Banafsheh Serov is the author of Under a Starless Sky, the true story of her family’s escape from Iran, and The Russian Tapestry, her first novel. Passionate about reading, collecting and sharing her books, she works in her family’s small chain of bookshops, and somehow finds time to write and research. She lives in Sydney, Australia, with her husband and sons. I’ll be reviewing her book soon, but in the meantime, I asked Banafsheh a pile of questions almost as big as my to-review pile. Thanks, Banafsheh, for making time to answer my questions.
Monique: Tell me a bit about how you became a writer.
Banafsheh: I always loved books. From as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had my nose in a book. I’ve been lucky that my family has been running bookstores for 30 years and so I’ve always had a ready supply of new books at my disposal. The motivation behind penning my memoir, Under a Starless Sky, came following the Tampa and the children overboard affair. Under Howard’s leadership, the whole conversation around the plight of asylum seekers had suddenly taken an ugly turn. It distressed me to see them dehumanised and used as pawns for political point scoring. As someone who’s experienced being a refugee, I did not wish for my children to grow up being indifferent to the plight of people escaping war and repressive regimes.
Monique: Your first book, Under a Starless Sky, is the story of your family’s escape from Iran to Australia. What was it like to write that book? Was it emotional? How did your family react to it?
Banafsheh: Although it’s been over 30 years since we fled Iran, the memories are just as alive for me as if it had only happened yesterday. The images of the past are like old pictures, filed away in our subconscious. Writing my memoir forced me to unlock these images and the memories came flooding back, bringing with them all the pain, fear and uncertainty we’d experienced. I cried a lot while I was writing certain scenes. I still get very emotional when I remember them and I know it’s the same for my family. Our memory of that period is like an old wound that never quite heals.
Monique: Your website says you wrote your memoir to give a voice to refugees who have fled oppressive regimes and war-torn countries (as well as to share your history with your children). What sort of feedback have you had to the memoir?
Banafsheh: The public’s response to Under a Starless Sky has been generally a positive one. Refugees don’t often get their voices heard. It serves the politicians fear mongering to lock away the asylum seekers from the public and media. By putting myself out there, I give the public a face they can identify with, break down the stereo type image fed to them by shock jocks and politicians, and hopefully help build empathy for the plight of the refugees.
Monique: Your second book, The Russian Tapestry, is on my sagging review shelf and I’m looking forward to reading it. Can you tell me what I have to look forward to with this book?
Banafsheh: The Russian Tapestry is based on the true story of my husband’s grandparents. Daughter of a wealthy Estonian merchant, Marie Kulbas’s life is one of glittering balls and evenings at the theatre. Her idyllic world however is threatened by the start of the Great War and the departure of her loved ones to the German Front. Meanwhile, Colonel Alexei Serov comes from a long line of professional soldiers, steadfastly loyal to his country and to his men. Their meeting and eventual love affair is a tapestry created from anecdotes recited around the family dinner table and research on the events spanning through the Great War, Russian revolution and the civil war.
Monique: What are some of the main themes explored in The Russian Tapestry?
Banafsheh: As long-time lover of Russian literature, I wanted to write a book that was reminiscent of the romance and tragedy of her great classics. And just like Dr. Zhivago and War and Peace, the themes explored in The Russian Tapestry are love, friendship, loyalty, the resilience of human spirit and the destructive nature of war.
Monique: What was your inspiration for this book and what made you choose Russia as the setting? Have you been to Russia? How does the location add to the themes you explore?
Banafsheh: I first came across the story of Alexei and Marie Serov 25 years ago when I started dating my husband. Visiting his family home, I was fascinated by a painting of Alexei in full dress uniform, sporting a breast full of medals. As I learnt more about them, I was struck by the parallel lives that led to our families migrating to Australia. Like me, Alexei and Marie possessed migrant hearts. They travelled half the world to start life anew in a foreign land, with little more than their hopes and dreams to sustain them. Over-time I started imagining their life and as their story started to take shape, I was swept away by the romance of the period and the tragedy of the war that followed it.
Russia is a fascinating country with a rich historical and cultural heritage. My husband and I visited Russia in 1994, visiting Moscow and St Petersburg (you can see the photos on my FB and Pinterest). And although at the time I had not yet thought of writing Marie and Alexei’s story, it was very special for both of us to walk the streets that later became the setting for The Russian Tapestry.
Monique: What do you like most about The Russian Tapestry? What was your response to the cover design?
Banafsheh: What drew me to writing The Russian Tapestry was the scope of Russia’s history, the backdrop of war and revolution, and the connection of Marie and Alexei to that historical setting.
The jacket is definitely a major feature of the book. Even before The Russian Tapestry hit the shelves, I was getting a lot of positive feedback on the jacket. In our bookstores, we’ve had the posters up for a couple of weeks and not a single day goes by without an enquiry from customer about where they can find the book.
Monique: How long did it take to write The Russian Tapestry? What sort of research did you have to do?
