Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Weston Words, with Rosemary Sullivan

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Rosemary Sullivan

When we study the infamous dictators of the twentieth century, we rarely think of their family lives. But several of these men had children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and the lives of those children are fascinating, and often tragic, stories.

In Canada, there is no better writer to tackle this kind of strange, dark and interesting subject matter than biography queen Rosemary Sullivan. Her latest book is Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (HarperCollins Canada) and it is nominated for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the most influential non-fiction prize in the country.

Open Book: Toronto is thrilled to announce we will be interviewing all five Weston Prize finalists before the October 6, 2015 announcement of the winner.

The prize, founded by former Lieutenant Governor the Honourable Hilary Weston, carries a $60,000 purse for the winner. The award succeeds the previous Writers' Trust Nonfiction Award, which was founded in 1997.

Today we speak to Rosemary about Svetlana Alliluyeva, who shocked the world with her risky 1967 defection to the United States, researching in CIA and KGB archives and Rosemary's reaction to the Weston nomination.


Open Book:

How did your nominated book begin for you? What drew you to your subject matter?

Rosemary Sullivan:

In the obituaries that began to appear after the death of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, in November 2011, she was quoted as saying: “Wherever I go, to Australia, or some island, I will always be the political prisoner of my father’s name.” But she also remarked: “You cannot regret your fate, though I do regret my mother didn’t marry a carpenter.” To veer from tragedy to black humour! Who would this woman turn out to be? Her fate compelled me. To live in the paternal shadow of one of the world’s most brutal dictators, and never escape it!

In writing Alliluyeva’s life, I knew I would have to search FBI, CIA, and NARA files, and also Soviet and KGB archives, exactly the kind of research I find fascinating. I would have to travel to Russia, Georgia, England, and across the US to interview people who knew her. I would meet her American daughter, whose permission I would need to quote from her mother’s unpublished books and letters. I would also have to track down Robert Rayle, the CIA officer who assisted Alliluyeva in her defection in 1967. I’d seen Rayle interviewed in a podcast recorded by the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, and knew how harrowing her defection had been. This was a woman whose private life intersected with the tragic history of the twentieth century: her father’s Terror, his purges, the Gulag; World War II, which had so devastated Russia, with millions of lives lost. In the Cold War that followed, Alliluyeva had been batted between East and West like a shuttlecock. This would be an extraordinary and tumultuous life.


Where were you when you received news of your nomination?


I was at home at my desk answering emails when my editor, and then my agent, phoned to tell me I had been nominated for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize. I was over the moon. But when they said the Writers’ Trust had sent the names of the nominees in a puzzle, I initially panicked. Could they have answered the puzzle wrong? They assured me — NO — they had got it right. My reaction was rather weepy. The nomination was such an affirmation of my hard years of work. I felt very grateful.


What unique experience or benefit does non-fiction provide for readers?


I like non-fiction that foregrounds individual lives against a social, political, or historical backdrop. Lived lives and their dramas, explored deeply enough, are as dramatic as fiction, but you know they are documented and are not the product of the writer’s imagination (which offers different rewards). You discover a number of things: the fact that history is dictated as much by personalities as by ideologies and abstract ideas, and that there are always power structures manipulating us behind the scenes. I love books that tell me what really happens in the world. It might be too easy to say that fiction offers an escape within, while non-fiction plunges us outward into the real, but I will say it.


Tell us about a favourite non-fiction book.


Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy (2012) by Douglas Smith. This is a brilliantly narrated book about the fate of the Russian aristocracy and intellectuals under fierce persecution by the Bolsheviks, who officially designated them Former People. The persecutions began in 1918 under Lenin’s secret police, but continued to impact their children and grandchildren who, by class definition, were “counter revolutionaries.” The children learned to keep silent, to change their names, to invent proletarian pasts. They lived impoverished lives under constant surveillance. Executions and arrests could happen at any time. Former People is a frightening analysis of how the dogma of ideological purity can give licence to murder, but the characters are so intimately detailed that the book makes you want to weep.


What can you tell us about your next project?


My next book could be set in Chile, which I visited for the first time in 1985, and where I now spend part of the year with my Chilean Canadian husband. How does a society survive dictatorship? Or does it? And what happens to the next generation, forcibly made amnesiac by a propaganda machine that deliberately effaces their past? But the book would have to be dramatic, narrated through the personal stories of people who have lived this.

Or I might just visit the vineyards.

Or go to Italy, though it is too soon to say what that search would be about.

We’ll see.

Rosemary Sullivan has written poetry, short fiction, biography, literary criticism, reviews, and articles. Her recent books include the critically acclaimed Villa Air-Bel and Labyrinth of Desire. She is a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and has been awarded Guggenheim, Camargo, and Trudeau Fellowships. She is a recipient of the Lorne Pierce Medal, awarded by the Royal Society of Canada for her contribution to literature and culture, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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