I know I don’t usually take part in blog tours – but when I heard about Shamim Sarif an award winning novelist and film director I was fascinated by a woman working across two different media – and happily agreed to take part.
Shamim Sarif, a novelist, screenwriter and film director won the Pendleton May First Novel Award and the Betty Trask Award for her novel The World Unseen. Shamim went on to adapt her novel for film writing the screenplay and directing the film alongside her partner. Shamim Sarif’s second novel I Can’t think Straight was also made into a film by Shamim winning eleven awards. I was particularly fascinated at someone managing to juggle a writing career and a career in film! I couldn’t help but wonder about how easy it is for a woman to work at a high level in the male dominated film industry.
I received Shamim Sarif’s novel Despite the Falling snow as a review copy – a review I will post tomorrow. It is a compelling novel of love and betrayal in Soviet Russia. The film – also titled Despite the Falling Snow is released in UK cinemas on April 15th, starring Charles Dance and Rebecca Ferguson. Having now read and enjoyed the book – not my usual type of read in some ways – I can’t wait to see the film – because first and foremost the story is just so good.
I was invited to put my questions to Shamim Sarif.
Q1 You are a novelist and a film director – which media was your first love?
I am fortunate to be a storyteller in two very different media. But words were my very first love. But I also learned very quickly that words are the basis of the visuals of film, so I began to teach myself the art of screenwriting. In fact, I wrote my first feature length screenplay (adapted from a short story that I had published) before I ever wrote a novel.
Q2 Despite the Falling Snow has a cold war theme running through it – is this a period of history that has always fascinated you?
I do find Russian and Soviet history fascinating and I did a ton of research while I was writing the book. More than that, though, the book began when I started to think about two people on opposite sides of the political spectrum being in love. When you love someone, you become more open to seeing the world differently – but when changing your viewpoint can mean putting yourself in danger, that’s harder, and of course more compelling as a story. I think I am often drawn to political backdrops for that reason – the pressure it puts on characters can be very dramatic.
Q3 A great sense of place is always very important to me as a reader – as a writer who adapts her novels for the big screen – do you write your novels with the film already in mind? Or has this always come later?
I never write a book with the film in mind. The one exception is probably ‘I Can’t Think Straight’ which I finished after the film and was quite influenced by it. But overall, a novel has to stand as a novel and although both novels and scripts use words to paint a picture of a world and place, they do it in such different ways. A novel demands that you use words to create a sense of place in your reader’s mind, but a film’s sense of place is bound up with the locations, the style of shooting and the direction as well.
Q4 Part of Despite the Falling Snow is set in Moscow – is this somewhere you have been? I find cold war Russia a fascinating place – but how much research did you have to do?
I did a tremendous amount of reading about the period – both Khruschev’s time and the Stalinist era before that. There was a marked difference in tone and outlook after Khrushchev took power – and it struck me as the kind of atmosphere in which an idealist like Alexander might feel a sense of renewed belief in Communism. That said, the most helpful part of my research was taking a trip to Moscow. It was 2001, but there were still strong vestiges of communism around and I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of people who had lived through that Cold War period and that was incredibly useful in providing a lot of the detail I needed to write the novel.
Q5 The film adaptation of Despite the Falling Snow has a mouth-watering cast – but how easy is it to transfer the characters that have lived inside your head for so long into the people we will watch on screen?
Thankfully the actors really responded to the script (and book) of Despite the Falling Snow. I love working with actors. I am an actor’s director who enjoys that process of building a character from the ground up with an actor’s input. Doing that with the cast of ‘Despite’ was a pleasure. Particularly, working with Rebecca Ferguson because she plays two characters – Soviet spy Katya and her niece, Lauren, thirty years later. Apart from make up and hair, I wanted Rebecca’s way of holding herself and speaking to be very different for both characters; for Katya to have a 1950s softness and deference to her, despite her strength, and for Lauren to be a more confident, modern American woman. I also found that Sam Reid who plays her husband, Alexander, took a lot of nuance from the book in his building of the character.
Q6. What is your working routine as a writer? ie – where do you write? Are you a planner or do just go with it and see where you get to?
When you are developing movies as well as writing, no two days are the same, so I might not get to write every day. But I am definitely a morning person. I like getting up early, going for a run and then retreating to write. One of the best presents I’ve ever had was from my wife Hanan last year – a cabin in the garden, that is warm, cosy and perfectly insulated from the outside world. If I can spend a few hours there, I get a lot of writing done. I plan to an extent, to make sure the day doesn’t drift, but I also think it’s important to be open to anywhere the characters and plot might take you.
Q7 Is the world of film an easy one for a woman to break into? – one can’t help but be conscious of the male names which dominate film credits even in this day and age.
I never used to give being a woman filmmaker a thought, but as we move up from very independent movies into slightly more mainstream ones, I do feel there is a long way to go for women. I’ve always had strong female protagonists and the brutal truth is that many sales and distribution companies don’t feel lead female characters sell as well to the core cinema audience of teenage boys. But perceptions are shifting, slowly, so I hope the number of women working behind the camera as directors will also rise from where it is now, which is around 7% – startlingly low.
Q8 Film is obviously as big a part of your life as literature – so what has been your favourite film of 2016?
It was a surprise to me, but I really loved The Big Short. I would never have imagined a movie could convey the financial crisis so innovatively and entertainingly. It also had a series of characters that were drawn well enough to inspire empathy all around.
Q9 Have you a current Work in Progress – and can you tell us anything about it?
I am working on my new novel (and developing a film) called The Artemis Protocol. It follows a rogue organisation of women who decide to make a difference by using female agents to deal with human trafficking. Once they cross the line, there are all sorts of moral issues about how far you can go when nobody knows you exist.
Q10 What are you currently reading?
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami. I recently read Patti Smith’s latest book and she mentioned it so I thought to try it. It is about a young Japanese man who encounters some very odd people and begins to get caught up in a world that feels less and less familiar. It is pleasingly strange and reminds me of a time (before children!) when, with too much time, one could begin to think about things that lead off in unforeseen directions. Which is, I suppose, the place where all fiction begins.
Thank you to the publishers for the review copy and to Shamim for answering my questions.