I’m delighted today to host Linda Himelstein, author of The King of Vodka, which is just out this week. House of Mondavi author Julia Flynn Siler calls it “a fascinating tale of brilliance and destruction,” and NPR commentator Tom Gjelten, author of Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, describes it as a “wrenching story” and “a triumph.” Do check out Linda’s amazing website, too! It’s designed by my own web designer, Ilsa Brink, and includes a wonderful map of Smirnov’s voyage from Russia to the U.S. – Meg
It never really occurred to me that I would write a book. I always thought of myself first and foremost as a journalist. I loved the pace of writing news stories, whether it was a lengthy investigative feature or a quick breaking news item. I couldn’t imagine sticking with just one subject for years on end, holed up in some stark room all by my lonesome. Then I met the Smirnovs.
It was 1996 and I was the legal affairs editor at Business Week. A representative of some of Smirnov’s descendants had come to see me. He unrolled a long scroll in front of me. It contained the Smirnov family tree, dozens and dozens of the descendants of the man who started the Russian vodka empire in the mid-19th century. He then told me how these descendants had filed lawsuits in the U.S. and elsewhere to reclaim the liquor brand, a name that would have died long ago had it not been for a bizarre escape from a Bolshevik prison by one of Smirnov’s sons following the Russian Revolution. I was fascinated and wrote a story for Business Week, continuing to wonder for years afterward what had happened to that family in the wake of the revolution and how it was that their name had flourished for so long without their personal participation.
Still I did nothing beyond being curious. I moved to California, had two children, and took on the job of Silicon Valley bureau chief for Business Week just as the tech frenzy took off. I was busy enough and let the Smirnovs drift for awhile. Besides, how crazy would it have been for me to pursue something related to the Smirnovs? I’m not a Russian historian. I don’t speak Russian. I’m not even much of a drinker.
Then I read Seabiscuit—the tale of a horse who came from almost nothing to win some of the greatest treasures in horse-racing history. Not only did I love the story itself. But I also loved reading about the lives of jockeys, the infancy of the automobile, developments in gambling, and a slew of other meaty historical topics. Smirnov’s story was similar—a serf who came from nothing to become one of Russia’s wealthiest and most successful entrepreneurs. And he did it during a glorious period in Russia’s history, crossing paths with Chekhov, infuriating Tolstoy, and wooing the Tsars. It was then that I knew I wanted to write a book.
For me, research was going to be the biggest challenge. I hired a translator to help and got to work piecing together the outline for a book proposal. I had already made up my mind that if I couldn’t sell the book beforehand I would have to drop it. I knew the research was going to be too onerous—and expensive—to embark on a project that might never make it. I was going to be delving into things that went well beyond the Smirnovs’ own remarkable story. It would involve everything from the machinations of the Imperial Palace to the Crimean War to the art of making vodka to Tolstoy’s anti-alcohol crusades.
Luckily I found a wonderful agent who helped me polish the proposal and get it into the hands of publishers—after several rewrites. HarperCollins signed on, and I quit Business Week, beginning my transformation from journalist to author.
I believe I encountered every obstacle possible along the way. The Imperial archives closed in 2005, making it extremely difficult to get important documents. (They still haven’t reopened.) Many other relevant archives either could not be found or no longer exist. There was a dearth of information available about Smirnov’s early years as a serf. Conflicting accounts of specific events could sometimes not be verified one way or another.
And then there were Smirnov’s descendants, some of whom had already written books in Russia about their legacy. They were extremely reluctant to participate in my book. From the start, they questioned my motives and journalistic independence, assuming I was somehow tied to the company that now owns the Smirnoff brand.
My one salvation was finding and hiring Tatiana Glezer, a marvelous Russian researcher and translator based in Moscow who, despite a pregnancy and new baby during this process, stuck with me throughout. Even when I packed up my husband and kids to spend the summer in Russia, she helped make the trip both productive and fun for all.
The story of Pyotr Smirnov turned out to be every bit as dramatic as I had imagined. In fact, it was almost effortless to stick with this topic for more than four-and-a-half years. The writing process, while far from simple, was also surprisingly fluid. At times I felt like I was possessed, somehow driven to bring this unusual story to life. Sometimes it literally poured out of me. The result, of course, is The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire.
Writing this book has been the most challenging, exhilarating, excruciating, and ultimately rewarding professional experience of my life. For a girl who never wanted to write a book, I am already missing the process, eagerly searching out other topics that will keep me holed up in a stark room all over again. Got any good ideas? – Linda Himelstein