"Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, and walk the streets of places we’ve never been. In a time where there is so much talk of building walls and vitriolic rhetoric that emphasizes all that makes us different, it is almost a revolutionary act to imagine all that makes us similar."
Lone Star Literary Life: Ms. Prescott, you are living the dream. Your debut novel, The Secrets We Kept (Alfred A. Knopf), which will be published in September in the US and in the UK, will be translated into twenty-eight languages and has been optioned for film. Please tell us about your first book.
Lara Prescott: I do feel like I’m living the dream! When I first started writing The Secrets We Kept, I had no idea it would ever be published, so it has been a surreal experience. My novel is a work of historical fiction set in the 1950s—about a group of women in the CIA’s typing pool and the fate of Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago. In short, the Soviets had banned Doctor Zhivago, believing it to be too subversive. So the CIA engaged a mission to covertly print the book and smuggle it back behind the Iron Curtain—as a way to show Soviet citizens how their own government was keeping this great work of art from them. In the West, it’s told through the lens of the CIA’s female typing pool. In the East, it’s told through the lens of Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s real-life mistress and muse. It’s about love and war, about how words can be weaponized, and about how a single piece of art can change the world.
LSLL: The publishing of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was an obscure tale of the Cold War, which has gained attention in the last few years. When we heard you speak at the Mountain and Plains Independent Booksellers Association in New Braunfels earlier this year, you mentioned that you are named after Pasternak’s heroine. Was writing The Secrets We Kept fate? What inspired you to write this book?
LP: I’m sure my mother would say that it was fate! My parents did name me after Boris Pasternak’s heroine Lara Antipova. They had loved David Lean's film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago. I, too, loved the movie, but it wasn’t until I actually read the novel as a teenager that I felt such a strong connection with the material. And in 2014, my father sent me a Washington Post article titled “During Cold War, CIA used ‘Doctor Zhivago’ as a tool to undermine Soviet Union.” I devoured the incredible true story behind the novel’s publication—a story involving clandestine propaganda missions, vying governments, books used as weapons, personal intrigue, and heartache. From that point on, I wanted to find out everything I could about the story behind the story.
LSLL: Considering the truism that truth is stranger than fiction, which is certainly so in this instance, how did you go about fictionalizing what was already the most unlikely of stories?
LP: When I first read that CIA officers had posed as Catholic clergy and distributed copies of Doctor Zhivago at the Vatican pavilion during the Brussels World’s Fair, I almost couldn’t believe it. It truly was stranger than fiction. Part of my process was imaging those officers whose names had been redacted from history and how they must’ve felt engaging in such a mission. From there, characters began to come alive for me.
LSLL: I first learned of this CIA operation when I read The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Harvill Secker, 2014) by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, which I understand was part of your research. Please tell us about the process.
LP: I subscribe to the thought: “Read a hundred books, write one.” And I did exactly that, pouring over book after book about the Cold War, propaganda, CIA history, the lavender scare, Russian history, Boris Pasternak, and much more.
In the Western thread of my novel, most of the characters are fictional. But peppered throughout are historically accurate details, including some real names, as well as direct quotes and descriptions pertaining to the Zhivago mission. For this thread, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair proved an indispensable asset. In 2014, thanks to Finn and Couvée’s petitioning, the CIA released ninety-nine memos pertaining to its secret Zhivago mission. And it was seeing the declassified documents—with their blacked-out and redacted names and details—that first inspired me to want to fill in the blanks with fiction.
LSLL: The first chapter of The Stories We Kept won Crazyhorse Review’s fiction prize in 2016. Why and how did you make the decision to submit to literary journals? What is your advice to writers who are considering submitting their work? What are your current favorite literary magazines and why?
LP: The Secrets We Kept began as a short story in Elizabeth McCracken's fiction workshop at the Michener Center for Writers. When I finished, I submitted the piece to several of my favorite literary magazines and was lucky enough to have been picked for the Crazyhorse Review’s fiction prize. But after I wrote the story, I knew there was much more left to explore, so I began expanding it into a novel.
My advice to writers considering submitting their work to literary magazines is to just do it! Make sure your piece is as perfect as you can get it and be organized about where you send it and what the response was. And don’t be defeated if it doesn’t get published right away. It likely will be rejected at first. My first published story in The Southern Review was rejected twenty times before it got picked up. Some of my favorite literary magazines are American Short Fiction, A Public Space, The Paris Review, and Oxford American.
LSLL: Please tell us about the film-optioning process—I think most people don’t necessarily understand what it is or how it works. What advice do you have for other writers just embarking on this adventure?
LP: Hollywood is still a bit of a mystery to me, so I’m not sure I can offer much advice to writers! And what happened to me isn’t the average path to the big screen. The rights to my novel were sold to Marc Platt Productions (Bridge of Spies, La La Land, Drive) and The Ink Factory (The Night Manager, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) after I’d spoken with a few other interested production companies. The offer came fast after my book had been sold to Knopf, and I hadn’t put much thought into it ever becoming a TV show or movie, so it was a fast learning process for me. The key was to surround myself with a team who could help guide me through it all and offer good advice, and to trust the people whose hands you are putting your work in.
LSLL: You have an eclectic mix of educational pursuits—you studied political science in D.C., international development in South Africa and Namibia, and your MFA is from the Michener Center for Writers in Austin. How do these varied interests and disciplines come together for you?
LP: The books I love to read most take me to another place, another time, or help me understand the world a little better. Those are also the kind of books I set out to write. I think my background in politics, international studies, and extensive travel have shaped and expanded my ongoing interests and curiosities, which is fodder for my writing.
LSLL: Can art change the world?
LP: I know this much to be true: art has certainly changed my own life. Books like Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt all had a hand in changing the way I view the world. To me, there is no greater way to build empathy than storytelling. Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, and walk the streets of places we’ve never been. In a time where there is so much talk of building walls and vitriolic rhetoric that emphasizes all that makes us different, it is almost a revolutionary act to imagine all that makes us similar.
LSLL: Can you tell us what you’re working on now and what’s next for you?
LP: I’m working on a new novel, but the topic is secret for now!
LSLL: What books are on your nightstand?
LP: Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Furious Hours by Casey Cep.
Lara Prescott is the author of The Secrets We Kept. Her debut novel, it has been translated into twenty-eight languages and will be adapted for film by The Ink Factory and Marc Platt Productions.
Lara received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She studied political science at American University in Washington, D.C. and international development in Namibia and South Africa. Prior to writing fiction, Lara worked as a political campaign consultant.
Lara's writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, and more. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and cats.