Epic Russian Tales: The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch
If you're looking for an immersive, entrancing story that leaves you thinking fondly about the characters weeks later, you've found it. I read The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch in a couple of days. Whenever I had a a spare moment I'd pull it out and flick through the pages, just so I could lose myself in it again.
In scope, it spans an enormous amount of time and geography. From all the way back to the 1917 Revolution in Russia to modern-day Moscow, the story follows Tonya, a 'doll' of a woman who is trapped by her fate in early twentieth-century Russia. In the other side of the story, Rosie is looking for answers about her family history, and has nothing but a book of old Russian fairytales to guide her.
I was equally invested in the threads of the story, and delighted when it shifted so I could find out more about each separate narrative. The writing style is deft and beautiful and I don't think I've encountered such nuanced and subtle characters spanning such a timespan as this for a long time.
I wanted to find out how Loesch went about researching a book with such a huge span of history, and why she chose the times and places to set her gorgeous book. Read on to find out more.
The novels that inspired Loesch's book
For me there was something truly special about setting your book in Russia in such a distinctive time period that contrasted so completely with modern life. Why did you choose the locations and the time periods for your book?
Thank you, and this is a lovely question. I didn’t consciously choose these locations and this stretch of history. When I started out, I had familiarity with Russian history from my postgraduate work; I had my lifelong obsession with Russian literature; I had a Russian main character who first appeared in my unpublished “first” novel, a YA thriller set in Moscow, and who simply transcended that book. I was forced to make more conscious choices later in the writing process, but in the beginning, it felt out of my hands. I was going to write a novel set in Russia, full stop. I knew I wouldn’t be able to write any other novels until I did. And now I have!
It must have taken such a long time to research your book. Were you looking for particular people, was the book based on real events, or were you just trying to capture the feel of the time and the place?
It took more time than it might have, even coming from a background in Russian Studies, because at the outset I had no idea how to conduct research for a novel. I went down so many rabbit holes. I spent hours, days, weeks, chasing details I didn’t even end up using. I think I learned a lot as the research process went on. Namely, that it is about capturing the time and the place, about evoking atmosphere, rather than regurgitating every possible historical detail.
The story is not based on real events (outside of the historical backdrop, of course, like the October Revolution) or real people, though many were inspired by well-known figures in Russian folklore or history. What I really wanted to bring to life was some of the feel and themes of classical Russian literature, in particular Tolstoy and Pasternak. This has upsides and downsides: Their novels tended to have an extensive cast of characters, to span decades (as you mention below), and to deeply incorporate larger social and political movements and changes into the story. Given the nature of Russian names (among other things) and the unfamiliarity of a lot of readers with Russian history outside the fall of the Romanovs, I knew it would be a bit of a tricky undertaking. But I was pretty determined!
Gorgeous cover for a gorgeous book
One thing I found truly impressive was the sheer number of years and time periods your book spans. We see almost the entire life of the characters in the past, while also following a shorter timeline in the present. How did you cope with writing, planning and editing a book with such an enormous scale?
Originally, the book was only told in one timeline. In that version, the novel began in 1991 with Rosie conducting an interview, and we didn’t see her again until the very end. I decided to flesh out her story, which takes place throughout the summer of 1991, and her own quest, because I felt like it offered a contrast to, maybe some degree of relief from, the often difficult, and dark, historical storyline. I would be the first to admit that it was not easy to weave these two storylines together. It was like a jigsaw in which I was trying both to solve the puzzle and create the puzzle at the same time.
I tried various methods of organisation: software, including Scrivener (great for research, but I can only write in Perpetua font, so if the creators of Scrivener ever read this, please add Perpetua!); index cards; Excel spreadsheets. In the end, however, I decided on certain immovable points in the story, points at which the two narratives touched that would act as anchors. And that helped a great deal, because it gave the novel a stable foundation, and I could build up from that, rather than trying to fit everything together at ground level. After finishing the version that went out on submission in the UK, I was like: I’ll never do it like this again, on such a scale! That said, I love epic. It’s a weakness. I’m sure I’m going to do it again.
