In the Wilds of Industrial Russia for Research I Will Not Use
Rupert Thomson Goes Into the Unknown With His Brother
On a cold dry Tuesday evening in November 2013 I checked into the Peking Hotel in Moscow. The room had a high moulded ceiling and salmon-colored curtains, and overlooked a busy five-lane road called Sadovaya. I sat down at a table by the window and waited for my brother Rory who was flying in from Shanghai. Rory speaks Russian, and had agreed to spend a week with me, helping me with my research.
I had already completed seven drafts of the novel that would eventually become Katherine Carlyle. In the book Kit travels from Rome to Berlin, then north to an archipelago called Svalbard, and I had written Kit’s journey through Russia without ever having been to the country. I have always been an intuitive writer. I give priority to what I call “imagined facts.” At the outset I focus on the psychology of the characters, and the suspension of disbelief, but there comes a point in every book when I need to go in search of “real facts.” There will be details I couldn’t have imagined, smells I would never have thought of. When researching, I have to be alive to the unexpected—the empty chairs standing guard at the entrance to a Moscow underpass, the mass of silver studs bristling on a girl’s black leather boots in a nightclub in Arkhangel’sk. Maya Angelou once said that she liked to think of her body as an ear. So do I. But I also think of my body as an eye, a nose. A fingertip. All the senses have to play a part if a book is to be well made.
At just after seven o’clock a key turned in the lock and Rory walked into the room. This is strange, isn’t it, he said, then we gave each other a hug. It was the beginning of what would be an extraordinary week.
That evening, in Yaroslavsky station, we were given a vivid demonstration of Russian bloody-mindedness. We wanted to buy tickets to Cherepovets, home to the largest steel plant in Russia, but all the people working in the ticket offices either shook their heads or pointed to some other part of the station, and always without a word of explanation or apology. Rory was grinning. That’s Moscow, he said. You can’t let it get to you.
In the end, we managed to buy two second-class couchettes on a train that was leaving at nine o’clock the following evening. We took a metro to Byelorusskaya, another railway station. In my book Kit arrives at Byelorusskaya on a train from Berlin, and I needed to see the station in the middle of the night—how it looked, who was there. It was still early, though. We found a basement bar and ordered two large beers and a flask of vodka.
Towards midnight, we paid our bill and walked to the station. I noted the police on duty in the concourse, the draughty arcades, the mint-green sign on the roof. Near the taxi-rank, I was delighted to find an underpass that would be the perfect setting for a scene I had already written—Kit’s confrontation with a group of young Muscovites in Halloween costumes. I took a number of photographs, then we returned to our hotel.
The next morning I went down to the lobby with a map and asked the man on reception to point out the most dangerous and desolate parts of the city. Though surprised by my request, he recommended a suburb called Altufevo. We could go by metro, he said. The grey line. When you travel to the outskirts of the city, the famous metro stations with their marble pillars and their chandeliers fall away, to be replaced by grubby tiled walls and strip-lighting. We spent the day walking through housing projects, the tower-blocks as bleak and dilapidated as I had imagined they would be. There were no two-lane streets, only main roads, wide and soulless. Though it was morning, we saw men in black leather jackets drinking beer. On the sidewalks sat wrinkled women in shawls, selling cloves of garlic and jars of pickled vegetables. We ate in a restaurant run by a family from Uzbekistan. We saw an old man singing in a park. By seven o’clock that evening, I had everything I needed, and we set off for Yaroslavsky station.
Two hours later, as Moscow receded in the train’s back window, I felt a tingle that was a mixture of fear and exhilaration. We were traveling into the unknown, to places foreigners didn’t generally visit. We opened a bottle of vodka, and started on the tomatoes, cold meat and black bread we had bought earlier. A young man appeared in the doorway and asked if he might join us. He wanted to practice his English. We shared our food and drink with him. There was an unnerving moment when he suddenly said, “You are frost, and I am frost.” I think he meant that the three of us had something in common, since we all came from cold countries, but my first thought was that he was referring to the novel I was working on, which was about a young woman who has spent eight years as a frozen embryo. Outside, endless silver birches flicked by in the dark.
We arrived in Cherepovets as dawn broke. It was raining hard—a cold, relentless rain. We caught a bus to the city center. The conductor was an old woman in a shabby knee-length cardigan. She had lank, stringy hair, and wore a pair of carpet slippers. There was part of the bus that seemed to be her own private domain, with a Thermos flask, a pack of cigarettes, and a moth-eaten upholstered chair.
“Do you get many tourists here?” Rory asked.
She looked at him and laughed.
We spent two nights in a modest converted 19th-century villa. In our room everything was green—the walls, the doors, the carpets, the lampshades, the bedspreads. While in Cherepovets, we visited travel agencies, researching journeys we would never go on. We drank in the bar where the steelworkers drank. We managed to get into the police station, a terrifyingly gashed and battered building. We met a pimp and two prostitutes in a parking lot on the outskirts. We saw all the things Kit would have seen. Though I had forewarned Rory about where we were going, he was surprised by the bleakness of the place. “Wonderful holiday you organized for me,” he muttered once, as we sat at a derelict tramstop beneath the towering dark smokestacks of the steel plant. He had a smile on his face, though.
Little did I know at that point that I would cut the city out of the book completely. In the late stages of writing I tend to focus on pace and tension, and though Cherepovets was beautifully atmospheric, with its heavy industry, its rusting tram-lines, and its skies smeared with toxic clouds of grey and orange, it seemed to slow the narrative. I was in danger of losing my grip on the reader. It had to go. Still, I made use of some of what we had seen, giving a man Kit meets on the Moscow-Arkhangelsk train the brutish physique and baby-face of the officer on duty in the Cherepovets police station.
