AUTHOR: Delin Colón (translator and annotator)
BOOK TITLE: Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary by Aron Simanovitch
Please tell us about yourself.
You’re starting right off the bat with the hard ones? Well, let’s just say I went from being a member of the acid-dropping 1960s to the antacid-popping geriatric squad, in my sixties. (First hand proof that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction?) Don’t ask me how I got here. It took me long enough to transition from not trusting anyone over thirty to being over thirty (twice now), due to a decade of denial.
That was probably too much information. The appropriate answer is likely that I’m a non-fiction writer and freelance editor currently residing on the coast of Washington state. My undergraduate (major: French) and graduate (Clinical Psychology) careers were scattered among six different universities due to my wanderlust. Beginning with a small artists’ colony an hour from New York City, I’ve lived up and down both U.S. coasts and in the province of Québec.
I’ve worked as a technical writer, a psychiatric counselor, a researcher, a “disco bunny” in a Playboy Club, the owner of an agency that paired writers with jobs, and co-owner of a construction company. My favorite job offer which, unfortunately, I had to turn down was to be a shepherdess on a large sheep ranch in Québec.
When and why did you begin writing?
Growing up in an artists’ colony, I always found the writers to be the most mysterious of all the talented artists there. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t read to – not just stories but poetry as well.
I began writing at eight years old, first composing a poem, then finding my non-fiction niche chronicling my appendectomy and hospital stay. In high school and college, my love of research always led me to choose writing term papers over taking exams, when given the choice. During those years, a number of my poems and a few of my articles were published in small journals. In my adult years, I enjoyed working as a technical writer for Sociological Abstracts, as well as freelance-writing for businesses and, most enjoyably, starting an agency that paired writers with writing jobs. Writing, in some form or another, has always been part of my life.
What inspired you to write your first book?
It wasn’t my first book, but the first one I published, Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History, was inspired by the memoirs of my great-great uncle, Aron Simanovitch, whom my father had told me was Rasputin’s secretary. I had been researching this ancestor for years when I came across his out-of-print memoir in French, a 1930 translation of the original Russian edition. Simanovitch had spent nearly a decade with Rasputin and knew him intimately.
What I was amazed to find out was that Rasputin was far from the evil individual historically depicted, but actually promoted progressive social and economic reform, including equal rights for the oppressed Jews. Specific examples were given and many historical figures were mentioned.
I knew instantly that my mission was to make this information more widely known. However, I knew that simply translating Simanovitch’s memoir into English would not be enough to sway opinion that was already firmly rooted, thanks to the anti-Semitic nobility whose positions were threatened by notions of equality. The aristocrats had conducted a ruthless rumor campaign against Rasputin and used him as a convenient scapegoat for Russia’s ills. Unfortunately, it was the smear campaign that became known as history.
I, therefore, spent well over a decade researching the events, people and places that Simanovitch refers to in his book, and found more evidence corroborating this view of Rasputin, including the recorded testimony and memoirs of people who were there, as well as many biographers and historians. I combined the results of my research and published Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History two years before publishing my English translation of Simanovitch’s memoir, Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary, in order to place the people and events in a more global historical context.
The public’s interest has been gratifying, but most of all, I was pleased to hear approval of my efforts from Rasputin’s great granddaughter who tours Europe lecturing about Rasputin, in order to dispel the myths that surround him.
What are your thoughts about promotion?
I don’t think about it as much as I do it. It’s essential and basic, whether one is traditionally or self published. I think most new writers are surprised at how much work promotion is. It is a full time job. Unless you’re an established, famous writer, you cannot expect to sell without aggressively promoting…doing interviews, signings, guest blogging, writing articles, soliciting reviews, etc.
I know authors can hire PR folks to create a buzz, but it would probably take quite a while to break even on the expense. But more importantly, if the author of the book isn’t invested enough in the work to spend the time and energy to promote it (ultimately for his/her own success), how much energy will someone else invest when his future (unlike yours) doesn’t depend on your book’s success because he’ll get paid anyway?
There’s nothing to think about. Promotion is a no-brainer.
