The Russian word mechta, as on the building pictured here, means dream. I took this photo in Moscow last September. I’d arrived from Melbourne that morning and though exhausted, I kept walking along an embankment by Moskva River. The haziness of arrival: jetlag and sudden sun, every traveller knows it.
The week before, I’d received an email from a publisher at Allen & Unwin, asking to meet me in Melbourne to discuss my Vogel Award entry. It was a Tuesday when I was told that I’d won, and in a case of uncanny timing, I was on a plane two days later, bound for Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on a trip I’d booked months before. And so it was Friday when I took that picture – on a warm autumn afternoon that now indeed feels like it took place outside of real time, in a dream I had once.
One of the first questions I was asked about The Memory Artist was, why did you write a novel? At university I had studied the history of Russia’s twentieth century – the mass murder and labour camps under Stalin, the censorship and secret police harassment in the sixties, seventies and eighties. So why now literature?
Usually I can answer with something like: with a literary work we can access a different, deeper truth; or that I wanted to convey loss and the aftermath, silence and trauma, disillusionment about all the things that did not happen rather than only what did. These are states of feeling and being, not facts.
It can be very hard to answer questions about your own work. Sometimes they haven’t occurred to you when writing. I think perhaps the novel itself is the best answer. I sort of want to hold it up and say, ‘Here is my response to what I’ve read and learnt and felt.’
What I can offer, now that the novel is out there and I’m speaking about why I wrote, is my own experience of finding firstly a reason to write, and then creating a space to say it.
I like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s statement that ‘to create a novel is to create a room where you can say something true. You can’t just say it – you have to have that room.’ And I think to create that room you first need to have something you want to say. So take it back a step: what’s the reason for the room? Wanting to write a book is not necessarily the same thing as having something to say. Hanya Yanagihara said in Melbourne recently, ‘you should only write when you need to, otherwise you will write a boring book.’ When you have that need, you start creating the room. Then you have to spend a lot of time in it.
For a person to speak their memories, to tell their story, is a kind of art that is repressed by the powerful.
This reason can be extremely broad, infinitely vague. We can’t nor shouldn’t know everything about creativity. For me the reason for writing came from a feeling of obligation to memory. I was thinking about how, for a person to speak their memories, to tell their story, is a kind of art that is repressed by the powerful, often by governments with a hardline story they want to preserve. I had researched the work of The Memorial Society, a group of activists in the Soviet Union who fought to publish information about the crimes of the Soviet system, for a monument to victims of political repression, and much more. Remembrance and education go hand in hand: these dissidents were adamant that, as long as the past was not confronted, memorialised, voiced, and taught, it could be repeated. Theirs was a fight in the aftermath of Stalinism, and I had read little literature about their lives. This was a story I wanted to tell.
So my novel began with these ideas. I still needed the ‘room’ that Knausgaard talks about. This took time. I began writing in August 2013 and I wrote almost every day. Every now and then I left it alone, for a month or so. When I went back to it, I was with the novel constantly, even if I was just shifting commas. Working on the novel as part of my PhD gave me time and, crucially, funds to write.
My research faded into the background as [my narrator’s] voice grew stronger.
I think the room, the place I found to say something true, was my narrator Pasha’s interior life. My research faded into the background as his voice grew stronger. I knew his childhood delights and fears and memories, I knew his attachment to every object in the apartment where he grew up, I knew the Russian cities as he knew them. So when I wrote about his loss, and his parents’ loss and his country’s loss, it felt true to me.
I realised I wanted my book to feel more like a memoir than a novel; that was the shape of the room. I knew the colour and tone: this was a grey world streaked with only a little light. It was an unsettling place with a circular, irresolute structure. The novel was a way of thinking out ideas; Pasha tends to overthink both the banal and significant. It often took long, uninterrupted stretches of work before I felt properly in the room. I think that’s the mind needing time to get into the book’s world again.
I was also reading and re-reading: writers, my guides, whose narrators haunted cities just like Pasha does Moscow and St Petersburg: WG Sebald, Patrick Modiano, Teju Cole, Haruki Murakami. Looking back, it was a process of total immersion.
I submitted to the Vogel Award in May 2015, and then in September had the news just days before I took the plane to Moscow. The Vogel process is fast and demanding. But I think I was ready for it – I’d spent a long time by myself in that room of the novel, and before that, had felt a strong reason for writing. As for the feeling of walking around Moscow last autumn, for so long the dream-like space of my novel’s room, I know I won’t find the words for that one.
Katherine will be in conversation with KYD publishing director Hannah Kent about The Memory Artist at the Kill Your Darlings First Book Club on at The Wheeler Centre. Further details can be found here.