Last week, I finished Despite the Falling Snow, and was absolutely in love with the gripping romance set in cold-war era Russia. Readers follow Alexander, a successful old man looking to the past to discover the fate of his late wife, a Russian spy for the Americans.
Shamim Sarif, author of Despite the Falling Snow, was willing to answering a few of my questions for Brown Books and Green Tea. Here, she talks about her writing process, the difficulty of translating books to film, and how to write characters different from herself. Check out her responses below, and look out for her novel Despite the Falling Snow, this month! For those of you in the U.K, make sure you also catch the film (starring Charles Dance and Rebecca Ferguson), coming out soon!
BB>: What books are currently on your bookshelf?
SS: My book shelves are a motley but semi-organised selection of books from the past twenty years…but on my little bedside shelf, looking at me reproachfully and waiting to be read are The Luminaries (highly recommended by two friends whose taste I trust) and The Rest of Us Just Live Here by my dear friend and genius author Patrick Ness. I am also part way through a biography of Elon Musk which I am reading aloud with my two teenage boys. I have to push for ten minutes of reading time most days and they are both confirmed techies so I thought Elon’s story might be a good idea to tempt them.
BB>: How do you begin a story? Do you write linearly, or start with a character/moment/quote?
SS: I do tend to start from the very beginning but often I will have written some paragraphs or even whole chapters that I know will be from the middle somewhere. Those usually come out of a character journey or collision between two characters.
BB>: What is your writing routine? Do you have any quirks that help get your creative juices flowing?
SS: Because I write and develop movies as well as writing, no two days are the same, so I might not get to write every day. But I am definitely a morning person. I like getting up early, going for a run and then retreating to write. One of the best presents I’ve ever had was from my wife Hanan last year – a cabin in the garden, that is warm, cosy and perfectly insulated from the outside world. If I can spend a few hours there, I get a lot of writing done. Running, walking, or some physical activity, ideally listening to music, helps get my mind working and ensure I have something ready to start with when I sit down.
BB>: (Because I’m going through my little quarter life crisis) Where were you at 25 years old? Were you already dedicated to a career as a writer?
SS: I was just back from a year doing a Masters in English at Boston University. I remember being so energised and awakened by my time in Boston – both in my studies but also emotionally, that it was hard to adjust to being back. But I was starting to write seriously, with the idea of actually being published – short stories and screenplays and then eventually, The World Unseen, my first novel. In the meantime I worked with my father in his company, and wrote in the evenings and weekends until my novel got published.
BB>: You have links to numerous countries and continents, but no obvious ties to Russia. What’s your tie to the country, and how were you inspired to write Despite the Falling Snow, which is partly set in Cold War era Russia?
SS:I have no personal ties to Russia but wanted to explore this idea of love and betrayal against a backdrop that was really life and death in terms of the choices my characters would make. I researched a huge amount and also visited Russia specifically to meet people who had lived through that era. That gave me a great amount of insight and detail.
BB>: In many books I’ve read, authors seem to write books about characters who are culturally similar to themselves. Do you have advice for authors crafting characters who are not overtly like themselves?
SS:I think the culture has to come alive in the detail but for me, I can understand every character and how they see the world. That’s the work writers do. Sometimes it may draw on a very small, hidden part of my nature, sometimes it can be overtly similar. Using your imagination to smell, feel, see what a character sees is crucial. For instance, I’ve never been a Soviet spy but for Katya, I imagined a person who is tightly held together, who has trouble expressing emotions, especially love. There were elements of that I could relate to from when I was younger, and I extrapolated it until it was nothing to do with me but told a reader everything about her.
BB>: You and your wife have been together for decades– was writing a heterosexual romance any different from the lesbian relationships you’ve written?
SS: Initially, I naturally gravitated to love stories between two women but in Despite the Falling Snow, the love story between Katya and Sasha came as a natural storyline and I enjoyed the process as well.
BB>: What was more stressful: writing Despite the Falling Snow, or translating it into film?
SS: With the book, I sat alone and could conjure snow, tears, passion and drama with just a keyboard and my mind. When I directed the film, I had to communicate with and inspire 200 people to help me recreate that world. It was thrilling but yes, super stressful. In film, there are so many variables, from the weather to the financing, that it is inevitably more stressful.
BB>: If Brown Books & Green Tea readers want to find out more about you, where should they look first?
SS: My website is at www.shamimsarif.com and all my books are on Amazon and other online stores, but I would love anyone who is interested to join me on my Facebook page or on Twitter. I’ve had such an outpouring of support for my books and films over the past few years that I use social media to talk to fans of the stories and love the community we’ve created there.
BB>: Quick last question: In general, do you read the book first, or watch the film?
SS: In the past – always the book first! Since having children, writing and directing – I can’t keep up, so if the film looks good, I watch it straight away!
Once again, thank you so much to Shamim Sarif for answering my questions. Pick up a copy of Despite the Falling Snow, and if you’re in the U.K., keep an eye out for the film this month!
For those of you who consider yourselves writers, what’s your writing process? Tell me in the comments below!