The Cold War marked a time of great paranoia. Many found that the only safe place to hide was inside their own minds. In Sekret, author Lindsay Smith takes away that luxury by bringing in psychic spies. In this interview, Smith talks psychic powers, the duality of Russian culture, and the parallels between the Cold War and the current situation Russia faces with the Ukraine.
Bookish: In Sekret, Yulia, who lives in the USSR, is forced to work as a spy for the KGB because of her psychic ability to see the past through touching objects. What inspired you to add this layer to an already paranoid time?
Lindsay Smith: I’ve always been fascinated by the intense levels of paranoia the average Soviet citizen experienced on a daily basis, and how it altered the Russian character in a way that continues today. In many ways, one’s private thoughts and inner monologue were the only truly safe spaces the average person had to dissent without fear of being overheard or misinterpreted. Naturally, because I am an evil and sadistic author, I speculated on how much more I could ratchet up the tension if even that safe haven was taken away!
Bookish: If you had a psychic ability what would it be? How would you use it?
LS: There are different types of psychic powers in Sekret, and I can see benefits and drawbacks to all of them. I struggle with social anxiety, and it would be great to be able to read people’s reactions to assure myself that I’m not embarrassing myself quite as much as I think I am. (Or, y’know, to confirm my worst fears.) I don’t think I’d like the gift of foresight—I’m very spoiler-averse—but I think remote viewing would be fantastic. See the world from the comfort of your couch! Tele(pathically)-commute every day!
Bookish: One way the psychics protect their mind from other psychics is to use a particular song as a shield. What would your song be and why?
LS: This is a tough one! Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto flows through so many moods and styles that I think it could fit almost any situation. But I also love Miles Davis’ “ Kind of Blue,” which feels very swanky, but also very driving. Going strictly by play count, though, the Sisters of Mercy’s “This Corrosion” would have to top my list. The opening chorus always makes me feel ready to conquer the world.
Bookish: You are a self-professed Russophile. What is it about the Russian culture that draws you in?
LS: I’ve always loved the push and pull of the Russian contradictions throughout history—neither East nor West, yearning for freedom but leashed by Russian fatalism. While Russian art and music and literature are brimming with emotion and high drama, Russians themselves tend to be incredibly reserved and slow to yield any personal information.
Bookish: What aspect of Russian history most interests you?
LS: The Soviet period in particular fascinates me for how determinedly the Soviets plowed headfirst into tremendous upheaval and strife, and dug their heels in, building ever more convoluted scaffolding to try to make their dreams reality, rather than admit its shortcomings. I think it’s extremely important to raise awareness of this period of time, both to honor the memories of those who suffered and to learn from it.
Bookish: This book’s release is very timely given the unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s involvement. Do you see any similarities between what is happening now and what was happening during the Cold War?
LS: Unfortunately, there are a lot of similarities between the Cold War tendency toward a ‘Russia vs. West’ mentality, and also Putin’s desire to reunite the former Soviet republics and regain, what he sees as, Russia’s lost former glory. Under Putin, I think West-Russian relations have been sliding this way for a while, but they’ve definitely picked up steam in the past two years ( Magnitsky Act, Snowden, Russia’s increasingly foul human rights and free speech record, the illegals case, Russian pipelines being used as political tools), and it will require a substantial shift in perspective to reverse that trend. Most of the West’s Russia experts are older, with a strong Cold War mindset, too, which I worry may color our perceptions.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
LS: I split my money (an embarrassing percent of it) pretty evenly between One More Page in Arlington, VA and Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, VA. Both have exceptionally well-curated children’s sections, and very knowledgeable staff. When I’m looking for nonfiction, I tend to visit Politics & Prose and Kramerbooks in DC, both along Connecticut Ave NW. Just yesterday I attended a lecture by renowned physicist Michio Kaku at Politics & Prose, and (of course) walked out with way more books than I intended to buy.
Lindsay Smith‘s love of Russian culture has taken her to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and a reindeer festival in the middle of Siberia. She writes on foreign affairs and lives in Washington, D.C. Sekret is her first novel.