July 21, 2013

The Twelfth Department: Book Review and Interview with Author William Ryan

One of the things I love about social media is how you can end up connecting with authors. Last year I read The Darkening Field, and tweeted about it how much I liked it. Through that tweet I ended up finding the author, William Ryan. I then was able to help him with some detail editing on Goodreads (since I'm a Goodreads librarian, fancy right?).

As thanks, he sent me a signed copy of his first book, The Holy Thief (all the way from Ireland!), and then coincidentally Shelf Awareness sent me his third book, The Twelfth Department, for review. After reading, and loving, The Twelfth Department, I decided since I kind of 'knew' Bill that I'd send him an email and see if he'd be up for an interview, and he was!

So, without further ado, 10 Questions with author William Ryan. 

You're Irish - but you write historical mysteries set in Soviet Russia. How did that happen?
I've always enjoyed reading Russian literature and I suppose the Soviet-era writers and the curious and tragic lives they led may have been a starting point. Certainly the more I read about that terrible time and place, the more the idea of setting a crime novel appealed to me. Crime novels are generally about truth and justice and in 1930s Moscow, truth and justice were what Stalin decided they were - and didn't bear much relationship to what we think they are today.

How often do you travel to Moscow for research? Or do you mostly rely on historical documents/ the internet/ etc?
I think it’s essential to visit the location you’re writing about beforehand - it gives you a physical sense of the place that you can't really get from photographs and maps. That having been said, I'm lucky that Moscow was heavily photographed in the 1930s because it makes it easy for me to take what I see today and compare it to pictures from 80 years ago – and that’s useful because Moscow has changed a great deal since then. But I also use memoirs, diaries that have since been published, non-fiction books about particular aspects of Soviet Society and basically anything I can get my hands on. I have a library of research material now – certainly a few hundred books ...

Captain Alexei Korolev, your main protagonist, is a really likeable, principled man - in the middle of the crazy, suspicious Soviet world. Did you have a particular inspiration for creating Korolev's character?
I am pleased you like him - because protagonists often reflect elements of the writer’s own personality in one way or another. I’ve never looked back at the first drafts to see how he’s changed from his first incarnation but I know he has – he certainly didn’t come fully formed. I suspect his character has DNA that stretches back to Chandler, Hammett, Simenon and the like but he’s developed in the writing of the books – to the extent that it sometimes feels as if he’s making the decisions about where the novel goes next rather than me.

In your latest book, THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT, Korolev is investigating a murder, but the NKVD (essentially the secret police/ internal affairs) is interfering in his work. How do you think Korolev manages to stay sane while constantly having to look over his shoulder and worry about the NKVD?
I think a lot of Muscovites at the time had a public and private persona and they were so used to living that way it was almost like having a split personality. In public places you really had to believe in the State and the Party, and it was dangerous to have doubt so people suppressed it. Perhaps in private they might be able to relax enough to allow the doubts to surface but privacy was a rare enough commodity when most people lived in communal apartments – and even if they were lucky enough to have a bit of space to themselves the sad fact is that children were encouraged to spy on their parents. I think Korolev has this split personality and I think that’s what keeps him, more or less, sane – but the longer he has to live with the constant pressure and fear, the more at risk he is. But I think he’s resigned to his fate, whatever it may be.

Stalin and NKVD-leader Yezhov (far right) in 1937. Photo found here.

How does the real NKVD compare to tv/book portrayal of secret Soviet agencies? Do you often get readers confused about the different Soviet agencies and their roles?
A little bit of confusion, certainly. But I think most people get the hang of them quite quickly. As for comparisons, I suppose you just have to understand the sheer industrial scale of oppression under Stalin. By the time the NKVD had become the KGB it was a relatively benign organisation. The one film I’ve seen which captures the real horror of the Revolutionary and Stalinist years is a Russian film called “Chekist”. I think it’s one of the most disturbing films, I’ve ever seen.

And now for some more personal questions; do you find that reading helps or hinders your writing process?
I find reading in the period and about the period very useful for setting a tone, so yes – but I don’t tend to read a great deal when I’m in full swing. That’s because of the time it takes more than anything else although I do try and have a book on the bedside table – but not something that’s too close to what I’m writing. There’s always a danger you might subconsciously imitate the style of an author who’s writing in the same general area.

(Um, and assuming it helps I guess...) What books are you reading right now?
My next book is set in Nazi Germany (don’t panic, there’s another Korolev coming afterwards) so I’m reading lots of grim Nazi stuff. I’m rereading Alexander Dumas as a tonic though – The Three Musketeers.

Any exciting summer plans? Are you doing a book tour for THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT?
Not in the US, I'm afraid. But I’m doing quite a lot in the UK and Ireland – and I even have a trip to Iceland planned for later in the year. I think I’ll be packing my woolly underwear for that one.

What interview question are you really tired of getting asked?
I think I’m happy to be asked anything – I’m pretty easygoing. And I like talking about books.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
I think the most important thing is to read – all writing comes from reading. Reading is the egg and writing is the chick that hatches from it – to mix up an analogy. You have to read critically though – and learn from how other people do it. Oh – and to have confidence in their writing. You have to believe in what you’re doing, if you want the reader to believe in it as well.
Make sure you check out the Captain Alexei Korolev books - they're really great! You can read my full review of The Twelfth Department at the Shelf Awareness for Readers site.
Rating: 5 out of 5 Should I recommend it to my grandma? Sure!

Have you ever 'met' an author online?

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