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Real Letter Inspires Fictional Tale in The Summer Guest

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The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson 

Real Letter Inspires Fictional Tale in The Summer Guest  

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

April 2017

 


The Summer Guest
by Alison Anderson

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In her novel, The Summer Guest, Alison Anderson offers readers a look at a unique friendship between Anton Chekhov and Zinaida Mikhailovna, an ailing doctor, through the pages of Zinaida’s diary. The story is complicated by a modern thread involving an ailing small press and the translator of the diary who seeks to verify the existence of a novel written by Chekhov.

Does the novel exist? Will its publication save the ailing small press run by Katya Kendall and her husband Peter? Will translator Ana Harding find the ‘lost’ book and deepen Chekhov’s legacy?

The novel explores questions of friendship and what it means to leave an artistic legacy that leaves readers wanting more.

“It was less of a specific question than a desire to explore my fascination with Anton Chekhov as a writer . . .”
—ANDERSON

AUTHORLINK: The desire to write a novel often begins with a question. What question were you hoping to answer with The Summer Guest?

ANDERSON: It was less of a specific question than a desire to explore my fascination with Anton Chekhov as a writer – why is he “my favorite writer,” how can I pay tribute to him in a literary way?

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. Where did The Summer Guest begin for you? Character? Voice? Plot? Image? First line? 

ANDERSON: Chekhov himself gave me the idea, in a letter he wrote in May, 1888, to his publisher, describing the family he had gone to stay with in Ukraine. His description was so evocative and at the same time so sad, it seemed to me there might be a story in Zinaida’s life and their friendship. Her voice came to me very quickly, and I actually started writing a large part of her diary before I turned to the other characters, first Ana, who went through multiple incarnations, then at the very end Katya.
 
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your work as a translator. Beside the fact that a translator is central to the story, in what ways does that work influence your approach to writing a novel?  

“. . . when I’m able to write my own fiction I feel like I’ve suddenly been given wings, that I no longer have to stay on the ground . . . “
ANDERSON

ANDERSON: Literary translation is both immensely satisfying and frustrating. The work can be wonderful, as rewarding as writing one’s own work, when the original is superbly well-written and interesting; but the frustration comes from the working “conditions”—the lack of recognition much of the time, the precariousness of it (I think only Norway has a literary translators’ union that guarantees a living wage), the solitude. And then of course sometimes we have to take on work we don’t like, or that is difficult, or poorly written and needs a lot of editing. But when I’m able to write my own fiction I feel like I’ve suddenly been given wings, that I no longer have to stay on the ground in someone else’s text, there’s a terrific freedom – but also the responsibility of having to come up with my own characters, plot, setting and so on. Translation in its way is to writing as practicing scales is to playing the piano: you perfect your craft, you learn, you improve in a subconscious way.
 
AUTHORLINK: Does writing fiction based on actual event change the way you work with the material?

ANDERSON: Yes, because I wanted to be as faithful as possible to what I knew of the facts, and what facts were available. Chekhov has an immense following not just of readers but of scholars and specialists and I felt a great responsibility to all of these people, to respect the truth and make my fictional interpretation as plausible and respectful as possible.
 
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write the novel? How many drafts?

ANDERSON: The research took me close to six years, off and on, reading Chekhov, his biographies, critical work, and dusting off my Russian; I started writing in 2009 and went through dozens of drafts right up to publication.
 
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about the structure of the book, your choice to have the part of it set in the past told through letters and the part set in modern day told in narrative. You are telling two stories here. How do they inform one another?

ANDERSON: They are like Russian nesting dolls. [spoiler alert] Zinaida’s life within Katya’s fictional diary within Ana’s translation within my novel…

AUTHORLINK: Was the intimacy between Chekhov and Zinaida present in his letters or a fictional creation?

ANDERSON: This is where I took modest liberties; Chekhov writes very respectfully of Zinaida in his letters, nothing more. On the other hand, biographers have uncovered a flirtation and a definite ongoing friendship between Chekhov and Natasha Lintvaryova, Zinaida’s sister; Natasha also remained very close to Masha Chekhova all her life, until she died in 1943. Chekhov rarely writes about his feelings about the women in his life, other than Olga Knipper, his wife, so it seemed feasible to create a close friendship with Zinaida, as there was nothing to contradict it, either.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Summer Guest and how did you overcome them?

ANDERSON: Coming up with a good ending was very difficult. Not everyone likes it, some find it pat, or contrived, but my aim is to make it serve as a kind of illustration of what literature can be to those who value it in their life – enlightening, healing. And somehow miraculous, because fiction is precisely this: a morally acceptable lie. I also did not know how to plot that last section, how to have Ana discover the truth. I went on a trip to Ukraine myself with a group of Chekhov enthusiasts, and my trip to Sumy was exactly what I needed to be able to envisage an ending for Ana’s story and the novel.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research for this book and how you managed to blend fact and fiction.

ANDERSON: I kept notebooks full of biographical details about Chekhov’s life and particularly his time in Sumy; I carefully wrote Zinaida’s diary with dates that corresponded to Chekhov’s own letters. At times it was a bit of a Chinese puzzle when I wanted to go in and add other fictional events, to be sure all the characters were there who would have been there in fact, to make sure there were no contradictions or lapses in continuity.
 
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the process of revision for this book. What was it like working with your editor? How many revisions did you do and what was your main focus when making changes? Advice on revision for apprentice writers?

ANDERSON: We did a lot of revision with the agent, first, before she was ready to send the novel out; then once it was accepted I did one major revision for the editor, then we did the standard first and second pass on the galleys with minor changes. I took all input very seriously, from agent and editor; I would say that particularly in the pre-agent days I was often too eager to get published and had not polished the manuscript enough. It is really important to revise over and over, to set the manuscript aside, even for months if need be, then go back to it: the awkward passages will become immediately apparent, fresh reading with a more critical gaze will help immensely. But even then, my experience was that there is room for improvement right up to the very last day before the galleys go to the printers…

“Publication shouldn’t be the goal, really; our culture of celebrity and success has skewed the importance of craft and slow, painstaking excellence.”
ANDERSON

AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers on honing their skills? On staying focused?

ANDERSON: Patience and perseverance. And a subject you are passionate about. Publication shouldn’t be the goal, really; our culture of celebrity and success has skewed the importance of craft and slow, painstaking excellence. And apprentice writers should read as much as they can get their hands on, of good, classic literature, even if they specialize in a genre; the best writing is in the classics and it will sink in like osmosis (hopefully) over the years.
 
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

ANDERSON: I’m in the research/exploration stage of another historical novel based on a true character, set in France during the period of the Revolution… a much bigger, more complicated canvas than Chekhov’s two summers in Sumy… we’ll see.

About the Author

Alison Anderson, a native Californian, works as a literary translator in the Swiss Alps. Her many translations include the Europa edition of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, and the work of JMG De Clezio. She has also written two previous novels and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Translation Fellowship, as well as fellowships at the prestigious MacDowell Colony and the Hawthornden Retreat for Writers.

See more information at: https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062423368/the-summer-guest

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About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.