Elena Bowes in conversation with Anna Pasternak about her latest book, Lara: The Untold Love Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak is the great niece of Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak and uniquely placed to write about her uncle’s passionate, heart-breaking relationship with Olga Vsevolodovna.
Describe what you do in 26 words?
I write aiming to make my reader feel less alone in their inner journey because they find some emotional connection through my story and words.
Lara is a great read and fabulously informative about Russian life during Stalin and Krushchev. How did you balance the passionate real-life love affair with dry yet essential historical background?
It was really important to put the love story into a political context. Stalin’s reign of terror did not exonerate Boris Pasternak for having an affair but it does underline that in such extraordinary and challenging times, people behave uncharacteristically. It was essential that the historical aspect of the book was factually correct but my main goal was to write a love story. Both aspects of the book are important and inform each other. But unlike a purely academic tome, I wanted to bring out the depth and emotional detail of Boris and Olga’s love and the aching everyday details of their lives.
What did you find most challenging when writing the book?
Getting the historical detail correct and trying to achieve a balance between that and the love story, so that the book didn’t feel too heavy. I wanted it to have pace and yet still needed to include all the Russian history.
What advice would you give someone setting out to write their first biography?
Ensure that you are passionate about your subject first. Find aspects of the story – even single quotations – that thrill you. Then it becomes like an investigative adventure as you discover more facts and details.
You’re Boris’ great niece. How did being related to your subject matter affect your writing? What are the pros and cons?
The cons were that it took me fifteen years to pluck up the courage to write the book. I needed to find my literary voice in a way that I felt would do justice to my surname and make Boris proud. Obviously, being related to a writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature is a hard act to follow. I never considered myself in Boris’s league but I knew that I had something of value to say and that only I could say it in this way. As I come from a family of academics, who aren’t so interested in emotion – and Boris Pasternak was an intense and emotional man – I felt like I had an innate understanding of him.
The pros were that I had unprecedented access to the material and publishers took my voice seriously. I deliberately set out with an as objective approach as possible. I knew that I didn’t want to come across as a gushing relative and I feel that in certain areas of the book I have been quite critical of my great uncle and his behavior.
You write that Boris and Olga’s scandalous love affair was suppressed by his family and Boris’ biographers. What obstacles did you hit in researching the book and how did you overcome them?
I didn’t hit any obstacles, I just had to have the courage of my opinion. No one in my family shared my view. However, when I went to Milan, to meet Carlo Feltrinelli, the son of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who originally published Doctor Zhivago, I was delighted and relieved that he wholeheartedly shared my view about Olga and the vital role she played in Boris’s life.
Love has been a theme for much of your writing career. Age 26 you wrote Princess in Love about Princess Diana and James Hewitt’s secret love affair. You penned the semi-autobiographical “Daisy Dooley Does Divorce”, a weekly column in the Daily Mail for two-a-half years and recently you and your second husband psychotherapist Andrew Wallas co-wrote Call Off the Search about the ups and downs of your relationship. Is there anything you don’t know about love? And did you learn anything new while writing Lara?
There’s masses that I don’t know about love! Obviously there are many types of love. I think that while writing Lara, I was struck by the force of Olga’s unconditional love for Boris. She literally risked her life in loving him. Talking to her daughter, Irina, I was moved by how genuinely besotted Olga and Irina were with Boris. They absolutely adored him. I think that part of unconditionally loving someone is the ability to see their flaws, to be aware that they have hurt you and yet you still love them because you are powerless not to. It is a force greater than you.
I was also really touched writing Lara by how much Boris loved his parents. His letters to his siblings after his mother and father died moved me immeasurably. Boris’s description of his grief after his mother, Rosalia, died, felt exactly like the intensity of grief that I felt after my mother died 4 years ago. I began to think it was an almost Pasternakian trait to be so close to your parents in adulthood and to suffer extremely after their death.
How many times have you read Doctor Zhivago?
What do you do for fun?
I walk in the woods behind our house with our wire-haired dachshunds and collect kindling wood for the log fires in winter. I feel very Russian-peasant dragging bags of fire wood home!
It’s very exciting as Lara has been bought by the television company Carnival, who made Downton Abbey. The book is being adapted for the screen by Sir Ronald Harwood, who won an Oscar for The Pianist. I am a consultant on the project and so anticipate Lara taking up a few more years yet….