True Events of Unlikely Female Spies & Doctor Zhivago Inspire a Debut Novelist
They say inspiration can come from the most unlikeliest of places. For Lara Prescott, debut novelist of the recently released book, “The Secrets We Kept,” it was a room full of post-World War II typists working at the CIA in Washington DC. Gossipy, repressed, often bored, but always curious, these women, referred to as “the girls” by their male superiors, longed to make their dull responsibilities as challenging and exciting as their families assumed they were. Unbeknownst to the rest of the pool, two of the women managed to do just that. And thus began a writer's journey that would lead several intriguing story lines, based on actual historical situations, and memorable characters that cross over continents and alliances.
Throughout the novel, readers are taken from the typing pool at the CIA, to Boris Pasternak in the Soviet Union as he eagerly and painstakingly crafts the his now famous book, “Dr. Zhivago. While he takes it over the literary finish line, he, with the help of his mistress, they try to keep it out of the hands of Russian officials who hardly want it to see the light of day in Russia, let alone get translated and garner the international acclaim it eventually did. It isn’t long before the banned masterpiece is coveted by the CIA, determining its value far beyond entertainment. It was believed to be a love story with important political messages between the lines, and the CIA, with the help of two female agents, would go to great lengths to acquire it and launch its worldwide release. “The Secrets We Kept” uniquely and successfully ushers in a world of drama, love, international espionage, with a hint of bad-ass female power.
The men would arrive around ten. One by one, they’d pull us into their offices. We’d sit in small chairs pushed into the corners while they’d sit behind their large mahogany desks while speaking into the ceiling. We’d listen. We’d record … Sometimes they’d refer to us not by name but by hair color or body type: Blondie,, Red, Tits. We’d had our secret names for them, too: Grabber, Coffee Breath Teeth. They would call us girls, but we were not. We came to the Agency by way of Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith. We were the first daughters of our families to earn degrees. Some of us spoke Mandarin. Some could fly planes. Some of us could handle a Colt 1873 better than John Wayne. But all we were asked when interviewed was “Can you type?”
Several months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Texas-based writer, Lara Prescott while she was in the Bay Area promoting the novel. I just recently followed- up the initial connection with a phone interview on the heels of books release this month. Here is part of our conversation -
PF: The story crosses genres, including historical fiction, suspense and literary fiction. Did you plan that or did it happen organically as the story evolved in the writing process?
LP: Towards the end of the first draft I could see there were all these different pieces coming together and different genres. At first it wasn’t super intentional but once I could see the different influences from my own reading coming on display with what I was writing.
PF: You obviously formulated great use and presentation of strong female characters, despite the suppressive era of which they lived. How did you approach those character developments, especially of the two leads, Irana and Sally?
LP: The first voice that came to me was the typists. I had been thinking about writing this story about the hidden story behind Dr. Zhivago , but I was pretty intimidated. As I was researching and going through a lot of redacted memos, I came across this voice of the typists. I kept thinking about the typists behind the memos. That sent me down a rabbit hole of researching the CIA, typing pools and the clerks. At first I saw them as a group, but then Sally and Irina emerged from that. Once I was writing their stories, I began research on Boris Pasternak and how his wife and mistress, no matter what, stood by his side. I knew if I only told the Wester/ CIA side of the story, it wouldn’t be complete. Pretty soon it was anchored by the strong female voices, but I wasn’t limited by it. In both stories- in the East and West- I was very interested in the women behind the men.
PF: Throughout the story, the reader is taken back and forth between story lines, between the characters of the CIA in the West, and those in Pasternak’s life. Did you write it that way, going back and forth?
LP: I wouldn’t say it was written as it appears now. Once I got the key players, I would write through their story lines and spend multiple months with each one. When I was in my Olga phase, I would stay there awhile, but then I would go to Sally, etc.
PF: You obviously spent much time devouring Dr. Zhivago, the book and the movie. Were you a fan before setting out on this project?
LP: Absolutely. I was raised with it because it was my mom’s favorite book, and for both my parents, it was one of their favorite movies (the David Lean version). I grew up watching the movie and then read the book in my teens. As a teenager I became obsessed with all the great Russian novelists. It’s changed the way I’ve read and perceived it over the years, but I definitely have a true love for the novel. I didn’t hear about the CIA connection until 2014 when Washington Post journalist, Peter Finn, did a FOIA request for these documents to be released by CIA. As a result, he wrote a non-fiction book call “The Zhivago Affair.” I read that and it inspired my process.
PF: Did you read and/or watch Dr. Zhivago during your writing process or did you feel that would distract?
LP: I read the novel while writing my book about three times just because with Boris, a lot of Uri Zhivago is kind of his counter. That help me to know how he viewed him. Plus, I wanted to figure out which parts of the book would have been state censored. As far as the movie while writing, I watched it twice. Once was while visiting family during the Christmas- that’s a beautiful and appropriate time of year to watch it. And then I watched it again when an old theater in Austin was showing it. That viewing was with a group of friends and after I sold the book to Knopf. That made for a particularly special experience.
PF: Is it true there was travel involved for your research process? You made connections abroad related to the book.
LP: The first place I went to was Russia. That was while writing the first draft. I went to Russia and outside of Russia where the writers’ colony took place and where Boris lived. It was absolutely inspiring to go to his house, to walk around the village where he lived, and to see his burial site in a local cemetery. I don’t speak Russian, so it was hard to navigate, but just to be in that atmosphere was effective.
