How A Famous Fraud Brought A Kind Of Hope In 'I Was Anastasia'

Mar 24, 2018
Originally published on March 24, 2018 12:02 pm

The narrator of Ariel Lawhon's new novel asks readers on the first page: "Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess? Or am I an impostor?"

Lawhon's new novel, I Was Anastasia, is a kind of dual biography that imagines the story of what led up to the execution of Russia's royal family (including Anastasia)by the Bolsheviks in 1918, and another woman known as Anna Anderson, who threw herself off a bridge in Berlin in 1920, survived, and convinced many people — most of whom wanted to be convinced — that she was the surviving Romanov daughter.

But there's no doubt about what happened to the real Anastasia, "and that actually creates the first dilemma when you're writing a novel about the Romanovs," Lawhon says, "when everyone knows how the story ends, so how do you make it different and new and interesting?"


Interview Highlights

On why Anna Anderson was so convincing

You know, it's funny, you and I look at this story through the lens of history, and we have the benefit of hindsight, but her contemporaries did not have that. They didn't have DNA science. All they had was a woman who stood in front of them, who bore a very striking resemblance to Anastasia Romanov, and who was claiming to be this woman. And she had information that only the Romanovs had, she had supporters who were close to the Romanov family, many of their friends, some of their relatives. And I think, to be honest, there is an element to which people wanted to believe ... and that's a really powerful thing.

On her description of the royal family's final moments

I try as hard as I can to stay as close to historical fact as possible. Usually when I am building my own story, it's within the cracks of what we know for sure. So those scenes at the end, they were incredibly well-documented, those details were taken from my biographies, they were taken from letters and affidavits written by the soldiers who took part in that execution, and it was really hard to write. That's one of the things that surprises me with every novel is, I will pick a subject, and I will approach it really methodically, I research it, I plan everything out, and I will kind of look at a thing that's coming — in this case it was the execution of the Romanovs ... these moments that you can kind of look at it from a distance and think, oh, I can do that, I can get that on paper. But then there comes a day when you have to sit down at your desk and do it. And that is always far more traumatic than I think it will be.

On the difficulty of writing traumatic scenes

If you're making something up entirely, you kind of can always fall back on the, oh, it's just a story, it didn't really happen, I'm just making this up. But for what I do, it's not just a story, it's history, and it really happened, and to bring the full emotional impact of a story to fruition, you have to write it. You asked earlier why Anna Anderson's story, you know, why we wanted to believe her. I think so much of it goes back to, there were children involved. There were four daughters and one son, the oldest was 21 years old. They were innocent. They shouldn't have been there in the first place, and they were lost, in this really horrific, really tragic way. And what Anna Anderson gave our culture, really the worldwide culture, was an opening. The possibility, the chance, that one of them made it out.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The narrator of Ariel Lawhon's new novel asked readers on the first page...

ARIEL LAWHON: (Reading) Am I truly Anastasia Romanov - a beloved daughter, a revered icon, a Russian grand duchess? Or am I an impostor - a fraud, a liar, the thief of another woman's legacy? That is for you to decide, of course.

SIMON: Ariel Lawhon joins us from WPLN in Nashville. She's the author of acclaimed historical fiction that includes "Flight Of Dreams." Her new novel "I Was Anastasia" is a kind of dual biography that imagines the story of what led up to the execution of Russia's royal family, including the Princess Anastasia, by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and another woman known as Anna Anderson who threw herself off a bridge in Berlin in 1920, survived and convinced many people - most of whom wanted to be convinced - that she was the surviving Romanov daughter. Was she? Ariel Lawhon, thanks so much for being with us.

LAWHON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: To avoid a deluge of emails, there is no doubt - especially in these days of scientific testing - what happened to the Princess Anastasia, is there?

LAWHON: There's not. And that actually creates the first dilemma when you're writing a novel about the Romanovs - when everyone knows how the story ends. So how do you make it different and new and interesting? So for me, actually, that was part of the appeal in writing the novel. How can I take a story where everyone knows the end but keep them connected to it regardless?

