Interview: Kerri Turner on Romanov Ballerinas and writing

Kerri Turner is an Australian author whose short stories have appeared in Reflex and Stringybark competition anthologies among others, and in early 2019 her debut novel The Last Days of the Romanov Dancers is scheduled for release with Harlequin Australia. Today on the blog Kerri has kindly agreed to answer some questions about her novel and the transition from writing short stories to a full-length novel.

Romanovs Cover.jpg

Kerri, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me on the blog today. I contacted you after I saw the gorgeous, intriguing cover of the novel you have coming out in January 2019, and my first question is, how did you come to be writing about Romanov ballerinas?

Thank you so much! I trained to be a ballet dancer myself, so growing up ballerinas were to me were what rock stars and actors were to other kids and teens. I’d always planned to write a historical fiction novel set around the dancers I so admired, but didn’t have a clearer idea of what the story would be than that. Then one day I was reading The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky and came across a single sentence in the introduction by Joan Acocella: ‘In those days in Russia there was a heavy sexual trade in ballet dancers.’ I was blown away. I knew so much about the history of ballet, but had no idea some of the most famous names – Anna Pavlova, Nijinsky himself – were involved in such practices. And then I found out the Romanov family was heavily involved too. My story took off from there, shaping itself around these facts.

How fascinating. I love historical novels that take me back into a time period and a culture I’d not otherwise be able to experience  so vividly. (In the coming weeks I’ll review Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens which does just this.) What else can we expect from your debut novel, Kerri?

Early reviewers have said that after reading it they feel like they understand what it feels like to be a ballet dancer – the passion, the complications of ambition, the physical toll, the experience of being on stage, the way movement can transform you. But there’s more than just ballet. The book explores poverty, influence, class divides, societal constraints, love in unexpected places, loss and redemption. I’ve layered it with real life facts and anecdotes – I believe the parts which will seem the most bizarre or outlandish are the parts which are true! In particular Mathilde Kschessinska. She was a real-life ballerina whose antics I actually had to tone down to make her seem believable. And, of course, there is the Russian Revolution, which we all know changed the course of history.

As a long-ago ex-ballerina myself I can’t wait to read this novel – it’s on my Australian Women Writers Challenge list for 2019. For readers who are interested, you can find out more and find pre-order links for Kerri’s book at the HarperCollins website.

Author Kerri Turner

Kerri, I’m currently wrangling a 90, 000-word novel draft and finding revision quite difficult because I’m used to being able to revise an entire short story in an intense period of a few hours – again and again if necessary! Can you tell me how you’ve found the transition between writing (and revising) short stories and your novel?

There is definitely something satisfying about being able to revise an entire short story in one sitting, and you don’t get that satisfaction when revising a novel! I can spend days on just one scene, which can make it feel as though I’m not moving forward at all. The thing is to remind yourself that it is progress, even if you can’t see it. Obviously with a novel you have a lot more to remember when writing and revising, as there are usually back stories, deeper settings, and more characters than you’d get with a short story. So I had to come up with a few practical things to keep track of everything. I keep a pile of post-its next to me while editing, so any time I change something which will affect later parts of the story, I can jot it down and stick the post-it to my desk so I don’t forget.

I also like to print out a quite detailed outline of the story, then assign different coloured highlighters to what I call a ‘thread’. A ‘thread’ for me is an important storyline relevant to a specific character. For example, a thread in my novel would be the volatile relationship between my character Luka Zhirkov and his father. I’ll assign green to this, then highlight where this thread appears in the outline. Then I can stand back and see if the colour green keeps appearing right through to the end of the book. If it doesn’t, I call it a ‘dropped thread’; did I drop it on purpose? What can I do to keep that thread going until the end? Or is that thread not really needed in the first place? Doing this I end up with a cohesive story which doesn’t go off on irrelevant tangents, and I keep my characters motivations and personalities consistent. It also helps ensure I don’t leave readers feeling as though they have a multitude of unanswered questions by the end. It’s a very visual process which and helps because you can’t ‘see’ the entire novel all in one go the same way you can with a short story. I hope that makes sense!

Do you think short stories have played a role in your development as a writer?

They were very helpful in discovering what my ‘voice’ is as a writer. In a short story you have a limited number of words to play with; for me, that meant not spending great passages describing landscapes and scenery because I wouldn’t be left with room for the story I wanted to tell. But I also didn’t want to sacrifice atmosphere or building a vivid world. So I learned to hone in on one or two very small, but very specific details which would instantly bring a setting (or person or object) to life. That’s carried over into my novel writing.

What has been the biggest challenge for you (if any) in moving from the short story form to the novel form?

I actually found short stories more challenging than a novel. I say found in past tense, because there was a lesson I had to learn. I thought short stories were important as a tool in learning how to write, as well as getting your name out there as a writer. So I was trying to write the kind of stories I thought magazines and journals and competitions wanted, and never had any luck. It was only when I started writing stories I felt passionate or excited about that I began to win competitions and get published. That was a brilliant lesson for writing a novel, and made the transition much easier. You don’t want to spend 90,000 words on something that publishers and readers will see through straight away. Write the thing which wakes you up in the middle of the night with ideas and questions, whatever the length of the project.

Do you think you’ll keep writing short stories now, or do you see yourself as a novelist?

I still duck into short stories from time to time. It’s a great way to clear my head when I’ve finished one novel-length project and am not quite ready for drafting the next one but want to keep writing. I have a vague idea for a group of themed short stories – perhaps this will be a book one day, or something to post on my website. We’ll see!

Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with short stories as a reader? Has it changed over time or have you always been a fan?

I was always more of a novel reader, until I went through the process of learning how to create my own short stories. I still read far more novels than I do short stories, but I have an appreciation for the shorter format that I didn’t before. Now I love short stories as a way of introducing myself to writers I’m not familiar with. Themed short story collections – such as Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Meet Cute, or My True Love Gave to Me – are great, as usually I’ve only read one or two authors in each collection. I love seeing their different takes on a similar topic, and the way they stamp their own style on it. I also really enjoy delving into short stories by classic writers. Sometimes they experimented with ideas and themes which were very different to their more well-known books (Roald Dahl and F. Scott Fitzgerald are good examples of this), and other times it’s like having another small taste of what you love about their novels (Louisa May Alcott’s collection of Christmas short stories comes to mind).

And finally, would you recommend to other writers that they write short stories early in their writing career, and why or why not?

Definitely yes! They are such a great way of helping you find your voice without the pressure of trying to carry a 90,000 (or more or less depending on genre) story.

Kerri, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer some of my questions today on the blog. I’m looking forward to seeing where your writing career takes you in the future, and of course to reading your book when it comes out in early 2019. 😊