Catherine is logical, rational and absolutely unbelieving in anything paranormal. But when Catherine's grandmother begins to tell her about the unsolved mystery of her childhood best friend's disappearance, Catherine feels a strange connection to the long-lost girl. Author Michelle Dixon tosses Catherine into a supernatural mystery, filled with rich historical and cultural details in her award- winning, debut novel "The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova: A Novel of the Supernatural."
Interview with Michelle Dixon
The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova: A Novel of the Supernatural
Reviewed by for Reader Views (1/08)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views, is pleased to be joined by Michelle Dixon, who is here to talk about her new novel, “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova: A Novel of the Supernatural.”
Michelle D. Dixon’s novels are character-driven literary works. Dixon grew up in Georgia but since college days has lived and studied in Russia, France, England, and Crimea. She now resides in Sydney, Australia with her family. She has a doctorate in political science, for which she wrote her thesis on the Crimean Tatar National Movement in present-day Ukraine. Over the years she has studied all manner of esoterica, from Jungian dream analysis to astrology, interests that are reflected in her writing. These days she is a full-time mother and somehow manages to write fiction. “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova” is her first published novel.
Tyler: Thank you for joining me today, Michelle. Will you tell us about “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova” by first telling us who Lilya is and how she disappeared?
Michelle: Thanks, Tyler. Lilya’s disappearance is the central mystery of the novel, so I’d better not give it away! Catherine is the novel’s heroine, and Lilya is the childhood best friend of Catherine’s grandmother. The novel is structured so that the chapters alternate between Catherine’s present day life, and the life of Lilya growing up in World-War II era Crimea. Lilya’s disappearance is the great unsolved mystery of Catherine’s grandmother’s life, and there are intimations from the outset that this mystery is supernatural, or at least that it resists conventional explanations. Catherine’s journey in the novel, both in waking life, and psychologically, is tied to Lilya’s journey decades earlier, and their connection through time resolves—one might say solves—the mystery of Lilya’s disappearance.
Tyler: Will you tell us a little bit about how Lilya disappeared, or what is so mysterious about it?
Michelle: Lilya literally walks into the desert one day in Uzbekistan and is never heard from again. What is intriguing is that Catherine, the granddaughter of Lilya’s best friend, seems to be experiencing Lilya’s memories in the present day. As the novel progresses, Catherine comes to believe that she is actually remembering what happened to Lilya—that Lilya actually seemed to blink out of existence entirely.
Tyler: Michelle, will you tell us about Catherine, the novel’s heroine. Why do you think readers will find her an intriguing character?
Michelle: Catherine is a woman from New England in her mid-late twenties who has had all the advantages of an educated, middle-class life, and has not, until now, questioned any of it. Like many young adults she is asking herself, for the first time, who she is, what she wants out of life, and in her case those questions have led her to self-reflection of a more spiritual nature. What makes her character intriguing is that despite her resistance to the mere concept of supernatural or spiritual phenomena, her experiences are verging, increasingly, in precisely that direction.
Tyler: Why is Catherine resistant to the supernatural?
Michelle: Like many highly educated women, Catherine has relied heavily on her logical mind and has adopted a certain kind of rational thinking which for her is the sole measurement of truth or reality. Anything operating according to a different logic, as supernatural events do, she simply does not consider real. Also, Catherine likes to feel in control of herself and her life, and to accept the reality of strange, unexplained phenomena is to cede control. Finally, to accept supernatural experiences as real is to question fundamentally the widely accepted nature of reality—for that is what ‘supernatural’ is, something beyond what is natural, things that cannot be explained. For someone like Catherine, who has some fixed ideas of what is real and what isn’t, this is quite a challenge, and naturally brings up some powerful emotions and of course, resistance.
Tyler: The story really begins as a result of the death of Catherine’s mother? Why did you choose to use this event to transition into the story?
