The Russian author Anton Chekhov is ill. His sister Masha is devoted to him. She introduces him to a beautiful friend. Hearts are broken – and a masterpiece is written. In her new novel A Russian Sister, Vancouver-based writer Caroline Adderson imagines a backstory for Chekhov’s crafting of The Seagull. For instance, in the opening line of his classic play, the character Masha is asked why she always wears black. “I’m in mourning for my life,” she responds. “I’m unhappy.” In Adderson’s imagining, these words are said by the real-life Masha and borrowed by her brother for his play.
What made you want to write about Chekhov? Or, more to the point, the women around him?
I didn’t at first think I was going to write about Masha; I actually thought I was going to write about Chekhov. I’ve had a lifelong love of his writing and there was one thing about his life that intrigued me: He only married three years before he died and he never lived with his wife; he continued to live with his mother and sister. That’s what I thought I was going to write about. Then I realized that would be a story about a very sick man quarrelling with his female relatives in a really boring seaside town. And then I started getting curious about Masha.
The biographies always talk about his women troubles in that he could never commit to women. He had many, many lovers; he broke everybody’s heart. Yet nobody ever writes that there’s any connection to the fact that he and his two older brothers were brutally, brutally beaten by their father almost daily. What happens to your psyche and your ability to emotionally connect to people because of that childhood trauma?
I was on draft five or something when #MeToo was raging and [Masha] was so implicated with these lovers that he had; she would in a way kind of supply them. And I just thought: She must be so angry.
There’s an almost unhealthy co-dependence in your interpretation of their relationship. To what extent was that invented and to what extent did you draw from reality?
Her thoughts and feelings are imagined, but all the actual outward events in the book are true. So that was my own interpretation. But there were so many factors that I felt would lead to that. Firstly, her immense desire for love. She goes along finding different people or objects to love – such as the mongoose – and they’re always taken away from her. The only person that stays with her is the brother. The other brother Kolia died of TB (tuberculosis) and Chekhov has TB, so there’s always that feeling that he’s going to die, and the whole family was so dependent on him.
So she actually had a pet mongoose?
Yes. On his way back from Sakhalin Island, Chekhov stopped in Ceylon and bought what he thought were two mongooses, but one was actually a civet cat. The fact that [the mongoose] becomes [Masha’s] love interest for a while is my own interpretation, but he was certainly there.
Can you tell me about the research process?
It was very pleasurable. I went to Russia in 2015 and I went to all the Chekhov sites: Taganrog, his birthplace, and Rostov-on-Don where his parents met. I was in Moscow, of course. And Yalta. And Badenweiler, Germany, where he died. I’ve been reading his fiction all of my life, so I just really read deeply over and over again; read the plays, which I was less familiar with. Then biographies, his letters, everything I could get my hands on. At a certain point I realized I had to stop. And that really was the turning point for me. I produced some pretty turgid drafts that were very biographical. Once I said, “Forget this; I have everything I need, now I have to be inside the book,” then everything changed for me. I really could get into the story on the emotional and visceral level.
Major themes in this book include women’s inequality and social inequality. What was life like for women in that class of that time?
Well, firstly, they were very lucky to be in that class because Chekhov’s father was born a serf, a slave – they were slaves. His grandfather bought their freedom when he was a young boy. So Chekhov was very aware through his whole life that he was not from the gentry; every other writer was from the gentry. This contributed to this aspect of his personality that you must always present as a person of dignity and class; and a lot of trouble with the two older brothers who were terrible alcoholics, as a result of their treatment, I think, by the father. The fact that Chekhov didn’t turn out like them is a testament to who he was.
After you returned from Russia, was there anything you did to keep yourself in that Russian mindset as you were writing?
It was just there. This is one thing about COVID that’s very troubling; the importance of travelling when you’re researching a book. I really have to go some place to feel it. Even when I set something in Vancouver, I go to the neighbourhood. It’s not for the reader; it’s for me, so I can imagine it. I don’t know what’s going to happen if we can’t travel. The internet is not the same. It gives you certain facts, but I don’t know how you can bring something to life without experiencing it yourself.
What’s it like to release a book during a pandemic?
Well, I actually have four books this year, I have three kids’ books too. One thing is: Everybody’s in the same situation. So it’s not like, “Oh, boo-hoo, this terrible thing happened to me.“ The terrible thing is happening to everybody, so I just feel like you know what? Big deal. We just have to go on. Like a line from Uncle Vanya. We have to keep on living.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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