1. Could you tell readers a bit about who you are and what you do?
I’m a dance-lover rather than a dancer; and I’m a writer with two books of fiction published, the first one a short story collection, the second one a novel.
2. What is your latest book called and what is it about?
It’s called RUSSIAN WINTER and centers on a Bolshoi ballerina during the last years of Stalin’s rule. The book goes back and forth between modern-day Boston, where the dancer has been living in the decades since her defection, and post-World War II Moscow, where we witness her life as a young dancer rising in the ranks of the Bolshoi and her friendships with other artists striving to fulfill their dreams while living in a totalitarian state.
3. Why did you decide ballet would play a part in your book?
From the moment I pictured this elderly Russian woman in Boston, I thought of her as a ballerina, maybe because the idea of exploring that world and learning about life in a ballet company was exciting to me. Then, in my research, I began to understand just how important the ballet was to the Soviet regime, which relied on the beauty and glamour of the theatre as a counter to the bleakness of daily life. I’m fascinated by how well that government understood the need for the arts in society and tried to foster—well, manipulate—ballet, opera, music, literature, if in an ultimately stifling manner. What I most wanted to show in my novel, though, was how art is this humanizing force that really can save us.
Only later did it strike me how appropriate ballet in particular was to the book, since I was writing about life in authoritarian state, and ballet can be seen as authoritarian, with its precise rules and strict discipline. Think of the corps de ballet, the self-abnegation and conformity ballet often requires. So it was a good parallel to what I was trying to say about Soviet life.
4. How did you make sure your information about dance was accurate?
I had a strong foundation to start from since I began ballet lessons at age 5 and have always read dancer biographies and memoirs. For RUSSIAN WINTER I was focusing on ballet in the 1940s-50s, but for nitty-gritty details of backstage life I spoke to a friend who danced with the New York City Ballet (she’s retired now), and she introduced me to another dancer who’s still there and showed me around backstage. So I asked them whenever I had questions, and after the book was finished I showed the ballet sections to a former ABT dancer as well as a ballet teacher here in Boston and another retired dancer I know.
5. Why do you think dancers would enjoy this book?
Well, it’s highly entertaining and suspenseful whether you’re a dancer or not, which is why readers have been responding to it. And while dancers will find the Bolshoi sections interesting, I think overall they’ll connect with the story because it’s about the passion and devotion necessary to succeed at any art. Other key characters are a poet, a composer, and a literary translator—but dancers will relate to the intense focus, practice, and emotional depth that make these people artists.
6. How did you develop the characters in it that are dancers?
As a fiction writer, I know what it feels like to be passionate about something that much of society doesn’t really care about, and to keep working hard at a project even when it seems I’m about to fail. Like dancers, I absolutely HAVE to do this thing, because it’s what I love. So I tapped into that when I considered these characters and their relationships with each other. Also, I’m aware of the combination of hard work and luck that’s necessary for success, so I had that in mind, and in particular the huge risk and sacrifice it would be for someone who has worked her way up to prima ballerina to abandon the company in order to find personal and political freedom.
7. Do you see any similarities between writing and dance?
Yes, both in terms of the work involved—the striving for perfection that always feels just beyond you—and the way that the power and beauty of what you’re producing has to come from within you, from your own inner resources. And in terms of art forms, they’re also very similar, since ballet is poetry without words, and written language has its own shape and rhythm and music.
8. What did you enjoy about using ballet as a backdrop in this book?
I loved learning small details about ballet school and backstage life. I was able to visit the New York City Ballet before a performance and saw the dancers being made up and a principal dancer rehearsing on stage with the pianist, and I loved learning about costumes and wigs and shoes and props. It was exciting to bring my new “knowledge” to readers who might otherwise not think about this side of ballet. I especially liked showing not only the beauty of what happens on the stage but also the blisters and corns and hairpins, etc., that the audience doesn’t usually see.
9. Do you see ballet any differently now that you have written about it?
I think I appreciate even more the physical and emotional intensity of a dancer’s life. And from reading up on so many classical ballets and watching various versions of them, I see more clearly how deeply rooted—if not always acknowledged—these classic works are in the public imagination.
10. What’s next for you?
Another novel—a love triangle—about professional musicians in Boston.
Book club discussion information for those who want to read the book with a group.
About the author: Daphne Kalotay grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Vassar College before moving to Massachusetts to attend Boston University’s Creative Writing Program. There her stories went on to win the school’s Florence Engel Randall Fiction Prize and a Transatlantic Review Award from The Henfield Foundation. She remained at BU to complete a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Literature, writing her doctoral dissertation on the works of Mavis Gallant. (Her interviews with Mavis Gallant can be read in The Paris Review’s Writers-At-Work series.) Daphne has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, the La Napoule Foundation, Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and is a grateful recipient of the W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts from Vassar College. She has taught creative writing at Boston University, Middlebury College and Skidmore College and lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.