Meeting Russian fantastic author Olga Slavnikova – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

    Olga SlavnikovaA little preface. I have for a long time had contacts with Eastern European science fiction and SF activists. In the mid 80’s, I corresponded with father and son Vitaly and Dimitry Bugrov in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) wich resulted in that I had in 1986 an article in a local cultural magazine they worked for, “Uralsky Sledopyt” (Ural Pathfinder), about the alternate history genre Sweden-invaded-by-Russia. More later.
    The small Stockholm publisher “Ersatz”, with Russian speaking editor Ola Wallin, has for a number of years been publishing Russian literature, including Russian science fiction. Russian SF & Fantasy has in later years gone through an immense “boom”, something  I learned from the Russian delegates to the Stockholm Eurocon in the summer of 2011 (in so far “learning” is compatible with them enthusiastically stuffing me with vodka).
    The 7th of February and a few days on, the Russian author Olga Slavnikova was on a visit to Sweden, to promote the translation of her novel “2017”.

    I came to the meeting with her that evening on the local Söderbokhandeln bookstore (a nice, medium-sized bookstore with an ambitious culture programme many evenings).
    Her book “2017”, now translated to Swedish, is a “near future SF” novel, or so you may call it. I haven’t read it (its translation is new, though it was written around 2005) but according to the back cover blurb and comments it is about how locals in 2017 “celebrate” the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian “revolution” (Slavnikova correctly calls it a coup d’etat, which it was) with an re-enactment. A professor and a jewlery expert has some sort of expedition into the rich Ural mountains where they seem to find fantastic things revealing the “greed” of humanity pointing to some sort of dystopian disaster. There’s romance in the story involving mythology, and political implications. (But don’t take my word for anything. Check the book out yourself.)
    2017” has won the Russian equivalent of the Booker Prize. At the same time this evening, “Ersatz” publisher also launched an anthology called “Cirkelns Kvadratur” (Squaring the Circle) with later year’s winners of the huge Russian Debutant Prize. Present this evening were Irina, Boris, Victoria, Anna and Andrey ¹, from the anthology, their last names were said too fast for me to pick up – aproximately *six* Russian authors were present in Söderbokhandeln !

    The Debutant Prize is – I have no doubts ! – the biggest award of its kind in the world. It was started in the late 1990’s by a Russian charity organisation, giving medical support to more isolated towns in Russia, and the first year received a stunning *30 000* entries ! It has gone on for 14 years and now receives *50 000* entries (short stories).
    Olga Slavnikova is the chairman of this absolutely astronomically huge competition ! The winner receives (as I understood) ca USD 45 000, all runners up are published in an anthology and the competition gets lots of coverage all over Russia. (I have also had a competion for 14 years, the Fantastiknovelltävlingen, from the SKRIVA mailing list. Getting ca 120 entries. I though that was good…)
    Imagine having a story competion with 50 000 entries ! In Russia they can do it. Somehow.
    Olga Slavnikova in her remarks (she spoke for ca an hour, through an interpreter; she knows English but seemed to feel more comfortable in Russian) noticed that this huge response showed that Russian literature isn’t in decline. There is a new generation of authors coming up and an enormous interest in the written word. It’s hard to argue with that. Russia has always been known for high-class literature – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, in SF eg the Strugatskys.
    Slavnikova, though presently living in Moscow, grew up in the Urals, in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg). She spoke about the stunning beauty of this area, of the mountains, and about the mineral richness of the region. The Urals is a bonanza of precious and semi-precious stones. It’s a popular hobby, almost a life style (they call themselves “stone people”), to range the mountains and collect these stones. School kids may have collections being the envy of professional mineralogists. Her novel is set in the area with its local history and traditions. The Urals was very special, for instance during the Soviet times a centre for the arms industry, and thus banned from any external contacts and very isolated.
    She began writing while studying journalism at a Ural university. Because of a very bad winter (transport breakdown, I assume) she missed four weeks of lectures, and to be admitted to taking the exam she had to write a lengthy piece to explain and prove herself. She began in the morning, and sort of woke up late in the night and found that she liked writing.
    Another incident was when she worked for a local paper and was almost crushed to death by a big paper roll. Ironic for a writer to be almost  killed by…paper.
    The 1990’s was a very hard time for the Russian people. Economic disaster, inflation topping 30% *per month*. Nobody could live by their writing. Life was about finding food for the day. She began to write for her on enjoyment without thinking of getting published or becoming rich, late in the evening when the family was asleep. She says that this is perhaps the best situation for a writer – to write for yourself. At that time she was convinced nobody would like to buy her writing. Things would change.
    At that time, Russian literary market was dominated by cheap (often bad) translations. Everybody just wanted to make money. But through the the Debutant competition they have proven that there is something more to writing. There is some sort of urge, that comes from nature itself. Only a small portion of all hopeful writers will receive any pay, but still they want to write.
    The Russian literary market seems to have become better. Russian literature has taken back the initiative. It is now richer than ever, eg during Soviet times.