Do you ever have writer’s block? If so, how do you get through it?
It’s all a matter of perception, like the glass being half-empty or half full. I’ve never had writer’s block. In fact, it’s self-sabotaging to even think of or call it that. A “block” is a dead end. Nowhere to go from there except to slam your head against the wall.
I don’t see “blocks.” I see “crossroads.” Writers usually say they’re ‘blocked’ or stuck when they have a decision to make about how to proceed. A crossroads offers several possibilities; a dead end offers none. Where the writer sees no path to take, he struggles, trying to force a direction. The more he forces it, the more elusive is his path, obliterated in a fog of frustration.
When I’m at a crossroads and have options to choose, I walk away from the work. I go do some mindless task that I focus on, whether gardening, cleaning, bicycling, etc. I call it ‘productive procrastination’ because I’m not consciously attending to the issue at hand, but am distracting myself by doing other productive activities. The “Eureka!” moment in the bathtub happens because we allow our subconscious minds to work on the problem while our conscious minds (cluttered with the rules and limitations of ‘inside-the-box’ thinking) are relaxed and fixed on something other than the issue. I always end up with a solution, without any frustration or struggle.
Did you learn anything from writing your book, and what was it?
I learned a number of things, not only about Rasputin and Petersburg society in tsarist Russia, but about history being a matter of perspective. For example, descriptions of life in tsarist Russia differ vastly depending on whether the point of view is that of an aristocrat, a Jew or a peasant. When reading a historical account, one must consider the source.
The other thing I learned was that I have many relatives descended from Simanovitch, including one of his granddaughters who grew up with and remains close to Rasputin’s great granddaughter.
What do you plan for the future?
Nothing, really. The future is so full of unknowns, I find it easier to attend to the present, which will partially dictate the future. The rest I play by ear. I guess it’s kind of a ‘go-with-the-flow’ philosophy. I think sometimes we overlook opportunities because they weren’t part of ‘the plan.’ My ‘method’ (or non-method) allows for spontaneity and more outside-the-box thinking as events unfold.
How can we find you? Website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.?
My website, The Real Rasputin: http://therealrasputin.wordpress.com/
My Facebook page is: https://www.facebook.com/RasputinandTheJews
Tell me a little about your book.
Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary, by Aron Simanovitch (English translation by Delin Colón) is an account of Simanovitch’s life with Rasputin and afterward. His description of Rasputin, though at times wild, is endearingly affectionate and surprising in his stories of Rasputin’s humanitarianism and anti-war rants. In the process, Rasputin’s secretary/business manager/friend, also reveals the underbelly of Petersburg society and the corruption of the tsarist government. He outlines the plight of Russian Jews and Rasputin’s efforts to aid them. Simanovitch also gives many examples of Rasputin’s healing abilities and the numerous assassination attempts, including the last, successful one. There are numerous footnotes explaining, correcting or giving background on the people and places mentioned in the book.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
On the most obvious level, I hope that readers will come away with a more realistic image of the man Rasputin was. More importantly, as I mentioned previously, I hope that when readers study historical accounts, they will take into consideration that it is often just one point of view of people and events, and requires a more global historical context.
What types of writing do you prefer, and why?
I prefer non-fiction because I’m basically lazy. That may sound contradictory since non-fiction requires (as does fiction to a lesser extent) a great deal of research. I love doing research, so it’s not work to me. But the convenience of non-fiction is that the characters, plots, time and events are already established. There’s nothing to fabricate and no striving for verisimilitude. It’s just a matter of researching a variety of points of view of a particular era, person or place. Of course, current assessments of historical events have the advantage of hindsight, and judgments regarding those events will be colored by the norms of the time from which they’re viewed.
What is the toughest part about being a non-fiction writer, and how do you get past it?
