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Liz Williams

Books by Liz Williams

Author Essay

In 1996 I moved to Kazakhstan. My partner was teaching out there, on a short term contract, and I gave up my job as an educational administrator and went with him to a new role as post-Soviet housewife. We moved into a tiny, cockroach-infested apartment in the middle of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s principal city. The apartment was opposite a very noisy, but very sociable, cafe with a refugee camp out the back, and not far from the huge market and Panfilov Cathedral, the improbable pink wedding-cake church in the middle of the city. In NINE LAYERS OF SKY, the apartment (enlarged and rather nicer) has become Elena’s; all other aspects of the city are the same – though I can’t speak for the volkh or the rusalki. The skating rink is there, however, and so is the rickety chairlift on which Elena and Ilya make their escape.

It has to be said that I didn’t adapt too well to being a Soviet housewife. I did not possess the essential elements for successful shopping – notably, several children and a large collection of buckets. Russian markets don’t sell small quantities. I did manage to get my head around the commonplace practice of hitch-hiking everywhere, which to a paranoid British person is normally the last thing you’d want to do. And eventually, I also got a job, teaching English to a local night club owner in exchange for lunch. The club owner, a guy in his thirties, was without exception the worst student I have ever had, and he tried so hard, too. He was married to a woman who looked about 12, and she was much better at English, so eventually she came to classes as well. Meanwhile Charles was immured in the Goat Hotel (we never found out the reason for this curious name), teaching businessmen.

Life settled into a pattern. On Fridays, we’d go to the Business Club, which was full of loud expats, and meet up with the people in the oil company for whom Charles was working. The Business Club was, frankly, grim: conservatoire musicians down on their luck playing the violin, and local girls looking for a rich Westerner to take them away from all this… In the novel, it’s the Business Club where Elena’s sister finally finds a German ‘boyfriend’.

At weekends, we’d either take our lives in our hands and go up to Koktubye Hill on the cable car, to a cafe shaped like a yurt which had a spectacular view of the local glaciers, or to Medeo and the ice rink. There are some fantastic walks up through the birch woods at the back of the rink, into the alpine meadows which overlook the city. It’s here that Ilya and Elena find themselves after being snatched into, and out of, the strange parallel realm of Byelovodye.

Almaty itself isn’t an unpleasant city – despite an architecture which relies heavily on apartment blocks and decaying concrete, it does have a lot of trees – but it was always good to get away. Once we went to the local lake, which lay in the other direction out on the steppe, and ended up driving (not sailing, definitely driving) a large Soviet-era patrol boat, which the owner now used for pleasure trips. On a couple of occasions, we went for picnics with the cafe owner and his wife. Usually, this culminated in true Russian fashion with a huge public row with total strangers (over car parking, their cow, whatever).

All of these experiences went to make up NINE LAYERS OF SKY, combined with a long-standing interest in Russian mythology. It wasn’t just the more ancient stories that intrigued me, but also more recent Soviet myths – dreams and visions of the future, of space, of colonisation and expansion, all founded on the shaky, half-rotten foundation of post-Revolution Russia. When I began reading the legends of Byelovodye, the Siberian Shambhala, it seemed right to make it a more modern state than the bucolic idyll of the stories, for legends do not remain static. They change with societies, over time, and one day, we will become the ancestors, half-lost in a shadowy time of myth and legend.

I have just returned from Siberia, visiting the region where the entrance to the ‘real’ Byelovodye is supposed to lie. If I ever write a sequel to NINE LAYERS, it will be set here, in the Russian Altai. There are always more legends to discover.

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