On the Thursday evening we caught another train, this time to Arkhangelsk. Once again, we arrived at dawn. After Cherepovets, the air was clean and flinty, but there was still no snow. The clouds that hung above the river were the strangest clouds I had ever seen. In the book Kit flies from northwest Russia to Svalbard, so Rory and I had to go to a travel agency and pretend we were interested in taking the same unlikely trip. It was a fabrication, of course, but if I had told the truth I probably wouldn’t have got all the information I needed. Every morning, when Rory woke up, he would say, “So what are we doing today?” And I would tell him. Working together, we always achieved our goals—and there was never an argument, or even a moment of irritation. It was a research trip, but we also discovered a kind of easy compatibility. And there were instances of serendipity too, where life seemed to be imitating art. I had described Kit hiding out in an Arkhangelsk hotel that stood on a wasteland of mud, broken bricks and rubble, and when we arrived in Arkhangelsk there it was, in a suburb of the city known as Solombala.
During our week in Russia, we also had adventures that had nothing to do with the book. I will let one story stand in for the rest. On our last evening we flew back to Moscow, our research complete. I found a brilliant hotel, Rory had told me a few weeks before, on the phone. It’s near Red Square, really central. It’s only 50 dollars a night—for both of us. Great, I said.
From Sheremetyevo airport we took the metro into the city center. We had printed out the name and address of the hotel, but hadn’t thought to bring a map. We must have asked ten or fifteen passers-by if they could direct us. Some had never heard of the road, let alone the hotel. One middle-aged man studied his own mapbook with great care, then sent us off in completely the wrong direction. After an hour of looking, we found a young woman who was able to guide us to the right street. Feeling more hopeful, we located the address, but we still couldn’t see the hotel. “A hotel should stand out, shouldn’t it?” I said. “You’d think so,” Rory said. We walked up and down the block. The hotel wasn’t there. It was dark by now, and we’d only slept for two or three hours the night before. We were dead on our feet. Thinking that the hotel might be hidden behind the grand facades that lined the street, we pressed a random bell on a metal gate. It clicked open. We wandered through several unlit courtyards. There was no sign of a hotel. A security guard stopped us. He wanted to know what we were doing. We asked about the hotel. He told us to leave. He seemed furious, and on the edge of violence. As we stood on the street, close to despair, a middle-aged woman with a savage-looking white dog emerged from a nearby building. I know the place, she said, and motioned at us to follow. She took us back along the road to where a door stood open. In there, she said, giving us a disdainful look.
The hotel was on the third floor, with a small sign on the wall next to the door. We rang the bell. The door was answered by a woman in a white singlet and green satin shorts. We told her we had booked a room for the night. She seemed perplexed. After trying Russian, then English, we spoke to her in Italian—it was the only language we all knew—and there was a wonderful moment when Rory stopped mid-sentence and said, “We’re two Englishmen speaking Italian to a Cuban woman in Moscow.” The woman’s name was Brenda, and she knew nothing about our reservation. She said Felix would sort it out. She would call him. As we talked, a slender young man drifted past us with a smile. He was wearing nothing except a pair of tight white trousers. That’s Juan, Brenda said. He works here.
Felix arrived ten minutes later. He was wiry and feral, with a shaved head. “Ah yes,” he said, “I forgot.” He opened a yellow door near the front door. “In here.” It was a small room with a heavily curtained window and two beds. He held out his hand for the money, and we paid him. He didn’t give us a receipt. There were two other bedrooms in the apartment, with three bunk-beds in each. Three young Cuban men slept in one of the rooms. In the other were three Cuban women. It dawned on us that the room we would be sleeping in was the room where they would normally have sex with clients. Rory had inadvertently booked us into a Cuban brothel.
It was a restless, surreal night. My body heated up, and dubious smells rose from the mattress beneath me. I kept imagining all the things that must have taken place in the room. I must eventually have drifted off to sleep, though, since I was woken at three in the morning by a strange tearing sound. It seemed to be coming from the room next door. I kept listening, but I couldn’t imagine what might be happening. I left our room. All the lights were on in the rest of the apartment. As I moved down the corridor, I paused in an open doorway. Two women and a man were securing a huge parcel with strips of packing tape. The parcel was the shape of a human body. Still half asleep, I wondered who they had murdered. One of their clients? Felix? I moved on, towards the toilet.
In the morning Brenda gave us a cup of herbal tea. She was sorry if she had woken us, she said. Three of her flatmates were going back to Cuba for Christmas, and they were shipping all their clothes back with them. She also talked about her experience of Russian men—how vulgar they were, and how they carried guns. Rory and I finished our cups of tea, then left.
An hour later, in the metro, we said goodbye.
“Thank you so much for agreeing to travel with me,” I said. “You’re the best researcher. Really.”
“Any time you need a hotel booked.” He was grinning again.
Two years later, when he read Katherine Carlyle, he was surprised by how little of our trip I had used.
“That’s how it works,” I told him. But I think the flavor of the place seeped into the book in a way that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t gone there.
“And you used some details,” he said.
“Yes, I did. “
“Like those weird clouds we saw in Arkhangelsk.”
I smiled. “Yes,” I said. “Like that.”
Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, Katherine Carlyle, is available now from Other Press.