Books – from idea to conversations

Dec 12


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Helen Whitten

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Books – from idea to conversations

A friend I knew in my teens reminisced recently that he remembered me bursting into a pub or café full of ideas and conversation from the latest book I had been reading. And I guess that is what I love about books – how they inspire ideas, take you to other worlds, into other characters and even better to deep conversations with other people on these topics. And so I am hoping that my own novel, my debut, No Lemons in Moscow, will do this for other people.

For those of you who are writers, would-be writers, or part of a writing group, the process from which my novel began was an interesting one. In our creative writing class we were asked one week to write a list of twenty events or experiences that had been extraordinary in some way.  I included seeing the sunset go down between the pyramids on horseback, being with both my parents at the moment of their death, and a literary tour of Russia in 1990.

The following week we were encouraged to take one event from that list and write about it more fully.  I chose Russia in 1990 and realised that it had changed my life and sense of myself.  I had met extraordinary people and had my mind opened up to life under a communist regime. I wrote about meeting a young Russian in a bar. He had fought in Afghanistan and wanted to start a restaurant but couldn’t grasp how this could be possible. I explained that he could go to a bank, borrow money and pay it back as he made a profit. “Impossible” was all he said. He was unable to get his mind around free enterprise.

The following week the tutor suggested we fictionalise some aspect of what we had written about. So I created the character of Kate, a London woman coming out of divorce who goes on a literary tour of Russia in 1990. There she meets Valentin, a young Russian who wants to become an investigative reporter – a far more dangerous career than starting a restaurant! She falls in love with him and from there she gets into various situations that take her way out of her depth as Valentin wants to expose corruption in the Gorbachev and post-Gorbachev era. A risky business, as we evidence from the journalists we read about who are locked away in cold prisons.

The book is set within this context of the socio-political background of Russia 1990-2003 and follows, also, Valentin’s sister Anya as she battles with a lack of food (no lemons) and her wish to start her own health food shop. I started to write in May 2020 and after many different edits and versions I finally sent the typescrit to the publisher in April 2023.  It was published on 28 November 2023.

It was only when the book was published that I began to think about the various themes of ideas and conversations that could arise from the book. That might sound strange but when I was writing it, I was so focused on the story and characters that I wasn’t thinking about what book clubs might discuss.  Now I realize there are many different themes for discussion and these are just a few:

Identity – Kate is coming out of a bad marriage, divorcing, and needs to reinvent herself as a single woman, single mother and discover how she will pay her bills.  Russia is coming out of the era of the break-up of the Soviet Union and needs to reinvent herself in the world. Both Kate and Russia as a country have to consider who they will be now, how they want to present themselves to the world. Russia in 1990 was full of hope yet has gone down a different journey to the one we expected at that time.  I wrote a blog once about identity being a verb and not a noun as we have to reinvent ourselves often and at many different stages of our lives.

Loss – Kate has lost a baby and her grief infiltrates her daily life and her nightmares.  As many other parents, she wants to set up a charity in her son’s name so that no other mother has to experience the care she did.  The theme of loss also raises the question of how that loss impacted her marriage, as it often does. Instead of bringing a couple together it can push them apart should both parents grieve in different ways.

Love and how it fits within a relationship where one of the couple has a driving passion to change the world as Valentin does with his wish to expose corruption. We see this happen with Navalny, with Khordokovsky, Litvinenko. Stand up for what you believe in and you can be put in prison for years, or killed.  Inevitably this has an impact on intimate relationships and those who love you.

The contrast between life in the UK and life in Russia. The 1990s were a time of recession in England and yet the shops were full of food in a way that simply wasn’t the case in Russia. And post-Gorbachev the Russians came to London to invest their money in property. Kate’s best friend, Eve, in the book, is an interior designer busy making money from this Londongrad period.

Parenting a teenager as a single mother. The book suggests some of the emotional pulls that occur after divorce, the slight edge of competition and jealousy between exes as they relate to children and offer them different experiences, and then the inevitable pull away of the teenager to want to make their own life. How does a mother cope with being thrown back on herself as her role as mother lessens and the child leaves home?

These are just a few of the themes I now realize I weave into the book. You may find more, or different ones, as you read the book. Inevitably each reader comes to a book with their own history, their own interests and perspectives and each person is likely to pick up slightly different topics of interest. That is the fun of a book club, if one chooses a formal setting, or just a chat between friends, as I used to have with my teenage friend.  Either way, I really hope you enjoy the book.

No Lemons in Moscow is available from Amazon or from Troubador Publishers or your local bookstore.


2 Responses

  1. Dear Helen,

    I bought your book before it was published – no idea how my independent bookshop in Sevenoaks got it early. I finished it last night – read deep into the night. I loved it! And, as with all good books, it made me think – and it was a good while later that I actually got to sleep.

    Great start to your fiction career.

    Best wishes for Christmas.

    love Helle XXX

    1. Many thanks for letting me know, Helle. I am delighted that you enjoyed it! And glad that you did find aspects of the story and themes thought-provoking.
      I do hope you are both well and wish you a happy Christmas and healthy and happy 2024. Helenx

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