The Sweetest Debut: ‘Mikhail and Margarita’ Author Julie Lekstrom Himes on Her Novel About Love, Sacrifice, and Mikhail Bulgakov

Welcome to The Sweetest Debut, a new and regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and how they explain their books to different people in their lives. 

Today, we hear from debut novelist Julie Lekstrom Himes, on Mikhail and Margarita, her fictionalized account of Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov’s inspiration for The Master and Margarita that examines in on the systemic forces working against artists and intellectuals in Stalin’s Russia. It’s also the story of a love triangle between Bulgakov, a secret police agent, and Margarita, the outspoken woman on whom the writer based his novel. As she noted in a piece for Lithub, “while many focus on Bulgakov’s posthumous triumph, the examination of his entire career raises another pressing question: Faced with constant censorship and artistic oppression, why did he continue to write?” Her novel similarly seeks answers to that question. 

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

It’s based on the life of Mikhail Bulgakov and the woman he loved, Margarita. Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita while living in Moscow from 1928-1940, but it wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 25 years later. Today he’s the rock star of Russian literature. It’s an examination of why art (and the artist) is relevant and necessary, as much today as it was in 1933 when to be a writer in Stalinist Russia meant censorship and surveillance, and not infrequently led to arrest and execution. It’s also an exploration of love and sacrifice—what are we willing to give up for success and achievement—and what are we unwilling to forfeit.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

It’s a novel about a Russian they’ve never heard of—but it’s ok; they’ll still enjoy my book. (In truth, many of my relatives have heard of Bulgakov and read his work. And I tell them they will also enjoy my book.)

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I was introduced to The Master and Margarita and Bulgakov by my father-in-law. He was a physicist working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and traveling to the Soviet Union to provide advice on their reactor safety systems. He came back from one of his trips, handed me the novel, and said that the Soviets considered him the “Russian Garcia-Marques.” I read the book and loved it. But when I learned the story of Bulgakov, I had to ask the question: who does this? Who writes when there is little to no hope of having one’s voice heard? I wanted to understand that better. I spent nearly a year researching before setting a word on the page—then another six years writing it. It’s been a journey.

Name a book you’ve read more than two times.

As a kid I read constantly—and many of those books over and over, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. FrankweilerA Wrinkle in TimeThe Book of Three. But even today there are those that won’t let me go. I keep coming back to them: The Quiet American, Slaughterhouse-FiveA Moveable Feast and The Confessions of Nat Turner. Those I’ve read many times.

A book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project.

I’m so glad you asked! Isaac Levitan’s painting Vladimirka. It’s a stunning landscape of the ancient road that ran between Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod. Millions of Russians passed this way on their journey to Siberia. Not only those who were exiled to the GULAG system of the Soviet era; in 1825, the noblemen known as the Decembrists walked those roads, 5000 kilometers, in chains. Many of their wives chose to be exiled alongside their husbands, giving up all property and wealth and comfort, even leaving behind their children to save them from the harsh climate and unknown risks. The portrait is romantic—and in many ways epitomizes the Russian spirit—imbued of resilience and passion and an indomitable spirit to survive all hardship.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

All right—big confession—while I believe in aliens, I don’t believe they’ve actually visited our Solar System. That being said, I will watch shows variably called, “UFOs Uncovered” or “Newer and Better UFOs Uncovered” or “UFO Evidence Previously Hidden by Our Government and Now Uncovered.” Same goes for Big Foot, Yeti, various other imagined creatures, and ghosts. Not so much the Loch Ness Monster. (I’m pretty sure that one’s been put to bed.)

I guess it goes without saying that I am a huge X-Files fan.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

I’ll pretty much write anywhere, but if given the preference, it will be quiet and I will be alone.

Who is your fashion icon?

Kate Middleton seems to have it together.

If you could buy a house anywhere in the world just to write in, where would it be?

Positano, Italy. John Steinbeck would agree.

What did you initially want to be when you grew up?

First a paleontologist, only snakes were an issue—then an archeologist. Unfortunately there was still the same snake problem. Then an astronomer (observatories seemed safe and snake-free.) I liked the idea of time preserved in some way—particularly the idea that as we look further into space, we are looking back through time. I still like that idea.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

Silent library.

Do you write at a desk, bed or couch?

Desk—but will go to the bed or couch if I need time away to envision a scene. Sometimes the blank page is too much pressure. I try to trick myself into believing that I’m just “playing.” Get some words down and see where things go.

Is morning writing or late-night writing your go-to-time?

Morning is best.

Do you tend towards writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

I’m a linear writer. Word by word, scene by scene. It takes a while. I’m afraid if I skip around I might miss something. I think of draft one as weaving the cloth—after that I’m trying to shape it into something. A shirt, a tent, a hot air balloon—something that can stand on its own, that might take me somewhere.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

Jack Bauer

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

The lights in the high school auditorium flickered. Jack told himself it was nothing. He glanced at the rafters.

“It’s nothing,” said Audrey. His wife. They held hands across the armrest. She sounded mildly scolding.

“I know.” The lights dimmed to near darkness.

“It’s twenty year old wiring.” She whispered.

“I know,” he lied.

“The play’s not on the ceiling,” she said.

The curtain rose.

Their daughter had been cast as Juliet. Afterwards, she and Romeo found them outside the rehearsal room.

“So this is the one,” he said to his wife.

“You promised.”

The young man extended his hand. His daughter held onto the other. She had the look of one who might at any moment need to pluck him from certain disaster such as swirling flood waters or a head-on encounter with a train. Jack met his daughter’s eyes. Hers narrowed.

“Mr. Bauer. I’m glad to finally meet you.” The boy’s handshake was exuberant.

He had promised. “So am I.”

The kid’s complexion suggested mostly European origins. At least one grandparent was from an Arabic nation. The inflection in his speech was subtle. He’d spent time as a child in the Far East. China most likely. With an Irish nanny.

His daughter pulled him away. “That’s enough,” she said. “He’ll have your DNA sequenced if you’re not careful. I’ll be home late,” she said to her mother. “Cast party.”

Unlike her predecessor, this Juliet was not concerned about what her father might think.