Long ago, I became a journalist almost by accident. Having learned Russian and been hired after university by Reuters, I was catapulted out of the classical-music life of my family and straight into the adrenaline-charged realm of conflict reporting.
While on a trainee assignment in Paris, I fell in with the Cambodian émigré community and ended up reporting in Cambodia myself, a decade after the Khmer Rouge regime ended, as well as covering Cambodian peace talks in places as far apart as Indonesia and Paris. That led to a similar job in Africa, commuting between Angola and Mozambique and writing about death, destruction, diamonds and disease, and later to a posting in a country that stopped being the Soviet Union three months after I arrived. I spent much of the early 1990s in smoky taxis in the Caucasus mountains, covering a series of small post-Soviet conflicts that built up to the war in Chechnya.
As an afterthought, I started writing books.This has been just as much of an adventure. I’ve written non-fiction about Russia, historical fiction about England (one novel, Portrait of an Unknown Woman, was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel prize) and have now returned to Russia, where I spent so much real-life time before, in a much more manageable way – through my two latest novels, focussing on Russians.
The first is Midnight in St Petersburg. It’s about a musical family of violin-makers caught up in the 1917 Revolution, which means it combines a lot of the strands of my own past experience that until now I’d thought were just plain incompatible: music, Russia, and pity for the ordinary people caught up in big, uncontrollable conflicts.
Writing it was also the chance I’d been looking for for years for a different kind of adventure again, in the shape of some very Stanislevsky-esque research – making a violin of my own. I’ve blogged about it. I’ve sweated blood over it. I’ve loved doing it. I finished it just a few weeks before the publication of my second Russia novel, The White Russian which is set in the seedy, panicky Paris of the Thirties, where hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees settled after the Revolution.
Now, perhaps, my next adventure will be learning to play my violin well, or just enjoying all the haunting eastern tango and Russian gipsy music I’ve come to love while researching these two novels from the first half of the 20th century . But I expect I’ll be writing another book soon too.