A devoted Russophile, Robert Alexander has studied at Leningrad State University, worked for the U.S. government, and traveled extensively throughout Russia. While he's already made a name for himself with his series of bestselling mysteries (written as R. D. Zimmerman), he has also written a well-received trilogy of Russian historical novels (The Kitchen Boy, Rasputin's Daughter, The Romanov Bride) about the last days of Empire.
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In our interview, Alexander shared some fun and fascinating facts about himself with us:
"Most of my friends know: I'm much too outgoing to be living in quarantine, as I do (as any writer does). Most of my friends don't know: I can ride a unicycle, I can't balance my checkbook, I broke my back going over a ski jump, and I was once enrolled in Meats 104 and Beverage 111 at a prominent School of Hotel and Restaurants, which prompted me to drop out and start my first novel."
"What I would like to know about me from someone is, why do I keep going to Russia? I've been going there for 28 years, and it's definitely not a place to unwind. But it certainly is always interesting. And that's where I met my domestic partner, Lars, and we've now been together 25 years. And it's also where I met my business partner, Meri, and we've been in business now almost 14 years -- we have a customs clearance business and Barabu, a small chain of espresso/wine bars. And I always come up with some weird story idea over there. So maybe I just answered my own question.
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what Robert Alexander had to say:
In Minnesota, where I've lived for a number of years, there's a phenomenon known as "weather amnesia," whereby at the conclusion of one of our long, cold winters you suddenly forget just how nasty, how chilly, how white and long the past five, even six months, have been. Weather amnesia usually happens on the first sixty-degree day, when you step outside, all pasty and squinty-eyed, and admire the sun-filled sky, and proclaim, "Say now, that winter wasn't so bad."
So I'm afraid I have to admit that I actually have "summer book amnesia." Oh, if only I were one of those who had a tidy book journal, but I can no more keep a neat, accurate list of the books I've read and my impressions of them than I can, well, balance my checkbook. Since I can't remember what I read last winter, let alone last summer or the summer before that, I relied on the kindness of friends, all in different fields, for books they'd recommend for summer reading.
Here's what they had to say:
From a publishing executive, here are two Big Buzz Books for the summer of 2004:
Crossing California by Adam Yanger, which has been described to me as something like Phillip Roth meets, yikes, the Simpsons. Sounds interesting and hip.
The Dog Walker by Leslie Schnur. I've read an advance copy and it's a hoot. Kind of like Lassie comes to New York and hooks up with "Sex and the City."
Another publishing executive of literary fiction (who begged not to be identified because she doesn't want anyone to know she reads anything but highbrow stuff) offered these dig-your-heels-in-the-sand reads from summers past. All I know is that after I read the second one I've never felt at ease in an ocean again.
Beaches by Iris Rainer Dart
Jaws by Peter Benchley
I have a dear friend who is a fabulous chef, not to mention the very one whom we hired to write our menus and train our staff at our restaurant in St. Petersburg, Russia. When I asked her for one of her favorite summer cookbooks, she promptly said she loves this one year-round:
The Dean and Deluca Cookbook by Joel Dean, et al. From the famous New York emporium comes this cookbook that Publishers Weekly called "terrific and exhaustive."
Another friend is a restaurant critic and one of the best food writers I know, and his favorite summer cookbook is:
Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating From America's Farmers' Markets by Deborah Madison, which celebrates the seasonality of our bountiful harvest.
Poet Greg Hewett, author of Red Suburb, says you can always dip into Emily Dickinson for her poetic summer images. Otherwise, he also recommends:
Blue Hour: Poems by Carolyn Forché, which Greg calls "dreamlike and a wonderful way to get your intuition loosened up."
My pal, Tom, who is in sort of a "brain trust" for a major, major computer corporation, loves sci-fi and has been recommending the following, saying "the language is wonderful":
Zeitgeist by Bruce Sterling
Architectural Historian Katherine Solomonson, author of the superb Chicago Tribune Tower Exhibition, thoroughly enjoyed:
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Katherine says this book about a serial killer at the World's Columbian Exhibition not only has great detail, but evokes the underbelly of Chicago.
