Remember that guy? The one who surprised the kid lit world in 2012 when he won a Newbery Honor for his book Breaking Stalin’s Nose. Yeah, this guy:
Eugene Yelchin dug into the history of Stalinist Russia to bring us his first book.
He takes us back again in his follow up effort, Arcady’s Goal.
From Newbery Honor–winning author Eugene Yelchin comes another glimpse into Soviet Russia. For twelve-year-old Arcady, soccer is more than just a game. Sent to live in a children’s home after his parents are declared enemies of the state, it is a means of survival, securing extra rations, respect, and protection. Ultimately, it proves to be his chance to leave. But in Soviet Russia, second chances are few and far between. Will Arcady seize his opportunity and achieve his goal? Or will he miss his shot?
Arcady’s Goal is a touching, but tough, story of a boy living without family in an orphanage for children of enemies of the state. The things he has to endure—and learns to endure—are troubling to say the least. But Arcady isn’t the only person in this story who is alone and enduring. The way this new friendship develops with stubborn tenderness is a thing to behold.
Because of Yelchin’s past and his connection with the material, the details in the book are not a stretch but based more on experience and history. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Yelchin about his background, this book, and writing in general. (And I may have even tossed in a question about chicken wings.)
When were you born and what was your life like growing up in Russia? Tell us about your education.
I had a fairly standard Soviet childhood. Born in 1956 in Leningrad. Grew up in a communal apartment. Four families of nosy neighbors shared one kitchen, one toilet andone cold-water tap. One of them was a KGB informer, but which one no one knew. Ate, slept and drew my first pictures in a small room allocated to my family, all five of us crowded together. On TV, radio and in the papers – continuous lies. At school, lies dressed as education. At recess, ceaseless violence. On the streets, pictures of Lenin everywhere. Military uniforms in every crowd. Poor diet. Drab clothes. Badly made appliances. What else? A wealth of culture: magnificent prose, astonishing poetry, remarkable classical music, ballet, opera, drama, world-class museums. That was my childhood.
It seems like Arcady’s savior was soccer. What was your “savior”?
Books. I was a voracious reader. I read everywhere: in our room, on the bus, in a classroom (hiding a book in my lap), in a long bread/milk/potatoes/or whatever was available line. Good books were hard to come by, so I read out of any sensible order. Kafka at 12 and Faulkner at 13. In middle grade I read Zola, Balzac, Hugo, Schiller, Maupassant simply because my father happened to have those authors in his book collection. Whether I comprehend what I was reading or not did not matter. Fascinating worlds found between the pages of a book replaced that creepy world around me. And that what saved me.
In the beginning of ARCADY’S, you have a picture of your father with the 1945 Red Army Soccer Club. How much—if any— of this book is your father’s true story?
At 17 my father was drafted to the Red Army where he played soccer for various armyclubs until the 1950s. He was highly valued as a soccer player. As a result, he managed to survive World War II and Stalin’s terror. Because he was good at soccer, he lived. This was an original premise for Arcady’s Goal – a story of a young boy who believes that if he becomes a soccer champion he will be safe. What happened during the process of working on the manuscript is another story. Arcady surprised me. He refused to change, refused to follow an emotional arc that I have designed for him. Arcady turned out to be a real hardhead. Instead of changing himself, he began changing other characters. As a result, he transformed the story. He also transformed the way I believed stories ought to be written.
Why do you think modern-day Russians are still haunted by the tactics of Stalin?
Imagine if there wasn’t a Nuremberg trial in 1945, but instead Nazi criminals were allowed to run contemporary Germany. Did that not happen in 1953 after Stalin died and his sidekicks continued running the country? Did that not happen after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Do they not have a former KGB operative running the country now? Besides in a culture where autocratic rule continued uninterrupted for thousands of years it is difficult to distinguish between past and present. William Faulkner has a terrific line in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Applies to modern Russia completely.
Stalinist Russia is a gold mine for historical fiction stories. Do you see yourself continuing to write books based on this time period? Do you have other ideas for stories?
It is always good for drama when death and danger are lurking nearby, hence Stalinism. Besides I know what Stalinism feels like all too well. But most of my readers don’t know/care about Stalinism and that is a very good thing. My goal is not to educate them about the past, but introduce questions pertinent to their future. What does it take to vote against the majority? How to live your own life instead of the one predetermined for you by others? How to make sense of what you inherited? In fact, the last question is a premise for my next book The House Of Lions. It is a story of a young boy, the last in line of the ancient lineage of Russian nobility. The story is set in St. Petersburg (my hometown) in 1891.
What’s more meaningful to you—your artwork or your writing?
Both are equally beloved and equally challenging. Well, not quite. I have been making art since my fingers could hold a pencil, but writing in a second language makes me feel a bit like an impostor. But it’s a good thing really; I’m always on my toes, paying attention. Besides I cheat a little. Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Arcady’s Goalare not illustrated, but told in a written and a visual language simultaneously. A reader learns as much from reading as from looking. Perhaps, my novels are simply overlong picture books for older children.
[Note: It should be mentioned here that Eugene Yelchin designed the original Coca Cola polar bears.]
What did receiving the Newbery Honor mean to you? How has it changed you or your craft?
The Newbery Medal is given for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. The Newbery Honor is not the most distinguished, but almost… almost the most distinguished. I didn’t speak English until I was close to 30, so contributing something, let alone something almost distinguished to American literature is exciting. But it is also terrifying.
Suddenly you realize that someone is reading your stuff. The librarians are reading it and the teachers are reading it and the middle graders are reading it and even some parents are reading it. Writing books becomes an enormous responsibility. Because you don’t want to disappoint all these nice folk who instead of doing something really fun for themselves are sitting down and reading what you wrote. So you try much, much harder. I mean MUCH harder.
If you came to Buffalo and I took you out for chicken wings, would you order mild, medium, hot, or suicide?
Are they gluten-free?
Yes, my friend, they are gluten-free.
Enter here to win a copy of Arcady’s Goal. (You must be 18 or older to enter.)
Make sure to follow the rest of the Arcady’s Goal blog tour at these fine blogs—just a click away:
10/6 – Kid Lit Frenzy
10/7 – Eat the Book
10/8 – Watch. Connect. Read
10/9 – Read, Write, Reflect
10/10 – Nerdy Book Club
10/13 – Librarian in Cute Shoes
10/14 – The Busy Librarian