Simon Sebag Montefiore's latest book is Written in History: Letters that Changed the World, his selection of great letters from ancient times to the 21st century, letters on power, love, art, sex, faith, war.
Montefiore 's books are especially revelant at the moment, whether it is his histories Jerusalem, The Romanovs, Catherine the Great and Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, or his Moscow Trilogy of novels. All are now being developed as feature films or TV drama series.
In his novels, he writes about love in dangerous times but Russia herself is always a character. His latest, Red Sky at Noon, is set in WW2 in a Russia that will be unfamiliar to most readers: the hot grasslands of the southern steppes and much of it takes place on horseback. "I always wanted to write this story and create these characters in this special moment in history, much neglected. I've loved writing these novels because they are about forbidden love, as an act of freedom and courage, as redemption in Terror and war. But they also look at the different sorts of Love in all ordinary lives - in marriage, the passion of an affair, the deep love of children and family - and how they clash and compete." Montefiore's novels are certainly set in the darkest times of the 20th century. "They tell the stories of ordinary men and women with conspiracy and danger swirling around them in a world of war and fear."
Montefiore's historical knowledge gives his novels a foundation of reality. "They are set a most particular time and place, Stalin's flint-hearted Russia which I know well from my history-books. While the histories are about power and dynasty, the novels are about private life and especially the dilemmas of women in that time."
The portrait of Russia during the Thirties and Forties is meticulous while the characters of Stalin and Beria and others are eerily accurate and alive. "But the leading characters are very much fictional," Montefiore says, "and I have come to love the leading ones, almost like family." Many readers like the strong female characters. The pleasureloving Jewish writer Benya Golden and the severe reticent commissar Satinov are beloved by Montefiore's readers but he is proudest of the female characters, starting with Sashenka. "One of my favourite characters is Sashenka - brave and clever, she falls in love with the wrong man but then faces an unbearable decision how to save her children," says Montefiore. "In One Night in Winter, it is the children and especially a little boy named Senka, arrested at their school and interrogated on Stalin's orders, who can either save or destroy their own parents. But Senka's mother Dashka is another of my favourites - the darkly beautiful, intelligent woman doctor whose secret love affair is forbidden." The curvaceous, earthy, passionate Dashka is also self-contained and secretive. "One reader has even painted a portrait of Dashka and it is so good that it really does show her exactly as I imagined her, as if she is real..."
In Red Sky at Noon, as Hitler's brutal forces push across the steppes towards Stalingrad, Benya Golden starts the novel as a prisoner in the Gulag camps for a crime he hasn't committed. With the help of a criminal kingpin who runs his camp, he manages to join one of Stalin's brutal punishment battalions with a posse of criminals and Cossacks from the camps. Assigned to cavalry, trained to ride, he finds himself riding on a suicide mission and in a fight for his life in what one reviewer called "a Western on the Eastern Front"; others described it as "Stalingrad meets Lonesome Dove" and "Cormac McCarthy with Nazis and Cossacks." Unable to trust his flamboyant cutthroat companions, he adores his horse, Silver Socks who helps keep him alive. On a desperate ride to stay alive, he charges through German lines into WW2's heart of darkness, the hot steppes patrolled by marauding SS psychopaths, Russian fascist renegades, Cossack traitors, Jewish refugees, and Hitler's reluctant Italian allies. The story races along like a thriller full of twists and surprises. The history is all accurate as one would expect from Montefiore: both Stalin and Hitler are characters along with Beria and some of the most depraved monsters in the SS. At Benya's lowest ebb, he is cared for by Fabiana, an Italian nurse. "Fabiana herself," Montefiore says, "is a wonderful character like Sashenka and Dashka in the other parts of the trilogy. She is very special to me, yes a real favourite. Her brown eyes turn golden in the sun, she is an adorable, strong-willed and outspoken, an unforgetable and strong character." But she and Benya have a terrible lesson to learn in life: to face the reality that their love is their only hope for redemption but it is also doomed - or it will destroy them both. "They have to live a lifetime in just a few nights - but their short affair means so much to them both. Love as redeemer and destroyer is the theme of the book and indeed all the trilogy! But the end has a surprise for Benya..."
Red Sky at Noon is written to be read on its own. There is no need to read the other books and they can be read in any order but together they form Montefiore's Moscow Trilogy, made up of Sashenka, One Night in Winter and now Red Sky. Benya Golden and several other characters appear in all three books. "My history books are published in many languages. Now the novels too are coming out in many countries. I am very proud of them," says Montefiore, "More proud of them than anything else." All three novels are now available in hardback, paperback, kindle and audible.
Simon Sebag Montefiore's bestselling and prize-winning books are now published in 48 languages. 'Written in History: Letters that Changed the World' is out now. 'The Romanovs: 1613-1918,' has been a bestseller in many countries, including the UK, Australia, Brazil, Spain and the USA where it was in the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks. 'Red Sky at Noon,' the novel that completes the acclaimed Moscow Trilogy, is in paperback.
Montefiore has won literary prizes for both fiction and non-fiction. His novel, 'One Night in Winter' won the Best Political Novel of the Year Prize and was longlisted for the Orwell Prize. His Moscow Trilogy can read in any order but the correct order is as follows: Sashenka. Red Sky at Noon. One Night in Winter.
Amongst his history books: 'Catherine the Great & Potemkin' was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and Marsh Biography Prizes. 'Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar' won the History Book of the Year Prize at the British Book Awards. 'Young Stalin' won the Costa Biography Award (UK), the LA Times Book Prize for Biography (US), Le Grand Prix de la Biographie Politique (France) and the Kreisky Prize for Political Literature (Austria). 'Jerusalem: The Biography' was a global number one bestseller and won Book of the Year Prize from the Jewish Book Council. 'The Romanovs' won the Lupicaia del Terriccio Literature Prize in Italy and has been a bestseller all over the world, including the UK, Australia, Brazil, Spain and the USA where it was in the New York Times bestseller list for eight weeks.
He is also the author of a series of childrens' novels 'Royal Rabbits of London' co-written with Santa Montefiore.
Montefiore read history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University where he was awarded his Doctorate of Philosophy. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Visiting Professor at the University of Buckingham, Dr Montefiore is the presenter of four BBC TV series Jerusalem (2011); Rome (2012) and Istanbul/Constantinople - 'Byzantium: a tale of 3 cities' (2013); Spain - 'Blood & Gold' (2015) and Vienna (2016).
All of his books are now being developed as either movies or tv drama series.
To follow the author on twitter: @simonmontefiore. For more information: www.simonsebagmontefiore.com