Boris Akunin, Q&A

Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of Grigory Chkhartishvili. He has been compared to Gogol, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle, and his Erast Fandorin books have sold over ten million copies in Russia alone. He lives in Moscow.


Boris Akunin, author of Murder on the Leviathan , Q&A


Where do you live? And why?

I live in Moscow. I can think of quite a lot of reasons for not wanting to live in Moscow which isn’t a cozy place. But this city is good for someone with a creative profession: there is something in the air which makes your brain tick, your nerves twang, your blood circulate faster.

What’s the greatest influence on your writing?

Russian classical literature - Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov - and Alexander Dumas, R.L. Stevenson and Mark Twain.

Typewriter, Word Processor, or pen?

Computer, my best friend.

Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?

I have a recurrent nightmare I get an official notice informing me that my high school diploma is invalid and I have to return to the same school and spend 2 years there otherwise my universiy diploma will be annulled and the printing of my books stopped etc, etc. So I am sitting again in the familiar classroom with all my former classmates - some bald, some gray at temples - and we are all are staring at the blackboard on which our old teacher of physics is writing lines upon lines of formulae … I am always so happy to wake up.

What educational qualifications do you have? Have you had any formal tuition in creative writing? If so, where and what? Did you find it useful?

I am a graduate of the Historico-Philological Faculty of the Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University. I studied in Japan and in Germany. For 20 years I translated fiction from Japanese into Russian. That’s the best possible way to learn creative writing - trying to imitate the style of one author, then another, then another. After all, the right way to combine words - that’s what literature is about.

Did you always want to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why did you change your mind?

As a kid growing up in the Soviet Union of 1960s, I of course wanted to become an astronaut. Maybe embark on a flight to some distant solar system, you know, the kind of voyage when time inside the spacecraft passes much slower than on earth, so when I come back it would be 23rd Century here, the communist paradise already built, no problems left, everybody happy … cannot say that I have outlived that dream entirely.

What were the first pieces of writing that you produced? e.g. short stories, school magazine etc.

I started to write my first novel when I was 6, in block letters. It was supposed to be a historical costume drama. I wrote the first sentence; “It was raining cats and dogs. Someone’s voice asked: Where are you, Boris?” Then I started drawing illustrations to the text, was carried away and the novel was left unfinished. Forty years passed. To the majority of Russians my name is now Boris. I write historical fiction. And while I am answering the questions of this questionnaire, it’s raining cats and dogs outside - Moscow autumn.

If your house was burning down what would you save?

My computer - there are half a dozen unpublished texts in it.

What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you?

That’s the question characters from Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot ask each other. My answer is: I am too embarrassed even to recall.

How do you write each novel i.e. - do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a time, create the central character, build a cast of characters?

It starts with a very little spark - an idea for a plot, a tune I hear on the radio, a face I see in a crowd. Smith ignites. I see a chain of obscure images and feel an impact. Depending on the strength of the impact, I know immediately whether it’s going to be a novel, a short story or a play. I stock the idea in a special file, and there it waits for its turn, maybe for a couple of years, it doesn’t matter - I never forget the initial impact and the memory doesn’t fade.

How did you write your work of non-fiction?

I have two books of non-fiction, both published not under the pseudonym “Boris Akunin”, but under my real name Grigory Chkhartishvili. The first was a thick volume called The Writer and Suicide. It’s a study of the phenomenon of voluntary death seen from different aspects. The book also contains as a supplement a short biographical encyclopedia of 350 writers who committed suicide, from all countries and epochs. Re the second title see the last question below).

Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?

Queer things started happening to me after I began writing fiction. Mine is a mystical profession, any writer has the same kind of experience: meeting characters from your books in real life, sometimes getting letters from them, etc, etc. Just one example - not very spectacular, but fresh, it happened about 10 days ago. I spent the morning writing an episode where dialogue and action was centered around the three Buddhist monkeys - you know, one closing its mouth, one closing its eyes, one blocking its ears: “Say no evil, see no evil, hear no evil”. Then I went for a stroll, and one of the first things I saw outside was a statuette of the three apes in the window of a video-rental shop which is around the corner from my place. It hadn't been there the day before and I never saw it there again. Of course it would have been easy to walk in and ask: why did you put this thing on display today? But I didn’t ask. I like it when life contains a small number of inexplicable mysteries.

Have any of your books been televised or made into films? Who by and when were they screened?

Azazel (The Winter Queen in English translation) was screened as a TV mini-series. The Turkish Gambit too, and it also exists in movie format. There is also a movie and TV serial based on another Erast Fandorin novel - A Councillor of State.

What is a typical writing day?

Two short writing sessions: one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon. The rest of the day is reserved for recharging my batteries.

Have you started your next book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

My new book which is launched in Russia on October 20th is called Stories from Cemeteries. It has two parts - fictional (written by B. Akunin) and non-fictional (written by Chkhartishvili). The latter describes six famous cemeteries from around the world, one of them British - Highgate Cemetery. The former adds a short story to each of the essays. Among protagonists of those stories are Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Lola Montez and of course my favourite character Erast Fandorin.


© Orion Publishing Group



Boris Akunin is the Mainland Europe Guest of Honour at LEFT COAST CRIME 2006 being held in Bristol 16th - 19th June 2006. Details of which can be found here


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