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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Author Interview: Olga Godim

Interview with 
Olga Godim, 
author of 
Lost and Found in Russia

Warm welcome to Russian-born Olga Godim, the author of Lost and Found in Russia, to The Happy Book Reviewer!

This is the story of two mothers, Amanda and Sonya. After the shocking discovery that her daughter was switched at birth thirty-four years ago, Canadian Amanda heads to Russia to find her biological daughter. Thirty-four-year-old Russian dancer Sonya battles her own daughter’s teenage rebellion.

Godim: Thank you, Trisha, for inviting me to your blog.

Happy to have you! So, this is your only non-fantasy book. What inspired you to write contemporary women's fiction instead? Did you set out to try a different genre, or did certain events inspire Lost and Found in Russia?

Godim: I’m predominantly a fantasy writer, that’s true. It’s how my brain works. But several years ago, I started thinking about a story that eventually became Lost and Found in Russia. Snatches of that story just wouldn’t leave me, maybe because it is based partially on my personal experiences.

Really? How so?

Godim: When I was young and poor, I often fantasized: what if someone showed up at my door and said that I had been switched at birth, and my birth family was rich. And they’re looking for me. What would I do? What would my mother do? And – here was the tricky question – what would my other mother do? Would she want and love me as much as the mother who raised me? From that daydream sprouted the idea for one half of the book – the story of Amanda, who discovers after 34 years that her daughter was switched at birth, by mistake.

The second part of the novel unfolded in my mind after I met an amazing woman, Irina, in Montreal. An immigrant from Russia, like my protagonist Sonya, Irina came to Canada with nothing and accomplished much. I was inspired by her optimism and determination. She told me about her life and her struggles to find her place in a new country. Awed by her courage, her indomitable spirit, and her lovely soul, I adopted her as a model for Sonya. After my meeting with Irina, the novel practically wrote itself, although I have to say that both women are absolutely different. Sonya came from my imagination. Unlike Sonya, the real woman Irina had never been a dancer. She was a musician, a violinist, in Russia. She became a surgical nurse in Canada. Could you imagine how much efforts and study hours went into such a drastic professional switch!   

Now, I think I heard about a Russian switched-at-birth story like yours happening in real life recently! Did you see that story?

Godim: Yes, there was a news story recently about two babies switched at birth in a hospital. And what do you know – it happened in Russia too, last year. The hospital switched the babies at birth, by mistake, and the mothers, obviously suspecting that something was wrong, started searching and doing DNA testing. The hospital denied all responsibility. Several months later, the two women found each other and switched the babies back. Their reunion with their own babies was a very poignant moment, as was their parting with the babies they raised and nursed and loved for those months. They both feel as if both baby girls are their daughters. I thought I made it all up, but it seems such things could happen… in Russia. Here is the news reel about the mothers’ reunion: http://www.nbcnews.com/video/nightly-news/53613825/#53613825

You're a mother (and a daughter) yourself. Did that make the story of a mother and child searching for each other more poignant because you know first-hand how deep a mother's love runs?

Godim: Yes, I suppose. Being a mother and a daughter, I know the dynamics of a mother-child relationship from both ends. But every woman is different, unique, so two women wouldn’t react identically to the same situation. When I was doing research for this novel, I asked my own mom: “What would you do if someone comes to you and says that I’m not your daughter? Would you help us meet? Accept the other woman’s claim that I’m her daughter?” She said she would, with no hesitation. Then I asked my sister the same question: “What would you do if someone said your daughter is not really yours, and you have another daughter somewhere else?” She said she wouldn’t allow such a person in the door. She could never accept that the daughter she raised and loved could be someone else’s child. In this story that I made up, there are actually several controversies running around. What about the daughter who suddenly learns that her mother is not her mother, that she has another mother some place else. She loves her mother. Would she love the other woman? Again, everyone reacts differently.    

Reviewers of the book point out how enjoyable your depiction of Russia is to read, and that you clearly love the country and are an expert on it. What are your ties to Russia?

