Q&A With Elena Gorokhova

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Q&A With Elena Gorokhova 

This week I have the opportunity to do a Q&A with author Elena Gorokhova. Elena is the author of the memoirs A Mountain of Crumbs, Russian Tattoo & her recent release that’s a historical fiction novel A Train To Moscow!


Q: Elena, would you like to talk about your historical fiction novel A Train To Moscow

A: A Train to Moscow is my first work of fiction after the publication of my two memoirs. It is the story of Sasha, an aspiring actress, who comes of age in post-war Soviet Russia and must battle oppressive Communist Party politics, an enigmatic lover turned political censor, and the buried secrets of her own family. Born in a small, provincial town, Sasha yearns for a bigger, creative life, but in her motherland and in her household such dreams are forbidden. Yet her curiosity and ambition are too great to stifle, and she leaves for Moscow to audition for drama school, defying her mother and grandparents and abandoning her first love, Andrei. Before she leaves, Sasha discovers the hidden war journal of her uncle Kolya, an artist still missing in action years after the war has ended. His pages expose the official lies and the forbidden truth of Stalin’s brutality. Kolya’s revelations and his tragic love story guide Sasha through drama school and cement her determination to live a thousand lives onstage. When she begins acting after graduation, Andrei, now a Communist Party apparatchik, becomes a censor of her work. As a past secret comes to light, Sasha’s ambitions converge with Andrei’s duties, and Sasha must decide if her dreams are truly worth the necessary sacrifice. The novel is about the conflict between the truth of art and the official curtain of lies all Russians had to live with.

Q: What was the research process like when researching & writing A Train To Moscow? 

A: The novel is set in Russia during and after WWII. I mined my own family history, including my older sister’s experience as a prominent actress in Russian theater and two uncles who never came back from the war (one an artist who was mortally wounded and the other still missing in action) in order to craft a story that brings to life the harsh realities and complexities of growing up in post-World War II Russia. The cast of characters was largely influenced by these family members as well as by my grandparents and mother, who, as I wrote in my memoir A Mountain of Crumbs, “was a mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave.”

Q: Elena, you wrote two memoirs A Mountain of Crumbs & Russian Tattoo. A Mountain of Crumbs covers your life in Russia under the iron curtain. Russian Tattoo covers you moving to America. What was it like revisiting both parts of your life and writing it down in these memoirs?

A: It was difficult and rewarding to recreate the world that both oppressed and inspired me and to revisit the first years of being an immigrant in an entirely unknown place. A Mountain of Crumbs was an elegy to the lost country of childhood and youth, where those who left can never return. Writing the first memoir helped me understand my mother and our complicated relationship: in the battle between a strong-willed daughter and her authoritarian mother, the daughter, in the end, had to break free and leave in order to survive. In Russian Tattoo, the narrator, who literally arrived from behind the iron curtain and knew nothing about America, attempted to bridge the gap between the cultures of her past and present and to find her place in a new world. Needless to say, those attempts were often comical and humiliating. Then my mother arrived to help with my infant daughter…and stayed for twenty-four years, ordering everyone in the house to eat soup and wear a hat, just as she did in Leningrad. In Russian Tattoo, I tried to tell the story of a balancing act and a family struggle: three generations of strong women with very different cultural values, all living under the same roof and battling for control.

Q: If you are currently writing your next book now, is it another memoir or is it another historical fiction novel?

A: It is a novel, but I am not yet sure if it is a historical novel. It is still in an embryonic state, so it’s too early to tell what it will turn out to be.

Q: What lessons do you hope readers take away from reading your memoirs and historical fiction novel?

A: I hope readers enjoy my stories of mothers and daughters and maybe recognize their own struggles and joys in these tangled, complicated relationships. I also hope they get a broader picture of my former country’s history and of how Russia, after a brief period of freedom, has returned to its authoritarian control over its people and became a dictatorship again, just as it was when I lived there.