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reader’s guide to THE KITCHEN BOY by Robert Alexander
A Conversation with Robert Alexander
Your book is the product of some extraordinary research. Was there any information that was particularly hard to find? If you could have just one missing document, what would it be?
First of all, I should say that doing the research was perhaps the most
enjoyable aspect of writing THE KITCHEN BOY. There’s just so much
information out there - so many books, memoirs, biographies, archives,
photographs, and newsreels - that it was a privilege to dive into such
fascinating material and call it work. Ninety-five percent of what I
sorted through was not difficult to find primarily because Nicholas and
Alexandra were perhaps the most well documented royal couple in history. I
say that because in addition to writing numerous letters and keeping daily
diaries, their lives were captured by many of the newer technologies. For
example, the entire Romanov family was crazy about photography, and the
royal children each had their own wooden Kodak camera. Amazingly, they
left behind 150,000 family snapshots, all carefully glued into albums -
and that’s not even counting the official court photographs. You can see
a handful of these photographs at my website, www.thekitchenboy.com.
In your novel, your narrator says something surprising about cross-cultural perceptions. He says, “The truth is that Americans cannot possibly begin to understand the depth of the Russian soul.” It seems to me that many of your readers will want to achieve just the kind of understanding that your narrator says they can’t have. Is Misha just being difficult, or do you believe that there really is a psychological profundity that only another Russian can recognize?
What an excellent question. Yes, Misha is just being difficult, but in doing so he is, to me, being so very Russian; as I know them, Russians take remarkable - and remarkably smug - pride in the mysteries of their culture. I love Russians for their dramatic, emotional nature. They’re not afraid to love, not afraid to get hurt, not afraid to exaggerate or act impulsively. Much of that, of course, is due to the extraordinarily tragic times they’ve lived through, from wars to revolution to rapidly changing political systems. In other words, they have an outlook and value of life that has, by and large, been shaped by tragedy. A small example of this is that many Russians spend money as quickly as they get it, and I believe that’s due not only to the Soviet era where self-dependency was not encouraged but also, more recently, to hyper inflation and devaluation. I have a one hundred ruble note that in 1990 was worth $165 but today is worth maybe two cents (to me it’s priceless as a bookmark), so obviously Russians have learned the hard way that there’s no point in saving.
I should add that Russians and Americans always seem to get along very well on a one-to-one basis, and that, I think, is because we are both from great, expansive countries that are the most multi-cultural in the world. At the same time, however, there are many fundamental differences between us that continue to amaze me. One of the great mistakes we make is that we try to understand Russians in the context of European culture, when in truth Russian culture and society is historically more Asian than it is European. I’ve heard many Russians say that their country is not an Occidental one but Oriental, from which, they insist, they received mysticism, fatalism, and turmoil.
One of the fascinating qualities of Misha as a character is that he wants to be both known and unknown; he desires to be secretive, but he also wants to talk and talk. What are your thoughts about Misha’s simultaneous love and dread of communicating?
So who doesn’t want to tell a secret, particularly one that’s been
burning in your heart for decades? Actually, only very few people want or
even succeed in taking a secret to the grave; most feel a need to confess
as a way of “lightening” their souls, as a way of preparation for the
Even when a historical novelist makes it very clear, as you have done, that he has written a piece of fiction, readers may still turn to the book in hopes of finding some form of truth. You have written a book in which truth and falsehood richly intertwine. Is there anything you would like to tell us about the problem of “truth,” either for a historian or for a novelist?
Facts alone are not the only way to discover truth. Indeed, I think
stories that open both mind and heart are perhaps the best way to a
greater truth, and therein lies the beauty of fiction.
By the very nature of their profession, historians are of course forced to remain focused on the hard facts, but when the facts are skimpy or missing, it’s difficult to create an accurate picture of what really happened. In fiction, however, one is not so constrained. As I wrote THE KITCHEN BOY, I could speculate, I could probe and imagine, I could ask “what if” and play that out. Also, I think it’s important to recognize that most facts are, essentially, the result of human decisions, which are determined in great part by a person’s emotions and feelings. And while the territory of emotion is a nebulous, even dangerous one, for any historian, it’s fodder for a novelist.
Virtually all of the books on the Romanovs are non-fiction, which is why I wanted to do something different. The works of historians are priceless, of course, but historical fiction is often more accessible to the non-scholar. It also allows the reader to experience the events vicariously, to feel them and see them, rather than study them and potentially get bogged down in minutia. While we know via the facts what happened almost every day of the Romanovs’ captivity, I wanted to use the magic of fiction to breathe life into those sweltering days, hours, and minutes, and thereby give readers another point of entry into the tragic story of Nicholas and Alexandra. We know the facts, but what did it feel like, what were their hopes, how did they interact? Not all of us are lucky enough to find our wisdom while we’re still on earth, but I do think that Nicholas and Alexandra, who made many downright stupid mistakes, did in fact come to a greater understanding of their lives. And that, ultimately, is what impresses me about them and what I wanted to explore fictionally.
