Hello and welcome to my blog for another round of Meet the Characters! Today I am featuring a guest blogger who has graciously agreed to let me do a character interview, which is my favorite kind of interview. Join me in welcoming author, Ursula Hartlein, and her characters from You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan. It’s a fantastic historical saga with wonderful characters so without further ado here is the interview with Lyuba and Ivan.
How did you first meet your writer?
Lyuba: It must’ve been close to twenty-five years ago, when she started a picture book about two cousins living in Russia in 1917. She had quite a long ways to go in her Russophilia, since my original name was Amy! At least she eventually found a plausible reason for my cousin to be nicknamed Ginny, and Ginny’s real name quickly became Mikhail, though no one ever calls him that. She must’ve liked our story so much, she went back a few years later and began a full-length book.
Ivan: We met in January ’93, though I was written a lot differently back then. The character I became is so much different than the way I was originally written as. I can’t believe I didn’t start out as the guy Lyuba was in love with, and that our scumbag former best friend Boris was the one she wanted. I must’ve been so charming, I won my writer over and convinced her to do some serious rewriting so Lyuba and I would be secretly in love since childhood, and to make Lyuba’s supposed preference for Boris a charade encouraged by her mother.
Did you ever think that your life would end up being in a book?
Lyuba: I’m from the era of “what’s not nice we don’t show,” so I never wanted anyone beyond my most trusted, progressive friends to know some of these things. But I hear 21st century people are much different from the people of my era, so perhaps they won’t negatively judge or blame me.
What are your favorite scenes in your book: the action, the dialog or the romance?
Ivan: I’m a sensitive romantic at heart, so I strongly prefer all the romance scenes. Although I do like some of the action and dialogue, particularly when I’m battling with my scumbag former best friend.
If you could rewrite anything in your book, what would it be? Ivan: I’d do anything to rewrite that nightmarish summer day when I went to see Lyuba when I was drunk out of my mind. I did something I’ve regretted ever since, and regretted immediately afterwards. That ended my month of drinking, the only time in my life I’ve ever touched alcohol apart from church.
Do you like the way the book ended?
Ivan: I’m more than happy with our ending, which was the answer to several of our most fervent prayers. What I’m not happy about is how much Sturm und Drang was delivered to us in the sequel. Didn’t we already survive enough?
What is your least favorite characteristic your writer has attributed to you?
Ivan: Growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father did a lot of terrible things to my mind, but I just wish it hadn’t affected me by giving me such a bad temper mixed with excessive meekness and passivity. Apparently it’s supposed to be a symbolic contrast between Ivan II, the Meek, and Ivan IV, Grozniy, though I was named after Ivan III, the Great, the first ruler to call himself Tsar. But believe me, I’ve only unleashed that terrible temper on my Lyuba once, and I’ve regretted it ever since.
What is your most prized possession?
Ivan: One of the relatively few possessions I saved before some neighborhood vigilantes set my childhood home on fire was an ikon of St. Vladimir. He’s been Lyuba’s and my special saint ever since, and has helped us and saved our lives so many times.
Lyuba: Vanya didn’t think to save any of his old paintings and drawings when he was throwing things into an old valise, but luckily, he’d already given a number of them to me years before. His father beat his love of art and desire to be an artist out of him, but when he still drew and painted, he made such beautiful artwork. I treasure these beautiful pieces, even if they’d never measure up against those of a great master on display at the Louvre.
What are you proudest of?
Ivan: Winning the heart of my Lyubonka, and our beautiful children Tatyana and Fedya. We don’t have a lot right now, but we do have our dear little family. And even though Tatyana isn’t my blood child, I’m as proud of her as though I made her myself.
Lyuba: Finally becoming a respectable woman, no more fear of being caught living in sin and lying about being married. I’m also proud of how I finally conquered all my demons from the past.
What is your most favorite memory?
