Helen Rappaport is an Author, Historian and Russianist. She fell in love with Russian while attending Chatham Girls’ Grammar School and studied for a degree in Russian Special Studies at Leeds University. Helen is a fluent Russian speaker and a specialist in Russian and and Victorian history covering the period 1837–1918. Her latest book The Romanov Sisters is already on its way to becoming a bestseller.
NAW- Tell us about how you became a writer. How long did it take before you had your first book out?
Becoming a writer was a gradual progression, through various changes in my working and creative life. I had always loved history and studied Russian at university but got sidetracked into acting for a while. In the late 1980s I started working as a freelance writer and editor and continued with work as a Russian translator – all in between acting jobs. By the end of the decade, I had moved away from acting altogether into writing and editorial work for various publishers in London and Oxford. After writing three reference books back to back for a US publisher between 1998 and 2001 I turned to writing full time as a popular historian (i.e. not academic//university based).
NAW-Tell us about your book, The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra. What is it about? How did you get the idea for it?
The book, as the title states, is about the four daughters of the last tsar of Russia Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. But in telling the story of the girls, from their point of view and within the close knit family, it also became the story of their mother and brother, as well as a broader study of the private, domestic life of the Romanovs. I had wanted to write the girls’ story since researching my previous book about the last two weeks of the family’s life before their murder, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg. The four sisters inhabit a very special place in my heart and my imagination.
NAW- How much research did you have to do for your book? How did you go about it?What were your primary information sources?
This is a very big question and would take far too long to answer. Research is hard graft and requires a lot of imagination about where to look. I always do a huge amount of research for all my books – to the point of exhaustion, as I am determined, with every book, to come up with new material, new ideas and new points of interpretation. It is very easy to just go for existing published secondary sources and do a quick cut and paste but I never do that. All my books are based on a lot of intensive work in published, unpublished and archival sources, and I also cover material in several foreign languages – English, Russian, French, German etc. My primary sources for the book can be found in the extensive bibliography at the back – but the most essential sources were the letters and diaries – such as still survive – of the girls themselves, and their parents.
NAW- Do you have any relation with Russia? Why did you choose to write about Russia and not another nation?
No I have no Russian blood, but I do feel a very profound affinity with Russia and all things Russian. I chose to write about Russia because I studied Russian at university and because I find its history and culture so fascinating. But I have also written extensively about Victorian Britain, which is also another great passion of mine as a historian.
NAW- Do you miss your acting career? Which (acting or writing) have you found more fulfilling?
I have occasional moments of nostalgia, but overall no. I don’t miss being broke, unemployed for a lot of the time, or depressed. Writing is far more fulfilling and I have earned a far better living at it, and there are still ways in which I can put my acting skills, such as they are, to good use. I love public speaking and giving author talks and to get up there and talk to a large audience comes naturally because of my acting background. I get as much, if not more, pleasure from that than I ever did from acting – and I don’t have to worry about remembering my lines!
NAW- Which authors have influenced you?
The great English 19th century novelists: Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot,Thomas Hardy, and the Bronte sisters. The Russians: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Isaac Babel and the poets Akhmatova and Pasternak. The English poets: Keats, Tennyson, Wordsworth, A E Housman, Thomas Hardy and the British World War I poets; the Irish poets W B Yeats and Seamus Heaney.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I work very hard and my pleasures when not writing are very simple: my garden, the English countryside, walking, being by the sea. I listen to a lot of music and love reading and the cinema. I also value the company of family and friends and spend time with them as much as I can.
NAW- Name your five favourite authors.
Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy.
NAW- Which actors would you likes to see playing the lead characters if one of your books was to be made into a film?
Well nobody has ever quite got Queen Victoria right so I can’t make any suggestions there, but Rupert Friend was brilliant as a young Prince Albert in Young Victoria and I would love to see him play the older man too – maybe in a few more years. I think Meryl Streep might make a good Empress Alexandra as she is such a chameleon as an actress and might just pull it off; and Leonardo di Caprio is a dead ringer for a young Lenin.
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
A book for the anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017
NAW- Any advice for young writers?
I always get asked this and it is hard not to be cynical but I always have to be realistic, because it is a very tough profession – both to get into and stay in. Basically, publishing does not owe you a living. You have to work very very hard to get published and stay there. Writers are not delicate hothouse flowers – there is no mystique about what we do, although I know many people make a great thing about the process of writing. Writing is a vocational, yes –you have to want to do it with a passion and you have to get used to the isolation – but in the end, it is just a job, like any other.
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