anyone that I wrote fiction until I was close to having a publishing contract in my mid-thirties, so it took a while.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The freedom is the best and the worst part. I can choose what I want to write about; if I develop a particular interest in a certain time period, I have the excuse to read all about it, follow where my interest goes, and come up with my own stories, and that’s amazing, I never take that part of it for granted. The downside is, it’s all on me; if I’m not feeling creative, I have to struggle through that too.
You write historical fiction and your books often take place in early 20th century Europe or North America; what initially drew you to the genre of historical fiction and to this period in Western history in particular?
Any time a society changes dramatically in a condensed amount of time is fertile ground for story ideas. I love writing about the 1910s, the 1920s; [for example,] if you take something as simple as women’s hair and outfits, they went from centuries of long hair tied up to chopped almost overnight, same with skirts--ankles covered for centuries and then, suddenly, “here are my knees!” Now, that’s a superficial example, but you can follow that change throughout society and look at women’s changing roles in public life, changing political ideas, communism, etc. If you’re trying to craft a storyline that requires dramatic events, there is a lot to choose from within that period. Another more practical answer is, publishing is still a business, and anyone who writes fiction acknowledges that and there are limited time periods where books really sell and [there’s also] reader preference; the further you go back in history, the harder it is to get a historical book published because most readers want to read about a world that’s somewhat familiar. There are thousands of books set in WWII, and they keep coming out because there is a huge public interest in that period.
Your most recent book, Red Mistress, about an undercover Soviet agent living in Paris, was published in July. Red Mistress explores the life of Nadia Shulkina, the daughter of former Russian aristocrats who, faced with the Russian Revolution, find herself wrest from a life of comfort and forced into a world of constant uncertainty, a reality she eventually embraces through a convenient marriage, several affairs, and an adventurous career as a spy. What inspired you to tell Nadia’s story?
In all my years studying history--I focused on European history in college--- I had never really studied the Russian Revolution other than in a general survey course in college. I am fascinated by any dramatic change, and it was this gap in my knowledge; my question was, how did it happen? How did Russia go from a fully autocratic [state led by a] czar to Lenin controlling this enormous country within a few months? I didn’t think I would write a book about it because that seemed insane; I didn't know enough about it, [I thought] you had to be a Russian scholar to do that. [At the time,]I was planning a book that had a cast of international characters, and one of my characters was going to be Russian, and I needed a backstory for her. I decided to read some Russian Revolution books, and a book that happened to be at my library was a history of two wealthy Russian families and what had happened to them over the course of the nineteenth century. This book sparked [my interest in] the idea of what happens when you have been raised to a life of privilege, and you lose everything because that’s what happened to these rich families. [I also wondered,] what would make you sympathize with someone who was very privileged and then lost everything? And that became Nadia. People under extraordinary circumstances either crumble or rise to the occasion as best they can, and you never quite know until you’re tested. I liked that idea of someone who had never been tested, someone who is forced to reinvent herself over and over because she had to do what she had to do to survive and, once I decided she would be my book, the other characters fell away. I thought a book set totally in Russia would be too dismal to be perfectly honest, and I wanted there to be some sense of adventure, so I thought, I am in this time period, a lot of Russians immigrated to France, why not take her to Paris? Who wouldn’t want to go to Paris in the 1920s? And that again is the fun part of my job.
So, speaking of reinventing oneself, COVID has pushed all of us indoors. Many of us were not previously accustomed to spending all this time inside, and I keep seeing news stories that say people are reading more. Bloomsbury, the Uk publisher, experienced a 60% increase in profits between February and August, and that’s just one statistic that suggests reading has increased as a result of the pandemic. Have your reading habits changed as a result of the pandemic?
Yes, and I think probably similar to a lot of other people, in the first few months, I found reading really hard, and that astounded me because reading was always my escape; when I was stressed or worried, I would lose myself in a book, but I was not able to do that. Now, I think that’s very normal. I’ve talked to many other people, and there was just this level of constant anxiety and stress that made it hard for my brain to concentrate on anything too long, so, like many people, I was guilty of the phone scroll, constantly checking the news, and when I did read, I went for literary candy: easy read mysteries, I went back to Agatha Christie, I reread some of my favorite books, I read romance novels--which is not what I usually read, but sometimes it hit the mark--and I started reading a lot of non-fiction. I found that reading about a real event made it easier to get into [the story] as opposed to fiction, where I had to imagine all these new characters. I jumped genres a lot, and I would say, six months in, I have gotten back to reading more of an assortment.
What do you consider your greatest achievement (personally or professionally)?
Honestly, getting my first book published... I know that I’m supposed to say, “my children,” but it’s really, really hard to get any book published. I went through so much rejection to get there. I don’t think people realize how much work it takes before the book makes it onto your shelf-- years and years and years. There were dozens of times when I almost gave up, but something would make me keep trying. It doesn’t matter how many books you have published, each new book is its own hurdle; it certainly gets easier, but I am proud of how persistent I was. My younger self would have given up much sooner under rejection, but I kept going, and that was my proudest moment.
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
It was definitely not a straight path although, now, with enough perspective, I can look back and see that it was a path, it was just a winding path from studying history at St. Stephen’s to studying history in college, taking challenging courses that taught me how to write and I picking up skills along the way even when I did not know what I was going to use them for. So, yes, it was definitely winding in the sense that there were years when I didn’t have that goal in front of me, so I did meander a lot, and that was fine.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
It’s okay not to know what you want to do, and I know people hate hearing that because when you’re young you want to know how to be successful by doing X, Y and Z, but I know so many people that are in careers that have nothing to do with what they studied in school or have pursued careers that are related in a way that you wouldn’t expect. [I also] know people who’ve gone aback to school to study completely different [subjects] from what they studied when they were teenagers so I think it's absolutely fine for your path to wander or to get lost in the woods for a while. Better to try new things than to be stuck in one place.
To learn more about Elizabeth and her historical fiction books, visit her website.