Every now and again, you have a visceral experience while reading that sticks in your brain long after you’ve put the book down. Well over a year after reading Lindsay Smith’s debut, Sekret, I still distinctly remember closing the book and yelling “More!” to an empty room, like a toddler who’d been left in a high chair with nothing but the remains of my sad little peas. I missed the tension, the high stakes, the unique characters, the cultural discourse, the rare premise allowing for a YA to be set in a non-English-speaking country with a native main character…it was so much I already knew I would love and so much I hadn’t yet realized I was looking for, and I was so, so not ready to let go.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to for too long—Sekret is the first book in a duology, and now the second, Skandal, is finally here, returning me to the intense, grueling, suspicion-inducing world of psychic teen spies during the Cold War. Skandal is every bit as excellent as its predecessor, rife with twists and turns, historical details, and Russian culture. Proof? It passed the number-one test of whether a book is compelling: it made me miss my subway stop. Thankfully, it’s so good, I didn’t hold against the author for more than a few months, tops.
Smith may be capping off her duology, but it’s not remotely the last you’ll be seeing of her. I got to talk to her about these books, their real-life settings, and of course, what’s to come.
Get us into serious Russian mode for reading Sekret and Skandal. What are we eating? Drinking? Listening to?
This is a classy occasion, so we’re going to bring out our finest bottle of Sovietskoe Shampanskoe—no cheap vodka here. (State-produced champagne from the USSR era. I swear they have underground bunkers packed with the stuff.) We are eating tvorog (farmer’s cheese) with mushroom blini. Caviar is too bourgeois. Let’s not get flashy. The heavy opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s 1st Piano Concerto thunder around us. A chill wind rattles the windowpanes. In Moscow, April is a winter month. (That’s a Goldeneye reference, Dahlia. I’ll teach you yet!)
What’s your Russian background, and how do you research?
I’ve studied Russian off and on since middle school, which included two student exchange trips, a summer abroad, and degrees in Russian Studies (undergrad) and International Relations (grad school). Certainly all of that gave me a strong foundation for understanding the language, history, and culture of Russia as I started writing Sekret, and I used a number of historiographies and biographies of Soviet leaders, ex-KGB chiefs, cosmonauts, and more. But I really wanted to nail the specific feel of Cold War–era Moscow: the paranoia and fatalism and secrecy and flickers of hope. For me, this meant rereading some of my favorites—Pasternak, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, Gogol—and listening to lots and lots of Russian music to pick up on all those nuances you can’t get just from the history books.
After seeing so many trilogies, I have to admit I get really excited to see a series contained in two books. What made a duology the perfect way to convey your story?
In many ways, Yulia’s story plays a lot with dualities. Soviet East vs. Capitalist West, psychic vs. non, compulsion vs. choice. So splitting those ideas into two halves made a natural fit for Yulia’s arc. In Sekret, she’s fighting against her powers and the people forcing her to use them, and in Skandal, she’s trying to master her abilities while finding her role in the world order. I loved throwing her into two very different situations and environments in the two books and seeing how she coped with each!
The trick to keeping others out of your characters’ minds in the books is to internally play a particular selection of music. If you were a psychic teen spy, what would your safety music be?
Oh dear. If we’re talking about teenage Lindsay, it would have to be ’80s alt rock. (Okay, fine, modern Lindsay would choose that, too!) “This Corrosion,” by The Sisters of Mercy, is nice and loud and catchy and epic and really, really long—all good requirements for a mental music shield!
Though a number of YAs are set outside the US, it’s rare to see one with a main character who’s native to that country. What cultural differences make Yulia et al. so different from American teens?
Secrecy and paranoia were such a natural part of the average Soviet citizen’s daily life that I think it’s difficult for us to imagine. We’re used to sharing our thoughts and inner lives so freely with each other and on social media, when in Yulia’s world, expressing herself could have very real and very dire consequences. She’s used to having to dig a bit for unspoken truths, and burying her own secrets deep down.
Skandal is set in your current hometown of Washington, D.C., but of course it’s over forty years in the past. What kinds of changes did you observe in Yulia’s D.C. versus yours?
D.C. is undergoing a major revitalization right now as people move back into the city, and for the most part, it’s done wonders for the District’s economic growth and commercial development. Yulia’s D.C., by contrast, is deeply fragmented; Skandal takes place months before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and unfortunately, de facto racial segregation was still very much in place, which is one of the major threads running throughout the book. Yulia’s father lives in the old-money enclave of Georgetown, but they travel into working-class neighborhoods to visit iconic jazz clubs like Bohemian Caverns (which is still operating today!). In 1964, all the old streetcar systems had been stripped out, but construction of the Metro underground rail system wasn’t yet complete, making public transit a real challenge for people who couldn’t afford automobiles. Right now, my neighborhood is on the brink of reinstating the first streetcar to run in D.C. since the 1960s. I’m personally a big fan!
You recently released a prequel e-novella, Kursed, in this same world, centered around the character of Antonina. What made you choose her as the subject?
I’d been dying to look at the genesis of the KGB’s psychic espionage program in the Sekret world, and Antonina—as its principal architect—fascinates me! She’s a significant part of Skandal as well, so I wanted to write something that might enrich readers’ understanding of her character in a way I couldn’t explore from Yulia’s perspective. I loved showing how Andrei and Antonina began their journey, and—come on—who wouldn’t want to write about psychic Nazi-fighting spies?
What books—YA or otherwise—would you recommend for fellow Russophiles?
Aside from all the obvious Russian literary greats? Catherynne Valente’s Deathless is a gorgeous fantastical retelling/reworking of numerous Russian fairytales set during the Revolution and World War II. David Benioff’s (the Game of Thrones showrunner) City of Thieves is an awesome and terrifying Homeric adventure set during the Siege of Leningrad. On the YA side, Tsarina, by J. Nelle Patrick, makes a great fantasy tale out of the Russian Revolution with bonus Rasputin wickedness. And I’m currently reading One Night in Winter, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, a historical thriller set just after Hitler’s defeat.
This is your second year going on the Fierce Reads tour. Who are you touring with this year, and what’s it like behind the scenes?
This year I’m touring with Marie Rutkoski (The Winner’s Trilogy series), Katie Finn (the Broken Hearts & Revenge Novel series), and Lynne Matson (the Nil series). I toured with Marie and Katie both last year, and we had an awesome time—lots of delicious group dinners, goofy Twitter photos, book rec swapping, and exploration, with the requisite downtime for my introverted needs (and, uh, crashing on deadlines). This year we’re adding pre-panel pizza parties to the mix, which is great—I love getting to chat with all the book bloggers and passionate readers and hearing their thoughts, so I’m glad we’ll have more time for that!
You actually have another YA coming out later this year. What can you share with us about Dreamstrider?
Dreamstrider is a high fantasy adventure about a girl who can use people’s dreamworld representations to manipulate them in the real world. (For espionage purposes, because it’s a Lindsay Smith book, duh.) It features lots of scary dream sequences, horrific monsters, political intrigue, and romance while turning the Chosen One trope on its ear. It’ll be out October 6!
Skandal is available now.