Russian star opens the book on Irish love affair

Late-starting author Ludmila Ulitskaya tells Andrea Byrne about the benefits of the Booker Prize shortlist, the needs of orphanages and her adoration of Joyce

By Andrea Byrne
Sunday July 05 2009

RUSSIAN author Ludmila Ulitskaya is pulling furiously on a fake cigarette when we meet in a Dublin hotel, which seems to amuse nearby onlookers. But Ludmila -- typically Russian in her expression -- remains blissfully unconcerned by all the staring.

She's trying to give up smoking and this is her way of doing so. She's not afraid to do things differently, and it certainly hasn't impeded her in any way. Though not yet well known in this part of the world, she's one of of Russia's most successful contemporary authors, she's big news in many parts of Europe and her books have been translated into 32 languages.

She's also no stranger to accolades: her 2001 novel The Kukotsky Case won her the Russian version of the Booker Prize. More recently, she was one of 14 authors nominated for the 2009 Man Booker International Prize, though she was pipped at the post by Alice Munro.

"It was extremely pleasant to be nominated because the names on this shortlist are such that it was nice to be shoulder to shoulder with them," she tells me through her translator. (While Ludmila can understand a certain amount of English, she's not comfortable speaking it.) "The practical result of standing in this very short line was quite important. For a year and a half, I have had quite difficult discussions about my American contracts, and now it has been signed," she smiles.

The Russian author has boyishly-short grey hair and sallow skin, her figure is hard to detect underneath the layers of heavy knits she's wearing, but she's definitely a young-looking 66-year-old.

We met on her second time in Ireland. On this occasion, she was here for the recent Impac Award dinner and to present Russian books to the RDS Library. Like many Russians, she adores James Joyce and read from the Russian version of Ulysses in Temple Bar on Bloomsday.

She enjoys something of a love affair with Ireland, and is a patron of the children's charity To Russia With Love, founded by Dublin woman Debbie Deegan. Ludmila is also a member of a national board connected with orphanages in Russia and is involved with countless charities. She even set up her own, called The Good Book.

"The charity makes books available to the layers of the Russian population which don't have the chance to acquire them. The next thing we are going to undertake is the fundraising for books for orphanages -- particularly audio books," she says.

"In big cities like Moscow, the conditions are getting better, but in provincial cities, things are very difficult. A lot depends on who is doing the work, the key person in the orphanages. It is a situation where one person really does matter, one person can change the situation considerably."

At 50, Ludmila was a late starter in the literary world. Her style, she admits, has evolved. "In the last 16 years, my books have been changing as I have been changing. My latest novel -- Daniel Stein, Translator -- differs considerably from my other works."

Before becoming a full-time writer, Ludmila worked as a geneticist, having studied biology at the Moscow State University.

She smirks when asked whether she's married. "I have had quite a number of husbands in my life," she remarks, pursing her lips together, "but I have been with my latest husband for more than 30 years. He is a very well-known artist. He's great fun to live with."

Ludmila has two grown-up sons. "One is a fool, the other is a clever one, but both are absolutely fantastic," she states. They have given her four grandchildren, who she says have "brought me lots of fun, love and happiness".

The "biggest blow" in Ludmila's career to date was reading an English translation of one of her books. "All possible content of the message was lost... I had a big English trauma," she announces dramatically. Thankfully, for her though, she's now working with Arch Tait, widely considered one of the finest Russian translators in the world, and is thrilled with the result.

"I love my work," she says in conclusion, "I do not believe there are writers who are doing it and not loving it." She says taking another drag of the "cigarette".

Sonechka and Other Stories by Ludmila Ulitskaya is available in bookshops priced €11.80

- Andrea Byrne

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