It is a huge pleasure to have Kerry Hudson join me on the Literary Sofa today. She burst onto the scene in 2012 with her debut Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, which won the Scottish First Book Award and was nominated for five more. She was recently named one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars of 2014 for founding the WoMentoring Project. Kerry is a keen traveller and has lived in Vietnam, South Korea, Budapest and currently, Berlin. The fascinating portrayal of Siberia in her second novel Thirst was one of the reasons I picked it for my Summer Reads 2014 and I had a feeling the story of her travels there would be worth hearing (my mini-review follows):
As writing is, by its nature, an impulsive (often compulsive) act of imagination, it might not surprise you to hear that I knew of nothing of Russia when I a) decided to set part of my second novel Thirst there and b) then decided I would need to cross its enormous expanse and back again by train.
I can’t really remember when I realised, around halfway through my first draft of the novel, that the setting would need to be divided between London and Russia but as soon as the thought was there is was undeniable. Just as we had to see Alena, a beautiful troubled Siberian, striving to adapt to London we should see both her and Dave, a South London lad with a good few secrets of his own, in Russia and, more specifically, in rural Siberia.
I do remember I was temping with a cancer charity at the time I made the decision, working long into the wee hours on the book and then working all hours planning fundraising gala dinners, and both the time off and the money required were an impossibility. But I took a punt, a big punt I thought at the time, and applied for an Arts Council England Grant. Like magic they awarded me the grant to travel across Russia and for time to finish my first draft afterwards, and suddenly I was at the library with a stack of books about Russia under my chin and a rucksack full of pot-noodles for the train journeys.
I was excited. I love to travel, it’s one of the few things I will happily say I’m genuinely good at. After all, I wrote my first novel while living in Vietnam, how hard could Russia be? Do you know the answer already? Yep, really, really bloody hard.
I travelled by train from Moscow to Lake Olkhon and all the way back again by train for a month. On the way out I stopped every few days, on the way back I did five days straight. I picked the top bunk when booking tickets because they were 20% cheaper in summer and discovered the reason for that every time I did a sweaty acrobatic flip when I wanted a pee or a leg stretch.
Nobody smiled. I mean some did, perhaps 2 out of every 100 people would return a bewildered smile to the one that is always plastered on my face. No one would speak to me – the minute they heard I was writing a book they closed themselves down. ‘Journalist?’ they would ask, and I’d say ‘no, no a love story about Russia.’ But they were lost to me already, their faces closed off, refusing to look at me.
I never mastered the alphabet let alone the language, I got disorientated and lost often. It was a hot, hot summer but I felt coldness seep into my bones. I had never felt so lonely while travelling alone though I’d done so frequently. Meanwhile I read books about sex trafficking, corruption, a lack of civil rights, real democracy and freedom of press, of gangsters and extreme poverty lines drawn right across the country.
A week and a half into the trip, after a particularly long lonely day wandering hot cities streets, I spoke to my partner at the time on Skype. Looking out over blocks of delapidated Siberian highrises from the hostel (also in a highrise flat).
‘It’s just…not very fun.’
There was silence at her end. Thank God, I thought, she’s going convince me to come home, that I could just give my leftover grant back, that I’d been very brave to be out there by myself but enough was enough. The silence stretched, I waited, overjoyed the trip could stop.
This was it, she would say the words and I could jack it in, fly back to Moscow and then to my life in London, maybe I could watch a lot of YouTube videos about Russia, read Anna Karenina, drink some vodka as research instead…
‘It’s not meant to be fun. It’s work. And there are writers who would love to be in your position. You’re lucky.’
And of course she was right. I absolutely was. And so I carried on with my journey. I readjusted my expectations and I learned to feel triumph at each rare returned smile. Because I felt so isolated I was completely aware of everything around me, I was silent and hyper-observant which was hugely helpful for capturing detail. Whenever I was in a situation…a terrible town, being shouted at in Russian for a slight I hadn’t realised I’d committed, eating a horse meat salad in a train buffet full of drunk soldiers, sitting by Olkhon Lake eating a milkyway and a bad cup of coffee, watching a sweet young couple kissing in park, putting a few coins into the cup of a dignified pensioner who had to beg to eat that day because she had no pension …I’d ask myself, ‘what would Dave do? What would Alena think?’
It is very hard to condense into a few paragraphs what that trip meant to me. Without it I doubt Thirst would exist. I would never really have understood where Alena came from, what made her the way she was. I would never have been able to properly relate Dave’s disorientation, how brave he is in taking the leap he does.
As part of my Arts Council England Grant allocation I wrote a series of blogs on the trip. You can start here and follow my route across the country but I recommend reading this last one . The truth is travel, like real life and like writing, is sometime joyful and sometimes very hard. When Dave and Alena find each other their love comes with things that are hard but the moments of joy make those hard parts worthwhile. That’s what my big adventure across Russia was to me – hard and joyful and worthwhile.
Many thanks to Kerry for her eye-opening account of the rewards and tribulations of travelling in Russia.
With its unique voice and strong autobiographical element, Kerry Hudson’s debut Tony Hogan was always going to be a tough book to follow and I was interested to see how she’d go about it. Thirst is similar in some ways, different in others. It has many of the same qualities with voice still a forte, this time with the contrasting perspectives of Dave and Alena. There is a vibrant, authentic sense of place and that was equally true of London and Siberia. This is billed as a quirky love story and it is unashamedly romantic; sweet but genuinely touching, the grit never far beneath the surface. The author takes on a serious topical issue but the angle she chooses for Alena is more all the more interesting for not being the most obvious. I was less engaged by Dave’s back story but it was satisfying to see him come into his own as the novel progressed. Thirst is a journey, in more ways than one.
Today’s post concludes the coverage of titles in my Summer Reads 2014 selection. The Literary Sofa has been at its busiest ever in the last few months and almost every day I hear from someone who’s discovered a book they love (some are working their way through the lot!) I’ll be tweeting the listing again as the school holidays start – any further shares on social media much appreciated.
NEXT UP: My review of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride, winner of the Bailey’s Prize and Desmond Elliot Prize for New Fiction. Find out what I made of this unique and controversial novel.