Lyuba: Besides our wedding, one of my happiest memories came when I was four and a half years old and still lived in St. Petersburg. I was going for a walk with my mother and aunt, and cannons started firing. My mother said they were announcing the birth of a fifth Grand Duchess, but then the cannons continued firing after we’d counted to one hundred one. Three hundred one cannon blasts meant it was finally a boy! We were all so excited and happy, thinking a future Tsar had been born. Sometimes I still wonder what kind of Tsar he would’ve been.
Ivan: Meeting my Lyubochka in March 1908 will always be my happiest memory, along with the day we finally became husband and wife.
What’s your favorite animal?
Lyuba: I attribute my love of horses to the fact that I’m a Sagittarius. While we were moving from place to place after the Bolshevik takeover, Vanya and I became the proud, loving owners of a Kabardin horse we named Branimir. We love Branimir so much, we took him to America with us and are paying to have him boarded at a Long Island stable till we’re able to leave the city and start our own farm.
What do you admire about your parents?
Lyuba: My mother and I didn’t have a friendly relationship until I was an adult, but now we’re making up for lost time. I really admire that she was woman enough to finally realize and admit she was wrong for opposing my relationship with Vanya and wanting me to marry Boris. In her mind, she was doing the right thing, since abnormal was our normal.
My blood father was a degenerate who abused and controlled both of us in different ways, but I have a wonderful stepfather now, whom I’ve regarded as a surrogate father since long before I ever dreamt we’d be family. I even changed my patronymic from Leontiyevna to Ilyinichna because I love him so much. He had ten daughters in his first marriage, but he never treated them like failed attempts at producing a son. He never treated his first wife like a failure either. Even now that he’s finally had a little boy with my mother, he still doesn’t treat his daughters like less than, nor does he treat my dear baby brother like a crown prince just because he’s an only son who came after so many girls in a row. Some men, like our murdered Tsar, are just meant to have more girls than boys and have their only boy saved for last, but that doesn’t mean there should be any discrepancy with how the children are treated. Men who have a lot of daughters or sisters often seem to respect women more than men without a lot of women in their lives.
Seventeen-year-old Lyuba Zhukova is left behind in Russia when her mother and aunt immigrate to America, forcing her to go into hiding from the Bolsheviks and sometimes flee at a moment’s notice. By the time the Civil War has turned in favor of the Reds, Lyuba has also become an unwed mother. But she still has her best friend and soulmate Ivan Konev, a cousin, and a band of friends, and together they’re determined to survive the Bolsheviks and escape to America.
As Lyuba runs for her life from during the terror and uncertainty of the Civil War, she’s committed to protecting her daughter and staying together with Ivan, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in addition to her best friend and the man who’s raised her child as his own since the night she was born. The race to get out of Russia, into Estonia, and over to America intensifies after Ivan commits a murder to protect her and becomes a wanted criminal.
Once in America, Lyuba discovers the streets aren’t lined with gold and that she’s just another Lower East Side tenement-dweller. Ivan brings in dirt wages from an iron factory, forcing them to largely live off the savings they brought from Russia and to indefinitely defer their dream of having their own farm in the Midwest. And though the Red Terror is just a nightmarish memory, Lyuba is still scarred in ways that have long prevented her and Ivan from becoming husband and wife and living happily ever after. Can she ever heal from her traumatic past and have the life she always dreamt of with the man she loves before Ivan gets tired of waiting?
Iván bows his head. “I came back to apologize, my love.”
“Don’t you dare ever call me that again, Kónev. If you loved me, you wouldn’t have nearly killed me.”
He feels yet another dagger tearing into his heart to hear her using vy with him. “I was drunk and angry!”
“You turned out to be just as much a user as every other man I’ve ever been with. My God, you almost killed me!”
“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t be here! You’d be with me!”
“How dare you use ty with me after what you did to me. Nádya, I want him to get out of here now.”
