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Thriller set in Russia (“Confiscation and Requisition” in Revolutionary RUSSIA) plus author Q and A

5th September 2013

Red Winter by Dan Smith, thriller set in Russia.

11409128180.01.ZTZZZZZZ920, central Russia. It is bleak, cold, dark, it is densely forested and there is a murderer roaming freely, executing locals and branding them with a red star. It is a time when the country is in turmoil, no-one can be trusted, no-one is giving anything away. All the factions, whether Red or any colour of the rainbow are fighting each other, changing sides and being duplicitous – it’s a scary and uncertain world, with a very uncertain future. Russia is a country that has suffered years of “confiscation and requisition”.

Much of the feel of this book is reminiscent of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, as people wander in search of meagre food rations and shelter; the devastation of the surroundings is palpable. This is a country on the edge, the inhabitants living on adrenaline, looking out for the next danger, and the next attack. It is a bleak and stark landscape.

Nikolai Levitsky, known as Kolya, has deserted from the army, and has brought his mortally wounded brother Alek to the family izba, where he anticipates finding his wife Marianna and his two boys. But their home is deserted. Galina, their neighbour is in hiding, and is distraught at the brutal murder of her husband, so much so that she takes her own life in front of Kolya by walking into the nearby lake and drowning herself. Gradually, it becomes evident that a watery death is a common occurrence amongst the women victims. The name of Koshei starts to be thrown about, linked to the gory deaths – he is a mythical figure of terror, a legend, a nebulous character from old fables, yet he seems all too real in the terror he is visiting upon the people of Central Russia. He seems particularly focussed upon Kolya. Kolya is driven to plough onwards to find his family and to solve the mystery of the sadistic killings, trekking and riding through the snow-bound landscape, the snow that “..covers everything, from the Autumn mud and the flame-coloured leaves to the sounds of the forest and the bodies left in the wake of armies and oppressors. Marianna always told me that God sent us the snow to make our country beautiful; to hide whatever ugliness we created for ourselves’…

Red Winter is a riveting novel that transports the reader to the harshest of climates, in the depth of Winter, and has gained many accolades: The Times says it has a “superbly shivery atmosphere”; and The Sunday Times: “Smith has fashioned a story of page-turning intensity that simultaneously possesses real depth of characterisation”.


TF Red Winter, your latest book, is set in Central Russia 1920. The despair and darkness of the times really come to life. How did you set about researching the country and that period of history?

DS Research, and knowing just how much to do, is always a bit of a tricky one for me. I don’t really plan my novels other than having a vague idea of a beginning, ending and a few events that might happen in between, so it’s not always easy to know what I need to know. I tend to read around the subject as I write, which often sparks ideas, and I leave blanks in my initial manuscript, detailing research that I need to do. For Red Winter I spent a lot of time reading Russian literature, folk tales, and historical books/websites as well as watching Russian films. Basically, I try to immerse myself in the time and place as much as possible.

TF It is quite a dark book, set in a very bloody time of Russian history. How did writing it affect your mood?

DS I don’t think it really affected my mood at all. I’ve always been fascinated by dark and horrible things – not in a weird way, I might add – and how people overcome them. It amazes me how resilient people can be under even the most extreme and terrible conditions. I think that reading and writing about those things just makes me realize how lucky I am.

TF How did you choose the names of your characters?

DS Names can be really difficult – particularly when they’re not the kind of names a reader will be accustomed to seeing. For Red Winter, I drew up a list of Russian names that I thought would be easy for an English speaker to identify with, or that they might already be familiar with, then tested them out with each character. Often a character doesn’t feel right until they have the right name.

TF Your books are invariably set in wonderful locations, for example Dark Horizons is set in Sumatra and The Child Thief is set in Ukraine. What spurred your interest in making the location an important part of the narrative?

DS Growing up, I spent many years abroad. We lived on rubber plantations in Sumatra and Brazil, (with the opportunity for a lot of travel), and as a student, I lived in Spain and Russia as part of my studies. Location has always been important to me and even now I can remember what those places felt and smelled like. Location is one of the first things that comes to me when a new idea is developing – to my mind, it makes for a more interesting story if the setting is another character for the reader to enjoy.

TF What is your typical writing day like?

DS Absinthe in the morning, laudanum in the afternoon . . . actually, writing is my job, so I have to be very disciplined. I’m not a writer who just writes when the muse takes me, otherwise I’d never get anything done. I usually start at about eight in the morning and work through to about one. After that I have time to catch up with a few other things before collecting my children from school, and doing all the dad stuff. At the moment, though, I’m writing two books a year, so I sometimes have stints of dragging myself up at five in the morning and working until late. So, rather than absinthe, it’s usually lots of coffee and the odd biscuit!

TF What are you working on at the moment? Will location be an important feature again?

DS I’m just putting the final touches to next year’s books and, yes, location is an important feature. Without giving too much away, God and The Devil is a dark and dangerous journey along a remote Brazilian river known as Rio Das Mortes (The River of Deaths), and my next book for children, My Brother’s Secret, is set in Germany in 1941, about a boy whose belief in the regime is challenged when his family suffers a tragedy.

TF How do you celebrate when you have finished a book?

DS With a big sigh of relief! By the time I’ve finished a book, I’ve read it so many times that I just can’t look at it anymore, so I treat myself by starting something new.

TF As location has been integral to date in your work, where is your favourite place to take a holiday?

DS I’m lucky to have visited many interesting places, but there are one or two still on my list. Ironically, though, I don’t really go on any adventurous holidays. With a family of four, the main factor is expense, so holidays usually involve a pool and some sunshine, but you know what? It’s a great way to relax and it’s the best time to read.

TF What kind of novels do you yourself like reading?

DS I’ll give pretty much anything a go, but I think life’s too short to read books I don’t like – if I’m not enjoying a book, I put it down and read something else. The books I prefer are the ones that take me somewhere unusual and where the characters are challenged but aren’t able to rely on modern technology to solve their problems. I like a bit of darkness and I want a novel to make me feel some kind of emotion. There’s nothing better than coming away from a book thinking ‘I wish I had written that.’ At the moment I’m reading In Evil Hour by Marquez, and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, and I have Cormac McCarthy, James Lee Burke and Tom Rob Smith lined up.

Many thanks to Dan for taking the time to answer our questions. You can follow Dan on Twitter and on Facebook.

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