Interview with Linda Holeman

It is said that there’s often a fine line between authors and their characters. Because reading is such a personal affair, it’s easy to read too much into one of your favourite stories, hoping to discover some privileged sense that the writer is confiding in you as a reader. In most cases, it’s good to remember that stories are usually just that; stories. Yet, it’s difficult to deny that sometimes, fragments of an author’s personal life seep into their characters and the trials they face. In The Lost Souls Of Angelkov, there’s something about the intensity and intricate drama of this tragedy set in cold and grey nineteenth century Russia, that makes one wonder how much of it is derived from its creator. This month, Edinburgh Book Review sits down to talk with Linda Holeman about strong women, their fight for freedom and the deep-seeded need for creativity which not only permeates modern history, but also her own life.

In Holeman’s novel, we encounter the story of noblewoman Antonina, living on a grand estate in a far corner of the Russian Empire, surrounded by servants and serfs. Things spiral out of control when her ten-year-old son Mikhail is kidnapped and held ransom. In the ensuing confusion, Antonina discovers that the people on her estate are not as loyal as she had hoped – as the facade of the traditional order is starting to crack under pressure of the social consequences of serfdom. Holeman agrees that the persistence of serfdom in the east has been one of the biggest divides between the West and the East, with the West having enjoyed a longer, entrenched tradition of civil liberties. Holeman confides that she consciously put this social pressure at the heart of her novel, wanting to show the effects of serfdom – or any kind of inequality – on a society, and on the people that happen to live in them: 

Linda Holeman: Yes, Russia lagged far behind many western countries in the 19th century, due to its lack of opportunities for individuals to be more highly educated and creative. Using serfdom as the backdrop of The Lost Souls of Angelkov created an opportunity to emphasis this issue. I found it intriguing that serfdom in Russia had basically the same effect on its people as slavery in America, and yet this loss of civil liberties in Russia was never focussed on in the same way as American slavery. Like African-American slaves, Russian serfs were victims in all ways, owned by a landowner. They worked their whole lives for him, could own nothing, could not marry without his permission, and, if they displeased him, they could be separated from their families and sold to another landowner. They lived lives of utter poverty, with no education or personal income or hope for a better future. Their emancipation came in 1861, interestingly, at the same time as the advent of the Civil War in the US. I also wanted to show the influence of sudden, so-called “freedom” on the serfs. In essence they only benefited in that they were no longer owned, but their lives didn’t improve. They still had nothing and lived in poverty – and out of this desperation came to social consciousness and began to rise up against the higher classes.

The Lost Souls Of Angelkov by Linda Holeman

In her own special way, Holeman succeeds in letting The Lost Souls Of Angelkov transcend the confines of being just another novel of historical fiction, with history and human emotion truly informing one another as her credible characters come to life on the page. Throughout, there’s a sort of ingrained harshness that lingers between characters, and even where there is friendship or closeness, it seems that nobody really knows anybody – leading to tragic consequences. We asked Holeman what triggered her to emphasize this kind of existential loneliness?

Linda Holeman: Hmmm. This is a question no one has asked me before. I believe that as humans we all carry secrets, small and large. It’s a form of protectiveness or trying to find a way to survive. The only thing Lilya, in her harsh village life, or Grisha, while imprisoned in Siberia, could own was their thoughts. And to divulge thoughts was dangerous when you lived in a society where it was difficult to know who to trust. Another factor for the division between characters is of course the class system. Although Antonina and Lilya were secret childhood friends, as mistress and serf it was impossible to have an equal relationship. Both suffered their own forms of loneliness: Antonia in a loveless marriage and Lily with her unrequited love for Antonina. The same holds true for Konstantin and Grisha: Konstantin’s elevated status created anger and powerlessness for a strong man like Grisha, and this led to his ultimate downfall. I also think the time and setting of the story – Russia at the peak of its unrest after Serf Emancipation – created secrecy, uncertainty and separation amongst so many of the people at all levels of society.

When going through her biography on Linda Holeman’s website, you get the sense that these feelings of uncertainty and standing apart may not have been entirely fictional in origin. In fact, it is tempting to read Holeman’s novel with it’s desolate and bleak setting – contrasted with a lot of human drama and conflict – as a kind of residual echo coming from her own life. Judging from her answer – while such a dramatic reading might be overstating things a little – there is still some merit to it.

Linda Holeman: Although I grew up in what would be considered an “ordinary” Canadian lifestyle, I felt as though my own experience carried a certain amount of drama. While it wasn’t traumatic, it also wasn’t idyllic or calm. I understand that much of what I felt was the result of my own personality and how I was deeply affected by what went on around me. I spent my childhood and adolescence filled with confusion and conflict, unable to find answers to questions which seemed urgent and important. Being a child of the Canadian working class in the 1950s meant, for many of us, fathers physically absent because of their long work hours, and mothers emotionally absent because they were frustrated by their own inability to be creative and independent. Being a teenager in the 1960s meant I was affected by second-wave feminism, inundated with images of the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights movement, and influenced by the twin posters for free love and drug use.  There were many choices to be made, and while some of mine had a positive outcome, others didn’t; I like to think I learned from both the positive and negative results of those choices. The words desolation and bleakness are terribly negative, and while that was certainly a part of life for serfs in Russia, any of my own “bleakness” came from the fact that I wanted more from life than I could glean from a small city in the middle of the Canadian prairies. I needed to see and experience more of the world. Again, this was strictly my own personal issue; I never felt that I fit into my surroundings. But this led, in a very small way, to the sensation of being “trapped”, for lack of a better word, which ultimately resulted in insight and helped me develop my imagination and my own vision.

