Akunin inhales. "Fantasy?" He pauses a moment more. "I wouldn't call it fantasy at all. Erast Fandorin is a historical detective. I tried to be very precise in the historical detail. Well, I treat history quite freely, but when I take a historical figure, I change his or her name a little bit so it will be clear that it is a fictional character, bearing a resemblance to [an] actual historical figure. They often say that I am embellishing or idealizing Tsarist Russia, this is not true. Absolutely. I have no illusions about that time. If it looks prettier than it really was, it is because of Russian literature. Because, for me, Russian literature of the period is more important than actual history of the period. And Russian history had a very attractive feature. It ennobled the object that it was describing, always."
"I noticed, in that period when you first started writing -- or just before -- other writers like Aleksandra Marinina, a lieutenant colonel of the Moscow police, and a couple of other writers.... There was an ex-convict, who was writing mysteries as well. I was surprised by their material -- as much of it as I saw -- translated but unpublished here. It seemed to steer away from the actual, very raw criminal life that was sort of exploding in front of them in those wild '90s. It also tended toward the more romanticized kind of detective writing. It seemed almost as if -- especially in her case [Lieut. Colonel Marinina's] -- they were afraid to take on the more serious mafiya, organized criminal activity."
"Marinina's? Mmmm. I don't know. I haven't read."
"There didn't seem to be any literary agents, of course, so she had a former colleague as her agent, or trying to be.
"Ya, I know him."
"How did you come to your [Russian] publisher? I assume you didn't have an agent either."
Akunin smiles. "Oh, it was funny. You might say, I was in an established position in the literary world, because I had been active as a critic-editor-publisher for quite a number of years. So, had I wanted to publish a novel of mine, it would have been easy. I could have given a ring to a number of my friends who were publishers and had it. But I didn't want it this way. Not because I was modest, but because I was afraid. I was afraid I'd publish a detective novel and it would be a failure. This genre, in general, was held in contempt by my colleagues and all people in serious writing. Which is why I took a pen name. So I had to find...I had to go the usual way, like anybody with a first book."
"By just mailing it to them?"
"Yes, sort of, sort of. I got two or three rejections, or no answers, which amounts to rejections. Because...the publishers just didn't understand why would readers want to read historical crime fiction when there was a lot of crime in [the] reality around them. And everybody was writing about mafiya and KGB and all that. So, finally, I went to the chief editor of a big publisher that I was working with and asked him to read the manuscript, just not tell anybody. He read it. Said, 'It's okay. But I'm starting a publishing house of my own. I want it to be the first book.' I said okay. So that's how it started. Afterwards it became evident that he had not much experience. No money. It was a tiny publisher. No money for advertising. So all went the hard way. The first four novels were a disaster. It was two and a half years before the books began to sell."
I refer to my notes. "The first book, The Winter Queen, sold six thousand copies. The next three sold okay, but not spectacularly, until the fifth book."
Akunin closes his fist like an apple. "Ya. The fifth book was like a bomb. Then the previous ones also instantly became bestsellers."
"And that fifth book was the Jack-the-Ripper story?"
"The book is called Special Assignments. There are two short novels. The first is a picaresque novella, 'Jack of Spades,' and the second is about Jack the Ripper. It's called 'The Decorator.'"
"And that's the one that really launched you in Russia? That first book, The Winter Queen, which first sold six thousand volumes, I understand has reached eight million. Is this true?"
We both laugh. "Fifteen million! Not the same publisher, though."
"No, no. I'm still with him. Now he has become rich, a collector of antique books."
"You are here [in New York City] attending panels at Columbia University. You are on the radio every time I turn it on. Your publishers just ran a full page [50,000 dollar] full-color ad in The New York Times Book Review for
The Death of Achilles to launch you. Tonight you appear at the Italian Cultural Institute on Park Avenue with mystery authors Henning Mankell and Messimo Carlotto. Do you do this same kind of [publicity] work in Russia, and have you returned to Japan also to promote your books?" Japan is but one of 35 countries in which Akunin's books are published.
"No. Normally I do not do this. This is sort of an exception. The American market is the most important in the world. The English language dominates [the] literary scene. If a book becomes successful in America, in most cases it helps to sell the book elsewhere. That's why I made an exception. And still, I could get out only for four days. My schedule is incredibly packed. In Russia I never do it. I never go anywhere on promotion tour, unless it coincides with material gathering. In March I went to Bristol, to a crime-fiction convention, because I needed to write a short story about Bristol. Honestly speaking, I came here also because I needed to get some material together for a book, an adventure for [my hero] Erast Fandorin, in America. So in Washington, I went to [the] National Archives. And I went to the National Indian museum. It was very helpful."