This is an interview conducted upon the release of Susan’s first book, The Little Russian.
Can you tell us a little about your background? You’ve worked a lot as a ceramic artist, run an art gallery at Whittier College as well as being an assistant professor of art there. How did you get involved in art?
Sherman: My mother is a well known painter and art dealer. She is a real icon in the Los Angeles art scene. As a consequence I spent my early childhood in studios, galleries and museums, and running up and down the back steps of Otis Art Institute. The smell of turpentine still reminds me of home.
When did you make the transition from art to writing?
Sherman: I had been doing narrative pieces in clay for quite a while. They were large installations that told a story. One day I figured out that it was easier to tell stories using words rather than clay, and so I traded in my kiln for a computer.
The Little Russian is such an impressive debut novel and certainly does not fall into the category of “write what you know.” What was your inspiration for the subject matter of the novel?
Sherman: The Little Russian is based on the experiences of my grandmother in Ukraine, which was called Little Russia at the time. Hers is an amazing story of survival, strength and courage during the Russian Civil War. Everyone in my family has a version of her story and everyone thinks their version is the right one. An inevitable part of any family reunion is the traditional running argument over which story is right.
How old were you when you first heard your grandmother’s story? Who told you? How did you feel about it? Were you old enough to understand the concept of being a part of living history?
Sherman: I was seven or eight when my father first described how my grandmother bribed a peasant to hide her in a hay wagon and smuggle her and Sam over the border. I changed it to a river crossing in the book. After that I heard snippets of stories from my father and uncles; the time she was caught in the middle of a battle between the Whites and Reds, traveling the countryside by rail as a peddler, and finding out that my grandfather was looking for her from a rag dealer. But it wasn’t until I was actually working on the book and doing extensive research, did I come to understand what horrors my grandmother had lived through and what an amazing woman she had been. I don’t think anyone in my family realized the kind of strength it took to survive the Russian civil war and what a tiger she had to become to keep her children alive.
When did you decide you wanted to tell the story as a novel?
Sherman: For years I wanted to tell this story, but I knew I had to wait until I matured as a writer. I wrote an outline for it fifteen years ago, but life intruded and I ended up writing TV sitcoms instead. I never lost sight of my real goal, however, to give my grandmother’s story life.
Could you talk about the process you went through of turning someone’s life story into a fictional narrative? Did you have access to primary sources – letters, objects, etc? How did you undertake the historical research? Did you have a knowledge of Russian/Soviet history before you started your research?
Sherman: I didn’t have much, just the family stories, a few photographs and immigration papers. I knew very little about Imperial Russia or the Russian Civil War or War Communism when I started. I spent nearly three years at the Charles E. Young research library reading book after book and pouring over maps, memoirs and photographs. Whenever I found a book that seemed valuable to my research, I’d hunt for it and buy a copy. Several books like Black Night White Snow, Harrison E. Salisbury, Da Capo Press and A Prayer for the Government, Henry Abramson, Harvard Press, warranted many readings. I also found Baedeker’s Guide to Russia, 1900 very helpful for the little details like how much things cost and what it took to travel well on trains and in hotels.
Life stories are often told and retold in families until they take on a mythological status and sometimes it’s unclear what exactly is fact and what is perhaps fiction – but remembered as fact. Did this happen with your grandmother’s story?
Sherman: Absolutely. It’s funny, but after my father read the book he couldn’t separate what was real from what I’d made up. I fell into the same trap. I remember a conversation we had one day about the scene where Berta is traipsing through snowy fields to a deserted farmstead and finds evidence of a struggle. We were discussing it as if it had actually happened, but the truth was I made it all up and didn’t even realize it until I was in the car and half way home.
At times in the retelling of the story did you have to make choices for the sake of the narrative and change facts, events, timing, etc. How did you feel about this?
