Monday, May 13, 2013

Why Nadya—but not Wallis? A guest post by Kat Meads, author of For You, Madam Lenin

Why do some subjects lend themselves well to fictional treatment while others don't?  This, of course, is a question that all novelists must work out for themselves.  Kat Meads is visiting the blog today with an essay that explores this complex issue and provides insight into her own decision-making process.

Kat's novel For You, Madam Lenin examines the life of Nadya Krupskaya, a Bolshevik revolutionary who married her fellow comrade Vladimir Lenin.  Reviewing for the Historical Novels Review, Elena Maria Vidal wrote:  "Kat Meads' exquisite prose brings to life one of the most determined and enigmatic women in history in a story which exemplifies with irony, pathos and dark humor that there is no tragedy like a Russian tragedy."  For You, Madam Lenin recently took home a silver medal in the IPPY Awards and was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year. 


Why Nadya—but not Wallis? 
Kat Meads

I spent eight years and then some researching, writing, revising and publishing For You, Madam Lenin (Livingston Press, 2012), a novel whose principal characters are Nadya Krupskaya and her mother, Yelizaveta (not the more famous fellow they hung about with). The novel I spent three years researching, outlining, starting, stopping and brooding over was supposed to feature Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor, a woman who became, in the course of her lifetime, a personage at least as famous as the fellow who renounced the throne on her behalf.

Which made and makes me wonder: did degree of real-life famousness turn out to be a deciding factor in which character I kept with, which novel I finished and which I scuttled?

A story too well known, too familiar, resisting fictional recast?

Makes sense.

Because if the historical record has already revealed the secrets, exposed the dark corners, filled in the missing blanks, there would be—would have to be—fewer mysteries going in, less need to invent, less incentive, one might say, for the fictioneer to whip up fiction.

Did Wallis Windsor’s universal notoriety ultimately put me off my own project?

I don’t think it helped.

In retrospect, I honestly don’t think it did.

Prior to starting in on Madam Lenin, I do remember this motivator: write a “bigger” novel. Bigger in terms of page count, character count, narrative scope, narrative time. My previous novels’ timeframes were fairly limited. The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan covers twenty years, give or take; Sleep, a few months; when the dust finally settles, a few weeks. Madam Lenin’s plot is driven by 50-odd years of turbulent Russian history and peopled by three times as many characters as my usual fictional cast. It’s a book that starts in the 1890s, that takes place in countries not my own, a book about revolution(s). Revolutions are not solitary affairs. Anytime I wanted a break from writing about Nadya K, I could write about Inessa Armand, Nadya’s comrade and rival for Lenin’s affections. Or about Fanny Kaplan, the woman accused of shooting Lenin in 1918. Or about the tsarina. Or, or, or. In the Wallis novel as conceived, Wallis was front and center, dominating every page.

Did I lose faith in that singular focus, grow tired of the company of the self-absorbed Wallis?

Maybe so.

The writer James Houston once told me: “One of the things young writers don’t understand is that you have to enjoy your own company. You have to be okay with being alone at your desk for long stretches of time.”

I’d add to that you have to be okay with spending long stretches with your characters. You don’t have to like them, but they do have to hold your interest. Because if they don’t hold your interest, what chance do they have of holding a reader’s?

No chance is the definitive answer to that.

When I sift through the whys of my original attraction to Nadya Krupskaya and Wallis Warfield as characters, the list turns up a few similarities, a few stark differences. Nadya Krupskaya was a politically radical, politically committed female, young and old. Wallis Warfield was a Southerner turned duchess, petrified of poverty, young and old. Both were intent on changing something: Nadya, a country; Wallis, the uncertain nature of her own future. Both women were exceedingly skilled at holding grudges. Both, young and younger, had lost their fathers, an absence that intensified their relationships with their mothers. I have long written about mothers and daughters. I am Southern. And yet I was only able to go the distance with the Russian mother/daughter pair, not my regional affiliates.

Was it a matter of perseverance, determination, grit and grind? If I’d kept pushing my Wallis idea, would I eventually have figured out a way to write my unwritten novel?


More importantly: would I have been satisfied with the result?

More doubtful still.

Even now, when I think of Wallis Warfield Windsor, I recall what others have written about her—not my ideas, my notion of spin. I was never able to make/remake Wallis into “my” character, my “creature.” Wallis resisted my manipulations. She stubbornly remained Wallis, a woman in history.

Nadya Krupskaya?

The flesh and blood NK who inspired the novel?

She’s gone. Utterly displaced and replaced by NK The Character in my head. Ask me anything about NK The Character, and I’ll answer promptly. Ask one of those “Did that really happen?” questions and I’m likely to hem and haw. Because, frankly, I can no longer easily remember what is true and what I invented. The same applies to Russian Revolution specifics. Once upon a time, I could do fair justice to Edmund Wilson’s account of the Bolsheviks’ reception at Finland Station; now I’m a For You, Madam Lenin expert, period.

Safe to say: for me to claim to know a novel inside out, upside down, sideways and aslant, that novel has to exist.

And that, at least, the Madam does.

She does exist.

For You, Madam Lenin was published by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama in October 2012 ($19.99, trade pb, 283pp).  Find it on Goodreads and on Amazon.  Visit Kat Meads' website at


  1. Anonymous1:23 PM

    Given all of the "biofiction" currently being written, I have been curious as to how, and why, writers form their characters out of what is known about "real life" people. Obviously, some are more successful than others. It has to "work", as Nadya did for Kat.

    Sarah OL

  2. You made the right call for sure. Wallis Simpson was a most boring and superficial sort, a parasite on the body social.

    So it's also interesting to contrast these women and their destinies as well!