Godim: I grew up in Russia, although it was a long time ago. Russia is a country of contradictions: between poverty and wealth, between the richness of her culture at one end of the spectrum and the majority of poorly educated, rampaging bigots at the other. There is an epidemic of drunkenness and a sweeping corruption there, but at the same time, the amazing feats of courage and self-sacrifice are common among the best of her people. My best friend is a Russian woman. In my novel, I tried to show the best Russia can offer, but some pretty gruesome facts also made their way into the story. I guess the truth often has multiple faces.  

I love books with a message. If a high school class were reading your book some day, what themes or messages would the teacher want the students to pick up on?

Godim: I’d say the most important message of this novel is: “Don’t give up. It’s never too late. Persevere in whatever endeavor is important to you.” 

Amanda learned that her daughter was switched at birth 34 years after the fact. That’s quite a long time. Undaunted by the weight of years, she traveled to Russia. She knew she would have to deal with a host of foreign bureaucrats, the lack of democracy, and the inevitable changes the time brings, but she didn’t despair, because she wanted very much to find her biological daughter. She persevered. 

Sonya was a dancer in Russia. When she immigrated to Canada she was already over 30 and resigned, at least at first, to losing her dancing. She thought it was too late to establish a new dancing career in a new country. But dance beckoned her. She missed it bitterly: the music, the movements, the stage, and the audience.

The turning point in her story was when she danced for Jane. Jane was a quadriplegic, and Sonya worked as her caregiver. At one point, Jane demanded to see Sonya dancing, and Sonya complied. The scene of her dancing is my favorite in the novel. It’s not exotic or sensual, quite the opposite, it’s rather mundane, but it reflects Sonya’s need of dancing, her joy in her body moving with music. After that scene, Sonya became determined to recapture her dancing. If I ever write a sequel, Sonya’s dream of dancing will come true.

You've also done a translation of a Russian classic that hadn't been translated to English yet. Can you tell us about it?

Godim: I'm bilingual, English and Russian, and I wanted to offer my readers one of my favorite stories by the Russian writer Alexander Grin. His novella Scarlet Sails, first published in 1923, is very popular in Russia. I loved it when I was a young girl. Since its first publication, Scarlet Sails has had numerous adaptations in Russia, including a movie, a ballet, and countless print runs. The story is lyrical and romantic, almost magical, and filled with the vague yearning of the unknown. It’s available in English translation, but I’ve heard that the existing English translation is no good. Besides, it was published several decades ago and is out of print now. So I decided to translate it myself and put it on my website – for anyone to enjoy. It was the labor of love and my tribute to the author. You can find it here: http://olgagodim.wordpress.com/translation-scarlet-sails/

How was translation similar to writing a novel? Or was it very different?

Godim: Translating is an art in itself, nothing like writing a novel. When I translated, I wasn’t concerned with the story structure or with developing characters. It was already done by the author. Instead, I wanted to convey to the readers what the author wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.

There are two schools of translation. The proponents of the first one postulate that translating should be done word by word, to get the readers to feel the foreign language, its rhythm and its imagery. I’m not sure this is the right approach. I subscribe to the other ideology of translation: that the readers’ experience in the target tongue should be close to that of the readers in the original tongue.  

When I translated Scarlet Sails, I sometimes skipped adjectives (there are too many in the original, and the English readers are not reacting well to the abundance of adjectives) or changed the sentence order in a paragraph, so it would sound better in English. I even omitted occasional sentences or combined a couple of sentences into one, or used some metaphors the author didn’t use while dropping the ones he did. My main goal was to bring the text closer to the modern English readers, although I tried my best to keep the author’s lyrical tone and his romanticism.

That sounds exhausting, but so rewarding, especially for a work you feel so connected to! Is your next work going to be a translation, a contemporary women's novel, or are you moving back to fantasy? Can you give us a hint about your next book?

Godim: I don’t plan on doing another translation, at least not yet. I have a fantasy novel, Almost Adept, published in January 2014, and my second fantasy novel will be released in May. I’m writing another fantasy novel now. I might return to the story of Amanda and Sonya one day, I have an idea for another story about Sonya, but I don’t know yet.

Thank you for coming on today! Readers can find Lost and Found in Russia in e-book and print at:

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