When it came to publishing your book, how did you find the process and any tips for aspiring authors?
The process felt different to what I expected, and contained truly stunning ups and downs. I’ve enjoyed watching these recent Winter Olympics; it’s interesting how some athletes seem thrilled to be there, and others radiate tension and misery. The most miserable ones are usually amongst the best, often the most decorated already, and there you have it: Finding contentment, even joy, in your situation, is not linked directly to measurable skill or success. It is not derived from tangible rewards or accomplishments, however wonderful they might be. Shifting my mindset to see publication as part of the journey, rather than an endpoint, rather than the whole point, has really helped me. My first piece of advice is: cultivate the ability to find joy in your writing, and in the process, at every stage.
Find whatever it is that keeps you going
Another tip I would have - and I hope this is useful to somebody out there - is to make the vow to keep writing, no matter what happens. Kind of how Dory in Finding Nemo sings “Just Keep Swimming,” I’ve made the promise to myself that I will Just Keep Writing. You might think this feels weighty, or somehow restrictive, like oh wow, now I’ve strapped myself down for life, I’ve made this unwieldy commitment when it all might come to nothing, I could waste whole years, whole decades, so forth. But actually, as soon as I made the vow, I was liberated. It doesn’t matter how many rejections come in, whatever kind of feedback, if this does or doesn’t get accepted or published or even read. The vow makes you invincible, invulnerable, untouchable by all the external forces that might otherwise derail you. There’s nothing anyone can say or do that will make you stop writing – and so it’s actually the greatest freedom possible.
What are the routines, pieces of advice or mantras that guide you through the writing life?
I used to write in coffee shops, and one of my favourites had pieces of wood mounted on the walls, painted with inspirational sayings. One day, on impulse, I bought one. It reads: “Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire…but first, coffee” and, although I’m equally content with tea, I love this idea. Not every moment, in any creative endeavour, is spent in soaring, free-flying, alpha-state euphoria. Some days are a grind. More days than not, writing feels like work. It can hard to find that perfect starting point, at least on the page. For me, it’s more about the notion of a ‘coffee’ as that starting point, rather than any particular need for a hot drink (though it never hurts!). It’s that first, most difficult step. And then, once you’ve got the process started, often you take off without even realising it.
In a faraway kingdom, in a long-ago land ...
... Rosie lived peacefully in Moscow and her mother told her fairy tales. One summer night, all that came abruptly to an end when her father and sister were gunned down. Now, Rosie's only inheritance from her reclusive mother is a notebook full of eerie, handwritten tales, but there is another story lurking between the lines. Currently studying at Oxford University, Rosie has a fiance who knows nothing of her former life. Desperate for answers to the questions that have tormented her, Rosie returns to her homeland and uncovers a devastating family history which spans the 1917 Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin's purges and beyond. At the heart of those answers stands a young noblewoman, Tonya, as pretty as a porcelain doll, whose actions reverberate across the century …
Buy the book here.
Kristen Loesch grew up in San Francisco. She holds a BA in History, as well as a Master’s degree in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her debut historical novel, THE PORCELAIN DOLL, was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and longlisted for the Bath Novel Award. After a decade living in Europe, she now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children. THE PORCELAIN DOLL is out in February 2022 in the UK (Allison & Busby).
Thanks for reading! If you enjoy my interviews and reviews, please allow me to continue writing these posts by showing your support. For the price of a coffee you can help me keep going in my creative endeavours. You can also subscribe monthly if you want to be a regular supporter. All donations get a reward!
You can also sign up to my mailing list to get a free copy of my ebook. A collection of short fiction exploring light in the darkness, exclusively for my followers.
You'll also get weekly blog updates and a monthly newsletter full of lovely creative stuff.