I did also go to London. Oxford is where Boris’ family settled after leaving the Soviet Union- his father, mother and two sisters. Boris’ great niece still lives in the family house, Ann Pasternak. I got to meet her. As you can imagine, that was a special experience. Different parts of the family have varying views of Olga and elements of the Pasternak legacy.
PF: I noticed your name is spelled L-A-R-A, as opposed to more traditional American way of the spelling. Is that at all related to the story?
LP: Yes, I was named after Lara in the story. It’s funny, I always resented the way my name was spelled cause people were always mispronouncing it. Now it actually was a source of inspiration to investigate the story, ultimately write the novel, so I see it as a gift.
Currently, Lara is in the throes of an extensive book tour, but is still contemplating her next project. She told me she’s considering two ideas with one being a historical novel taking place in her hometown of Austin, while the other one is more contemporary. That being said, she is allowing herself space to enjoy the success of what’s going on now, and eventually maybe some downtime, but soon enough, she’ll decide on her next novel and focus on that.
The Writer’s Nightstand - Writers are readers, with either new reads their devouring, or books they love revisit. I asked Lara what’s on her nightstand?
LP: I recently finished “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips, and I’m reading “How We Fight for Our Lives,” a memoir by Saeed Jones. As far as the favorite I go back to is “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones. That book is a masterpiece. I also read his short story collection frequently. As far as what I’m looking forward to, that would be Ann Patchett’s new book, “The Dutch House.”
“The Secrets We Kept” has been translated into 28 languages and will be adapted for film by The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions. It is published by Knopf and available for purchase. It’s destined to be a favorite among booksellers and make the “Best Of” many literary lists for 2019. Please be encouraged to purchase it from your local independent bookstore in person or online. Below are a few indie store selections and their links.
Book Passage - San Francisco and Corte Madera, CA - https://www.bookpassage.com/
The Strand - New York City - https://www.strandbooks.com/
Books are Magic - Brooklyn, NY - https://www.booksaremagic.net/
Mahogany Books - Washington D.C. - https://www.mahoganybooks.com/
A Real House of Racist Horrors Makes For Great Fiction
From the atrocities of slavery to the horrific realities of the Jim Crow South, award-winning author Colson Whitehead delivers a literary one-two powerful punch with his latest novel as follow-up to masterful book, "The Underground Railroad." This 2019 release is very different in style, structure and elements, but equally impressive book from a more contemporary era. “The Nickel Boys” takes place in Florida during the Jim Crow era. In it, he does a fictionalized version of the life of two boys in a reform school that is more about imprisonment and racism than actual reform or education. Although the name of the school has been changed, it did exist. And the real life recently revealed atrocities and murders took place there, served as inspiration for the novel. The main character, Elwood, who, after abandoned by his parents, spends most of his childhood with his grandmother in a predominantly black community of Tallahassee, Florida. Throughout his youth he is kind, quiet and obedient. He is also smart, which does not go unnoticed by one of his teachers, and his boss, the owner of a small tobacco shop. They, along with his grandmother, are thrilled that he gets an opportunity to accept a scholarship to attend a nearby black college a year or two ahead of the traditional timeline. In the months leading up to his departure, he follows the progress of the Civil Rights movement and its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is in awe of his teachings and social impact, and he is excited to be closer to “the action” when at college.
It is en route to the school that Elwood, and the readers, are reminded that life is not fair, especially for a young black man in the Jim Crow South. While hitching a ride to the college, he and the driver are stopped by police because they were black while driving a nice car. Despite Elwood's age and obvious innocence, they both end up arrested for car theft. Elwood was sentenced to several years in Nickel Academy- far from college and his dreams of academia, and even further from his grandmother, the only family he had. The harsh environment of Nickel Academy initially proves especially challenging for a sweet soul like Elwood. When he tries to do the “right thing” and help someone else, he is beaten and stored in solitary confinement. Upon release and after being befriended by classmate, Turner, he learns, for a period at least, to keep his head down and play by the rules. All the while, his hope for freedom and a better life, is through retrieving the teachings of Dr. King that he committed to memory, and obtaining freedom for his fellow inmates. As such, Elwood yearns to have the reform school exposed for what it really is.
King described “agape” as a divine love operating in the heart of man. A selfless love, an incandescent love, the highest there is. He called upon his Negro audience to cultivate that pure love for their oppressors, that it might carry them to the other side oft the struggle. Elwood tries to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. The capacity to suffer. Elwood- all the Nickel boys- existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured.
Throughout the novel, which is a surprisingly brief 200 plus pages, Whitehead commands an assured voice. He has fully drawn characters whose psyche and circumstances you sympathize with, empathize for, and champion on. What is not expected, is a wonderful and welcome restraint of which Whitehead craftily incorporates throughout. He could have overwhelmed the reader with intensity and details- rightfully so, understandably so given the subject matter- and still have been appreciated and applauded. Instead, to his credit, Whitehead takes you right to the edge, without pushing you over. His prose and descriptions are nuanced, brief, yet impactful nonetheless. It is the combination of a writer operating at the top of his skills, along with a horrific history and rich fictionalized characters that make "The Nickel Boys" an inspired, essential read.