Michelle: The unfortunate truth is that it often takes a crisis to force people into deeper self-reflection. Certainly this is the case for Catherine, who until now has felt very much in control of her life, and very much uninterested in examining it very deeply. When her mother dies, everything she had thought reliable crumbles around her—for the first time she is floundering, unsure of herself, and questioning both who she is, and the path she is following. Thus, when her grandmother begins to share her childhood experiences with her, and the mystery of Lilya’s disappearance, Catherine is more receptive than she has ever been to considering the possibility of paranormal explanations.
Tyler: Catherine finds out about Lilya through her grandmother. I get the sense that history and family stories are important to you? What does this relationship between different generations add to the novel?
Michelle: I enjoy history—I have a Ph.D. in politics so I guess that is no surprise. What fascinates me is the interplay between the past and the present: what relevance does the past have to us now? Do people, as a collective, really learn from the mistakes of the past, and on a more personal level, how does one’s identity incorporate and reflect a family’s history? Collective history always shades into the personal. I have done a few years of Jungian dreamwork—dream analysis in a group setting—and it never fails to surprise me how one’s parents, and even extended family, come up again and again in our dreams as primary influences informing who we are, how we think, our fears and our goals in life. Family patterns do exist, and tend to repeat themselves, particularly when one has not examined them. Often, a person will live out a family pattern without even knowing, consciously, how another member of the family manifested this pattern in the past—as if our very genetic coding has behavioral implications, even health implications. For example, I have been told by a counselor of a child who developed a terrible case of asthma in his first year of life. The parents were, incidentally, during this time, doing some family genealogical research, and discovered that the child’s grandfather had been gassed in a concentration camp on the very date (month and day) the child had his first attack of asthma; when they discovered this information, the condition cleared up very quickly.
Of course, as a writer I must remain true to the story, and in this story, the family history is integral to character development. It is only through Catherine discovering her grandmother’s past that she can begin to consider her own identity as having meaning beyond her educated, American, suburban, middle-class origins. The intergenerational dimension of this relationship is crucial in taking Catherine psychologically out of the trappings of her modern life and worries and into an aspect of herself that goes beyond time and place, as lived by her grandmother and her grandmother’s childhood friend Lilya.
Tyler: The Crimea Tatars are extremely important to the story. Michelle, will you educate us a bit more on this subject?
Michelle: The Crimean Tatars are one of several ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union (other groups included the Chechens, Armenians, and many others) whom Stalin deported during the Second World War. That is, he ordered security forces to round up all Crimean Tatars, force them into trains, and relocate them to an entirely different part of the country: in the case of the Crimean Tatars, they were deported from Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, to Central Asia. Officially, they were charged with treason—aiding the German occupiers of Crimea—however, history is pretty clear on their innocence, and in fact a large percentage of Crimean Tatars enlisted voluntarily in the Soviet armed forces and fought for the Soviet Union during the war. A more balanced historical explanation would point out that Stalin was a bit of a madman obsessed with ethnic purity, and fearful of ethnic minorities granting a greater loyalty to their brethren than to the Soviet state.
The Crimean Tatars have mostly returned to Crimea since the fall of the Soviet Union, and are reestablishing themselves in their homeland today in the face of much hardship and discrimination. The present-day Crimean Tatar national movement was the subject of my doctoral thesis, in particular their shadow government, which is extensive, and their non-violent approach to political negotiation, which has been widely lauded given the post-Soviet trend of ethnic strife. I had the opportunity to spend nearly three months in Crimea doing research, and lived with Crimean Tatar and Russian families, and also carried out extensive interviews.
Personally, the history of the deportation and the Tatars’ struggle for cultural survival was most fascinating to me, and naturally as a novelist I have been most drawn to personal tales. History becomes real through people, and I was keen from the beginning of my research to make the personal history of the Crimean Tatars real to others in a fictional context.
Tyler: What first made you fascinated by the Tatars and their history?
Michelle: After college I worked in a non-profit organization committed to providing funding and logistical support to charities operating in the former Soviet Union. We helped a few Crimean Tatar organizations, and were fortunate to be able to host the leader of the Crimean Tatar National Movement, Mustafa Djemiliev, on his visit to the U.S. I spent a couple of days working as his translator (I speak Russian, which was our common language) taking him around to U.S. government offices while he explained his movement and solicited support.
