Authoring An Author's Life In 'Mikhail and Margarita'

Mar 19, 2017
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"The Master And Margarita" is one of the most popular novels in Russia - even today. It was written during the 1930s by author and physician Mikhail Bulgakov, though, for many years, Stalin's police state prevented its publication. Now Julie Lekstrom Himes, herself a doctor, pays homage to Bulgakov by imagining his life in her new novel, "Mikhail And Margarita."


JULIE LEKSTROM HIMES: "The Master And Margarita" is a wonderful book that I was introduced to by my father-in-law. He was a physicist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and traveling to then-the Soviet Union frequently. He brought back the book, handed it to me and said, the Russians call him the Russian Garcia Marquez. And so I thought, well, that's a wonderful introduction.

And I read the book and fell in love with it but became even more interested when I read the background of Mikhail Bulgakov and the censorship that he suffered while he was writing in Moscow and the history behind the book and how it was hidden for 25 years by his wife until it was safe to be published in the late '60s.


HIMES: I went on to read more about Bulgakov, more of his work, the "Country Doctor's Notebook," which I think really drew me to him and his voice. As a physician, he wrote this series of short stories about his early years working in rural Russia, just freshly minted from medical school. And reading these very honest stories, all written in the first-person point of view, brought back my days as a medical student. They could have been my journals. Just - and it really made his voice resound in my head so that I felt - I had the nerve to do this, to write this novel.


HIMES: I spent almost a year researching this history before beginning to write my novel. My other experience, I think, that helped in the writing is that when I was a young adult, I visited the Soviet Union with my parents and my sister and had some interesting experiences.

We had just arrived in Leningrad, and so we decided to take a walk. And these two young men approached my father out of the blue and asked him, in broken English, if he wouldn't mind selling them his trousers. He declined (laughter). He kept his pants on.


HIMES: It is interesting and certainly should be a cautionary tale to us moving forward, the changes that have taken place in Russia since Putin came to power in 2000. Essentially, when he came to power as president, the media, the comedians felt free to make jokes about him, particularly the fact that he was a former KGB agent, and here he is now their president. But that has changed dramatically, of course.

And a number of laws have been put into place - again, something we should look upon in a cautionary way - laws that are, on the surface, supposed to protect the people and protect them from extremist thinking, protect the children from things that would harm their growth and health and protect those who are religious believers from having their feelings hurt. And these laws have effectively evoked censorship once again and not just overt but as - in addition to that, and something that was quite common at the time I wrote about in this novel, self-censorship. One of the things I learned during my research is that poets of the time in the 1920s and '30s and '40s would often get together and read to each other their poetry. And once they read it, they would burn it in a silver dish, and all of that is gone now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Julie Lekstrom Himes, her new novel about the life of Mikhail Bulgakov is called "Mikhail And Margarita." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.