Spaces in the Past

Martin Evans talks to Helen Dunmore, whose historical novels range from the worst horrors of twentieth-century warfare to the luxurious world of late Republican Rome.


What draws her to the past? In the first instance there is curiosity. For some personal reason a particular period will have caught her attention. This interest then matures over time until suddenly the idea of writing comes alive. At this point she asks herself: ‘How I am going to enter the story? Who are going to be the characters? What do I know and what don’t I know? What do the characters know and what don’t they know? What they don’t know is very important because … you are looking for a connection to a fiction-space.’

Of course this creative process is different with every book. The Siege, which focuses on the plight of the Levin family in encircled Leningrad in 1941, was published in 2001 but the idea for the book went back a long way. Born in 1952, Helen Dunmore became fascinated by Russian history and culture during her teenage years. She was excited by Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yevgeny Yevtushenko because their writings helped break down Cold War barriers. They opened up the concealed realities of daily life in the Soviet Union, and the existence of the gulags.
It was during this period that she first heard about the siege of Leningrad. What seemed monstrous to her was the way in which this was such a huge event historically but so hard to discover imaginatively. She was also interested in the fact that so little fiction in English by native English-speakers dealt with the Russian experience.

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