One story you have chosen not to tell us concerns the married life of May and Misha. Given the, shall we say, unusual circumstances of their coming together, how do you imagine them as a couple?
In my imagination I know almost every aspect of their lives. Simply,
May and Misha are an utterly devoted couple, united by tragedy, truth,
forgiveness, and love. May’s love for Misha is much cleaner and purer,
for in her soul she has come to terms with the events and resolved them,
put them at rest. Misha’s love for May, however, is more complicated -
he’s devoted, absolutely so, but he feels an even greater sense of
obligation to her. Misha can’t let himself forget. In fact, he’s
determined not to.
In the Ipatiev House, everyone is under constant surveillance, and your characters would suffer horrible penalties were they to say what they think. What were the challenges of writing a narrative in which so many thoughts and emotions have to be repressed?
The main challenge was to identify and create a sense of tension, the
key ingredient needed in any book. In my opinion it’s the element
missing from too many contemporary novels, for without tension there is no
pace, no reason to turn the page, and who doesn’t like a compelling
book, not to mention a page-turner? I think tension in a book is more
important than ever because these days there is so much competition for
the “moment” from television, videos, computers, the Internet.
The murder of the Romanovs is somewhat like the assassination of JFK in that, on one level, everyone knows what happened and, on another level, no one knows what happened. What was it like to construct a story that is at the same time so familiar and so mysterious?
Like walking a tightrope, frankly. There are so many intimate details - and so many people who know those intimate details - that I had to be especially attentive and careful of the facts. If a reader spots a mistake, then nine times out of ten they let you know! For example, I got a 4 screen email from one reader who said he would have enjoyed my book but there was no wheelchair in The House of Special Purpose. I wrote back and gently broke it to him: yes, there was, I have a photograph of it in the dining room. Essentially, as I wrote I knew I couldn’t blow my credibility, for a single mistake in the facts would break the sense of story and verisimilitude.
Readers who are familiar with Russian literature may sense a certain Dostoyevskian undercurrent in your prose. Are you conscious of a stylistic influence deriving from the Russian masters? Do you feel as if you have written a “Russian” novel?
Would that I could be so talented, but really my only goal was to create as realistic a Russian voice as possible so that the story would, in turn, be as believable as possible. Sure, as a Russian language major I’ve read all the great pieces of Russian literature, but what I relied on to develop Misha’s tone and point of view were actually my own experiences and impressions over the nearly thirty years I’ve been traveling to Russia. I studied at Leningrad State University, I worked for the U.S. Information Agency in Russia, and for over twelve years now I’ve been a partner in a St. Petersburg business. I travel frequently to Russia, I speak with my Russian partners numerous times during the week. So I drew on all those experiences as I wrote, and whenever I wasn’t satisfied that I had found a “Russian” way of writing the story, I simply called St. Petersburg and asked which way was up.
Your book is reminiscent of Crime and Punishment in that it centers on deep, inexpressible guilt, but also suggests the miraculously redemptive power of love and forgiveness. In this horrible, brutal story, Maria’s power to forgive apparently offers us a pathway out of the darkness, but that path seems to go dark again when Misha kills himself. Why did you decide to have him finally reject the forgiveness that has kept him alive for eighty years?
Author Edvard Radzinsky so clearly writes of this, warning of “the
dangerous courage of the Russian soul - it is not afraid of sin.” In
other words, Russians have a fundamental belief that the only way to find
the redemptive power of love and forgiveness is to sin. The guilt that
follows throws one unto the feet of God, where one eventually finds holy
deliverance. Misha makes mention of this halfway through the book - sin,
torment, purification; sin, suffering, forgiveness. It’s a critical
aspect of Russian Orthodoxy, and this is why Russians sometimes refer to
the “joy of suffering,” for it is the light that shines the way to
The Romanovs’ story is one that often makes people-including the kitchen boy in your novel-start sentences with the words, “If only . . .” Do you have a favorite “If only . . .” regarding the Romanovs?
Yes! In late February of 1917, Nicholas gathered a handful of
ministers, including Prince Golitsyn, the Prime Minister, and announced
that the next morning he would go to the Duma and grant what everyone had
been demanding: a government accountable to parliament. Nearly every noble
and revolutionary recognized this change as the only way to avoid complete
catastrophe. A few hours later, Nicholas changed his mind, presumably
dissuaded by Alexandra, who was convinced that autocracy was best for
Russia and who was fiercely determined to leave the system intact for her
son. So instead of going to the Duma the next day, Nicholas quietly left
the capitol for military headquarters. And a few days later, revolution
This novel is likely to whet your readers’ appetites for more. Are there any nonfiction studies of Nikolai and family that you especially recommend?
Please turn on your computer speakers and take a look at the trailer at www.thekitchenboy.com. In addition to some historical photographs, a more complete bibliography follows the trailer. Otherwise, here are a few of my favorite works of non-fiction on the subject:
THE FALL OF THE ROMANOVS, Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir M. Khrustalev
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