Annemarie O’Brien is the author of Lara’s Gift. She has an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She teaches creative writing courses at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Pixar and is the founder of the blog, Best Dog Books. You can visit her on her website, Twitter, and Facebook.
1. If you could travel back in time, (assuming there’d be no risk to yourself or changing the course of history) where and when and why would you go?
What a great question! There are so many places I’d love to see and experience. If I had to pick one, I’d travel to Greece in the early 1900s to learn more about my great grandfather and his family. They were famous shipbuilders from Galaxidi just down the mountain from Delphi. My great grandfather left Greece when he was a teenager. He had been captain of one of his family’s merchant ships and decided to stay in Philadelphia where he got married and raised a family. He always wanted to go back to Greece. He missed his mother. He never managed to go back. It was his biggest regret. My great grandfather was a humble, elegant man who knew how to treat all people, despite the prejudice he endured upon immigration for not looking more British. I’ve always wondered what his family was like to raise someone who was so remarkably kind and good.
2. Lara’s Gift is set during the Imperial Era in Russia in the early 1900s. What fascinates you most about this time period?
The history and the changes that took place because of the 1917 Revolution.
3. What elements of this time period are still with us today?
The Russian soul and its people.
Unfortunately, Soviet politics tried to erase history prior to 1917. This period of history where Tsars reigned wasn’t taught in elementary schools, as if it never existed. When Gorbachev opened things up in the mid-to-late 1980s with policies like glasnost, the Soviet people gained access to information that had been hidden and denied to them. Many Soviets had to relearn their own family history from the Stalin era. I fear that many of the freedoms that Gorbachev gave to the people have been taken away by the current political leadership.
4. What kind of insights do you think young people from this time period have?
Life on a Russian country estate in the early 1900s was limited. News took time to reach from one end of the country to the other. Entire worlds existed just within the large boundaries of the estate, especially for those who worked on the estate. They likely did not leave, and if they did, it was not far. Kids from this era had to be strong physically to survive past birth and worked hard to support their families.
5. Is there an historical tidbit that didn’t make it in the book, but is super interesting?
In my research for Lara’s Gift, I needed to understand what life on a Russian country estate in the late 1800s/early 1900s was like. I found a study written in Russia by an anthropologist about midwifery and the tactics they used to speed up the birthing process. Some of the things women had to endure were painful and based on superstitions. Here’s an example. Women were tied to beams of wood and hung like slaughtered pigs in hopes the baby would just drop out of the woman.
6. What’s your favorite historical fiction (any age!)
This is a tough question. I tend to like reading books set in Russia or Europe. If I had to pick one book, it would be Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I love the premise and how we are planted in the story as if we, the readers, had just as much at stake as the main characters.
7. What are you working on right now?
I am working on a companion novel to Lara’s Gift. My nearly completed manuscript is set during the Gorbachev years, specifically 1989, and is based on some of my experiences living and working in Russia when he was Soviet Premier. Lara is much older in this new story. Her grand niece, Zoya, is the protagonist and on a mission to reunite Lara with her brother who also happens to be Zoya’s grandfather.