Julie Lekstrom Himes’s Mikhail and Margarita, published by Europa Editions and awarded last year’s Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, fictionalizes Mikhail Bulgakov’s life pre-Master and Margarita. While longing to write a great book, Bulgakov falls in love with Margarita, who, defiantly opposed to the Stalinist state, inspires his masterwork. But the budding book and a complex web of relationships invite vicious retaliation by the Soviet secret police.
For its second half, the book channels its meditations on love, art and secrecy into the fast-paced acrobatics of a thriller, actually enacting what lesser novels would leave at the level of ideas. Its final scenes suggest that writing and love work as one in undermining the claims of the totalitarian state.
Mikhail and Margarita is a book equally noteworthy for its addicting plot as it is for the serious questions it asks about the writer’s relation to the state. Though perfectly matched to our era, Himes’s novel draws on a problem that returns us to the form’s origins: what type of truth does fiction mint?
I spoke to Julie Lekstrom Himes on the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): How, when you were writing this book, how hard was it to structure the love triangle between Bulgakov, Margarita and Ilya, in such a way that the reader’s sympathy is consistently to lie with Bulgakov, but at the same time you do empathize with Ilya and his desire for Margarita—for a life with her. How did you balance that love triangle?
Julie Lekstrom Himes: It comes down to this: How do you, in the context of writing, engender empathy, or induce your reader to find empathy for characters who are making bad decisions, hurtful decisions, or who by nature of their character are not very good people?
It comes down, that is, to what a lot of writers of literary fiction strive for: representing really complicated people, people like those we would know. I mean, no one wants to write about a Hitler figure. That being said, we are looking to write about complex individuals. And so to get to that point where you can induce a reader to feel empathy for someone, it really comes down to the bare-bone details of why people make the decisions they make. No one writing is trying to explain the world, but rather explore the world. To do that, you need to get into the details of action and thought. It’s a lot of time in that room getting to know people. Getting to know one’s characters.
So I think anything that would’ve been less fraught for the reader would’ve been a whitewash for the reader—something very black-and-white. Something comic book-like. Spending time in the room with each of these people helps you see different aspects of their personalities. I think that’s what leads all of us to having a more empathetic nature, be it toward a character in a book or a person you work with, a family member, etc.
Rail: At what point in the process of writing the book did you feel that you adequately knew all your main characters?
Himes: In truth, I think it takes a lot of time. There’s a point after writing a number of drafts where the characters take on a life of their own. You can step and watch them. Certainly when I go through the process of writing, a first draft is about getting action on the page. The second draft is about getting characters’ reactions to the consequences of their actions. After a number of those drafts, the characters take the story on themselves. That’s very satisfying as a writer. Let them work through what they’re doing, stand back and try to write it down.
Rail: That’s when you know something is working?
Himes: I think so. From a craft standpoint, there’s the story. Characters, structure. There’s also a lot of concerns regarding structuring the novel itself. I spend a lot of time thinking about that, but not until I’ve written a number of drafts and can really stand back and think, okay, is it leaning to one side? How do I bolster it to get it to take on the right shape as a novel.
Rail: Had you worked on a novel before this one?
Himes: Yeah, there are a lot of writers who have a novel or two in the drawer. I’ve heard Charles Baxter talk about this, his first two novels that stayed in the drawer before he thought he was successful. At one point, in my twenties, I attempted a novel. It didn’t get anywhere near as far as a novel in a drawer. It was a very early and poor attempt.
Rail: Could you give a quick summary of how you got to this subject matter? How did it call out to you? How did you come to be interested in the Soviet experience and Bulgakov’s experience?
Himes: I was introduced to The Master and Margarita by my father-in-law, who at the time was working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a consultant to the USSR and later to Russia and the Ukraine. In terms of the safety of their nuclear power plants. So he was traveling back and forth from Russia regularly. And he handed me the novel after one of his trips and said, “They call this writer the Russian Garcia Marquez.” I read the book and loved it, but I’d never heard of Bulgakov. So I flipped the book over and read the paragraph on the back of the book about his life, his work, how he was heavily censored during his life, living in danger of arrest—and after he died of illness, of natural causes, his wife hid his novel until Stalin’s death. It was immediately hailed as a masterpiece. The Russians adored this writer. I was intrigued.
At the time, I was starting to take my own writing seriously. Being quite young, I’d tried to write before, but perhaps didn’t approach it in a very logical manner. This was a time where I was writing short stories, trying to learn the craft, finding teachers and mentors, writing every day. I’d started taking myself seriously by then and I knew I wanted to try a novel. At some point. But I hadn’t gotten there quite yet, I thought; I wasn’t ready to take on that body of work. And so that’s where I was in my life, and then I read about this writer who, over the course of his life, could not get anything published. Could not get his plays produced. Or if they were produced, they were pulled off the stage in a matter of days. A man living under extreme conditions—threat of torture, imprisonment, death. I’m thinking, who does this?
