Reviewers have called Orest Stelmach’s writing “brilliant, nuanced and deeply moving,” which is high praise for any author, but especially for one whose first language was not English. Born in Connecticut to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, his Nadia Tesla thriller series is deeply influenced by his Ukrainian heritage and the catastrophic consequences of the accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The series takes the reader from New York to Ukraine, Siberia, Alaska, and Japan. His upcoming release, THE ALTAR GIRL, brings this chilling series to its end.
Stelmach’s way with words is apparent before you even crack one of his books, however. Visit his website to read essays that are witty, inspiring, and emotive. You’ll find in these short writings, the hand of a master storyteller.
Orest sat down with The Big Thrill for this interview.
THE ALTAR GIRL is a prequel to the popular Nadia Tesla series. In what ways is Nadia different now than she would have been had the prequel been written first?
In fact, the prequel was written first. After the subsequent three books were published, I went back and rewrote the prequel years after I first imagined it. I ended up changing eighty to ninety percent of the book. As a result of writing the later books first, Nadia did change, just as you suggest. First, she became more mature for her age, with a voice that reflected her childhood hardships. And second, she became a woman with shame, the kind that defines humanity. In Nadia’s case, her shame is at the core of the plot and themes of THE ALTAR GIRL.
The series revolves around the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plant disasters. What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing this series to life?
Writing fiction steeped in history requires attention to detail. My first novel contained some inexplicable errors pertaining to Ukrainian history. Those errors were all mine and mine alone, and some readers of Ukrainian descent reacted accordingly. The frustrating part of that experience was that the first novel required extensive research into the Chornobyl (proper Ukrainian as opposed to Russian spelling) disaster and, even more challenging, an exhaustive study of three different indigenous Siberian peoples. I succeeded with the elements that were the most foreign to me, and erred on those most familiar. That experience taught me to have a zero tolerance for factual errors in my books.
Aside from the sheer entertainment of this series conclusion, is there a message you hope your readers will grasp?
Yes. My editor, Alison Dasho, wrote an insightful introduction to THE ALTAR GIRL that appears on its Kindle page on Amazon. It’s also as lovely and nuanced a piece of writing as you will find. I can’t top it so I won’t try.
Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011—twenty-five years apart and the two worst nuclear accidents in history. Are you fearful about lessons not learned and the future of nuclear energy?
Prudence requires sacrifice. To make nuclear energy safe, corporate executives might have to compromise shareholder profits and risk bonuses, and politicians might have to defy certain supporters to pursue public safety. You see why we should all be concerned…
Leukemia, thyroid cancer, and birth defects are just a few of the human impacts of Chernobyl. You’ve donated a percentage of your book royalties to Chernobyl Children International. Has the series been translated into Ukrainian? Have you visited Ukraine since the series was published?
The series has not been translated into Ukrainian, but the first book has been translated into German, Italian, and Japanese, and a Hebrew translation is on the way. As for visiting Ukraine since the series was published, my wife and I are departing for Kyiv in less than thirty-six hours. How’s that for timing!
You’ve employed an entertaining and one-of-a-kind bio on your website in which you mention Kolymsky Heights by the late Lionel Davidson. Has his writings influenced yours?
If my tombstone were to bear my name with an arrow beneath it, and the arrow pointed to my wife’s grave, and the inscription beneath the arrow read, “He took care of her and told stories, too,” I would consider my life a success. Lionel Davidson was a great storyteller, and Kolymsky Heights is one of my favorite adventures. It was inspirational.
Is there a certain kind of book you steer clear of as a reader? As a writer?
Definitely not. I read a lot of non-fiction as part of my research process. When it comes to fiction, I want to be exposed to as many forms and styles of storytelling as possible.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Lone Creek by Neil McMahon. He can write and tell a story.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read?
None. I’m not embarrassed about the choices I make.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be and why?
“Let’s Learn Judo” with Vladimir Putin. Is any explanation necessary?
Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
My mother died before I could hold her one more time and whisper a few words in her ear.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have
THE ALTAR GIRL.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
What would your super power be?
More persistence. That would be enough for me. (As I said, desire is the root of all evil)
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
I must forgive myself.
Can you tell us a little about your next project?
I’ve written a historical mystery set in 1950 Provincetown called Lady in the Dunes, about a priest who finds his childhood sweetheart’s wallet at the same time a headless body appears in the dunes. As he searches for the girl he loved, the priest must confront a past for which he has never forgiven himself and negotiate a rogue’s gallery of scoundrels in a town where the sand meets the sea and fights for its survival every day.
Orest Stelmach is the author of the international and Kindle #1 bestselling Nadia Tesla Series. He was born in America to Ukrainian immigrants and spoke no English when he started his education. He went on to earn degrees from Dartmouth College and the University of Chicago.
To learn more about Orest, please visit his website.