Kalani Pickhart Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kalani Pickhart
Photo: Sydney Cisco

Kalani Pickhart

An interview with Kalani Pickhart

Kalani Pickhart speaks to BookBrowse about the research and writing process for I Will Die in a Foreign Land, her extremely timely debut novel about Ukraine.

I Will Die in a Foreign Land focuses on the events that directly led up to Russia's February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, including the protests of 2013-2014 sparked by the Ukrainian government's decision to build closer ties with Russia rather than sign an agreement with the European Union, which led to the overthrow of the government and, shortly after, Russia annexing Crimea and the Donbas region. You also touch on earlier Ukrainian history, such as the famine of the early 1930s and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Much of this history might be new to our readers. Other than your book, what resources do you recommend to people wanting to gain a better understanding of the events leading up to the present day?

Credible news sources, like Kyiv Independent, New York Times, Associated Press. I like journalists like Christopher Miller (@christopherjm) on Twitter – I've followed him since the early days of writing. Terrell Jermaine Starr (@terrelljstarr) is a voice I discovered this year and I also really appreciate his reportage.

The most accessible documentary right now about Euromaidan is called Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, which the director announced has been made available and free to watch on YouTube (and is also on Netflix). If I had to choose one book about Ukrainian history, it would be The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy. There are so many resources out there from experts and scholars and Ukrainians themselves — I encourage those who are interested in learning more to seek out a few different lists from those more knowledgeable than me!

There's a weight that comes with representing real events, especially given the ongoing nature of the conflict in Ukraine. What did your research process look like heading into this particular novel?

I arrived at this project after seeing a documentary about the protests. I started out with researching the immediate events leading up to Euromaidan, during, and after. Once I was able to access the main perspectives in the book and found Katya, Misha and Slava's voices, I started to dig deeper into their cultural history. I started with a folk song that was sung during a mass funeral at Euromaidan. It was haunting and beautiful, and a verse from that song ultimately became the title of the book. From there, I let my own curiosity and dedication to telling the story truthfully take the reins.

The research never ended — we were down to the wire the night before we had to have this book off to the printer, meticulously checking the spelling of every passenger's name we included from the MH17 plane crash because it was important for the family, friends and legacy of the victims that we got that information exact. The first version of the book is a shadow of what it ultimately became, and it's in large part because of the support I had from Two Dollar Radio. It was special for many reasons, but their commitment to learning and keen attention to detail gave me a lot of confidence that I wasn't alone throughout the later stages.

Could you say a little more about the significance of the book's title?

"I will die in a foreign land" comes from a Ukrainian folk lament that was sung at Euromaidan at the public wake and funeral for the Heavenly Hundred — Ukrainian protestors who were killed by their own police force. The song is called "Plyve Kacha Po Tysyni," and it's hauntingly beautiful. It's a dialogue between a mother and son about him going to war. I chose the lyric as an homage to the Heavenly Hundred as well as a recognition of Ukrainian heritage. The fear of being buried in a foreign land appears often in Ukrainian poetry, most famously from Taras Shevchenko, who was exiled to Russia after criticizing the Russian Empire. The lyrics just sort of rooted the book and reminded me how much this story meant.

How did you navigate the balance between factual accuracy and creative freedom?

The two are not mutually exclusive. Gabriel Garcia Marquez said in the Paris Review, "It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality." Writing a book isn't a static event, just like the war in Ukraine was not a static event. There was this fluidity between the research inspiring parts of the book and the narrative of the book inspiring me to chase particular threads in my research.

For example, the kobzari sections didn't appear in the first draft of the novel the way they do now. I had instinctively started writing this omniscient voice that kept rising up, and I started just calling it "chorus" or "voice of Ukraine," and I wasn't sure how it was going to ultimately fit, but it felt too important to ignore. Eventually I went back to my earliest research on folk songs, oral tradition, and musicians of Ukraine. When I discovered the kobzari, it became such a relief. Like, there you are — now I know where you're coming from.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion from multiple perspectives: How did you manage this complex structure while constructing the novel? Did you write in a similarly fluid way, or did you focus on one character's arc at a time, for example?

When I first approach a story, I try to find the voice and where the speaker is coming from psychologically and emotionally. For some writers it's plot, or language, but for me it's usually character and voice-driven. I'm interested in figuring out what the "problem" is for that individual, or narrator. Because of that, it was much easier for me to write each character's story one at a time. It helped to get a feel for their individual struggles, and it caused me to think critically on how each perspective was valuable to the book overall. But, as I said, we were editing this book up to the wire and a big part of that was chronology and deciding where to put what section and how to make the timing consistent, realistic and true to events. I couldn't have done that without my publisher, that's for sure.

Music and song play key roles in the narrative. Is music important to your creative process, and did you find yourself drawn to any particular music while you worked on the novel?

I played percussion for over 10 years of my life and I grew up with parents who love music — I consider it a part of my genetic makeup. I explored a number of Ukrainian folk songs, Ukrainian musicians and songs that were popular in Ukraine at the time of Euromaidan and built a playlist. I also chose songs from my own life that evoked specific memories or emotions. Of course, there was also The Rite of Spring, which I must have listened to over a thousand times. I'd say if I were to choose one artist to recommend, DakhaBrakha is phenomenal, and they're even better live.

-- Interview by Callum McLaughlin

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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I Will Die in a Foreign Land jacket
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