Which situations or people influenced you to start writing? I loved history – always had done, right from a young age at school. I adored the Victorian era, Dickens’s novels and later – in the 6th form – developed a passionate interest in Russia. So Russia and Victorian Britain became my abiding loves and interests and they are the two subject areas I enjoy writing about. No one in particular influenced me in terms of starting writing, although I had a wonderful and inspiring history teacher. The urge to write history came from inside – an inborn desire to retell the stories of the people and events that interested me.
What’s the hardest part of your job? I honestly can’t say that there is a really hard part of the job, because I am hugely fortunate in that I love it. But I guess at times the solitude can be hard – writing is a very lonely profession; and on occasion I have worked too long and hard and made myself exhausted. I think probably the hardest part is the frustration of not finding evidence for something specific, that I want to include in a book – after much hard searching. I have a passion about getting to the truth of things and if I can’t do that then I do get disappointed and discouraged.
What’s the best part of your job? Undoubtedly the freedom of being self employed and having the luxury of getting up in the morning and deciding what I want to do – or not do – that day. But this freedom also has a down side. I am self supporting and have to work hard, so if I don’t keep coming up with ideas and writing and selling books then I don’t pay the bills. The insecurity can be worrying at times but that’s the price you pay for not working in a 9-5 job.
What inspired you to write ‘Four Sisters’? I’ve been fascinated by the four Romanov sisters since I began research back in 2007 for my previous Romanov book – Ekaterinburg. I felt very drawn to them but sad that we knew so little about them or their lives, their hopes and dreams and aspirations. I felt they had been sidelined by history, made anonymous and I wanted so passionately to give them back their identities as women.
Where did you start when writing ‘Four Sisters’? Well in many ways this book is a continuation and extension of Ekaterinburg. I was thinking about the girls a lot when I wrote that book, and had the title ‘Four Sisters’ in my head before I even wrote a line. So essentially, I have been gathering material for the book since 2007, but didn’t start work in earnest until it was signed in 2012. I’m still on the lookout for new material now and shall always retain my interest in them.
What was the best thing about writing ‘Four Sisters’? Having pretty much a blank page in terms of telling their story. There isn’t a lot of published material about them in any extended form – but a lot of very scattered and often fragmented sources. It was a challenge first of all to gather together what material I knew was out there and then go in search of new sources. I was very pleased about the new material I found – particularly the Anastasia letters I discovered in the Hoover Institution in California, but there were lots of other lovely, smaller finds along the way. I worried when I first began work on the book that I would not find enough to say, but in the end I had to leave a lot of things out.
What was one of the best things that happened because of ‘Four Sisters’? Well undoubtedly the incredibly kind and generous response I have had from readers, who tell me that they learnt so much from it. But especially hearing from Romanov fans who thought they knew all there was to know about OTMA and say that my book came up with many new things. The fact that the book moved people meant a great deal to me. And of course the book’s fantastic success especially in the USA, where it was in the NY Times bestsellers for 12 weeks was enormously gratifying.
Why does ‘Four Sisters’ have an alternative name for American readers? This is purely a US marketing decision and happens all the time! My US publisher wanted the key words ‘Romanov’, ‘Nicholas” and ‘Alexandra’ in the title. I guess the proof is in the pudding – the book has been a big success there.
Do you collect anything? Books – Russian history and art and Victorian history and art and culture
What are you working on next? Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 – a book describing events in the city during revolutionary year, from the point of view of foreign eyewitnesses who were there. For the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017.
Portrait photo of Helen Rappaport by John Kerrison Photography.