Zenta Brice is a Latvian born author of historical fiction. Her work centres around the Baltic States and their relationship with the Soviet Union. Zenta expertly weaves the historical narrative of the collapse of the Soviet Union with personal stories. Based partly on her own life experiences her writing is incredibly moving and powerful. Zenta’s forthcoming work shifts to the beginning of the Communist Russian Empire, placing her characters into the maelstrom of the Russian Revolution. We have no hesitation at all in recommending Zenta’s work.
Your books are set against the backdrop of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the Baltic States. What was it that caught your attention about this period and geographic region?
I was born and grew up there, and that’s what I know the best – the region, the people, and history. As this region is not well represented in history, fiction or non-fiction, I believe these stories are worth telling.
History is always written by the big nations and voices of the small ones are swept under the carpet as unimportant, worth not much more than a footnote. But these unimportant footnotes still represent millions of people whose lives are destroyed. So I tell the history of Baltic through the lives of ordinary people.
The collapse of the Soviet Union usually is portrayed as a great political achievement of Western diplomacy, or as a result of the crumbling economy, but the main force were people who pulled it apart from inside. The big, overwhelming fear of Stalin era slowly became a joke. The repressive system was still strong but people started to laugh at it. It’s not big diplomacy or economy which shattered the Soviet empire, it was laughter.
This is a relatively recent history and is reasonably well known by the general public. What lengths to you have to go to make sure that the historical aspects of your work are accurate?
Memory is an interesting subject to explore. When I started to work on this story I was surprised to find out how much I forgot and needed to check out even if I lived through these events. As my priority is history, checking facts took me a long time, but I’m quite sure that even the minute details are as correct as possible – if the TV is on, the news is the exact news on that day. Some details are deliberately inaccurate as at the time of the events not all information available was correct, there was misinformation, propaganda, gossips. The queue at the grocery store was as effective as Facebook or Twitter today, and about as trustworthy. But this is indeed an easy period for the research as there are newspapers, TV and radio transcripts, recordings, documentaries and memories to recreate the events.
How do you balance the fiction and the fact?
My priority is history so I tried to stay true to the facts, even if the story suffered because of it. Readers are used to fast-paced political thrillers, with unrealistic storylines and superheroes who take down governments single-handed. It makes a great read and even better movies, but reality usually is different, often slow and even boring.
My next story, about World War I, while still based on real people and real events, is much more fiction. I still work hard to be sure that the historical part is well researched, but gaps are filled with fiction to benefit the story.
What is your planning process?
I have my story idea collection, which I kept for years, letting them mature. When I decide which story I want to tell, I start with finding where to start and where to end it to make it complete enough as history is like a river, without a beginning and the end, mixing and twisting one event with another. Then I decide on the main characters, and the rest is to bring them to life. The real work starts with making timetables, research and fact-checking.
Lots of schools do make use of historical fiction in lessons, do you consider young adults when writing? Do you think that historical fiction can help them to understand the period that your novel is set in?
I believe that history is fascinating and extremely important, but crunched in schoolbooks it usually becomes dry rows of numbers and facts. Still important, but so boring. Historical fiction can bring these dry facts and numbers to life, make the reader emotionally involved. So yes, historical fiction can help a lot to understand history.
If we speak about collapse of the Soviet Union, the standard picture of the era is grey-faced masses of identically thinking obedient and patriotic Russians, but in reality there were over 100 nationalities with different languages, cultures, religions, forcefully held together, and each one has fascinating stories to tell, from a completely different point of view.
Who are your favourite authors (or historians)? How have they influenced your own work?
Probably the historians I like to read the most would be Isaiah Berlin and, but my love with historical fiction started with Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy. From contemporary authors, I like Hilary Mantell and Elizabeth Chadwick, and Ruta Sepetys is doing a great job telling stories about Baltic.
What plans have you for your writing? Will it continue to be set in this period or do you see yourself writing in different genres or historical periods?
I believe it’s better to write what you know best so I plan to stick with the history of the Baltic/Livonia, but when I’ll finish with the 20>th century, I’m planning to explore a few other historical periods.
My next story – Eagle in the wind – will be released this autumn. It will tell the story of the same family during the WW1 and following the Civil War in Russia, and I have already started to work on the next one – about the siege of Leningrad during WW2. And then I have a plan to jump back to the 16th century.
When the burden of history becomes too heavy, a side-step in fantasy is a possibility.
What tips do you have for aspiring writers, of any age?
Read, read, and once more – read books – fiction and non-fiction, different authors and different genres. Make reading your daily necessity, your addiction. That’s the first and most important step. Talent will push you to start your story, but only patience and persistence will help you to finish it. You never know if you have the talent or not, but without patience and persistence you will never find it out.
Eagle in the Fridge
The most revolutionary thing you can do is live.
Rasa is a young wife and mother, taking care of home and family against a backdrop of a crumbling Soviet economy. In 1987, it’s a world where the most valuable currencies include fresh flowers and real coffee, and Rasa’s negotiation skills are challenged when she seeks solutions in the fight for her youngest son’s life.
It’s a busy life. Yet she – like others from her homeland of Latvia – yearns for more: to see her small nation regain its independence from the USSR. And while the Iron Curtain may be crumbling from within, a superpower doesn’t fade away without a fight.
The Latvian people cling to their heritage, daring to raise their flag and sing their nation’s anthem in defiance of communist rule.
As tensions spiral, Rasa learns that revolution isn’t always fought and won with guns. Sometimes a song can be stronger than bullets.