Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Kristen Loesch Interview - The Last Russian Doll

Photo Content from Kristen Loesch

Kristen Loesch grew up in San Francisco. She holds a BA in History, as well as a Master’s degree in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her debut historical novel, THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL, was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and longlisted for the Bath Novel Award under a different title. After a decade living in Europe, she now resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and children.


Tell us about TLRD; what inspired you to write this story?
THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL is a sweeping novel of betrayal, revenge, and redemption, centered on three generations of women in Soviet Russia. It was originally inspired by my lifelong obsession with classic Russian literature (more on that below!) and by my desire to put some of my academic background and knowledge (in Slavonic Studies) to a different use. Those are the ‘big’ sources. But there were much smaller sources of inspiration along the way, too many to count!

When/how did you realize you had a creative dream/calling?
I was drawn to creating imaginary worlds and crafting my own stories very early on. It began with losing myself in my favorite books when I was eight, nine, ten years old, and doggedly trying my hand at writing one. Then came a long fallow period in which I lacked the self-confidence to pursue the dream of being a published author, and tried to deny that it existed; it was only as an adult that I found that spark again. I believe this may be true of many writers, though of course not all.

Beyond your own work (of course), what is your all-time favorite book and why? And what is your favorite book outside of your genre?
My all-time favorite book is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I read it for the first time when I was relatively young, and didn’t understand much of the story, but it was the first novel where I really, really noticed the use of language. Outside of historical and romance, I really enjoy horror, and The Ruins by Scott Smith and The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward are probably my favorite.

Single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Much as I adore them, my kids! When I first started writing this book, I was a stay-at-home parent with two young children, and just before I began querying agents, in 2019, I had my third. At that time, it felt like a savage push and pull between motherhood and writing, and I struggled with Imposter Syndrome in both roles. Now all my kids are in school or preschool, and it’s definitely easier to separate my family life from my writing life.

Most surprising thing you learned in creating your characters?
They didn’t end up the way I first imagined, and they tried to take control of the narrative. It was a surprise, as well, how difficult it was to learn who my characters were at the same time that I was creating the world they inhabited. I decided to do it differently (get to know my characters first, begin constructing the story second!) when I started working on my second novel last year.

Favorite Quotes/Scenes:
These are some of my favorite quotes in the book:

“I step out of the car, blinking in the glare of sunlight. I test the ground beneath my feet. I am back in Moscow. Throughout our journey here, I’d hoped, feared, that I would return to my hometown and feel different. I would instantly reclaim the sense of continuity that comes naturally to most people, because they live their lives as a single thread. Winding and curling perhaps, but smooth and uninterrupted.

For me, there is no such sense. For me, there is the thread that starts the day I was born in this city and stretches until one humid night in 1977. There is another that begins the moment Mum and I touched down at Heathrow and stretches until now. And I’ve never been able to tie the two of them together.”

“But the singing is over quickly tonight, and they have begun to make elaborate, impassioned toasts. The greatness of the Tsar! The glory of the empire! That prima ballerina on stage three years ago, her pale, slender neck!

The smell of honey from the bird-cherry trees; the sight of home in the corner of one’s eye from around the curve in the road…”

  • 1. One of the main characters, Tonya, is named after my favorite character in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
  • 2. In the earliest draft of the book, the story begins from Valentin’s point of view.
  • 3. I first queried this novel as ‘A Russian Fairytale’, and an agent who rejected it told me that the title made her think it was a book for children.
  • 4. I wrote 4 other mini fairy tales, in the style of the ones that exist in the book, that did not make it into the final version. Sometimes I think about releasing them separately or posting them on my website….
  • 5. I placed Rosie at Oxford because I did a two-week creative writing course at Oxford many years ago that I found incredibly inspiring.
  • 6. Before starting THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL, I wrote an unpublished young adult thriller set in Moscow about a girl who schemes to take over her father’s bratva (mafia) organization.
  • 7. The piece of a porcelain doll’s head that can be removed, as Rosie does to discover what it is hidden inside, is called the pate.
  • 8. Tonya’s marital home in St Petersburg is inspired by the real-life Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, which sits at the intersection of Nevsky and the Fontanka river. It is a stunning shade of pink and its original owners were notable collectors…
  • 9. Whenever I felt stuck, while editing this novel, I stopped and sketched a landscape to get my mind onto something else. I have ended up with a lot of landscapes in pencil.
  • 10. The floral motif on the cover of THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL is in a traditional Russian style known as khokhloma. It originated in the 17th century and is marked by the use of red and gold.
Meet the Characters
I’ll stick to the three main characters here, as THE LAST RUSSIAN DOLL has quite a cast!

