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Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
9:43 AM 29th October 2020
arts

An Interview With Molly Gartland

Molly Gartland is a member of the Debuts UK 2020 group of novelists and her first novel, The Girl from the Hermitage was published earlier this year in eBook and paperback formats by the independent publisher Lightning Books, and was reviewed for our publications in August.

The Girl from the Hermitage begins with the idea of a character and a broad theme, and Molly felt compelled to allow the story to evolve, despite having no intention of writing a novel, or indeed, becoming a writer herself.

Common to many writers, creating the novel was a slow process, one she describes as a “labour of love”, and it took five years to reach the day of publication. She admits that sometimes she found the days of researching, “learning to write”, and actually writing the novel frustrating, struggling sometimes with motivation. But the biggest challenge came when she began to submit the manuscript to agents. The almost (it seems) inevitable experience of receiving rejections, or simply no reply whatsoever, she describes as “brutal, frustrating and disappointing”, however, before abandoning the manuscript to a box concealed in a cupboard, she started to approach independent publishers directly, and that found Lightning Books.

Molly lived in Moscow for six years until 2000. In 1990 she was a student at Michigan State University studying Financial Management and opted to take Russian language classes, whilst also joining an international student organisation called AIESIC. With very tender, perhaps nostalgic, fondness, she describes the organisation as one that “was driven by one goal: peace and fulfilment of humankind’s potential”. And, she says, the members were motivated to spread a little “PLIG: peace, love and international grooviness”.

On graduation, she learnt that some AIESIC alumni were moving to Russia to start a courier and freight business, so she too moved to Moscow to assist the start up with her sales and marketing skills. The Soviet Union had by then collapsed and Russia was going through a fascinating, transformational period, during which time she lived and worked in Moscow, along the way meeting her future husband, and acquiring a portrait that was to inspire her novel.

The painting, entitled Bird Girl, is by a Russian artist Ludmilla Mikhailovna Sgibneva and Molly discovered that the painter had survived the siege of Leningrad as a child. Molly explains that her life had “been lived against a backdrop of historic events and change (and) was fertile ground for a novel”. She began to consider how Sgibneva’s life would have been affected by the circumstances she lived through, what was taking place in her life when she painted the portrait in 1977, and how things would have changed when she sold it twenty years later. Molly used facts from Sgibneva’s life as a foundation for the forming of her novel’s central protagonist, Galina.

Molly Gartland. Image by Peter Denton
Molly Gartland. Image by Peter Denton
In The Girl from the Hermitage, Molly explores the themes of patriotism, the love of one’s family, how the past casts shadows that linger into the present, the process of ageing and the tension found between generations of a family. Many of the characters were inspired by those she met in Moscow, but only peripherally. In the book, Galina’s grandson, Igor, was based notionally on a colleague of hers, a computer programmer at the freight and courier business; however, she says the “fictional Igor departed radically from the Igor I knew”.

She has often described herself as a “terrible Russian student” and whilst her spoken linguistic skills improved during her time in Moscow, she says that since leaving Russia, she’s used the language very little. However, on researching the novel she says she had to “dust off the language skills…and it was great to reconnect with the language”. The research was time consuming, reading books by Svetlana Alexievich, Orlando Figes and Dr Stephen Cohen, as well as watching many interviews and documentaries on the siege and its survivors.

On writing, however, Molly Gartland is direct: she says she most certainly learned as she progressed. If she has a particular literary style or authorial voice she is adamant that it was not a conscious choice; instead her objective was to “write a good story that would take the reader to a time and place that perhaps they have not considered”.

Like many others, Molly writes in her blog that reading was a “welcome escape” during the lockdown period, despite at first finding it difficult to concentrate owing to the constant distraction of daily statistical updates and government briefings on coronavirus. However, with Lightning Books bringing forward the publication date of her novel because of an increased demand for eBooks, Molly found solace in the task of promoting her book. She is also grateful to have made the connection through social media with other debut novelists, and indeed joined the Debuts UK 2020 group; she tells me that being published has “brought her into a whole new world”.

She says, “There are many authors I admire for many different reasons, but I could never say who, and how (they have) influenced me. Part of learning to write is learning to read like an author. Noticing how other authors develop plot, characters, and setting to gain ideas”. She has recently read Mr. Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo, who, she says, creates vivid characters, and Lucy Fricke’s Daughters, which contains dark humour that seems apt in the current climate. One of her very favourites, however, is The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. It is a novel in verse, and Molly advises it “is best read aloud on a beach with someone you love”.

Molly describes herself as “a suburban mother who lives a wonderfully dull life”, preferring “drama in fiction, not real life”. She enjoys tennis and countryside walks, and whilst Covid has halted her enjoyment of theatre and travel, she seems quite resilient, adapting to the new normal rather than resisting the interruption that the pandemic has caused to ordinary life. It isn’t the first time she has lived through a period of significant change, however. Russia of the late nineties was a country undergoing enormous amounts of transition and whilst she was there she admits that she was too busy “having a good time…to follow the current events”, but she recalls it was an exciting place to live, with a “crazy wild west feeling to the place”. She says it was only later when writing her novel that she realised quite what an extraordinary and rapid transformation she had witnessed.

Now, in 2020, she believes it is a time for creativity rather than tradition. Therefore, instead of taking silly risks to pursue our usual activities, for example at Christmas time, she suggests we experiment with something new – besides, there’s always the possibility that the alternative becomes preferable. Molly is channelling her creativity into a second novel, which will be set during the Russian Revolution. Despite the many distractions of 2020, she has done a lot of research and begun to write, so fans of her first novel will have a second book to look forward to in the near future.


The Girl from the Hermitage is published by Lightning Books