Released last month, Dan Smith’s third novel The Child Thief is already garnering rave reviews, and deservedly so. Set in 1930s Ukraine it is beautifully written and so atmospheric you may find yourself checking your toes for frostbite by the time you finish it. Dan was kind enough to join me for an interview…
Can you tell us a little about The Child Thief?
Well, in a nutshell, The Child Thief is about a man who makes a promise to his daughter, vowing to bring back her friend from the kidnapper who has taken her away across the frozen wilderness of the Ukrainian steppes. In wider terms, it’s a story about strength and humanity and courage – a criminal thriller with a historical backdrop and an air of social nightmare.
It’s primal stuff, and unconventional for a crime novel, with men battling through harsh winter terrain to track a killer. Were you consciously trying to do something different?
I’m not a planner. When I start a novel, I don’t really have much more than a beginning and, possibly, an end. I let the story unfold in the way that feels right so I don’t think I was conscious of wanting to do something different. Having said that, when I’m looking for something to read, I tend to look for things that are unusual, so if I have managed to write something unconventional, then I think that’s a good thing and I hope people will enjoy it.
What drew you to 1930s Ukraine?
The opening image came first. I saw the stranger coming out of the snowstorm, dragging the sled, bringing a darkness into the lives of the main characters. After that, I had to find a setting for the story – I wanted to find a harsh environment that was going to really test the main characters to their limits. Initially I toyed with the idea of a post-apocalyptic landscape like in McCarthy’s The Road, but that didn’t have the right feel so I hit on the idea of Eastern Europe and did a little digging. I already knew something about Soviet history, but didn’t realise how much Ukraine suffered under Stalin in those years, and the deeper I went, the more I realised it was the perfect setting. So not only does the main character have to contend with the physical environment and the killer he is tracking, but also he has to deal with a severe political environment in which no one can trust anyone else.
It’s hugely atmospheric. How much di dyou research it?
Well, I certainly know a bit more about 1930s Ukraine now than I did before, but I think the story has to be the most important thing. When I was writing the novel, I knew I had to give the reader some detail about the historical setting, but I tried not to get too bogged down in it. It’s not a historical novel – it’s a crime thriller with a historical setting.
Were you inspired by Russian literature?
I haven’t read a lot of Russian literature, but I did re-read a couple of old novels while I was writing The Child Thief, and that really helped to put me inside the main character’s head. I’m almost embarrassed to say that sometimes I even heard the characters talking English with dodgy Eastern European accents. It also helped that I studied Russian language and politics at University and spent six months in Moscow during the early 90s, so I had an insight into the culture.
Geographical isolation is a theme in your work, where does that concern come from?
I think it comes from an interest in seeing people solve their problems on their own. There’s no police to call, no ambulance, no mobile phones. There’s something primal about that and it’s fascinating to think about how far people would go and what they would do to protect themselves and the people they love. And, actually, I think my main characters are often emotionally isolated too. In The Child Thief, Luka is unlike anyone else in his village – he’s the only Russian, the only veteran, the only man who can find the kidnapped child. Perhaps it also comes from the fact that I lived in some weird and wonderful places when I was growing up and spent a lot of time at boarding school – maybe a psychologist would find some connection there to the isolation?
What’s coming up next for you?
At the moment I’m writing a follow-up using the Russian Civil War as a setting to throw another of my long-suffering characters into. It was a violent and confused time in which a number of different armies were fighting one another and people committed some terrible atrocities. My main character, Nicolai, is tired of the war and deserts from his unit to return home to his family, but when he arrives at his village, it’s completely empty except for an incoherent old woman, driven mad by what has taken place there. It’s up to Nicolai to find out what has happened to his family and the other villagers…
This interview originally appeared at Crime Fiction Lover.