SIMON: I particularly admire the sections you write of the Romanovs, between the time where they're essentially made prisoner in one of their homes to the fate I won't detail. And they certainly witness chilling cruelty from the Bolsheviks even before their exile to Siberia. But you have a scene where Kerensky, the Bolshevik leader, reminds them that - let's put it this way - they're not like the royal family that we see in "The Crown," are they?

LAWHON: No, the Tsar and his wife were a very imperfect people who had ruled imperfectly and caused a great deal of distress and suffering in their own country. And Tsar Nicholas the II, in particular, he was the last monarch in this 300-year dynasty. And you can argue that he brought the whole thing crashing down.

SIMON: Yeah, at one point, he says, look, we did nothing. And Kerensky says to him, well, that's kind of the point.

LAWHON: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: And let me ask you about about Anna Anderson. What made her so convincing to so many people - perhaps even herself?

LAWHON: Well, you know, it's funny. You and I look at this story through the lens of history, and we have the benefit of hindsight. But her contemporaries did not have that. They didn't have DNA science. All they had was a woman who stood in front of them who bore a very striking resemblance to Anastasia Romanov and who was claiming to be this woman. And she had information that only the Romanovs had. She had supporters that were close to the Romanov family - many of their friends, some of their relatives.

And I think, to be honest, there is an element at which people wanted to believe. They wanted to believe that this really tragic horrible story could have a happy ending. And that's a really powerful thing. And you can argue various ways when you look at the research whether she used that on purpose or whether she was trying to give people what they wanted. There's a lot of room to explore there. There's a lot of opportunity to create a character on the pages of a book that's complex and hard to trust. But you also want to root for her as well.

SIMON: It's remarkable how much suspense you managed to work into the final scenes of Romanovs. Are these details widely reported? How much did you use literary license?

LAWHON: I try as hard as I can to stay as close to historical fact as possible. Usually when I am building my own story, it's within the cracks of what we know for sure. So those scenes at the end that - they were incredibly well-documented. Those details were taken from my biographies. They were taken from letters and affidavits written by the soldiers who took part in that execution. And it was really hard to write.

That's one of the things that surprises me with every novel - is I will pick a subject, and I will approach it really methodically. I research it. I plan everything out. And I will kind of look at a thing that's coming. In this case, it was the execution of the Romanovs. With my last novel, it was the destruction of the Hindenburg - you know, these moments that you can kind of look at from a distance and go, oh, I can do that. I can get that on paper. But then there comes a day where you actually have to sit down at your desk and do it. And that is always far more dramatic than I think it will be.

SIMON: Because?

LAWHON: Because it's hard to write - and it's true, and it happened. And if you are making something up entirely, you kind of can always fall back on the, oh, it's just a story. It didn't really happen. I'm just making this up. But for what I do, it's not just a story. It's history, and it really happened. And to bring the full emotional impact of a story to fruition, you have to write it.

You asked earlier, I think, why Anna Anderson's story - you know, why we wanted to believe her. I do think so much of it goes back to there were children involved. There were four daughters and one son. The oldest of those children was 21 years old. They were innocent. They shouldn't have been there in the first place. And they were lost in this really horrific, really tragic way.

And what Anna Anderson gave our culture - really the world-wide culture - was an opening, the possibility, the chance that one of them made it out. She kind of cracked that door open for hope. And when you think of those girls, and you think of Alexei facing that end, it's really hard to wrap your mind around who could do that to a child. Anna Anderson comes along and says maybe one of them made it.

SIMON: Ariel Lawhon - her novel, "I Was Anastasia." Thanks so much for being with us.

LAWHON: Thank you for having me. It was wonderful.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this interview, Alexander Kerensky is incorrectly identified as a Bolshevik leader. Kerensky was not a Bolshevik; he was briefly prime minister of the Russian provisional government in 1917.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.