As the translator and annotator of Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary, the most difficult part was maintaining Simanovitch’s voice and words. This, of course, was not an issue with my first book, as I could express myself in a way that comes naturally to me. Initially, I thought it would be quite easy just to translate someone else’s words. But the way Simanovitch wrote about events that were common knowledge, even world news, in the 1920s, the reader would either have to be of his generation or have in-depth knowledge of Russian history to understand many of his references to events, names, places and dates. My footnotes were the only way to overcome that, as I didn’t want to put words into the author’s mouth. That permitted me, along with some editing for clarity, flow and conciseness, to fill in the reader on all that Simanovitch took for granted as common knowledge.
What kind of research did you do for this type of book?
I must have read well over a hundred books on Rasputin, in French and English, in addition to books on the laws of the era, Russia’s treatment of Jews, The Pale of Settlement, World War I and various other related subjects. My most treasured sources were the memoirs and accounts of people who knew Rasputin, but also interesting were the fresh perspectives of a number of authors, especially the French ones.
A number of people have asked if not speaking Russian was a hindrance to my research. I didn’t feel so. In fact, French was the preferred language of the tsarist Russian court and many Russians fled to France during the 1917 revolution. Afterward, most of them wrote their memoirs in French. In addition, many papers and books that were written in Russian have been translated into English or French. Many of the books I needed were out-of-print memoirs, treatises and reports that often took a while to find.
What about your book makes it special?
The mere fact of Rasputin being described as an advocate for the people, and this being the reason he was persecuted and his evil image fabricated, distinguishes this book (and my first one) from the majority on the subject. And both books, describing his special efforts on behalf of oppressed Jews, are the only ones to explore that topic. The view of Rasputin as a victim of Russia, rather than the other way around, is a unique one.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
What’s disturbing about this question is that I had to stop and think about it. What do I do with my time? Naturally, I do a lot of reading. Generally, when not writing, I like get up and move around and not do anything seated. It’s really quite unremarkable: I go for walks, clip plants in the garden, do a little yoga and perform 120 sit-ups a day (sixty twice a day). Other than those activities, I’m often in deep conversation with myself or with my dogs. And, occasionally, I create minimalist abstract collages using cut-out shapes of colored construction paper, which is my favorite distraction for my conscious mind when I need all resources for my subconscious to do its job.
Describe your writing space.
My actual writing space is a dining room table with stacks of books, but most of my time is spent editing or promoting at my office desk, so I’ll describe that. First let me clean it off or we’ll be here all night. Okay: sticky notes all over my monitor; bills to the left of me; bills to the right of me; bills in front of me; a to-do list with coffee stains that have blurred the words (or I need new glasses); legal pads with pages of writing precariously stacked on a tv tray next to my desk; and I know my phone is buried under here somewhere. Just now, the room rings with a shrill bark from my long-haired mini-doxie, and her brother joins in to let me know that my time doing anything other than feeding them is up. (Viva la Preposition Liberation Front!)
Thank you for the opportunity to connect with readers on your blog. I had a wonderful time!
Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary by Aron Simanovitch (translated into English and annotated by Delin Colón)
Available and annotated for the first time in English, Aron Simanovitch’s memoirs offer an intimate view of Rasputin through the eyes of his dear friend and secretary. Simanovitch reveals Rasputin’s progressive ideas for social and economic reform that outraged the nobility. In the process, he paints a Peyton Place image of early twentieth century Petersburg society, with its gossip, plots and intrigue. But more importantly, his revelations about Rasputin’s humanitarianism lend a three-dimensional view to this controversial figure of Russian history.
Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History by Delin Colón
This book is a well-documented account of Rasputin as a healer, equal rights activist and man of God, and why he was so vilified by the aristocracy that their vicious rumors became accepted as history. For nearly a century, Grigory Rasputin, spiritual advisor to Russia's last Tsar and Tsarina, has been unjustly maligned simply because history is written by the politically powerful and not by the common man. A wealth of evidence shows that Rasputin was discredited by a fanatically anti-Semitic Russian society, for advocating equal rights for the severely oppressed Jewish population, as well as for promoting peace in a pro-war era. Testimony by his friends and enemies, from all social strata, provides a picture of a spiritual man who hated bigotry, inequity and violence. The author is the great-great niece of Aron Simanovitch, Rasputin's Jewish secretary.