Lenin’s Harem by William Burton McCormick
This historical thriller is about a young Latvian-German aristocrat swept up in the turbulence of World War I, told by the point of view of outsiders, from the perspective of those living in Latvia. By twist of fate, he finds himself a member of the Russian Revolution’s Red Riflemen, a group known colloquially as “Lenin’s Harem.” Aristocratic Wiktor Rooks adapts, survives, finds friendship and love among the Communists, and is betrayed in Stalin’s purges. The tale is comprised of three tragic seductions—an unscrupulous woman, a doomed nation, and a treacherous ideology.
McCormick added, “In short, LENIN’S HAREM is the story of a ruined aristocrat swept up in the chaos of war, who by twist of fate finds himself a member of the elite guard of the Russian Revolution. He hides in plain sight amongst his enemies while the Russian Empire crumbles, but where does he go when the revolutionaries win?”
“William Burton McCormick takes us inside lives that would otherwise be unimaginable,” said Suzannah Dunn, author of THE CONFESSION OF KATHERINE HOWARD.
“Gripping and moving, we are fully immersed in Wiktor and what happens to him in the various twists and turns of his extraordinary life,” said Martyn Bedford, Costa short-listed author of FLIP.
McCormick said several scenes make the novel compelling. “There are many gripping passages in the novel, from the trench scenes in World War I where dying men fight over a solitary mask during a gassing attack, to a doomed love affair revealed at the worst possible time, to a late scene where the hero must decide between his own brother, and his wife. The book has ‘lesser evils’ scenarios and the impossible choices one makes in war.”
Inspiration for the plot came when McCormick, “learned about ‘Lenin’s Harem’—the Red Latvian Riflemen of the Russian Revolution—from several history books. I was moved by their story, largely unknown in the West, and how these soldiers went from being peasants in a tiny holding of the Russian Empire to kingmakers for what would become the Soviet Union. The Latvian Riflemen’s fates, and those of their people, are more gripping to me than any fiction I’d read.”
Most writers are voracious readers. McCormick said, “Before I began drafting LENIN’S HAREM, I read a lot of Dashiell Hammett, Alan Furst, and Ian McEwan, though I can’t see any of their styles in my own writing. And, of course, there were countless books on Latvian and Russian history. Today, I read my share of thriller and mystery fiction, but I always take time for narrative nonfiction as well. I think it really informs my own writing. In terms of military thrillers, I recall Alistair MacLean’s THE GUNS OF NAVARONE when I was eleven. That was the beginning. I knew I wanted to be a novelist.”
McCormick has advice for aspiring writers. “Just get it down on the page. Simple as that. You can edit and polish it later, but don’t keep it in your imagination too long. Life’s distractions may take you away from it.”
As for the mechanics of writing, the story changed considerably. He said, “Initially it was split between my present protagonist, Wiktor Rooks, and another character. But after I’d written the first draft I realized the second character wasn’t necessary and indeed detracted from the piece, so I removed that whole narrative strand.
“I tried to show how the characters were a product of their time and class, but wanted also to reveal their inherent natures early on. My protagonist is inquisitive and relatively open minded for an aristocrat before the terrible events of revolution close his views. His brother, Otomars, is a savvy opportunist at the opening of the book, a trait that the wars push towards amorality. I wanted to let the reader know who they were before you see what they become.”
McCormick writes in three phases. “Initially, I write the characters’ personal arc, how the point of view changes. Then I write a second one with the plot and historical events I want to include. Lastly, I include a specific scene-by-scene. These, of course, may change as I write the book but it’s a good foundation.
“I wrote the whole novel straight through in chronological order. Then I went back, and ripped up the beginning. Starting the book, I didn’t really know the characters so I rewrote those chapters. Then I pruned unneeded plots and characters to streamline.”
Readers can look forward to a companion piece called THE SECOND SIEGE. A central character from that novel has already appeared in ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE in the Derringer-nominated story “Blue Amber.”
As for eBooks versus Tree-Books, McCormick said, “I adore the advent of eBooks. Anything that gets people reading, I support. I still prefer a hardcopy, but six of the last seven novels I’ve read have been on a computer screen.”
A graduate of Brown University with degrees in Ancient Studies and Computer Science, McCormick earned an MA in Novel Writing from the University of Manchester. He also studied at Lomonosov Moscow State University. His was a finalist for a 2012 Derringer Award, and received a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2013.
To learn more about debut novelist William Burton McCormick, visit his website.
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