Prolific mystery writer Ellen Hart is as great a reader as she is a writer. For summer crime she recommends:
Dead by Sunset by Ann Rule. If you want true crime, Ellen says this is the one.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie King. Ellen calls this one an engrossing, lighter mystery.
For non-criminal fare, she also recommends:
The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. Hilarious. If Ellen were going to the beach this summer (but I don't think she will; she's not a that kind of girl -- too sandy), this is what she would be reading.
My neighbor, Charles, who is a professor of philosophy and terribly, terribly intelligent, came up with these two "lighter" reads for the warm months:
The Essays by Francis Bacon. Recommended for its "sheer pleasure."
Goethe's Faust by, of course, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Charles called this book "sweeping, rich, versatile, and poignant."
As for me, I'm always reading things Russian, and here are some Romanovs books, new and old:
The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky. Sort of a Russian follow-up to Robert Massie's superb Nicholas and Alexandra. In his book, author Radzinsky presents the fall of Russia's last imperial family from a decidedly Russian point of view.
The Fate of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson. Lots of fresh, new, and exhaustively researched information in this tome, which focuses on the last days of the Romanovs.
I'm usually at the bottom of the food chain on these things, but here's some Advance Buzz for when summer has faded and the snow (ugh) starts to fly again (or maybe you live in Florida or Hawaii where it's always summer):
Yeh Yeh's House: A Memoir by Evelina Chao (due in December).
In the spring of 2004, Robert Alexander took some time to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
The book that had the most impact on my writing career was, I'm sure, John LeCarré's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Not only does it convey a remarkable idea with an economy of words, it's a vivid lesson in the elements of any great book -- tension, pace, and plot. More precisely, from it I learned that to write a book you not only have to have an original idea, but also a compelling plot to propel that idea. When those two are combined with equal force, you get a great book.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is my favorite book in the last five years. Not only did I love the atmosphere and the setting, I loved the depth of humanity that emanated from every page as well as from the story itself.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is my favorite book in the last year. I mean, how did that guy do it? It's so twisted and so wonderful. How could he write a book about family incest and make it so compassionate, so sympathetic, and even so entertaining? What a talented writer... if I'd attempted something like that it would have been a real clunker.
By far and away Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie had the biggest impact on the course of my life because it set me on a track of all things Russian. Soon thereafter I started studying Russian, which led to my studying at Leningrad State University. That paved the way for my working for the US government in the USSR. And it was while I was working in the USSR that I was followed by the KGB, which gave me the idea for my first published book. Because of that, I've often said that I owe my writing career to the KGB. In truth, though it doesn't have such a zippy ring, I suppose I owe my writing career to Robert Massie.
What probably put me more at peace than any other book was Janet Woititz's Adult Children of Alcoholics. How come I didn't know any of this stuff when I was a kid? How come the world didn't?
Back to Russia... I'm crazy about Edvard Radzinksky's book, The Last Tsar. Not only did he bring together so many bits of information on the Romanovs, he did it in such a Russian manner. And that's important because I think we make a tremendous mistake in trying to understand Russia in a Western sense, when in fact it's as much, if not more, Eastern.
And still in Russia... I love Ayn Rand's We The Living, which she said was as close as she would ever write to an autobiography. It's tremendously evocative of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. And in fact I like this the best of all Rand's books because it's the least didactic. In other words, the story delivers the point, rather than being hit over the head as the reader is in some of her later works.
Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven is another book that I still carry with me. Set during the time of Vivaldi and the castrati in Venice, it spins a mesmerizing tale -- very evocative of the beauty and cruelty of life.
As for crime novels, I love the work of Michael Connelly, Ellen Hart, and I particularly enjoyed Val McDermid's A Place of Execution. Books by these authors always keep me engaged, curious, and, most important in the mystery/thriller field, entertained.
Yikes, what else? Everything written by Hemingway, especially For Whom the Bell Tolls. Steinbeck, too, of course; particularly The Grapes of Wrath. Anna Karenina by Tolstoy.
