Beauty, Power, and Control: A Conversation with Lara Prescott




LARA PRESCOTT’S DEBUT follows in the footsteps of classic Russian novels by being an epic love story that is both brilliant and bleak, one that is wound into the fabric of tragic, true history. Through alternating points of view, The Secrets We Kept straddles the East and West in the late 1950s and tells the story of the writing and publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. What makes this narrative so interesting is the little-known blip in American intelligence history that it uncovers — the fact that the CIA used Pasternak’s novel as a weapon. The CIA of the ’50s believed in the power of literature and ideas. In a mission code named AEDINOSAUR they used Doctor Zhivago to show Soviet citizens the freedoms they lacked and to thereby win support for democracy over communism.

This faith in literature as a weapon embodies idealism at its best, and what grabbed me in Prescott’s novel was not only this idealism but that she showed the herculean effort it took to pull the mission off. At the same time, she did not shy away from any of the messy, dirty human details that got in the way. Prescott’s incredible skill lies in her ability to illuminate the sacrifices made. Where most authors might hold the characters involved in this feat up as immortals, Prescott does not. She reveals them steeped in flaws, showing that while they achieved the unimaginable, they were also deeply human. This, above all, is what held on to me so tight. It is why I can’t stop thinking about this book. Prescott has uncovered a time when people — normal people — risked their lives and careers for literature. Why don’t we see that today? I’m hoping the faith in ideals that stoked AEDINOSAUR will be as contagious as it was in the ’50s. Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

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RACHEL BARENBAUM: Lara, I have to start by asking you about the power of books. Have you always believed in the power of ideas, that novels can be weapons?

LARA PRESCOTT: Yes. I think a novel has the capacity to change the hearts and minds of the people who read it.

You said that with a lot of emotion that our readers won’t be able to hear on paper. Can you tell us how passionately you believe in the power of books?

I believe it with enough passion that I’ve gotten involved with PEN America for this very reason. I see how books are being banned today, how authors and journalists are being imprisoned. That is a testament to how powerful authors and their words can be — how they can change people. When you have governments who want to keep the status quo — they are the ones censoring, imprisoning writers.

Books have certainly changed my own life by altering the way I view the world. To me, there is no greater way to build empathy than storytelling. Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, and walk the streets of places we’ve never been. In a time where there is so much talk of building walls and vitriolic rhetoric that emphasizes all that makes us different, it is almost a revolutionary act to imagine all that makes us similar.

However, there is a gray area that exists when governments use literature as weapons. During the CIA’s decades-long “Books Program,” authors didn’t have a say in whether their words were used as tools of Western propaganda. As a writer, I’d shudder to think that my book could be used in such a way. Boris Pasternak certainly never intended for the CIA to use his novel against the Soviet Union.

There are two parts to that tremendous answer that I’d like to pull apart. First, you said books have altered the way you view the world. Can you remember the first book that had that power over you?

I have always been a huge reader, always had my nose in a book. The first book I read that blew my mind was The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. Reading those pages was the first time I felt that a book could be so much more. I experienced a life that was so different from mine. I grew up in a white, Catholic community — and this book introduced a whole other world. Seeing the people she painted expanded my view, my understanding.

It made me cry, and that is an unbelievable moment for a reader — that moment when you experience that, when you realize a book can make you cry. For me, it was just overwhelming.

Yes, it really is.

Now on to the second part of your answer. You talked about a gray area in which governments use literature as weapons. Pasternak’s words were loved and used as a weapon by both the United States and Stalin. You wrote specifically about Pasternak’s frustration with Stalin using his work in your book:

It was a hard truth, knowing he no longer owned his words once they were in the world. Once published, they were available for anyone to claim, even a madman. And it was even harder knowing he’d been struck from Stalin’s list, the madman having told his minions to leave the Holy Fool, the Cloud Dweller, alone.

 Can you talk about this a bit more?

As an author, you write with certain themes and intentions in mind. But when your book goes out into the world, you no longer have control over how someone interprets your words. When I wrote that passage, I was thinking about how Boris might have felt, knowing Stalin — someone responsible for so much death and misery, including the persecution and death of Boris’s loved ones and friends — was a fan of his poetry.

And what I really want to say to your question is that when you’re an author and you’re in control of the message, you might have a point you want to get across — and that’s great. But when you have governments or the CIA involved with using your art, that’s tricky. You might not want your words used that way. And that’s upsetting.

Do all of your characters believe in, or come to believe in the power of ideas? Does the typing pool? Irina? They are all working toward the publication/dissemination of a book. Why?

