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Interview: Ina Christova, Author of The Fabergé Girl

EPOCH speaks to Ina Christova

EPOCH spoke with Ina Christova, author of The Fabergé Girl, about her experience researching and writing a historical novel. The Fabergé Girl follows Alma Pihl, one of the few female artisans in the Fabergé workshop, who helped create some of the beautiful eggs that have come to represent Russian art in the last years of Tsarist rule. Set amid Russia’s October Revolution, the novel fictionalises Alma’s life, work, and romances, offering a window onto a historical period where decadence and poverty lived side by side. As historians, we were curious about the experience of writing about such a turbulent time, and what is gained, and lost, in the process of adapting history into fiction.

EPOCH: The novel beautifully depicts the twin opulence and squalor of St. Petersburg in the early 20th century. What drew you to this period of history?

Ina Christova: I am hugely intrigued by turning points in history. They are rare snatches of time that are full of possibility when literally anything and everything could have happened. In the early 20th century, St Petersburg was in its silver age of culture, which was characterized with beautifully decadent art, revolutionary ideas and romance but also utter destitution, suffering and starvation. Change was in the air but it happened in a way that is typical for Russia - unpredictable, chaotic and destructive. I found the time before and after the revolution to be hugely compelling.

How did you find the process of historical research for fiction? Were there things that you researched that you altered or omitted, why?

IC: It was absolutely fascinating to delve into this period. I was lucky to be able to visit St Petersburg some years ago and I spent some time in the Fabergé museum studying the artworks and the period. I also read pretty much every book on the renowned house as well as the revolution. This was a special opportunity because my own grandmother’s family fled Russia during the revolution and a lot about their exodus is still shrouded in mystery so I loved discovering more about this time. Of course, I also did a lot of research into the real Alma Pihl - the only female jewellery designer in the House of Fabergé who inspired my novel. I think that the most that I omitted and invented was around her shadowy figure. I largely invented a lot about her as I wanted to turn the shadowy areas of her life into a metaphor about how the country was divided between the rich and the poor. In the book, she has to choose between her opulent art and her love for Ivan, a revolutionary.

The novel offers insights into the great tension between wealth and poverty in Russia at this time, and the protagonist seems so often caught between the two. Was this a challenge for you to write?

IC: This was absolutely one of my main motivations to write the book. There is something beautifully cursed about Fabergé eggs because they were the peak of opulence at the time the people were starving. It was an important creative challenge to write about this because through it, I could also examine some of the reasons behind the suffering in my native Bulgaria. What happened in Russia at the time hugely influenced my country hence writing about it was almost like digging into the genesis of the suffering of my own family. This is something I really enjoyed even though it was also a bit painful at times.

We noticed that you describe corsets as restrictive when this wasn’t the case in the period. Similarly, Alma buys clothes off-the-rack when the norm at the time was made to measure. Did you feel you had to conform to the expectations of your readers, or modern perspectives, in your description of the context?

IC: It is always a fine balance in terms of sticking to historical accuracy and translating the period to the modern day reader. In Russia at the time, there were in fact clothes imported ready-made from France as, before the revolution, the country was striving to conform to the fashions in Europe. And I guess how restrictive corsets were depended on the specific shape in question and the Russian physique at the time was not known to be of the most slender type. I did my best to avoid anachronisms as these can dilute the veracity of the writing but some have inevitably crept up in the so-called translation process from then to now.

We were really interested in the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the novel. How did you research this? Are there real-life experiences that influenced this storyline?

IC: There are indeed a lot of real-life experiences that influenced this storyline. I have family members who are very close to the Orthodox church and some of their fascinating knowledge of this made its way into the book. Orthodoxy does weave itself into everyday life in the region and you can hardly evade it. For countries like Bulgaria it was a way of preserving one’s cultural identity in fact. A lot of positivity comes from it in the sense of forging strong familial bonds, cultural belonging and tradition. But if taken to an extreme, it can be rather stifling and forbidding. I have experienced both sides of this and I wanted to explore them in the novel.

Why did you choose to incorporate the fantasy element? Was this influenced by traditions of Russian mysticism or folklore?

IC: It was exactly the traditions of Russian mysticism and folklore that inspired me. I felt that Fabergé’s oeuvre also lends itself very nicely to it because of how magical most of the designs are. I wanted the whole novel to serve as a metaphor for the Russian soul, which oscillates between extreme creativity and destruction. I felt that the fantasy or magical realism element would help me to convey this and it was great fun to try. Another important topic for me is that of artistic imagination as I think that there is something truly magical about this.

The real Alma only died in 1976 – how did it feel to write about a real person, and someone who lived so recently? How did you research her life, and what creative license did you use to tell her story?

IC: I was hugely inspired by Alma’s story but as there isn’t that much written or known about her, she is a bit of a footnote in history which made her a great subject. As I hope I have made clear, this is a fictionalized version of her life which is meant to serve as a means of telling the even bigger story of her two countries.


Ina Christova is a Bulgarian writer. When not travelling around the world, she splits her time between London and Oxford. She completed an MA in English and German Literature where she was the recipient of the Eleanor Boyle and Kathleen Major prizes for her writing. Ina's work has been longlisted for the Blue Pencil First Novel Awards and it won this year’s Novel London Literary Competition. The first draft of The Fabergé Girl was completed on the selective Curtis Brown Creative Course in London.


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