He ventures a glance at her, then immediately casts his head downward again. “I can only imagine how much that horrific wound on your face must hurt.”
“Guess who put it there, you brute! Would you like me to take all my clothes off so you can see all the other bruises, bumps, gashes, and scratches you put on me? Or to feel the huge goose eggs on the back of my head, from how hard you kept thumping me against the floor? Leave here now! As soon as I’ve recovered, I’m going to take my little girl, and will never see you again!”
His eyes well up with tears. “I did that to you. I do not deserve to be called a man.”
“Get him out of here, Nádya! His crocodile tears are worthless after what he did to me! His actions are beyond forgiveness!”
“I’ll go and have a word with him alone and then I’ll be back to sit with you. Doesn’t he know he could’ve killed you?”
Lyuba sends Iván a look of pure hate as she makes the dulya sign.
Nadézhda storms into the hallway with him. “You nearly killed her.”
“I’m going to be sorry every day for the rest of my life! I feel like a monster for what I’ve done, after how I’ve always protected her and been so gentle. Thank God I came back to my senses before I could rape her. I could never forgive myself if my first time doing that was through rape.”
“You have no chance in Hell of ever getting her back.”
“You and Lyuba are pretty close. Can’t you at least tell her how sorry I am, and keep telling her till she finally believes me? I’d sit on hot coals outside the door for a month or stand in icy water for a week as my penance! There’s no life for me without Lyuba.”
“I want to believe you’re sincere and that this was a one-time aberration caused by extreme extenuating circumstances, but this is hardly the time to try to get her to forgive you. You nearly killed her!”
“Lyuba and I both had similar childhoods. We understand each other in ways other people could never. We’re soulmates. All is right in the world when Lyuba and I are together. And Tatyana and I both need Lyuba. That’s the only family we have left.”
“Once you’ve lost someone’s trust, you can’t just wave a magic wand and earn it back overnight. You have to prove you’re sincere over a long time.”
He bows his head again. “I’m dying of a broken heart, Nádya. I need Lyuba or I’ll die.”
“It was almost she who died recently. Metaphorical death doesn’t compare to near-physical death. And given how you’re a wanted criminal, you’re risking your life to come here, no matter what Lyuba thinks.”
“Fine, I’ll leave, but I can’t go on much longer without my love. She just has to forgive me sometime, and remember the special bond we have. I won’t be happy again till my beautiful swan is back where she belongs.”
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Ursula Hartlein, who also writes as Carrie-Anne Brownian, was born on the fifth night of Chanukah, said to be the most special, holy night of the holiday. Though a proud native Pittsburgher, she’s lived most of her life in Upstate New York. She was born in the wrong generation on several fronts, as attested to by a love of silent and early sound film, classic rock and pop, antique cars (particularly Brass Age), classic literature, typewriters, and history. Her degree in history and Russian and East European Studies has been a great help in writing historical fiction, both intense and more light-hearted. She dreams of one day earning a Ph.D. in 20th century Russian history, with a focus on GULAG and the Great Terror, and of having her own small hobby farm on several acres of land. She also creates artwork with colored pencils, pastels, and watercolor pencils.
As Ursula Hartlein, she’s the author of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, set from 1940–46 in The Netherlands. As Carrie-Anne Brownian, she’s the author of Little Ragdoll, set from 1959–74 in New York, and has had work published in the anthologies Campaigner Challenges 2011, edited by Katharina Gerlach and Rachael Harrie; Overcoming Adversity: An Anthology for Andrew, edited by Nick Wilford; How I Found the Right Path, edited by Carrie Butler and PK Hrezo; and The Insecure Writer’s Support Group Guide to Publishing and Beyond. Three books are planned for release in 2015, and she’s currently working on the third book about Lyuba and Ivan, as well as an alternative historical novel about the imagined rule of Tsar Aleksey II.
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Thank you for joining us today! I hope you enjoyed this round of Meet the Characters and will join us again next week!