Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Christopher Shulgan

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Ten Questions with Christopher Shulgan

Christopher Shulgan is a frequent contributor to such Canadian media as The Globe and Mail and Maclean’s. His feature writing has won him numerous honours, most recently a National Magazine Award in 2007 in the category of politics and public policy. He will be reading from his new book, The Soviet Ambassador (McClelland & Stewart) at Nicholas Hoare Books and Afternoon Tea at the King Edward Hotel on June 15 at 3:00 p.m. See our events page for details.

OB:

Tell us about your latest book, The Soviet Ambassador: The Making of the Radical Behind Perestroika.

CS:

It’s about a guy who changed his mind. And what led him to do it. Aleksandr N. Yakovlev is best known as the adviser who pushed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to enact the Cold War-ending reforms of perestroika and glasnost. The book recounts Yakovlev’s evolution from an enthusiastic communist into a strident believer in freedom and democracy. Once one knows the full story of Yakovlev’s evolution it becomes apparent that the key period was the 10 years he spent in Canada as the Soviet ambassador to Ottawa, immediately before he began working for Gorbachev, when Yakovlev developed key friendships with such Canadians as Pierre Trudeau and McDonalds of Canada founder George Cohon.

OB:

How did you research The Soviet Ambassador?

CS:

By burrowing, mole-like, into government and personal archives in Ottawa and Moscow, by conducting interviews with former KGB generals, Canadian diplomats and dozens of other people who knew Yakovlev through the years. By reading every book I could find about perestroika and the history of the Soviet Union. And by pestering Yakovlev’s family with questions for nearly two years straight. Finally, Yakovlev himself died in October 2005, but I had conducted an interview with him in 2003 for a piece I wrote for Saturday Night, and that was valuable. I also was helped by my two Russian-speaking research assistants, Olga Kesarchuk and Auri Berg, both of whom are Ph.D. candidates in the history department at the University of Toronto.

OB:

What was the most interesting document that you read while doing research for your book?

CS:

A document I found in the External Affairs archives that contained a toast to be given by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau for Yakovlev in June 1983 at a farewell dinner held to mark the Soviet ambassador’s return to Moscow. The toast was an affectionate tribute to Yakovlev and more than anything else I was able to find, demonstrated the extent of the friendship between the two men.

OB:

What was your first publication?

CS:

A play I wrote as a high school student was included in a textbook published by Oxford University Press. I think it’s still in print – the textbook’s called On Common Ground, the play, "What Cool Is."

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

CS:

The table in the eastern vertex of the triangular 11th floor in the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library, where the windows provide a panoramic view of the city.

OB:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

CS:

Joshua, Then and Now by Mordecai Richler, Larry’s Party by Carol Shields and Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat. And two books for younger readers – Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee and This Can’t Be Happening At MacDonald Hall by Gordon Korman. Sorry, that’s five.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

CS:

Zuckerman Unbound by Philip Roth.

OB:

Describe the most memorable response you’ve received from a reader.

CS:

Getting an enthusiastic blurb on The Soviet Ambassador from Margaret MacMillan, the Paris 1919 historian, whose work I really admire.

OB:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

CS:

Not sure, but it was probably in Stephen King’s On Writing or in one of the compilations of the Paris Reviews’ writer interviews.

OB:

What is your next project?

CS:

I’ve got a couple of great ideas for narrative histories, but before I delve into that I’m working on a memoir about fatherhood.

The Soviet Ambassador
"A fascinating story of why even insiders lost faith in the Soviet system--and how Canada played its part. Christopher Shulgan illuminates the key friendship between Yakovlev, the Soviet ambassador in Ottawa, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and shows how it contributed to the huge changes in Russia in the 1980s." -Margaret MacMillan author of
Paris 1919


Visit the McClelland & Stewart website to read more about
The Soviet Ambassador by Christopher Shulgan.

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