During the Cold War, both sides believed in the unmatched power of books. Joseph Stalin once described writers as “the engineers of the human soul.” And in a 1961 secret report to the US Senate, the CIA’s chief of covert action described books as “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda.”

The majority of my characters in The Secrets We Kept agree with these sentiments. However, some of the characters — like the CIA typists — came to work at the CIA not because they believed in the power of ideas, but as a means to an end. Irina simply needed a job and was thrust into the covert world of book dissemination due to her unique Russian background and attributes. Sally, a leftover from the OSS (the World War II–era precursor to the CIA), came back to the CIA because she enjoyed the power that came with prying secrets from men. The plural voice of the CIA typing pool comes the closest to what I think early CIA officers must have believed in regarding the power of books.

Let’s move on to another one of the larger themes in the book: the individual’s power. In several sections, you make a point of noting who has power, who wants power, and why. You set this idea in the center of your stage early on when you write that there is power in being a keeper of secrets. “It was a power that some, myself included, found more intoxicating than any drug, sex, or other means of quickening one’s heartbeat.” Can you talk about this?

Money is a motivation for some, for others it is love or lust, but I’m fascinated by those whose drive is to obtain power. Having lived and worked in Washington, DC, for almost a decade, I experienced firsthand the draw of power. It is the center of all things in the city built on a swamp. When I worked on political campaigns, I met many people who’d given up much more lucrative employment because they sought power. And in DC, information is often the most powerful weapon of all. I believe that was true in the 1950s and it is even more true today. Those who have the most information often carry the heaviest stick. 

Let’s push the theme of power a little further. Later in the book, Irina feels she is her most powerful self when she is covered and disguised as a nun. You wrote that she felt “sexless — and powerful.” Similarly, Boris realizes he thinks of Olga as even more beautiful and powerful than ever when she stops curling her hair or wearing jewelry or makeup. Why does stripping away femininity make women powerful? 

It depends on the person. For some, enhancing one’s femininity can be an expression of power to the highest degree. For others, it is the stripping away of femininity that makes one feel a new sense of strength. For Irina, I believe it made her feel invisible, removed from the male gaze, and as a result, empowered her to take chances and have the opportunity to begin anew. For Sally, she felt strong when dressed as if she’d stepped off a Hollywood film set. For Boris, Olga’s battle scars from her time spent in the Gulag were almost a physical representation of her love and sacrifices for him.

I’m interested in examining beauty and power from all sides, and what happens when that beauty fades or morphs into something new.

It’s interesting that you’re focusing on the physical as a way of showing character development. Can you talk more about that?

I think that physicality is tied into character development. The things they experienced within the body were leading them to change. Throughout the book I have the headings, the chapters titles, that are consistently crossed out, as each character becomes someone new — or takes on a new role. The changing of the body and the changing events in their life went hand in hand.

I studied under Elizabeth McCracken when I got my MFA at the Michener Center, when I was writing this novel. She would write in the margins of my work, and in other students’ work, “Always remain in the body.” What does it look like? How do they move? It was an amazing lesson to learn, something I keep thinking about with my characters.

When I was first writing, I had a tendency to have a lot of interior monologue but now thinking about how they physically feel and change is something I keep with me. It is something I learned from her. She was the best teacher ever. A couple of us always still ask each other: what’s in the body?

This is one of the great things about when I was drafting this novel, I got feedback from mentors like her. I was evolving as a writer, as one always does when they write. And with each revision, working with her, I was growing.

You said that casually, “with each revision.” There were many revisions?

Yes. Oh my god, yes. Countless revisions.

How did you stay with this book through so many revisions?

There are two things that made me stay with it. The first is I had another career. I was an older MFA student. I knew this was my huge opportunity to get down to writing this novel. After this MFA, I was going back to work full-time so I worked as hard as I could. Graduation was my deadline. Second, because I was writing something connected to my heart so personally I had a real obsession with it — and I loved the research. Also, I collected a lot of objects around the book. They really held on to me.

I have the CIA mini-edition of Doctor Zhivago. I got a ticket from the World’s Fair. I’m obsessed with objects. I think they have a power to them. I found them on eBay and other auction sites. And these objects really kept me invested. I have the 1958 Time Magazine issue with Boris Pasternak on the cover. The ads and other things mentioned in the articles around what I was collecting also influenced the novel. They gave me a great sense of the time period. A few of the products from those old magazines ended up in the novel. 

Moving along to another aspect of the classic Russian novel, I want to talk about tragedy. There’s a brilliant exchange in the middle of the novel. One character says, “All men, all women, for that matter, secretly long for some great tragedy. It sharpens the lived experience. Makes for more interesting people. Wouldn’t you agree?” The reply is terse. “Only privileged men romanticize tragedy.” Can you talk about this? 