This vision she would develop as a writer was further influenced by her choice of books while growing up. 

Linda Holeman: Oh, anything sad! When I first started to read, I devoured everything I could that had to do with brave, loyal dogs – like Lassie Come Home, Greyfriars Bobby, Old Yeller and so forth. That theme of stories with a sense of dark conflict never left me, and at quite a young age I was reading adult books like The Nun’s Story, set in Belgium and the Belgian Congo pre and post WW II, and Mrs. Mike, set in Canada’s isolated north in the early 20th century.  Now I see that those kinds of books, filled with sacrifice and difficult choices and danger and loss, set in locales that were unfamiliar to me, became the type of book I wrote decades later. Interesting! I was thirteen when I read the book that would change my understanding of the world – and my place in it. In the hours it took me to read The Diary of Anne Frank, I was overwhelmed with the power of recording thoughts and feelings. I was, even then, a devoted diarist, and at that moment I thought that maybe one day there might be the slightest of chances that a shy, insecure girl from the prairies could find power in words.

The Linnet Bird by Linda Holeman

Since then, Linda Holeman has come a long way, having written 14 novels and several short stories since 1995, and becoming a world-wide prize-winning author – with her work translated into over 20 languages. Throughout her impressive career, she has gravitated toward telling wonderful stories of historical fiction like The Linnet Bird, In A Far Country, The Moonlit Cage, set in the 19th century, particularly drawing attention to the history of women. What is that attracts her to the Victorian era, and what does this period represent to her when it comes to women’s history? 

Linda Holeman: I’m drawn to 19th century in particular because of the huge changes that took place from 1800-1900: the wars and collapse of empires, the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, the introduction of railroads, the abolishment of slavery in many parts of the world, the rise of the British Raj and rampant colonialism in general, Darwin’s theories, and the advent of broader world travel and the resulting discoveries. These issues give rise to rich story ideas for me. In terms of women, I like to create strong, independent females during times when the words female and independent were never uttered in the same sentence. The protagonists in my historic novels lived in a time and in environments where it was impossible for a woman to have anything close to gender equality.  As a champion for women’s rights, I advocate and support the civil liberties and equality of women. And so as a writer, the challenge I face is to find a way to write about women who break away from previous traditional gender roles and are still believable to 21st century readers. It’s exciting for me to create characters who don’t fit into the parameters of their worlds, characters who fight for the courage, strength, and adaptability to take a chance on finding a life where they can be true to themselves. This is what leads to the difficult choices they make – and creates the conflicts within my historic novels. 

Apart from taking us on a journey to other times, Holeman’s novels often transport us to exotic places – from British India and Afghanistan to Siberia – placing her characters against foreign backgrounds. Invariably, she succeeds at injecting her novels’ settings with a unique sense of realism and a striking level of detail. A part of this success is her habit of travelling the globe in search of new stories to tell. 

Linda Holeman: Travelling brings a sense of wonder that leads me to explore deeper into cultures. Usually I have no idea what is going to happen to me as I travel. For instance, while writing The Lost Souls of Angelkov, I spent a month on the Trans-Siberian railway. At the time I didn’t know Grisha would be from Siberia; I simply wanted the experience of the rail journey, and to spend time in Russia, as I was already deeply immersed in Antonina’s story. Grisha was a very different character at that point. But spending time in Siberia let me experience first-hand the vastness of the country, with its Urals mauve in the distance, its narrow, muddy roads, and its tiny villages with people who often looked as though they still lived the life of the previous century. I still remember a particular day as I watched the grey autumn countryside from the slowly rumbling train. There were the first early skiffs of snow and a leaden sky and overwhelming sense of isolation, and I suddenly knew that Grisha came from here, and when he left had to bring dark secrets that would haunt him forever.  His character changed in that moment. Where I had first created him as threatening and violent, now I knew he was a damaged, deeply conflicted and intrinsically good man struggling to deal with his past. That’s just a small example; every time I travel I hear whispers from the past, and feel as though I understand life in general in a fuller sense. 

The Devil On Her Tongue by Linda Holeman

This urge to better understand life and humanity in particular – which so pervades her writing – informs so much of the author’s own life. Holding degrees in psychology as well as sociology, she has always treasured her gift of being able to keenly observe people and understand their behaviour, to explore what drives them – a useful instrument when being an author:

Linda Holeman: As long as I can remember I’ve been intrigued by how humans act – and react – to their external circumstances. I’ve always been much happier being invisible in a crowd, standing back and watching, as opposed to being at the centre of that crowd. I think now that it probably has something to do with the confusion/conflict I mentioned earlier: in order to find answers I learned to watch and listen carefully so I could discover/uncover things for myself. During my young adulthood I recognized that I was intrigued by how children develop, including gender differences, various behaviours and their disorders, and the whole nature vs. nurture debate. I focussed on those issues in my education and for some years with my career in the teaching profession with young children and children with special needs.  So yes, because I love watching and listening to people, that trait has, I believe, helped me in my writing career in terms of creating believable characters with understandable motivations.

For those who feel like uncovering more of this talented author, Linda Holeman has already finished her latest novel, The Devil On Her Tongue – set in nineteenth century Portugal – in time for new enthusiast as well as long-time fans to enjoy. Be sure to find out more about Linda Holeman’s life and work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @LindaHoleman. Also, check out EBR’s own review of The Lost Souls Of Angelkov.

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