    Olga Slavnikova mentioned that when she grew up there was a deficit of books. Communist “command economy” didn’t catch up or didn’t care (not to mention that lots of books were banned). You had to buy books on the black market. She mentioned how she and her mother had to go to shady quarters of  Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) for the black-book market certain weekends, and how it was a victory when they could return with some precious titles. For a Russian family, having a good bookshelf was very important.
    Olga Slavnikova loves books with a passion. She loves the feeling of a book, the weight of it. Internet can never replace a book, she says. She can’t walk into a bookstore without wanting to buy all the books. (As I understood it she also at one time ran a bookstore. Then she basically owned all its books…before sold.)
    Her books is rather long (“2017” is 600+ pages) but she likes that. Books are like good friends that you want to stay with for a long time, she says. You want to come home to a book and feel that is is waiting for you

    Olga Slavnikova _ 2017In the Q&A session last I asked what genre she’d place her novel in and which foreign writer’s she would compare with. She answered that “2017” was “a novel with just one bit of science fiction and the rest being realism” (which to me seems like a good idea; I often myself start from the present and inject a little bit of speculative content when I write fiction). She didn’t want to compare herself with others, but mentioned writers she liked: Faulkner, Proust, Kafka.
    She was questioned about the romantic content of “2017”, which she said was important. It was a romance between and a human and a mythological being. The man didn’t think he could be loved, but he could. “Love isn’t anything that may be proved, you can only have faith in it.” (I’ve never been good at digging into subtle emotions, so I leave it at that.)
    It was a very interesting evening, with with a very enthusiastic, talented and open writer from our not-too-far-off neighbour to the east. I wish “Ersatz” publisher good luck with the book. I have in this report skipped some things said – not to bore you to death – but nothing of importance, I hope.
    In the beginning I mentioned something about an article by me in a Ural culture magazine. I’ve have had a long interest in Eastern European science fiction (Poland, Baltic States, Yugoslavia, Romania, former GDR etc) and it so happened that I came in correspondence with the mentioned Bugrovs in the mid 80’s, living in Ekaterinburg (in Soviet times known as Sverdlovsk) and they worked for the cultural magazine “Uralsky Sledopyt”.
    I wrote an article for them (in English, translated to Russian) about the alternate history genre of imaginary wars, namely Russia invading Sweden. A fear of Russia has been a mainstay of Swedish society from the disastrous war of 1808-09, when the Russians invaded Finland and took it from Sweden (it had been a part of Sweden for 600 years). A lot of books have been written about the Russian threat (during WWII we also saw some stories about Nazi-Germany invading). I thought it was a bit risky to cover that subject in a Russian magazine, but my contacts seemed to like it. It was published and I also received a copy of “Uralsky Sledopyt”.
    Speaking with Olga Slavnikova (in English) after her talk she said she knew about “Uralsky Sledopyt” and she knew about the Bugrovs, who were my contacts at the time! Maybe she didn’t read my article, but I got the impression that this magazine was much more important that I had previously thought. And covering the risky subject I did (alternate history swedish-russian wars) I saw it as an example of the glasnost and perestoika that had begun in those days under Gorbachev. This Nobel Peace Prize winning leader was in my eyes (despite many faults, which are easy to see – he was a bit naive at times) a much better guy than the present president Putin.
    Anyway, thanks for this evening ! Enjoyed it.

    ¹ Irina Bogatyryova, Anna Lavrinenko, Olga Onoyko, Boris Peygin, Andrey Simonov, Viktoria Tyukarneyeva (Europa SF note).
    © Ahrvid Engholm



    Olga Slavnikova, the daughter of a Soviet rocket scientist, was born in 1957 in a nameless and numbered military city.  She was raised and educated in nearby Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg), the capital of the Ural mountains region, where she graduated from Ural University with a degree in journalism.  In 1997, her first novel, “A Dragonfly Enlarged to the Size of a Dog”, was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize, suddenly vaulting her to the top ranks of Russian literature. Her second novel was “Alone in the Mirror”, which won her the Pavel Bazhov Prize and made the short list of the Anti-Booker Prize. She won the Critics’ Academy prize for “Immortal”, which was also shortlisted for the Belkin and the National Bestseller prizes as well as winning the Gorky Prize in Italian translation in 2012.  Her critical essays have won her the Polonsky Prize.

    Her novel “2017” took Russia by storm, in 2006 winning the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Russian Booker Prize.  It has been translated into many languages, including into English in 2010. A number of Slavnikova’s short stories have also been translated into English, including the autobiographical “My Father was an Alien.”

    Her latest novel is “Light Head”, the English translation of which is scheduled to be issued in late 2012.  In June 2012, she was featured together with Martin Amis in a public appearance on the stage of the New York Public Library, where she read from “Light Head”.

    For more about the event, including selections from the transcript, read the featured piece in The New Yorker: Martin Amis in Conversation with Olga Slavnikova.

    In the fall of 2012,  Olga Slavnikova was a contributor for The American Reader, a new literary magazine which has already been described as “The New Yorker‘s younger, cooler sister.” The launch issue of The American Reader featured Slavnikova’s short story “The Russian Bullet”.

    As Director of the Debut Prize Foundation, Slavnikova oversees all aspects of the annual prize and manages the International Program, which is designed to introduce a global audience to the New Russian Literature that the prize honors.  In this capacity, she has traveled with young award winning Russian writers across the globe, including to the US and China, to share their works and discuss Russian literature today.

    Olga Slavnikova currently lives in Moscow with her husband, the poet Vitaly Pukhanov, who is the Executive Secretary of the Debut Prize Foundation.  She has three children.


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