Banafsheh: I wrote The Russian Tapestry whilst juggling work in the bookstores and running the household. It took about a year, researching the material and weaving it into the narrative. It took another year of drafts re-writes to reach the point where both my publishers and I were happy to go to print with it.
When it came to researching the historical events, there’s a lot of material on the Russian Revolution and the lives of the Romanov’s (Last Tsar of Russia) but surprisingly very little on the Eastern Front and the effects of the war on the lives of ordinary Russians. By chance, I came across a set of WWI encyclopaedias packed with essays, diary entries and newspaper articles. The encyclopaedias and few remaining family photos of Marie and Alexei became my first point of reference which I then backed up with history books and information found on the internet.
Monique: Which character in The Russian Tapestry do you like the most?
Banafsheh: Although she’s one of my supporting characters, I feel a strong connection to Katya. I see a lot of my mother in Katya’s compassion, inner strength and generosity of spirit. They are the type of women I hope to be when faced with similar circumstances.
Monique: As a mother, what’s your writing process like? Where do you write? Do you need complete silence or can you cope with noise? How do you get into the “zone”?
Banafsheh: It was easier writing The Russian Tapestry than Under a Starless Sky. My children were older and less dependent on me. I also bought a laptop so I didn’t have to wait my turn on the family PC. We live in a small house and in the absence of a study, I use the dining table (see the photo of my writing space on my FB page), spreading my papers the length of the table, then clearing it at the end of the day to serve dinner.
It’s always a balancing act when you’re a mother and the main person responsible for the running of the household. I try to do the bulk of my writing between 5.30am and 3pm when the house is quiet. By the time the kids are home, my brain is pretty fried so I’m happy to pack it in. But if the writing is flowing, I don’t interrupt it, I either push through, forcing my mind to shut out the noise or move my gear to my bedroom and continue writing in bed.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Banafsheh: The internet is both a friend and a foe. Social media sites like FB and Twitter, whilst important in connecting to readers and friends, can also be great time wasters. I also have a bad habit of checking my emails far more than its necessary.
Monique: Do your characters create themselves? Or do you plan them out? Do they ever surprise you?
Banafsheh: My two main characters, Marie and Alexei, were there from the very beginning. The supporting characters – Bogoleev, Ivanov and Katya – were borne out of necessity and came to me when the plot needed them. What surprised me about them was how much I grew to love, care and empathise with them.
Monique: What do you look for when you read fiction?
Banafsheh: What draws me most to a book is first and foremost an engaging plot line, and then beautiful writing. I want to be fully immersed in the narrative and in the drama of what the characters are going through. As a writer, I look for writing that inspires me to better my craft.
Monique: Which writers do you admire the most?
Banafsheh: I adore Geraldine Brooks. The Year of Wonders literally took my breath away and since then, I’ve read all her books. I love her skill in seamlessly weaving history (often choosing real life characters) into her fiction. Vikram Seth is another one of my heroes along with Tolstoy and Hugo for their sheer ability to write epic novels.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Banafsheh: It’s not uncommon for me to read several books at one time. I’m currently reading a great novel by the Australian writer John Harwood, titled The Asylum and The Good Life by the Australian social researcher Hugh MacKay.
Monique: Do you ever skip ahead a few pages or read a book’s ending?
I do sometimes skip ahead. With The Good Life, I open it at random pages and read the case studies. And although I have not read the last page of either of the books I’m currently reading, I have done so with other books in the past.
Monique: If I came over for dinner now, what would we have to eat?
Banafsheh: As I write this, I have a lasagne cooking in the oven. If you are joining us, you’d have to be quick if you’d want a second serving because we have a pair of teenage boys that hoover up the food before you can say ‘Gee, this looks good’.
Finish this sentence … I really hate it when …
Banafsheh: The phone rings when I’m immersed in my writing. My husband always SMS’s me and I ring him back when I’m done.
Which book in your collection would you most like to have autographed by the author?
Banafsheh: I recently purchased a beautifully bound copy of Les Miserable. Sadly I know I’ll never be able to get it signed but should Dr. Who show up with his tardis at my door, I’d insist our first port of call to be 17th-century Paris.
Monique: Describe your bookshelves.
Banafsheh: I’m meticulous about order. I recently purchased a new bookshelf to house my ever expanding collection of books. There are a couple of shelves reserved for research material I’m currently using and another for books I love and can’t part with. The rest are for folders and previous drafts. Everything is shelved according to size and topic and I get testy when family members stick a book in ad hoc.
Monique: You’re based in Sydney. Which places would you take a friend/relative to show off the city?
Banafsheh: I love Sydney’s Northern Beaches and whenever my husband and kids go surfing, I run the stretch of coastline between Dee Why and North Head. We’re very lucky to have such a beautiful coastline and whenever we have overseas guests, our first visit is always to one of the beaches.
Look out for my review of The Russian Tapestry soon. For the blurb, click here.