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Interview with Author Irina Rey

Interview with Author Irina Rey

Irina Reyn

Author Irina Reyn talks about her inspiration, research,
and who should star in the movie

Spertus Institute's Betsy Gomberg had a lively phone conversion with Irina Reyn, author of The Imperial Wife in advance of Reyn's two Chicago-area appearances. This is an edited version of their conversation.

Where did the idea for The Imperial Wife come from? And how did it evolve?

Tanya’s story was written earlier, for a different project. The idea came from one of my dearest friends, who has a job similar to Tanya’s. She would come back from work with these stories — I was fascinated by her job. But that project didn’t quite come together and Tanya got put in the drawer.

Then I was reading the memoirs of Catherine the Great. I have found her to be a fascinating character from early on, what she did and how she was treated, even posthumously. She was a force, this amazing, strong, interesting woman. At the same time, Hillary Clinton was first running for President and there were parallels to how she was treated, parallels that made me think about how we handle women in positions of power. That’s why we put together contemporary and history, to chart the change — or lack of change.

In the book, there are two worlds that most of us don’t have much experience with: a high-end global art auction house and the Russian Imperial Court. What kind of research did you do to make us as readers feel like we are there, inside these worlds, each with their own unique customs and traditions?

For Tanya’s story, I was coached by my friend and I immersed myself in that world. I attended an auction to hear the language. I talked to an expert on imperial relics, having her appraise what the value of the Order [of Saint Catherine] would be. She helped me be accurate about what the trajectory of an object like this would be, about the Soviets selling off Romanov treasures.

For Catherine, I read books about her and her memoirs, which are surprisingly lively.

One setting that felt very real to us was the Jewish Leadership committee. Where did the idea for this come?

As you know, in New York, and Chicago as well, there is outreach to involve young Russian-speaking Jews in the Jewish community. This is a community in which the younger generation has many more opportunities to be involved in Jewish life than their parents, but has had to relearn its Jewish-ness. I have attended lectures and meetings like the ones portrayed in the book.

What part of writing this book did you most enjoy?

The history was the harder part for me. Most fun was to imagine Tanya with the Oligarchs, in parties and situations where she would have been a fish out of water. I imagined what it would be like for me to be in settings like those.

Without giving too much away, in the book there are two smart, capable women seeking opportunities of power. The book explores what’s going on in their own heads — and the impact on those around them. This certainly is an important topic at any time, but I doubt when you wrote the book you expected it to be quite as relevant as it is right now. Can you talk about that?

Actually, because this election cycle has been so long, you could already see how Hillary Clinton was being treated as a woman candidate as I was writing. What I didn’t know was that issues about harassment would become so central, that a confluence of events would draw our attention to the kind of presumptions and behavior that women working with men have had to deal with all along.

This is certainly true for Tanya, what she goes through to accommodate the expectations of the men in her life, especially her clients and her husband. But not just men, also the expectations of her parents.

Both Tanya and Catherine are immigrants to new countries and situations, something you share with them. What do their accomplishments — and yours — have to say about opportunities for immigrants today?

Although in America there’s a narrative of immigrant success, obviously, immigrants don’t all have the same opportunities. It’s very different to be an immigrant from Eastern Europe than someone from Mexican or North Africa. And everyone faces their own challenges differently.

This is true of women, immigrants, any group; some people approach obstacles as possibilities, as a chance to do more. But you need opportunities, and they have to land together with a certain amount of luck.

If The Imperial Wife was turned into a movie — which it most definately should be — who should play Tanya? Catherine? How about Igor, who you have to admit would be an amazing part to play?

I adore Rachel Weiss. Maybe she should play both Tanya and Catherine.

I like when movies use Russians to play Russians, so maybe Igor should be played by a new Russian American actor. If not that, then Clive Owens.

How does it feel to have The Imperial Wife selected for Chicago’s One Book project, knowing it will be read and talked about across the Chicago Jewish community?

Amazing! Lucky!

I’m very much looking forward to meeting readers in Chicago and curious to hear what they have to say. And I’m looking forward to learning about the Jewish community in Chicago.

What other books would you recommend to Chicago readers?

First of all, Enchanted Islands, by my friend Allison Amend, who is a Chicago native. It’s about a Jewish woman who becomes a spy in the Galápagos Islands.

And The Book of Esther, an alternative adventure story by Emily Barton. It has a young rebbetzin as the protagonist who saves the Jewish community, not something you see every day.

What are you working on now?

I’m kind of superstitious…so you’ll have to wait and see.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Imperial Wife

The Imperial Wife is Irina Reyn's second novel. Her first, What Happened to Anna K., won the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers. Reyn teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work as appeared in publications ranging from Town & Country to Jezebel. Like one of the characters in The Imperial Wife, she immigrated to the United States from Moscow when she was seven years old. She has been writing about the experience — in one way or another — ever since.