The greatest challenge in writing Letters from Yelena was overcoming a sense of absurdity. Before I was given a grant to research the world of Russian ballet for the book I had already written most of a first draft just by imagining the setting. I should have known better. By then I had fallen into the habit of writing stories set in locations I had once visited, and in so doing had made them idealized, and ignored their actual essence. Arriving in St Petersburg the sense of separation- between the imagined Russia and the Russia I found on arrival- was enormous. The greatest creative challenge at first was for me to stay faithful to my protagonist’s worldview, while being robust enough to take on the setting as it actually was. As a place, it suited my character. It was beautiful, but it was also secretive, and compartmentalized.
For the week I was in St Petersburg I was holed up in a small gaudy hotel room just off the main street, the bustling and yet somehow removed Nevsky Prospekt. I was situated equidistant from the former home of the writer who I see as something of a mentor, Vladmir Nabokov, and the Vaganova Ballet Academy. This was the world-famous ballet school where I decided my protagonist had trained during her early years. During my stay these two sites embodied the heart of the book, for very different reasons.
After months of cajoling, using various specialist tourist companies and a misplaced sense of entitlement, I had been finally granted access to this prestigious and severe establishment. The day before my appointment with a rector there I mentally prepared with a visit to Nabokov’s former home. Happily, I found it deserted. In my memory it was was a slightly melancholy red brick building containing unpacked artefacts crammed with insight. The enthusiastic student who womanned the museum was keen to show me rare archive footage of the great man, all of which prepared me for the task ahead. I learnt how he managed to work on the run- often with his mind committed to one position he wanted a character to undertake- and often under extreme pressure. Once I had been allowed to sit at his desk with his typewriter the inspiration process was complete. I came away with a sense of just how well insulated a character’s world-view usually is. The setting in which they find themselves, the circumstances through which they morally navigate may impact upon them but their inner world, I realized, is complete the moment you conceptualise them. This realization gave me a means by which to begin the book properly, and not be overwhelmed by all the stimuli around me.
Therefore, when I was finally taken through the security gates of the Vaganova Academy I already had a sense of what I was looking for. It was easy to feel overwhelmed- by the great chandeliers, the framed portraits of Nijinsky and the air of absolute focus that pervaded. But my task now felt easier. I merely had to find my characters position amongst it all. The perspective by which she would have negotiated the chalky practice rooms, the sodium-lit hallways, the disconsolate cafeterias. I was fortunate to be guided through the academy by one of its rectors. He introduced me to the strangely childlike ballerinas, at once otherworldly and yet unusually focused. I met with them, asked them about their work. They were unused to outsiders. It was at first tricky to engage with them, but once they opened up they were strikingly candid, tough and yet vulnerable. They loved their work above all else, and loved to talk about it. Scratching the surface I found all sorts of fascinating traits; but that is for the book. I went for pizza with one- and found the conversation as entrancing and engaging as any one of her dances.
Despite these opportunities in a way I remained distracted. I was looking for the character I had already conceived. I knew already how she felt when she looked out of her dormitory and onto the dirty courtyard but I wanted to see it for myself. It was all there to enhance, not reconceptualise. This viewpoint made all the stimuli digestible.
The next challenge, when being guided through these historic sites, was to find a way to go off the rails that a tourist or a visitor is naturally placed upon. Places of historic interest always offer tours, but few allow the room for exploration that is really needed to get to the heart of the matter.
My next stop was the beautiful Mariinsky Theatre– the off-green, opulent venue where my character was to have her graduation dance. I had eventually negotiated a backstage tour there, at some expense. But it was all very well to see the fairy-tale setting in which the ballet costumes were made, but what I needed to do was to walk onto the stage, to imagine how my character felt standing under those great lights. But no tour can buy you access to the concealed corners and restricted places you crave to be in, so you can truly imagine yourself in your characters shoes. Occasionally I would get away with going somewhere, for a few minutes, that I was not allowed. Those were the moments I really snatched at something special. That evening I watched a performance of the famous ballet Giselle. The elite families in St Petersburg bring their children along as part of a cultural rite of passage, and the sense of occasion was etched on their young faces. They were all dressed in their finery, many of the girls clearly pining to one day be on that stage. I imagined how my character would feel dancing onstage, whilst I sat amongst the ornate red and gold stalls.
Aside from such abstract preoccupations at each visit I had a list of minute details I needed clarifying and I was dogged in attaining them from my ever-enthusiastic guide- a kindly woman called Masha who had herself dreamed of being a ballerina. She had an insight into the world that only the passionate and yet somewhat frustrated can give.
The St Petersburg I had imagined in my first draft was so different to the reality of it that I also wanted to put myself into new scenes within the city, and imagine how my character might respond to them. It seemed the only way to flesh her out. Tired, and unsure of how to find my way back to the hotel, I forced myself down the Nevsky Prospekt one night and imagined how Yelena would feel amongst the strange blend of modern adverts and ancient palaces.
The next day I walked out to the abandoned fountains and gardens on the edge of the city, and I traversed the long winding rivers that weaved their way out of the metropolis. I imagined Yelena trying to make sense of all her whirling adolescent emotions in those places. In one sense I had found my character the moment I conceived her in my head, but in another sense I had to test her out in such places, again and again, until I knew how she would react in any situation.
I started this piece by saying that the greatest challenge was overcoming a sense of absurdity. After all, surely it was absurd to expect funding for an idea I once had in a café? Surely it was absurd to feel a sense of dark panic, alone in a hotel room thousands of miles from home, unable to utter a word of the native language? But with my red notebook full of odd, strangely assertive reactions to places I had now visited, and with endless flow diagrams of plots, I gradually hacked at that first draft until it became a little more decent.
I took it back to England and then kept hacking at it, again and again, until finally my publisher insisted they read it. The sense of absurdity however, never really went away. Even with the book completed it still retains an elusive element, perhaps because it can never be tangible.
Letters from Yelena is launched on 01/10/2012 at Dance City, Newcastle, where a scene from it, choreographed by Dora Frankel, will be performed set to an original soundtrack by composer Jeremy Bradfield. Tickets for the event can be ordered from the Dance City box office.