Pheebs asks Julie about the messages behind the book.


  • 1) Hi, Julie, great book! I read in the endnotes this was an emotional subject for you to write about. I don’t wish to pry, but can you tell us a little about why you persevered with it, given the deeply personal impact this must have had?

If a subject makes you want to run away then there's probably something within it that is very powerful and meaningful to you. It can feel scary, but if you do dive in, you'll hopefully deliver a story that has enormous power and meaning for your reader too. I haven’t experienced what Darya has in Mother Tongue but I understood her desire to escape. I came across a fabulous quote by Tessa Hadley when I was feeling uneasy about writing this book. It said: "What you're writing should hurt and make you feel slightly anxious, and almost ashamed." This was oddly reassuring and encouraged me to persevere.

  • 2) Did any additional research on the subject change any opinions that you had before engaging with the topic? It’s certainly made me think differently about the victims of terrorist attacks; not just those injured and killed, but also those who survive.

I was interested in writing about, in the main part, survivors.  How does someone continue with their life after something so terrible has happened? My research taught me that though big events can make communities come together, they also cause huge fractures. Not everyone responds to the tragedy in the same way and that can lead to disagreements, resentments and infighting. My biggest takeaway, though, was that human beings have an amazing capacity for resilience and hope.    

  • 3) There are several moments of action in Mother Tongue, although the majority focusses most on Darya’s inner turmoil and emotional development/resolution. Did you notice a change in your writing style? And did you, personally, feel different writing those action scenes?

I wanted to place the reader at the centre of the event in the book and have them feel what Darya does, her fear, her panic, but was hyper-aware that I should not dramatise the attack in a sensational way. The book is based on a real-life attack and I felt a duty to honour the truth to some extent. With regards to my writing style, I certainly underwent a change of pace in words when I moved from Darya's internal world to describing the action around her. Everything becomes staccato and urgent when there is gunfire and a sense of dread.

  • 4) There are so many vibrant characters in this book, each with their own individual personality. Which character did you first develop? And with which do you identify most?

Everything started with Darya, the outsider, who I identify with a great deal. She has had so much responsibility imposed upon her, and has imposed so much guilt upon herself, that she has to shed all of that to understand who she really is and what she honestly wants. Darya can be quite prickly and does not always make the best choices but I hope it's always clear where that comes from.

  • 5) How did you want to portray the protagonist? From a reader’s perspective, she seems unstable and misguided, perhaps because of her grief and the lack of support offered to her; yet also courageous, but unsure how to use her inner strength. Do you envisage her the same way, or do you have a different image of her?

I'm fascinated with coming of age stories and how characters decide what kind of grown-up they are going to be. So with Darya, I was exploring that transition again, as I did in Red Ink and The Big Lie, my previous books, but in new and extreme circumstances. I wanted the reader to see that Darya is a product of her upbringing and her surroundings but that she also has something very definite and individual within her that will take her forward. Yes, she is misguided at times, but I think we all are to some extent as we navigate our way into adulthood.

  • 6) Did you go to any of the places described in your book? Moscow is of great importance to Darya: was there a reason for this intriguing setting?

I am obsessed with the play Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov in which the main characters fantasise constantly about returning to Moscow. The place becomes a kind of fairytale to them, rather than a real thing. That is what I wanted to do in my book, have Darya create a fairytale version of Moscow, but then put that fairytale up against reality. Though reality is nothing but another fairytale when it comes to Moscow. Everyone's experiences of the city are so different.

  • 7) No spoilers (!), but the idea of Moscow seems to provide a symbol of hope and escapism to Darya. Why do you think that such a specific place can become a beacon of safety and happiness?

We all have our own 'Moscow' – the place we are aiming for, a place that we think will solve all our problems. For some it is a physical place – 'once I leave this town I'll be happy'. For others it is a kind of success – 'once I get this job everything will be better'. It's a trick we endlessly play on ourselves, pinning our hopes on the wrong thing. As the saying goes, no matter where you go, there you are.

  • 8) Again, no spoilers, but the book does not take the reader at all where one would expect to go. Did you know from the beginning how you wanted Darya to develop, and where the plot would go, or did this develop as you wrote the book?

The book had an entirely different ending in the first draft but it never felt right to me.  It was only after leaving the manuscript for a while and working on a new project in my hometown (Peterborough) that I understood how the book needed to finish.  I think it was because I had, in a very small way, gone away and walked in Darya's shoes.

  • 9) There is a hugely symbolic part played by a series of stories throughout the book . I was wondering - are they real? I found that they complemented the plotline beautifully - did you know from the start how the plot and stories would intertwine like they do?

Yes, the folk tales in the book are real stories told in Russia. They are so very different to our fairytales and give a real flavour of the country, because a place, I believe, is very much defined by its stories. Darya is playing with storybook ideas of her future, so I knew I had to weave these folk tales in. I have included Vassilisa The Beautiful, which has some similarities with the Cinderella story we know, and also a moralistic animal tale about a brave hare which helps Darya come to terms with her own survival.  

  • 10) I also heard mention that you like to immerse yourself in the culture of any countries that you write about. Did you learn about or try anything that is Russian whilst writing Mother Tongue? I noticed a little glossary at the back explaining some of the Russian cultural references mentioned in the book!

I did try to learn to speak Russian but it's incredibly difficult. I love the sound of it in my mouth, though. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of my immersion was eating the Russian way. Darya is an excellent cook and uses food to please people in the book and also to punish them. So I got to know all the fabulous Russian sweet treats like Napoleon cake and Sushki, and have become very attached to a restaurant in London called Mari Vanna that serves amazing Russian dishes. It's very much food for cold weather – big helpings, lots of meat and carbs.

  • 11) On that note, how did you find using Russian names?! I loved seeing your explanation on how Russian suffixes are formed according to the subject. It seems very interesting; how does it compare to using names from other nationalities?

Yes, names tend to be fairly traditional in Russia – and by that I mean, there isn't so much experimentation, so you can expect to know several Olgas, Marias and Elenas. There is a set way to shorten, or sweeten, each of these names , depending on the person's age, and how well you know them, and if you're speaking formally, you might also add in a person's patronym. It's very complicated! That's why I felt I should include an explanation in the book.

  • 12) A final, quick, fun question: is there a book or story that you would love to rewrite, not because it is bad or poorly written (although maybe it was?!), but because you would love to rephrase it in your own writing style?

I recently adapted The Railway Children for the stage. I'd love to do that with Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan– it's my favourite coming-of-age story.


To read Pheebs review of Mother Tongue, click here.

To join Julie at ChipLitFest discussing how she writes about and for young people, come along to Unbroken Voices with Kit de Waal and Keith Stuart on 29 April, details here.