I was imagining the world of these highly educated, highly privileged white men, and how they might view the world. People living through truly tragic circumstances certainly are not pausing to reflect on how these events may be making them more interesting people. They are just trying to survive. As Olga puts it in the novel, “That’s just what Russian women do.”

That line, that sentiment, was heartbreaking. It actually pushed me to reread the original Doctor Zhivago, and this time around, I looked at the characters in a different way.

Yes. Sometimes I think I should write from the perspective of Zinaida (Pasternak’s wife). What was it like to be the wife? I often think about her story. Olga and Zinaida next to each other.

But for all Russian women there was such an acceptance of misery, of a tragic outcome. At the same time, it’s a powerful aspect. Despite these tragic circumstances they are going to keep moving on. That mixture of tragedy and the strength that comes from that — I find that really interesting.

At the end of the book, one of the characters thinks she sees another, one she’s lost. (Note: we don’t want to spoil anything here, so we’re being vague.) It’s only a moment and then the character realizes her mistake. Well, I had a reader contact me who has experienced just that. She wrote to me, “I am 70 years old and I still wish to see her again.” I think about that a lot, that tragedy. The people in your life, the ones you love and you’ve lost, when you have that glimpse, just a brief moment, it rehashes all the emotion. Everything that’s involved.

It’s incredible, and I actually keep that reader’s note with me for that reason.

This brings me to who I thought were the most tragic characters in the book — Olga and Irina. Olga in particular at one point laments her children understanding that sometimes love isn’t enough. And I think Irina felt the same. Can you talk about the parallel tragedies in the lives of these two women? Why did you focus on love?

For both women, the love they wanted and deserved was always just out of reach. Olga never became Boris’s wife, while Irina’s love for Sally could never be fully realized. Both are tragic loves (as is the love story between Yury and Lara in Doctor Zhivago).

Okay, switching gears, I’d love to hear a little bit about the craft of writing this gorgeous novel. Lara, how did you decide where to stick to fact and where to add fiction? Did you work with an outline?

I was first inspired to write a novel about the CIA’s Zhivago mission after reading the agency’s declassified documents. Throughout the reports and memos were redactions of names and details of the mission. At first, I was interested in filling in those blanks with fiction. But later on, I was interested in the people who typed these reports and memos, which led me to the first voice I started writing: the plural voice of the CIA typing pool.

Initially, I thought I might possibly write the whole novel from that voice, but the more I researched, the more I knew I needed to expand the universe to some of the real people who experienced these real events — especially Olga Ivinskaya. This feeling heightened after I read Olga’s autobiography in November 2015.

My goal was to capture the essence of these real people, and when possible include real quotes and facts; but at the same time, I was most interested in what the historical record doesn’t contain: What did Boris and Olga say to each other behind closed doors? How did the handoff of the Zhivago manuscript between the Brits and Americans go down? Who were the redacted names within the CIA documents? This is where fiction came into play.

I worked from the chronological, real-life events, as documented in the historical record, but didn’t outline my work until later drafts. I had all of these voices and threads, which I was constantly moving around to see the best ways to weave these stories together. During later drafts, I had a giant dry-erase board hanging in my office, where I would move the pieces around like a puzzle.

It’s no secret that your road to publication has been a wild ride. Your advance has garnered a lot of attention, good and mixed. How are you dealing with all of this as a debut author? Any tips for up-and-coming authors?

My advice to up-and-coming authors is to always hold close the real reason you write. Don’t write for publicity or reviews or money — or else you’re bound for disappointment. The real reason you sit down and spend years writing a book you have no assurance is ever going to be published is because you have something to say, and because you hope a reader somewhere someday will open your book and take something away from it. That’s all you can really hope for. The rest is just noise.

If you judge your success or the value of your work based on money or publicity, it can harm you. It’s not good for writers to think this way. All the mechanisms of publishing are not you — the core writer.

And keep close those in your life who love and support you — the people who celebrate your wins with you and offer a shoulder to cry on when you need it.

Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

I just finished Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Conversations with Friends. I read both novels in less than a week. My favorite writer is Edward P. Jones, so I’d recommend anything he’s written — especially his DC-centric short stories in Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children.

I also would recommend people read Doctor Zhivago if they haven’t already! I’ve found that most Americans are more familiar with the David Lean film adaptation, and many Americans haven’t read Boris Pasternak before, which is a shame, as he is such a master on the sentence level, as well as on the expansive world so signature to what one would expect from a great Russian novel.

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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.

 

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