Q&A with Helen Rappaport
1) You are an actress and a playwright, and have worked with Tom Stoppard recently. Talk a bit about that.
I have been translating Russian plays for the British theatre since the late 1970s. working with all the leading playwrights including David Hare, Nick Wright, David Lan, Trevor Griffiths, Stoppard etc. and directors Sam Mendes and Trever Nunn. I have translated all seven Chekhov plays, three of them twice, as well as plays by Gorky, Bulgakov and Ostrovsky. I recently provided the literal translation for Stoppard’s new version of Ivanov that was a sell-out success in London starring Ken Branagh. Straight on the back of this production I provided the Russian literal for Stoppard’s new version of The Cherry Orchard directed by Sam Mendes, which premieres at the Brooklyn Academy of Music tomorrow 3 January band then goes on tour, coming to the UK in May.
2) What kind of experience has writing your book been for you? Fun? Exciting? Agonizing?
I love the challenge of every book and often wear myself to complete exhaustion doing it but I wouldn’t want things otherwise. I love the process of research and discovery which is why I never delegate to researchers but always do all my own research. I could add that the Romanovs captured my imagination in a very intense way and I was extremely sorry to have to let them go as subjects. I would hope that I may be able to return to them at a later date. I was particularly captivated by the four sisters who I think are the real heroines of the story.
3) What authors and books have inspired your writing in general, and in particular, The Last Days of the Romanovs?
As a historian I am pretty much stuck in the 19th century. My comfort zone is reign of Queen Victoria to end WWI - i.e. 1837-1918. I particularly admire the work of Claire Tomalin and Elizabeth Longford. Lady Longford’s exemplary biography of Queen Victoria is for me the benchmark and the standard to which I aspire. Claire Tomalin’s extraordinary biography of Charles Dickens’s mistress Nelly Tiernan is an absolutely gripping read and exemplifies the kind of historical writing I aspire to. I also greatly admire the work of Michael Holroyd and all of Peter Ackroyd’s historical novels, as well as his biography of Dickens. But as such nobody particularly inspired me in the writing of Last Days. I wanted to come up with a new way of looking at the story that was different from others and original to me! At heart I am a passionate Victorianist - my first love is Charles Dickens, and I also am devoted to George Eliot, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. Chekhov’s short stories also have a special place in my heart, as too Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
4) How do you spend your leisure time?
I love traveling and seeing new places - whether local to where I live, in the English countryside, or abroad. I enjoy walking and cycling and being by the sea. Cinema and music are great passions. I like to combine music with the natural world so like to sit and look at places or walk with music playing on my headset. Research trips for my books have often tied into moments of leisure - such as revisiting St Petersburg this autumn and also traveling to Poland and Finland.
5) If you could visit any time, place, or person, when, where or who would you visit?
Goodness - so many possible choices and far too many to name. But If I could climb into a time machine I would love to go back to Charles Dickens’s London which is my great abiding passion. I’d also like to see St Petersburg the day the 1917 revolution broke.