ROSIE: In 1991, Rosie is an accomplished if jaded postgraduate student at Oxford in her mid 20s. She’s got a lot of unresolved trauma around what happened in her childhood in Moscow, but she’s in denial about it; she has become an obsessive workaholic partly as a way of coping. She acts tough but she is terrified, and that fear has made her tunnel-visioned. A quote of hers: “All I do know is that I’ll never give up. There’s an answer, and I’ll keep going until I have it. However long it takes.”

TONYA: When we first meet her, Tonya is an aimless and innocent young woman in pre-revolutionary Russia. I think she’s always sensed that there is a lot more out there, but at the same time, she’s never known anything but privilege and luxury, so it’s not until she is drawn to Valentin that she dares to challenge her own status quo. She’s described as looking ornamental and delicate and doll-like, in an almost disturbing way. A Tonya quote: “I love him, Sasha. I will make any mistake.”

VALENTIN: Valentin is an up-and-coming revolutionary, a fiery idealist, and an adept public speaker. Even if he doesn’t see it that way, Valentin is someone who was rescued by his own cause; it gave him something to strive for after he lost everything. There’s a hidden, vulnerable side to him that is a marked contrast to his political and public persona; he knows it exists, and he hates himself for it. A quote of his: “There is a tide coming. Everything that has lived until now on the surface will be dragged to the depths. Nothing, my friends, will be out of its reach.”

Journey to Publication:
In 2017 I started working on a historical novel set in Russia. As I’ve mentioned above, I was still at home full-time with my kids, so I wrote around the margins of everyday life, often in the evenings and on weekends. It took me about a year to complete a draft, but I wasn’t feeling confident, and I signed up for a six-month novel-writing course beginning in fall 2018. That was the first major turning point; I discovered that I didn’t know anything about plotting, about character arcs, about pacing, about turning a series of events into a story. That course helped me transform my novel, and I rewrote it painstakingly. I began querying midway through 2019 and I signed with an agent in January 2020, and then it was off to the races…kind of. The pandemic hit, and my agent and I went through several editing rounds on the manuscript, rounds that often felt never-ending, especially with all my kids back in the house 24/7. The novel sold in the US, UK and several other territories in 2021.

Overall, the journey has been one of many years and more than a few twists and turns. I have had the benefit of tremendous support from my husband, who has always believed in what, to me, often felt like an impossible dream.

Writing Behind the Scenes
I have too many writing quirks and habits to mention! For example, on my writing days, I start by setting a timer for half an hour during which I check my emails, answer anything urgent, and if there’s time left over, I might have a peek at social media. Also, when I first open my manuscript, I often have one song playing on repeat in the background, and I’ll let it play for about fifteen-twenty minutes; I’ve found this helps me get into an ‘alpha state’ of writing flow much faster than I would normally, because my brain associates that one song with being deep in my story. Another habit is this: I can only start writing if I have a cup of something hot next to me, though most of the time I don’t end up drinking it until it’s gone cold!

A haunting, epic novel about betrayal, revenge, and redemption that follows three generations of Russian women, from the 1917 revolution to the last days of the Soviet Union, and the enduring love story at the center.

In a faraway kingdom, in a long-ago land...

...a young girl lived happily in Moscow with her family: a sister, a father, and an eccentric mother who liked to tell fairy tales and collect porcelain dolls.

One summer night, everything changed, and all that remained of that family were the girl and her mother.

Now, a decade later and studying at Oxford University, Rosie has an English name, a loving fiancĂ©, and a promising future, but all she wants is to understand--and bury--the past. After her mother dies, Rosie returns to Russia, armed with little more than her mother’s strange folklore--and a single key.

What she uncovers is a devastating family history that spans the 1917 Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s purges, and beyond.

At the heart of this saga stands a young noblewoman, Tonya, as pretty as a porcelain doll, whose actions—and love for an idealistic man—will set off a sweeping story that reverberates across the century....

You can purchase The Last Russian Doll at the following Retailers:

1 Winner will receive a $10 Amazon Gift Card.


  1. I gave someone a huge cross-stitch needlework piece of a tiger, on black aida cloth. It took me months, and was gorgeous.

  2. A surprise trip to visit friends