Writing is already so terrifically difficult to do, trying to figure out the right words to put on the page, the right way to shape the story. And no one’s out there waiting for you to finish, and there’s no agent or editor waiting for you to finish. No one pounding at the door, saying, “I can’t wait!” No, there’s plenty of very good writers trying to do that. And so I was intrigued by this person, who made me ask the question: why is writing so important? Why is creating art so important that there are those willing to risk their lives to do it? And the lives of those around them?
That’s the question I was interested in exploring, and the question that Bulgakov clearly explores in his own work. And so my hope was not to recapitulate what he’d done—he’s the genius, he’s the master—but really to take a look at this question under the conditions that he lived and trying to explore the same questions that he did: what is it about art that feels so necessary? What is it about art that defines our humanity?
Rail: Do you think you answered any of those questions? Not that there are clear answers.
Himes: I think it comes down to the desire to find empathy for others—that’s why we create art, to look for connections with others of our kind. And we try to explore the world to figure out how it works, how it operates. My day is job is biomedical research. That’s been my career. I started out doing bench work and then moved on to clinical research once I got my degree. And so I think I’ve always been intrigued by questions of, How does the world operate? And I’ll ask myself, how does this particular person or group operate? I think most of us are exploring those basic questions in our lives. How do we work together? How do we get at these answers?
Rail: How does your work in the sciences impact your style of storytelling?
Himes: Maybe you’re referring to the fact that I tend to write in scene rather than with exposition—I like both ways of storytelling, but you’re getting at an interesting point. Writing in scene is the experiment on the page. Whereas writing in exposition is telling you what I think, or what the narrator thinks, which in some ways is what the author thinks. But if I let things play out in scene, it has more of an experimental flow. At the end of the day, as a scientist, until you show it in an experiment, it’s just a hypothesis. Maybe if I were a theoretical physicist I’d write more in exposition. Interesting way of looking at it.
Rail: Did you always find yourself writing naturally scene-by-scene?
Himes: Yes, I do tend to revert to scene, even if it’s little mini-scenes I’m writing. Writing more in exposition is more of a chore. I like to let things play out. I’m working on another novel write now, which is written in first-person, and I’m having a lot of fun. I love works in first-person, so that I find is more easy to write exposition in, as a framework.
Rail: Why is that?
Himes: The character as narrator is freer to tell you what he or she thinks. And the narrator is recalling only one point of view on an event. It’s similar to close third: you really are in one person’s head. But it’s a little freer.
Rail: Also, you’re developing the narrator as a character through exposition.
Himes: And it feels authentic because you’re doing it through the voice of a person. You’re striving for authenticity. Not only because you’re trying to convince a reader it’s real, but because you want it to feel true. At the end of the day you’re trying to understand how this small piece of the world is operating. I can let someone in first-person go on about his or her world, whereas in third-person I have to labor scene by scene.
Rail: This is a love story that takes place in times of terror. That puts a different pressure on the love story, as opposed to a love story taking place in, say, NYC in the twenty-first century. Did you find that difficult? To write about love and people’s emotional lives in a moment of state terror?
Himes: It’s challenging no matter what the setting is—to convincingly portray love. Everyone has experience of the heaviness of love, and the difficulties of old love, so that it’s a universal, a constant. The challenge in a particular setting is that I haven’t been tortured. I haven’t been arrested. And so folding those realities of that time into love is the challenge. Love is the constant, the historical constant. It’s the other pieces that present the challenge.
Rail: So the love story in a novel is a way of inviting the reader into an experience that might feel distant otherwise. It probably gives you a foothold, too, in the emotional lives of these characters. There’s a primal emotional thrust.
Himes: I think it’s inescapable. Part of the research I did for this work is read interviews that were conducted with expatriates living in Europe, primarily Germany. In reading their descriptions of the events that they lived through, I don’t think it would be possible for any writer to recapitulate that in a fictional form without touching on the particulars of those lives. You can’t talk about an arrest without asking, who is this person leaving behind? How will those people manage without him?
Writing about a setting where one is dealing with that tension, it’s almost easier to write about the love these people feel. Because it’s so up-front and out there for those going through those experiences. What about their children? How does it feel to leave their children behind? Any time there’s a heightened experience, the emotions become heightened.
