Kristen Loesch: The Last Russian Doll

Kristen Loesch was shortlisted in the Caledonia Novel Award 2020 with Kukolka, a stirring tale of secrets, revenge and redemption across three generations of Russian women. Released in the UK as The Porcelain Doll, it is published today in the US as The Last Russian Doll.

Hello Kristen! Huge congratulations on today’s publication of The Last Russian Doll! It must be so exciting to get out and about meeting readers and promoting your novel! How are you planning to celebrate your big day?

Thank you so much! I’m celebrating by having a book launch at my local bookshop. I’ll be discussing The Last Russian Doll with a fellow historical novelist, the wonderful Susan Meissner. There will be cake, drinks, book signing, and more. It’s a little nerve-wracking, because this is actually my first live author event; I’ve never done one before! But it couldn’t be happening in a lovelier or more welcoming context. I’m incredibly excited.

You signed with Sharon Galant at Zeitgeist Agency – can you tell us a bit about how that happened, and why Sharon was such a great fit for you and your novel?

I had heard of Sharon through a writer friend, who let me know that Sharon had a particular
passion for historical fiction. I remember first querying her around the time that I entered the Caledonia Novel Award. After I was longlisted, I used the longlisting as an excuse to nudge all the agents who had my manuscript (or part of it) and say “Hi! I hope you’re enjoying…Just wanted to let you know some good news…” and Sharon replied almost instantaneously to say that she wasn’t at all surprised. Her enthusiasm from the outset was really catching. I ended up signing with Sharon the very same week that I was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award!
Which part of the whole process, from writing through to publication, have you enjoyed the most, and is there anything that you wish you’d done differently?

I’m not terribly keen on writing from scratch; I struggle when staring at a blank page (sometimes I write a paragraph of nonsense, just to get something on there!). But I adore the editing process, the tinkering, the tweaking; to me, that stage is truly transformative, both of the writing and of the writer. The only thing that eclipses that part of the process, in terms of pure joy, is hearing from somebody who loved the book. For all the effort that goes in, for all the pain woven into the process, it’s all worth it when a reader says they connected with the story! In terms of doing anything differently, I might have travelled to the UK last year, around the publication of The Porcelain Doll, and possibly had a launch there. It seemed like so much effort (time, money, travel!) at the time, and maybe it wasn’t realistic anyway, but I’ve now resolved to celebrate whenever I can, as much as I can, at every turn.
Your novel is also available as an audiobook, narrated by Jilly Bond (The Porcelain Doll; UK) and Saskia Maarleveld (The Last Russian Doll; US) - were you involved in the recordings, and what was it like hearing your words spoken for the first time?

What a great question; I’m not sure I’ve ever been asked this! It has been such a thrill having the story brought to life in this way, and these two narrators are so talented. I really fell in love with their voices. I haven’t listened to many audiobooks myself, so I don’t know the landscape very well and didn’t have much advice or wisdom to give along the way; I think for both recordings I sent along some pronunciation notes, particularly for names. I haven’t heard the full audiobook of The Last Russian Doll yet, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to, but Jilly’s rendition of The Porcelain Doll sent chills up and down my spine. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking.
Rights to The Porcelain Doll were sold in a number of countries - have you had the chance to visit any of them and see your novel out in the world?

This has been so exciting to witness! Rights have sold in 11 territories over the past year and a half, and that’s down to Sharon’s incredible effort and zeal. I can’t express how much I’ve loved seeing the different international covers; each one somehow sheds new light on the story. Thus far, aside from the UK and the US/Canada, the book has come out in Bulgaria and Germany, and I happened to be in Germany in January, so I popped into a bookshop just out of curiosity and voila, it was there on the shelves! That was in fact the first time I’d ever seen my book in the wild. It was a real pinch-me moment.

You signed a two-book deal in the US with Berkley (an imprint of Penguin Random House) – can you tell us what you are working on now?

Absolutely! I’m working on a speculative murder mystery set in 1950’s Hong Kong and 1930’s Shanghai. The storyline (particularly the Shanghai narrative) is partly inspired by my grandfather’s early life in northern China. It’s also inspired by a tiny 200-word microfiction story I first wrote for the online journal FlashBack Fiction about a young woman who flees the Chinese Communist Revolution for Hong Kong. I’m the midst of revisions right now, and I can’t wait for this story to reach the next stage. I’ll keep you posted!
And finally, what encouragement would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2024?

I would give the highest and most heartfelt encouragement! For me, the rewards of entering were unexpected and manifold: the initial push to polish the manuscript just in case it listed and I would need to send the full, which simply made it a better book; the wondrous confidence boost of being listed; the rather surreal flurry of agent interest that followed, including from my own eventual agent; and ultimately the feeling that I am part of a wonderful community of Caledonia listees who have gone on from this competition to see their books on the shelves. It’s true that when you enter a competition you don’t know what will happen, but that’s absolutely the beauty of it; it could well be the start of an incredible journey that you can’t even begin to fathom. I pressed send on my entry in September 2019, and here we are in March 2023 and my debut novel is coming out today in my home country! Did I have any idea? Not at all! I was thinking, “Well there’s my Caledonia Novel Award entry gone out, yay, and now maybe I’ll have a look today at chapter ten…” …and that’s exactly how it should be. Do enter, and good luck!

(Author photo by Samna Chheng-Mikula)
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