Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova

A Mountain of Crumbs is a memoir about a young Soviet girl who comes of age during the 1960’s and 1970’s in St. Petersburg Russia – a country fraught with political struggles and vast limitations.

The story opens after World War II while Russia is well into the throes of communism. Elena’s well-educated mother is a trained physician with high expectations for both her daughters. Told through the author's own eyes, the memoirs provide the reader with a snapshot into everyday Russian life. It starts during Elena's childhood and the tale unfolds with innocence and vivid clarity.

The creative title of the book came from the author’s own grandmother who recalled that when her children complained there was not enough to eat but a crust of bread and a cube of sugar, she would crumble the food and sweet it into a pile and saying, “Look at how much you’ve got. A whole mountain of crumbs.” It was her way of making a little look like a lot.

While Elena’s physician mother, Galina, strives to make her way in a communist world, raising her daughters with strictness and high expectations for education, the author describes her world without bias and in a matter-of-fact style.

A Mountain of Crumbs is a fascinating memoir that reveals to readers a glimpse into the difficulties of growing up in a communist country. From the author’s demanding mother, to an ill father who dies far too early, it is a contrast of joy and sadness, struggles and success.

Although memoirs are seldom page-turners, this was a truly enjoyable book. The writing is beautiful and gives a good first-hand depiction of life in a country where nothing can be taken for granted. I thoroughly enjoyed this very private glimpse into the author’s own life and appreciate the passion with which she wrote every word.

An Interview with Elena Gorokhova

1. Welcome, Elena, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with our readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

It is a story about growing up in Soviet Russia of the 1960s and 1970s. It is also a story about growing up with a mother who was a mirror image of the Motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave. Our house was the seat of the Politburo; my mother – its permanent chairman. It is about a mother-daughter relationship – a controlling mother and a willful daughter. It is a story of separation – from a mother as well as from the Motherland.

2. You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?

The title comes from a game my grandmother invented in post-revolution times of hunger, around 1920. My mother was already six and knew not to cry when she had nothing to eat, but her younger brother, who was three, would wail from hunger. Food was rationed then, and every family member got a slice of bread and a cube of sugar. My grandmother would crumble the bread with her fingers for the three-year-old and say, “Look how much you’ve got! A whole mountain of crumbs.” But it is also a metaphor for the failed Soviet state. It seemed to be such a mighty, indestructible mountain, and it crumbled so easily in 1991.

3. What makes this book special to you?

What makes this book special to me is the hope of one person that she can find a place where she could think and act as an individual and not as a tiny cog in the faulty engine of the collective.

4. What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

It is the story of a country; it is also the story of a family. It is a mother-daughter story, universal to all of us.

5. What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

Truman Capote, I think, said that talent is a gift plus a whip. I can add that so much of what sparks creativity is a whip. You have a vision of your book – and it can come to you in dreams or while walking your dog – but what thrusts it forward is work. You chain yourself to a chair; you put in time in front of your computer. Work is the magic word, and nothing else.

6. What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

My biggest stumbling block is probably not wanting to offend my family by my writing. A memoir is always only one person’s perception of the past. “A memoir is an impression of your life,” said Gore Vidal. You deal with it by closing your eyes and telling the truth – the truth that you remember.

7. Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book.

About a year before publication, I sent the typewritten pages of my memoir to J.M. Coetzee, a Nobel Prize laureate and the finest writer alive today. I went to my local post office, put the pages into a cardboard box, and mailed them all the way to Australia. When I got home it occurred to me that I just mailed him my life. I was stunned by his graciousness - how quickly he responded with some suggestions and a beautiful quote for the book jacket.

8. Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

A memoir is different from a piece of fiction in how you plot the story line. You must be honest in telling the story, or the reader will see through the falseness. There is less invention and more telling the truth.

9. Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

I have a comfortable office with a view of a quite, tree-lined street. I sit at my desk, in front of my old computer, and don’t get up from my chair until something appears on the page. Then I allow myself a cup of tea and go back to stare at the screen, or the view of the street.

10. What is your current work in progress?

My current work is a continuation of A Mountain of Crumbs. It is about my first years in America, the travails of a stranger in a strange land.

11. Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

I have a website, elenagorokhova.com. It has videos, photographs, and the latest happenings. I write a blog, parts of which are stories from my current project. Readers can contact me through the website. I love getting emails, and I read and answer every one of them.

12. What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I would like you to know that my writing comes from the only place that is true to writing – my heart. The problems I struggled with in Russia are the same problems we struggle with in this country – family, love, separation, sadness, longing, hope.

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