We briefly discussed Julie Lekstrom Himes's debut novel, Mikhail and Margarita, on the 2 April 2017 Eye 94 Radio show. I reached out to Himes's publisher, Europa, and was promptly put in touch with the author. Ms. Himes and I corresponded by e-mail over the course of about a week, while she was in the midst of touring for her book.    
                                                            -Mike Sack

From the inside flap of Mikhail and Margarita:

     It is 1933 and Mikhail Bulgakov's enviable career is on the brink of being dismantled. His friend and mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam, has been arrested, tortured, and sent into exile. Meanwhile, a mysterious agent of the secret police has developed a growing obsession with exposing Bulgakov as an enemy of the state. To make matters worse, Bulgakov has fallen in love with the dangerously outspoken Margarita. Facing imminent arrest, infatuated with Margarita, he is inspired to write his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a satirical novel that is scathingly critical of power and the powerful.
    Ranging between lively readings in the homes of Moscow's literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Mikhail and Margarita recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country with a towering literary tradition confronting a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent. Margarita is a strong, idealistic woman, who is fiercely loved by two very different men, both of whom will fail in their attempts to shield her from the machinations of a regime hungry for human sacrifice. Himes launches a rousing defense of art and the artist during a time of systematic deception and she movingly portrays the ineluctable consequences of love for one of history's most enigmatic literary figures.

 

Eye 94

Is there a particular translation of The Master and Margarita you prefer? Some of the sentences you implanted in the book differed slightly from the copy I have, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

Julie Lekstrom Himes

I used the translation of Burgin and O’Connor—it’s the version I first read a number of years ago when I was introduced to Bulgakov. In my novel, though, I intentionally limited the ‘planting’ of excerpts—I wanted Mikhail and Margarita to be accessible to those who hadn’t yet read The Master (and perhaps entice them to read it). Yet there were touch-points within both novels that were impossible to resist. For example, I was taken with the image in Bulgakov’s story of a woman in the restaurant of the Writers’ Union in an orange dress. He described it as crumpled in his work—I, likewise, dressed one of my restaurant goers similarly. These two worlds—these two scenes—seemed to want to merge in this small way—in the use of this word.

 

Eye 94 

Do you read in any other languages? Are there certain books you would like to see translated into English?

Himes 

I only read in English—and it is a good fortune to those like me that much is translated. I would, however, love to see more works from regions that may be less accessible—East Asian and African works. No doubt there is a world of fine literature that has yet to be translated.

 

Eye 94 

In the acknowledgments you mention unsatisfactory early versions of your novel. What was so unsatisfactory in your early drafts?

Himes 

Early drafts, I feel, are by definition unsatisfactory. It is the act of getting some words on the page, then assessing the possibilities as well as the gaps. Trying to shape a two dimensional mess into something with structure. It seems to me that the gerund, writing, is somewhat inadequate to describe the process. Writing 200-500 words a day until one hits 100,000 doesn’t produce a novel—only a first draft. Perhaps 10-20 drafts later, one has a book. Mikhail and Margarita was written over six years. Some chapters went unchanged from earlier versions but most were expanded, contracted, written anew, or discarded.

 

Eye 94

Like a lot of historical fiction, Mikhail and Margarita uses both historical fact and the bending of those facts, together, to create a new narrative. In this case, there were also the 'facts' from Bulgakov's novels and playing with those, as well. Did you struggle with which facts to bend, and how much to bend them?

Himes 

The happy thing about historical fiction is that the backdrop, the stage, is provided. To that end, and to establish some authority, an authentic setting is helpful, though recent works such as Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad do some wonderful things in playing with our sense of the past. In terms of my novel, secondary characters such as Mandelstam, his wife, Stalin, Stanislawski, Mayakowsky, and others were portrayed fairly close to historical truth or some version of it. With Bulgakov, his voice and his concerns had much to say in crafting this fiction. His novels, The White GuardA Dead Man's Memoir, and The Master and Margarita, as well as his collection of short stories, A Country Doctor's Notebook are autobiographical to some degree, but importantly, his voice is incredibly strong. In my novel, Bulgakov’s story seemed to come from his telling. While the specifics of the situation in Mikhail and Margarita are fictionalized (though based on the historical experiences of many at that time), his reactions to them, his interpretations, his explorations of truth, come at least in part from him and his work.

 

Eye 94 

What were your main sources for historical fact?

Himes 

The research for this work was an interesting journey. I started out, somewhat naively, believing I could read about the Stalinist period and be able to write this book. However, in order to understand the viewpoints of those who lived in that time I had to understand what they were like before the Revolution. Quickly I came to the conclusion that I had to go back to the beginning of history in Russia—which began in and around 800 AD. From there I read forward.
There are a number of wonderful histories about Russia that I read—literally cover-to-cover—which I mention in my acknowledgements, but I also read Russian literature from different eras. Fiction, fairy tales and poetry. Memoirs, particularly from the early 20th century. And also interviews—Harvard Library has an on-line collection of hundreds of interviews—each spanning 20-30 pages, from expatriates who had lived in the Soviet Union in and around the time of Bulgakov. This wonderful trove provided a first-hand understanding of the real concerns for those living in the Soviet Union, as well as a strong sense of their voice.

 

Eye 94 

There is a hilarious and nail biting scene in your novel with Stalin trying to teach Bulgakov to drive. Is that pure Himes imagination?

