Snowdrops shortlisted for the Man Booker prize

About the Book

A.D. Miller in conversation with Henry Sutton at the University of East Anglia

Q & A with A.D. Miller

Cover of Snowdrops

You've described Snowdrops as a "moral thriller". What do you mean by that?
You know something bad is going to happen in this book: you find that out on the very first page, though you're not sure exactly what. The question of the book is, how does it happen? In other words, how does the seemingly normal, thirty-something narrator, Nick Platt, come to be complicit in very bad deeds? It's a story of moral degradation

Where did the idea for the book come from?
Working as a foreign correspondent in Russia, I wrote an article about the role of snow in the life of Moscow. It seemed to me that the winter was an oddly unexamined aspect of Russian life—everyone knows it's cold and snowy—that deeply affects the way people live and think; and that the ways Muscovites cope with the snow tell you something about who they are. In the course of researching it, I discovered the concept of the human "snowdrop": a beautiful name for a horrible thing. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a metaphor not only for the harshness of life in Moscow, but also for other, novelistic ideas too: for the return of the past, and for the way experiences that you try to repress can catch up with you.

Moscow - metro platform

How would you say your novel depicts modern Russia?
To begin with, I'd like to say that many of the best and bravest people I've ever met have been Russians: when they're good, they're often very good indeed.

But, as tends to be the case with the contexts of fiction, the view of modern Russia that the novel offers is partial—and, given the sort of book it is, more dark than light. And many of the things it describes are true and real. Moscow is a city in which people without powerful connections live on a tightrope; if they fall—if something goes wrong—they are often on their own.

Having said that, I hope that as well as the harshness of Russian life, I've also managed to convey its allure: the hospitality; the resilience; long evenings of effusive toasting; magical dachas and blissful banyas; the urgent quality of fun in Russia. And I'd point out that in the end the foreigners in Snowdrops come out at least as badly as the locals.

You lived in Moscow for three years from 2004-7. Did the events narrated in your book happen to you?
I didn't frequent clip joints or conspire in any acts of grand larceny or murder. But, on the other hand, a lot of the places and behaviour it describes are real. In particular, I've tried to capture the atmosphere among expats in Moscow in the years before the credit-crunch, a time of no-questions asked money-making and reciprocal corruption. The way Nick has drifted through his thirties—with few friends, only very loose family ties, waning ambition and a nagging sense of "is that all there is?"—is also something I've observed first-hand.

Moscow - staircase

Which Russian writers do you think influenced you?
First, Gogol, particularly for the way in which, in The Overcoat, the coat is both a symbol of status and security, but also a real, physical, vital garment. Dostoevsky, especially a strange novella called The Eternal Husband. He has a filthy honesty that makes me feel like I need to take a shower after reading him, but he is inescapable. I love Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry stories for their stunningly effective understatement.

Snowdrops is your first work of fiction. Have you always wanted to be a novelist?
Yes. I've written another book, a family memoir called The Earl of Petticoat Lane, which has some novelistic elements. I think that was quite good training for Snowdrops. But I didn't feel confident enough to try the real thing until now.

Video trailer (in German)

Questions for discussion

  • Is Nick Platt, the narrator of Snowdrops, a good man who turns bad, a bad man to start with, or neither?
  • Towards the end of the book, Nick says that Masha "had a better excuse." Do you think Snowdrops is at heart a story about corrupt Russians or corruptible westerners?
  • How far should Nick's behaviour be explained by his circumstances and opportunities in Moscow, and how far by his own temperament and psychology?
  • When Nick visits Tatiana Vladimirovna's apartment for the first time, he says that he "liked her immediately, and...liked her right till the end." Is that true? If so, why doesn't it affect how he behaves?
  • Think about the trip that Nick takes with Masha and Katya to Odessa. Does Nick really love Masha, as he repeatedly says, or does he only want to love her?
  • Nick can't stand his family, but he also mentions that his fiancée has "never quite understood why [his mother's] pettiness gets to me so much". Are his family as annoying as he thinks they are? What is it about them that so repulses him?
  • Do Nick's feelings for his fiancée seem to change as he is recounting his tale? How does the relationship implied in the framing device interact with or reinforce his Moscow story?
  • There are several plots in Snowdrops: the main drama involving Tatiana Vladimirovna; the one featuring the Cossack and the floating oil terminal; and the story of Nick's neighbour, Oleg Nikolaevich, and his missing friend. How do these plots relate to each other?
  • At the beginning of the story, Nick tries to be kind to Oleg Nikolaevich. By the end of it, he is less kind and spends much less time with him. Who suffers most as a result?
  • "I liked the Cossack," Nick says after their first meeting: "Something about him was endearing...It might be better to say I envied him." What does he mean by that?
  • At the heart of the novel is Nick's trip to the dacha in the forest with Masha and Katya: "my happiest time," he says; "the time I would always go back to if I could". What does Nick learn at the dacha-about the women and about himself?
  • How much, if anything, of what Masha and Katya tell Nick about themselves do you think is true?
  • The exact years that Nick lives in Moscow aren't specified in the book. But, thinking about the attitudes of the lawyers and bankers in the story, do you think Snowdrops is amongst other things a pre-credit crunch tale?
  • At the end of Snowdrops, Nick says that when he thinks about what happened to him during his last winter in Moscow, "there is guilt". But then he qualifies that by saying "there is some guilt". Is Nick really sorry for what he did? Does he understand how serious it was?
  • At one point Nick describes the winter as an "annual temporary amnesia for a bad conscience". What role do snow and the weather play in Snowdrops?
  • A snowdrop, as Nick's friend Steve explains to him, is a body that lies buried or hidden in the snow, emerging only in the thaw. What does the image of the snowdrop symbolise in Snowdrops?