Latvian writer Osvalds Zebris had to bring all his journalistic experience to bear researching his historical novel In the Shadow of Rooster Hill, a book that was set in Latvia in 1905 and won the European Union Prize for Literature and has already been translated into eight languages.
“I’m not a historian so there was a huge amount work involved. I needed to really study this time around 1905 which was a really interesting time because something new was starting and something old – I’m talking about the Tsarist regime – ended,” he said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival.
He based his research on three major sources. Firstly, historical and academic books on the time, not only from the Baltic states but also across Tsarist Russia. The second source was diaries, memories of people who participated in this event, and the third was novels and short stories set in Latvia and the surrounding areas around 1905.
The book was part of the “We. Latvia. The 20th Century” series, where a group of Latvian authors agreed to cover the key historical developments of the century in a series of novels.
“Each of us wrote one novel about one specific time in our country, one specific time in the 20th century. It started with the idea of a sovereign Latvian country, going through occupation times, and until the 90s after the Soviet occupation when we declared our independence a second time in the 20th century,” he said. “So, there were 13 novels published at the end of the day. And, actually, it raised many questions about our heritage and experience.”
All the writers in the series agreed to cover a certain period in their novel, but beyond that there were no restrictions or guidelines on what they should write and how they should write it.
“It was only the timeframe we agreed among each other, but the style or narrative or how to express this time that was up to you,” Zebris said. “So, all these thirteen novels at the end of the day were really very different.”
Zebris’s latest book is called Mara, which is about teenage life in the Latvian capital of Riga. But while it looks very different from his 1905 historical novel he said there were some strong thematic similarities in place.
“Actually both of them are about moral choices, our moral choices. What was interesting to me when I wrote In the Shadow of Rooster Hill was the ability to stand against – or the lack of ability to stand against – mass. It’s about cowardice and bravery. Mara is a different story, of course, it’s about nowadays, but at its core this is a story about moral choices again.”
“Every action, either a century ago or today, always requires some effort and always requires the courage to do something and the ability to express yourself as a personality, to protect some values important to you and maybe to stand against something you cannot accept. You should have the ability to do this, and some people can and some of us can’t,” he said.
“I am really interested in why some of us can and some of us can’t, and what is the root of this courage or lack of it? This is a topic which I have been thinking a lot about for the past three of four years already.”
Zebris is a writer who wears a few different hats, moving from fiction writer, to journalist to commercial copywriter at various times. Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus a lot of his corporate work has dried up, which has left him with more time to focus on this fiction.
“It gives me really good motivation to think about what I really want to write, because there is not so much time to do this in normal times,” he said.
His journalism background also helps clarify what he wants to write about in his novels, he said, because it helps to raise the right questions and also to get to the core of an issue, an issue you have to be happy working a long time on if you want to write a novel about it.
“You should spend a year or maybe two years together with these characters you invented, and if this core question is not so powerful to really attract your interest that means that you’ll struggle with this topic, and that’s not good at the end of the day for the text,” he said.
“So, if this core question is so powerful that you can live with interest together for, let’s say two years, that’s healthy for text. That’s why I think I’m sure the journalism helps, because journalism is very much about raising the questions.”