Himes 

Bulgakov penned many letters to the Soviet government but one in particular, so lengthy that he partitioned it into eleven different ‘chapters,’ he directed specifically to the Secretary General. This letter resonates with his acute frustration and despair over the censorship of his work. And this letter, Stalin answered with a phone call to Bulgakov in the middle of the night. I wanted to portray that exchange in a meeting of the two men, hence the scene. Many believe Stalin actively protected Bulgakov. Many believe he honestly liked his work, and Bulgakov was a popular playwright of the day. It was a chance to put them on the same stage and see what would happen.

 

Eye 94 

Your bio says you're a physician. Did you feel a kind of kinship with Bulgakov in that way? How did you find time to write, and what kept you going?

Himes 

My inspiration for writing Mikhail and Margarita was Bulgakov of course and his novel. He was concerned with the artist and the purpose of art. He wanted to understand, fundamentally, what it meant to be human. What is our need to believe in something larger than ourselves? These themes resonated with me. But I think what gave me the courage to write it was his voice. This comes across clearly in all of his work but more so for me in the collection called A Country Doctor's Notebook. It’s a series of short stories he wrote about his time in rural Russia working as a new doctor, fresh out of university. Nearly all are told in first person. And when I read them, I recognized the fear and regret and self-questioning of a young doctor faced with terrible situations. As well, there was the joy of when things go well; because of a good decision or luck it doesn’t matter. It’s interesting that you ask the question—a few years ago, I had captured one of my experiences as a young doctor in a short story “Omnisciens” published in The Massachusetts Review. Perhaps this gets at the larger question: why do we write? A good friend of mine says that we write to transform our losses into something beautiful and lasting. I believe that, but as well I believe we write in search of a kind of redemption.
In any case, with Bulgakov’s stories, his voice was in my head. I felt I understood him in the way that a fellow physician could. And that I could write this novel—or at least try.
As for having the time to write, I’m not sure anyone does. Two hundred to 500 words a day. Most every day, if I can. Eventually it gets done.
["Omnisciens" is not available online. It was published in Vol. 55, Issue 3 of The Massachusetts Review]

 

Eye 94 

Would you like to write full time?

Himes 

Ideally, I’d love to have larger spans of time (months) when I could commit to writing continuously, meaning four to five hours a day. One of the challenges (and I believe nearly all writers face this—because most must pay their bills in some way), is to stay in the story over long periods of time. There are plenty of distractions; some formula of discipline and selfishness and suspension of all good reason is necessary.
That being said, I have spent the majority of my medical career doing biomedical research, either doing basic research at the bench or in the clinical setting. And this has been hugely satisfying in the way that writing can be satisfying. Like writing, research provides the opportunity to ask the questions, to particularize the universal one: how does this piece of the world operate? It’s not something from which I could easily retreat.

 

Eye 94 

In some ways, Mikhail and Margarita is a difficult read. I'm thinking of the torture scenes. How did writing those scenes affect you?

Himes 

In the many interviews I read concerning this period, those with first or second-hand experience with torture spoke of its long term consequences. The changes they’d observed once their loved one had returned to them—the physical scars, the inexorable aging, the deep psychological trauma. Description of the methods used were brief, and one could sense the desire in these reporters to withdraw from such discussions—the sadistic beatings, deprivation of sleep, constant noise, constant light, all kinds of deviance. It was hard to imagine—and to write, and I suspect I did glance away at times in summarizing rather than telling outright. I needed enough in scene, though, to provide some understanding for the reader of Margarita’s subsequent decisions and actions.

 

Eye 94 

Paranoia appeared to me as a contagion in the book, almost its own character. Did staying in that mindset have an effect on your thinking, outside of writing?

Himes 

In reading the interviews of those who’d lived under that regime, the paranoia was palpable—even in those who provided their interview a decade or more after they’d left the Soviet Union. One man described making a comment at a party about their government, complaining of the shortages and want. A friend pulled him into the hallway and berated him. To paraphrase, did he know every person in that room just now? Did he know how each of them felt or who might be an informant to the police? Informing was a common practice. Citizens were brought in on a minor charge—using another person’s ration book, seeking to barter goods for services outside of the state system. Their choice was presented to them: exile or inform. If one had children to care for, this would be the choice of having them placed in a state orphanage. And beyond the paranoia, there was as well a fatalism—nothing they could do would change things—and their parents, their children, their loved ones, all who’d been left behind, would die in a terrible silence. Their suffering would go unheard, unrecognized. These are powerful sentiments—perhaps more so than paranoia. They were a strong impetus to keep writing this story, their story.

 

Eye 94 

There is a similar strain of, if not paranoia, skepticism/suspicion, in US culture today, albeit on a different scale. Was there anything that could conquer paranoia for your characters?

Himes 

I believe Margarita said it: tell me what I need to fear. In their world, it would be easy to believe that there were no coincidences. Or very few true ones.

 

Eye 94 

What authors have been mainstays for you through your reading career?

Himes 

I’m a fan of William Styron (in particular The Confessions of Nat Turner) and Graham Greene (The Quiet American) and Paul Scott (The Raj Quartet). More recently, and pretty much anything they write: Richard Russo, Jim Shepard, Margot Livesey, Ann Patchett. Alice Munro (of course!) If the prose is tight, I will give the writer their time to get the story going.