Rail: I wonder about the way this novel switches gears. It starts out as a novel about terror. And this kind of longing Bulgakov has. But it becomes a political thriller in a lot of ways. Is that something that comes naturally to you? Because there’s such incredibly intricate plotting.
Himes: You’re talking about how the novel switches gears halfway through.
Rail: It becomes a suspenseful, political thriller. Did it feel like that when you were writing it? Is that a mode of writing you’re comfortable with?
Himes: When I write, I don’t plot out my book. At least when I begin. I write and see where things go. There’s a lot of opportunity in just dreaming your world and letting your intuition move you through a story. I fear for myself if I were to plot a book out, I would miss opportunities and rabbit holes that might turn out really intriguing or valuable. After a number of drafts, I’ve given myself an opportunity to read the world on my own, but at some point I take a step backward and look at the story as a whole and see how it’s working from a structural standpoint, and when I say structural I just don’t mean plot, but how the characters are moving through the world. How the tensions of the world are working on them. How their desires and frailties are working on the world. It’s the tension between those that can make a story very satisfying.
This is something the editor I work with at Europe, Michael Reynolds, has noted. At some point in the story, Margarita takes over—about halfway through the book, there’s that shift. I like to think that the first part of the story is taken up a notch. The world is put on them in full force, in terms of the pressure and suspense. This takes the story to a whole new level of characterization: things they would never have done they are now capable of doing. Because of this pressure. Which is pressure that the Soviet Union was capable of putting on people. That’s one idea I’m exploring.
And truth be told, when one reads a number of books, that happens. Read The Master and Margarita. The first half of that book is one type of story. The second half becomes Margarita’s story. Some of that is by happenstance. In my novel as well, the second half shifts gears a bit. But it’s part and parcel of the plot structure—the pressures of that world are coming down full force. People will do remarkable things, good and terrible, because of that pressure.
Rail: Do you think that’s a constant in terms of structure? That in most of the fiction you read and write, the first half builds up tension and the second half lets the pressure have its effects on the character?
Himes: It’s a commonality amongst a lot of stories. Even when one looks at old stories, when I talk among writer friends, one thing I find is that we are hard-wired for story. We have certain expectations when we read. We have certain tendencies when we write. I think one of them, at least in the novel form, midway through the story something large happens that raises the stakes dramatically. Somewhere around the midpoint of the story. That’s a commonality. Not all stories have it. Plenty of non-traditional forms do not. But it’s an expectation. Readers expect it. Writers are prone to do it. In my experience, it happens naturally. Halfway through the story, something big and bad is going to happen and explode the stakes. It’s going to make the characters do very human things.
Rail: Europa is marketing this as a very contemporary work, considering the Trump administration. Obviously, I’m sure that was pure happenstance, as you said. Do you see historical echoes?
Himes: I think that the similarities to our times are striking. I have to believe that the way the world has moved in the last decade or so—did it infiltrate my work? Probably. But what’s happening in today’s Russia, the ultra-conservatism being pushed by Putin, the laws being put in place since 2000 that re-enable pervasive censorship there… that’s highly reminiscent of what happened in Stalinist times. That portends things for us, too.
We have to be highly vigilant with this administration. We have to maintain and exercise our duties as citizens. But it is stark and shocking. We’ve seen it in the policies put in place after 9/11: there is a trade-off for safety in this world. And that’s the protection of rights. I know I’m speaking very generally, and in a very black-and-white way. There’s a lot of complexity here. But look at the rise of Trump, the rise of Putin on the world stage. Things don’t happen overnight. Even though this book was written before Trump even started his campaign, I have to think that there were other currents that fed into this, too.
Rail: And you’re a writer. You’re looking at the lived effects of such policies. My last question is: how did you go about your research for this book?
Himes: So the research I did—I enjoyed it tremendously. I did almost a year of a pure research before writing a word. When I took on this premise, I thought, oh, I’ll read some books on Stalinist Russia. And that should do it. Which is terribly naïve. Because once I read them, I thought: why did the people of this time believe the way they believe? Why did they embrace this type of rhetoric, and these types of policies? So I have to read about the generation that preceded this generation. So I read about Nicolas II, the Tsarist years. I again came to the conclusion that I didn’t understand why these people reacted the way they did.
So I returned to the beginning of Russian history, around 800 AD. That’s when they developed their first organized government in Kiev. Very time-consuming, sure, but that was a very satisfying way of understanding a people. I needed to do that not only for the reader, but for myself. And then reading accounts of Soviet Russia was a wonderful opportunity to hear the voice of that time period in my head, the way they spoke. The questions being asked. What they were willing to talk about. What they weren’t. It was world-building within my own mind—toward achieving, in some way, the voice of that time and that place.