Brent Ghelfi on his book Volk's Game
PC: When did you first become interested in Russia?
BG: Russia first hit my radar screen in high school (late-seventies) when I read War and Peace. I started reading the other great Russian writers and, for the first time, read excerpts from Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. Around this time I also read his classic One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I think this short novel captures prison life during those years better than anything else I've read. The name Volkovoy comes from a character (a prison guard) in that book. I first visited Russia in the mid-eighties while still a student. My overwhelming impression of the country then was the color gray. Foreboding buildings, pale citizens in dark clothes, musty hallways, a shared bathroom with standing water covering the tiled floor, vinegary food. The world was changing, but we certainly didn't know it, and I don't think the people we came into contact with had any idea either. I suspect the fanciful notion that the Soviet Union would dissolve within a decade would have seemed absurd to nearly everyone in Moscow at the time, including me.
PC: And then after the fall, you returned?
BG: In the mid-nineties, newly minted Russian "businessmen" contacted the company I was with and came to the US to look into buying our products for use in Russia. They were an odd lot led by a retired General with a coterie of bodyguards. (Until now, I never thought about the fact that he was probably the inspiration for the General.) I went back to Russia then on business. The Russians we were dealing with were unschooled in finance, among other things, so the deal never happened, but my impressions of the country and its people had altered substantially. It reminded me of a strange combination of America's Wild West and the Industrial Revolution rolled into one.
PC: In your experience, how had the place changed?
BG: My sense of the "grayness" of Soviet Russia stemmed, I think, from the monochrome clothing, autos, etc. But my overall impression came from more than that, from a reflected attitude as much as anything else. Now, the big cities in Russia have become much more colorful and cosmopolitan. Many Russians are as much or more obsessed with pop culture, designer brands, luxury cars, and the like as their American/European counterparts. Moscow has become a playground for the elites who can afford the lifestyle. But even people with relatively little money now have access to a wide variety of clothes, books, music, movies, and other products they simply couldn't get their hands on before -- all of which brightens things considerably, at least on the surface. Some very rich people, lots of very poor people, and a small but growing lower-middle class. Perhaps calling it the Industrial Revolution is better. All of this also creates a have/have not tension that didn’t exist, or that took a different form, in the Soviet Union.
PC: When did you decide to write about Russia?
BG: The idea to write about Russia was a long time coming. The first two books I worked on were a scientific thriller (set mostly in Prague and the US, and some in Beijing and Dalian, China), and a legal thriller (set in the US and Mexico). The stark differences between Prague and Moscow struck me while I was writing the first book, and some of that leaks out during Volk's stop in Prague in Volk’s Game. St. Petersburg feels much more European than other parts of Russia, which is something Volk comments on when traveling between there and Moscow. In 2002 I was back in Russia, traveling for pleasure, and it was then that I saw Da Vinci's Benois Madonna and had the idea for Volk’s Game. I had the first 6,000 words of the novel written by the time I returned to the States.
PC: Would you describe the genesis of Volk himself?
BG: I was in a fourth floor room at Moscow’s National Hotel, looking down on Red Square between the Kremlin walls and the History Museum, when I saw a man wearing a black overcoat striding toward Lenin’s tomb. This was on a misty morning near four A.M., and floodlights cast an atmospheric glow over the Square, so he stood out, walking fast, with a barely perceptible limp. Then he cut through the barricades and past the soldiers guarding Lenin’s Tomb without showing any identification. He disappeared so suddenly he seemed to have been swallowed whole by the red-bricked walls. I wondered who he was to be able to transition so effortlessly between Russia’s civilian population and its military elite, like a phantom haunting both worlds. That man became Alexei Volkovoy.
PC: And you started writing then and there?
BG: I didn't have a computer with me on that trip, due to post 9-11 airport hassles, questions about whether the equipment was compatible in Russia, etc, and I had intended to spend my free time editing a hard copy of a manuscript anyway. So I pulled out a yellow legal pad and wrote the "Dead mother, disappeared father" line that began to characterize Volk, and started to think hard about the people and places in his world. In America we take things like separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, a free press, and civilian control over the military pretty much for granted. But those ideas haven't been woven into the fabric of Russia's government (in fact, just the opposite). Volk's world is one where the lines of power are ill-defined, where men like him and the General, and even Maxim, so long as he doesn't step on the wrong toes, are relatively free to roam unfettered. Volk's "voice" (dry, fatalistic, conflicted, spare -- at least, that's how I intend it), came from that initial vision of him as someone who has seen and done many awful things and has a jaded view of humanity.
PC: Volk has a very intriguing companion -- Valya Novaskaya -- can you tell us a bit about her?
BG: Valya's appearance in an early scene in which she comes to Volk’s aid bearing a pump-shotgun, and especially a line from that scene ("her white hair sprays backlight like a halo") set her character firmly in my mind as Volk's guardian angel. From then on I knew who she was, although the details of her background were (and to some extent still remain) something of a mystery to me. I picture Valya wearing unconventional clothes, eclectically mixed in ways unique to her -- partly out of her rebellious nature, but more because she really doesn't care how she's perceived, she dresses to please herself. She's self-assured, intellectually curious, bold, and immature in some ways. She is also, to use Volk's word, the one that sums her up the best, I think, “ethereal” in the sense of having an otherworldly air about her.
PC: Is she a creature of Russia, or can you see her living somewhere else?
BG: I can see her in any of the world’s more cosmopolitan cities, drifting among the oh-so-fashionable partiers, spinning her magical web, casually indifferent to the poor souls captured in its sticky embrace. I don't think she'd last long though. Not because she wouldn't be stimulated by a different culture, but rather because she'd want to be involved in more important work with the man she loves in the part of the world she knows best.
PC: Thanks Brent. Any parting words?
BG: Whenever I pick up a new book I look for a fresh perspective, a slightly different way of seeing the world. Volk’s Game offers an aggressive, gun-in-your-face immediacy that mixes the wild unpredictability of the new Russia with a volatile cast of characters -- including Volk, who belongs in a category all his own. I hope this novel surprises and thrills everyone who reads it.