So I had the pleasure recently of reading another great novel from Legend Press, “Letters From Yelena” by Guy Mankowski. I caught up with him and asked a few pertinent questions and here is what he had to say.
Tell us a little bit about how the idea for “Letters from Yelena” came into being.
I wanted to tell the story of someone who was devoted to their art, and a ballerina seemed a seductive way to do that. The hard part for me is always finding an angle that inspires you. A friend of mine told me about a book he was working on which were a series of letters and it struck me as the perfect way to tell the story of someone’s inner life, which is all I’m ever really interested in. Once I had that way of mining the story the plot flowed for me quickly.
Was a lot of research involved, especially with reference to the Ballet?
Yes, there was a lot. I travelled to Russia, alone, to visit St Petersburg where my character trains. Like her, I had to learn how to adapt to a new country in order to be creative. Being funded by the Arts Council to research a book in famous ballet academies sounds wonderful, and in many ways it was. But in reality it was very isolated, as the blueprint for the book only existed in my head and I didn’t speak a word of Russian. Some specialist tour companies told me they could get me access to certain places and once I was in Russia it transpired that they hadn’t yet so I had to learn a variety of tactics to get what I needed for the book. My visa only allowed me a limited amount of time in Russia so I was against the clock as well. It occurred to me at the time that as a little-known author I really had no right to have access to these famous places and dancers. But perseverance paid off, and I got to meet artists whose work is there lifeblood, and find out how they grind out this magic. I developed a love of ballet which I think came through, and that certainly helped.
How did you find writing from a female point of view as a male author?
Ideally I would prefer to write from a female point of view more often. There are certain literary tropes in existence, and one seems to be that the male view is reductive. I found the female perspective more sensual and layered. Which is all very well but when it comes to promoting a book you have to read bits out, often in front of lots of people you want to win over, and as an English male I felt a bit weird reading letters supposedly written by a Ukrainian female. I wasn’t sure if I should be in drag, or a tutu at least…
Did Yelena’s story change in your mind as the book progressed?
Yes. It became darker. I knew that Yelena would have to be running from something, or trying to prove something, in order for her to be determined enough to come from the Ukrainian wilderness and into the big lights of St Petersburg. But I was surprised how dark it got, following the encouragement of my publishers I should add. I was talking to an author about this the other day, and we were both commenting on this. The one area of the book that you don’t want to stay in for too long tends to be the area readers are most interested in.
What was strange is that certain things happened to Yelena and once I’d written the story they also happened to me. I won’t say what as it gives away the plot but they were dramatic. So I ended up adding to earlier drafts with personal experience.
Can you tell us anything about your next project?
It’s about an eccentric musician from dark ages Manchester who has a burst of fame and then vanishes. A journalist is commissioned to track him down when it is rumoured this man is finally coming out of hiding. I love the Factory Records scene which gave birth to bands like Joy Division. It was a time when people were kicking against the backdrop of recession by creating this otherworldly, confrontational music. There are aspects of that relevant today. In terms of the dress, the performances, the use of sound it was very inventive. People making art on a shoe-string, that shook the world. I find the discipline of that music exciting too- it has that in common with ballet.
One book you would want if stranded on a desert island?
Everything, by Simon Price. It’s a book about the Manic Street Preachers. They say the truth is stranger than fiction but the story of these cross-dressing intellectuals from a village in Wales who set the world alight always inspires me, and it has some real pockets of insight about art.
Kafka or Camus. People who find that deserted area that everyone should be talking about and just set up camp there.
One person famous or not,dead or alive, you would love to meet?
Peter Cook. Those wonderful old-school comedians, who juggled with words as if they were sharp knives, offering piercing insights left right and centre and creating surreal worlds with a single quip. Just to be at a dinner party with someone like them when they are riffing would have been thrilling. Perhaps my next book will be about a comedian.
Thanks so much Guy!
My letters to you, my darling Noah, will be maps, in which I hope I can be found.
Yelena, a brilliant but flawed Ukrainian ballerina, comes to the UK to fulfil her dreams and dance in one of ballet’s most prestigious roles: Giselle. While researching content for his new book, Yelena meets Noah, and here begins a journey of discovery.
Firstly I would like to say that this novel was beautifully written. Yelena’s voice through her letter writing is easily heard – and her story is compelling. Her passion for her dancing shines through as does the hardship and pure determination that is required in that field – it gave me an insight into just how much blood, sweat and tears goes into what we eventually see on stage…
This is very much a book about human feelings and emotions – through Yelena’s hopes, fears and dreams, her world comes to life. Both the light and the dark side – the author tackles some emotive subjects through this character and it is heart wrenching and addictive reading.
A bittersweet tale to be sure, one that will hold your heart in its hands for the length of the reading experience and will not let go.
This was one of those novels I would describe as “Poetic”. It won’t be for everyone, but personally I loved it. Wonderful and sublime writing.
You can follow Guy on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/Gmankow
Find out more about the books from Legend Press here: http://www.legendpress.co.uk/
Purchase Information clickety click http://www.amazon.co.uk/Letters-Yelena-Guy-Mankowski/dp/1909039101/ref=ntt_at_ep_edition_1_1
Happy Reading Folks!