Sherman: My grandmother was a wonderful story teller and never let the truth get in her way. She liked to brag that she sang for the Czar. Somehow I don’t think that was possible. The Czar was anti-Semitic for one thing. My first loyalty was to the novel. I wanted it to be historically accurate, but I didn’t mind fitting my grandmother’s life into the narrative I wanted to tell. I knew she would understand. Getting her right was the important thing. She was such a great character, such a complicated mix of courage and selfishness, of fierce loyalty and pride, and I wanted to capture all that, but I felt the actual events were up to interpretation.
The novel is incredibly well researched, down to the tiniest details. How long did it take you to write? What was your writing routine?
Sherman: It took me over eight years to write the novel. I did so many drafts that I lost count. I have two chaffa files filled with deleted pages. I probably wrote three books if you count all those pages. It’s a good thing I love the work because it takes me a long time to get it to a point where I’m satisfied. I write everyday. I get up, walk the dogs, exercise, have breakfast and get to work. I usually write about three to five hours a day. My routine is to go over the pages from the day before and then march on. At night I usually come up with what I want to write the next day, and by the time I sit down in front of the computer, I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going.
Do you see any of Berta in yourself? Did you add any of yourself to Berta?
Sherman: I went through a divorce some years ago and I kept drawing on that experience for the The Little Russian. I know what it’s like to lose everything bit by bit, thinking you’ve reached bottom and then finding another bottom just below it. But it was good in the sense that I came out of that experience with a new found strength. Of course a divorce doesn’t compare to war or the loss of a child, but there’s a tempering that goes on with any calamity of length and that’s the well I kept going to understand my grandmother’s emotional state as she watched her life and everything she thought she valued crumble away.
Did Berta and Hershel’s story end happily in America?
Sherman: Berta and Hershel, Bessie and Harry, as they were called in the U.S., settled in Rice Lake Wisconsin. Bessie had brought a trunk from Poland that contained feather quilts and pillows. She had heard that there was shortage of them and thought she would sell them if they ever needed money. Harry laughed at her when he saw the trunk and assured her that her peddling days were over. But a few years later, when the depression threatened his Ford dealership, her quilts and pillows kept it open, at least for a little while longer. After that they moved with their four sons to California and opened a chicken market. The market eventually became Sherman Brothers Poultry, a large poultry processing concern. Harry died at 89 surrounded by his children and grand-children. Bessie lived until she was 93. Even in her nineties she got her hair done every week and wore her mink stole and gold watch at every opportunity.
Did you read other historical fiction from the period while you were writing?
Sherman: I read Dr. Zhivago. I remember taking my grandmother to see the movie once. She was so thrilled and kept saying “that’s exactly how it was!”
The novel can be read on many different levels. What do you want your readers to take away from the novel most?
Sherman: I suppose of all the elements that drew me to this story, the transformational effects of calamity and war had the greatest pull on me. World War I saw the birth of the modern woman. A whole generation of men was destroyed in that conflict and as a result women were left to fend for themselves. Out of necessity they had to find a new kind of strength and with it a renewed vigor to carry on the fight for the suffrage movement and for equal rights. These women were the forbearers of all that was accomplished in the women’s movement in this century and the last.
Are any of the other characters in the book based on real people?
Sherman: Practically every character I write is based on someone I know or an amalgamation of several people. I’m always mining my life for characters and material. Samuil is based on my youngest son, Ryan–the same maturity, curiosity and love of music. Hershel is a combination of my husband and my mother’s father, Jake. Rivke is my mother-in-law with her love of the news and it goes on.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Some of your favorite books?
Sherman: Julian Barnes, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett. My favorite writer of all time in Alice Munro. I loved Olive Kittridge, State of Wonder and Arthur and George. Currently, I’m reading Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sheri Holman and loving it. I’m a big fan of hers. My next book will be The Sense of an Ending and then on to the Marriage Plot.
Can you say what you are working on now?
Sherman: I am writing a novel about Madame Curie’s cook. It’s about a young Polish girl who escapes the factories in Warsaw and comes to Paris with dreams of becoming famous. She ends up as a cook in the Curie household and there meets Eusapia Paladino, a famous medium of the day.