I’m thrilled to welcome Jennifer Laam to Lit, etc! I really enjoyed her debuted novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar (reviewed here).
Q. Tell me something about Jennifer Laam other than the standard bio on your website.
I just learned the line dance that goes along with “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5. I am ridiculously proud of myself!
Q. What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
It may be more “annoying” than “interesting.” I second guess myself and rewrite and rewrite. Ultimately, I think it improves my work, but in the moment it’s vexing.
Q. Historical fiction focuses on the lives people lived and imagining what their life was like. What type of responsibility do you feel you owe them when writing about them?
This is a dilemma both for writers of historical fiction and for academic historians as well, I imagine. I feel historical fiction should be given generous leeway. After all, it’s fiction. Having said that, I think historical fiction writers should at least attempt to keep actions and choices taken by historical characters in line with what is known about the shape of their lives.
Q. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is about the Romanovs. How did you become interested in the Romanovs?
I grew interested in Russian History during the failed coup, when Gorbachev was temporarily placed under house arrest. The events that led to the end of the Soviet Union fascinated me. That let me to the Revolution in 1917, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the collapse of the monarchy. I was particularly intrigued by the various conspiracy theories revolving around how members of the royal family might have somehow escaped execution.
Q. What are some of the challenges you faced while writing The Secret Daughter of the Tsar?
The biggest challenges were time and self-doubt. I struggled to figure out whether I was better at squeezing out writing time in the early morning before work or late evening after work. Finally, I accepted that I wasn’t great at either one. I get most of my writing done on weekends. As far as self-doubt goes, I credit my critique partners and writing groups for saving me. Without them, I would never have had the nerve to send a query to Erin Harris. Now she is my agent. Happy ending!
Q. You conducted extensive research for The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. Was there anything that surprised you in the research and writing? Did you make any discoveries that changed your perspective?
The research shaped the plot and helped me tie together the threads of the different stories. I think research affected my perspective on the Romanovs and their story. And the amount of material surprised me. The extent of the continuing fascination with the Romanovs surprised me.
Q. Your novel intertwines the past with the present. We have three stories taking place: two narratives in the past and another in the present. How difficult was it to write three separate narratives? Did you focus exclusively on one narrative then move on or did you work on them consecutively?
I kept trying to separate the stories out as I worked. Ultimately, though, I found I wrote best when I stuck with consecutive chapters and alternated between the three timelines. Overall, I wrote in the order the final manuscript appears. I think this method tightened the connections between the three women, helped develop themes that appear in all three stories, and kept the overarching timeline coherent.
Q. Out of all your characters, Charlotte is the one clouded in mystery and the one that captured my interest the most. What character have readers asked you the most about? Which left an impression on them and does it surprise you?
All three of my main characters are my babies and I love them all. Nevertheless, it has been strangely rewarding to hear readers choose a favorite. Early on, one of my critique partners mentioned Lena was her favorite. That was exciting. It felt so real! Anyway, all three characters have their partisans, but Lena and Charlotte seem to have a slight edge. This was a bit of a blow to my ego because Veronica (the contemporary character) is the one most based on myself. Just kidding! I can handle it! Besides, there are parts of myself in all three characters.
Q. I really enjoyed the scenes with Charlotte and Luc. Although, I’ll admit the big reveal brought tears to my eyes. Without giving any spoilers, do you have a favorite chapter or scene?
Oh, that is sweet! I have a soft spot for Charlotte and Luc’s relationship as well. They love each other, but sometimes that is not enough. Some of the scenes toward the end were the most rewarding to write since they were the most emotional. To keep this interview spoiler free, I’ll mention the earlier chapters between Veronica and Michael. I love writing romantic banter. And I really enjoy watching two people grow more and more attracted to one another.
Q. The Romanovs continue to capture people’s imagination. Why do you believe there’s still interest in them?
I think we’re drawn to the combination of beauty and tragedy they represent. The family was so beautiful and the world they inhabited seems like a fairy tale, at least on the surface. And then it all collapsed around them in the most horrific way. I think the tale of Anastasia and other supposed survivors of the family’s execution appeals to our need for survival stories. We really need someone to walk away from a massacre, perhaps not unscathed, but at least alive.
Q. If a reader wanted more information on the Romanovs, what book(s) would you recommend?
First and foremost, Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie. Two additional books particularly helpful to me were Alexandra: The Last Tsarina by Carolly Erickson and Massie’s The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. There are numerous others, many of which I mention in the bibliography for The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. Yes, that is a plug to buy my book-;)
Q. Finally, and on an entirely unrelated note, who would play you in a film of your life?
Amy Poehler. Maybe Kristin Wiig. I guess I see the film of my life as a comedy. I think that’s okay though. We need to laugh, even during the difficult parts, right?
01. White wine or red?
Depends on the season, but right now definitely red. Pinot noir.
02. Backpacking or luxury hotel?
Luxury hotel. Backpacking is appealing with the right companion. I feel so wishy-washy!
03. Dream city vacation?
Paris-as long as money was no object.
04. Favorite Old Hollywood movie?
Some Like it Hot. By the way, I adore classic Hollywood! I mentioned a Marilyn Monroe movie, but one of my ambitions is to write a bio-pic about her blonde predecessor, Jean Harlow.
05. Winter or summer?
Winter. I loathe the cold, but love the cozy.
06. Sunrise or sunset?
Sunset. I’m so not a morning person.
07. Superpower you wish you had?
The power to go back in time. This isn’t a wise choice. I’ve seen enough science fiction movies to know you inevitably mess up the future. But as a history geek, I must go with this one.
Jennifer Laam’s debut novel is The Secret Daughter of the Tsar (St. Martin’s Griffin, October 2013). She holds a master’s degree in History. Jennifer has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, and has traveled in Russia, England, France, and Finland. In addition to Russian History, Jennifer’s interests include film, music, pop culture, and politics. She currently lives in Northern California.