Simply, I've always felt that for a book to work, it has to resonate for the reader, it has to strike some familiar cord and perhaps, hopefully, shed a light of understanding on the human condition. Either that, or it's just got to help you escape, take you on a ride. And all of the above books have done either or, in some cases, both for me.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Oh, I'm terrible at this name stuff. I loved American Beauty because it so deftly portrays the layers of truths that people keep. And I love epics like Dr. Zhivago or, more recently, Indochine -- from them I took a better scope of the human condition. Best in Show made me laugh and laugh and forget about how many pages I had to write the next day. Conversely, Adaptation is so good that it drove me crazy because I just kept thinking: This is my life, I live this stuff, why do I need to watch it? I also loved North by Northwest and Chinatown, of course, because they were both so expertly structured.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Eighty beats a cycle. I don't know what that means, actually, but I know it's the best for a writer to listen to while working. Bach's Goldberg Variations is the prime example of that. I can put that on repeat, listen to it for a month, and write and write. Without fail, it always makes me more productive. My neighbors must think I'm crazy, but I have to have music that I can't listen to. In other words, I'm always looking for music that creates the "Highway Hypnosis" effect, something slightly repetitive, nothing too engaging, yet always evocative -- in other words, music that makes the checkbook side of my mind run screaming so that the creative side can step forward.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Oh, you don't want to hear this: I'd never have a book club. And I'd never be in one. That's like working in a bank all day and coming home and having an accounting club, or a chef being in a cooking club (well, actually, that might be kind of fun), or an architect being in a club that studies blueprints.
I've been in writing groups, which are spectacular -- we pass our manuscripts around, talk, comment, critique. But that's work. In other words, at a certain point you gotta give it a rest. Which is why I love reading magazines and newspapers and going out for dinner and seeing movies and taking walks. Sadly, writing has ruined my reading because I'm always going, like, why did he break that paragraph there, why is she so good at atmosphere, I would have done it this way or that way....
But, at the same time: I'm nothing without book clubs. I speak to them all the time. And I love them.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Balzac. He's so old he's new again.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Historicals, of course. Thrillers. Books on how to build stone walls. Travel books. Cook books. I love books that both entertain and educate. And I love to make stuff and figure everyone else does too. Actually, I think the book I gave someone on stone walls was the only gift I've ever given that has been regifted....
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I always have a cup of coffee on my desk and a dog on the floor. Also: music that seems appropriate for that book and which I can stomach to listen to for months, because I'll do exactly that, put it on repeat, day in, day out. And it's gotta be nine o'clock, not earlier.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I've been around the block so many times I'm dizzy. My first two books are unpublished (which is a good thing), and I've worked with over fifteen editors (which is a bad thing). The Kitchen Boy was literally twice as long when I first sent it out -- and it was promptly turned down by 15 publishers. As soon as I cut out a mystery in the present and focused on that amazing story in the past, it sold right away. I wish I could say it only gets easier -- but the best thing I can say is that I've met a lot of wonderful people along the way.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Write for yourself. Draw from there, right from your heart. Of course, if you want to be published you have to write something compelling, so don't forget pace, plot, tension. You have to give the reader a reason to turn the pages. But if you have the nerdy ability to finish what you start and the compulsive ability to look at something and just keep asking "what if?" then I'm sure you'll create something publishable.
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|Robert Alexander Home
Good to Know
|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Robert Alexander|
|The Cross and the Sickle, 1984|
|The Red Encounter, 1986|
|Blood Russian, 1987|
|Deadfall in Berlin, 1990|
|Death Trance, 1992|
|Blood Trance, 1993|
|Red Trance, 1994|
|Closet: A Todd Mills Mystery, 1995|
|Tribe: A Todd Mills Mystery, 1996|
|Hostage: A Todd Mills Mystery, 1997|
|Outburst: A Todd Mills Mystery, 1998|
|Innuendo: A Todd Mills Mystery, 1999|
|The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar, 2003|
|Rasputin's Daughter, 2006|