I knew very little of the national movement prior to meeting Djemiliev, but the impact of meeting him was what motivated me to learn more. Though significantly shorter than me (I am 5’4’), and very softly spoken, he has an enormous presence which I found both intriguing and, truthfully, intimidating! His story is incredible. He was in and out of Soviet prison camps for about 20 years, during which time he went on the longest hunger strike of any dissident in Soviet history—something like 300 days, which he survived only because he was force-fed. Subsequently he began the political movement petitioning the Soviet government for the return of the Crimean Tatar people to their homeland and the restoration of their rights, etc., and is today the leader of the Mejlis, which is the national movement’s formal government structure, effectively a shadow government for Crimean Tatars in Ukraine. It was a real honor to spend time with this man—I was just a young woman in my early twenties with a BA and very few plans, and to meet someone who had lived this life already really affected me. So when I started graduate school a few years later I found myself drawn to studying the Crimean Tatars, their history, culture, and the national movement, and eventually wrote my thesis on them (and fortunately had the chance once again to spend time with Djemiliev).
Tyler: That’s fascinating, Michelle. I can certainly understand why you would want to turn that kind of history into a novel. How did you tie it in though with the supernatural. Will you tell us one of the more exciting supernatural experiences in the novel?
Michelle: The principal theme is reincarnation, and I’m not giving much away by saying it as this becomes clear from the beginning of the novel. Catherine begins to have memories of Lilya that her grandmother does not, and this leads her on a personal quest to understand how this is possible.
The supernatural shades into the spiritual as the story progresses. It is important to distinguish between the two, I think, as the supernatural (or paranormal) describes a kind of experience or phenomena that is not readily explained by modern science, whereas the spiritual denotes one’s relationship to God, the Divine, the existence of the soul, etc. Supernatural experiences often lead spiritual self-reflection, and vice versa. They seem to be very much intertwined.
Tyler: Michelle, what about the supernatural intrigues you?
Michelle: The experiential dimension of it: that people can have all kinds of experiences that are very real to them, and often are life-changing, yet they leave no tangible evidence and are not provable in the conventional sense. Near-death experiences are a primary example, but so is past-life memory (particularly under hypnosis). Since for me any good story lies in the quality of characterization, this kind of personal experience is particularly interesting to explore fictionally.
Tyler: Why do you think the supernatural, as evidenced in so many books, films and television shows in recent years, is so attractive to people?
Michelle: Well, this increase in supernatural-themed entertainment is a Western phenomenon, isn’t it? This is interesting of itself. It is occurring in the First World, which is culturally very secular, and economically very affluent and materialistic. Entertainment incorporating the supernatural must satisfy particular needs, which no doubt vary tremendously. For some it might be the escape it provides from the stress of modern, materialistic life—it’s exciting, unusual. For others it probably does fill a spiritual vacuum.
Mainstream religions do not really address the kinds of spiritual or paranormal experiences people are purporting—apparently more and more so—to have had. And in our culture, there is a severe segregation between mundane and spiritual life that does make it difficult for people to make sense of and accept their experiences. By this I mean that an entire spectrum of phenomena such as past-life memory, encounters with loved ones who’ve died, precognitive dreaming, etc., is much more integrated into peoples’ belief systems and day to day lives in Hindu, Buddhist, or Shamanic cultures, to name a few. It seems to me only natural that people should become curious about these phenomena, which are not routinely accepted as genuine in our culture, but nevertheless do happen regularly.
Tyler: Michelle, will you tell us a little bit about your research into the paranormal? Was there anything specific that inspired the scenes in the book?
Michelle: I have done quite a bit of personal exploration rather than formal research, though certainly my interests have led me to reading quite broadly in this area—and particularly for this novel into Shamanism. Personally I have studied energetic healing, dream analysis, astrology, and my experiences have ranged from past-life recall (both under hypnosis and in dreams), to precognitive dreaming and few other things—nothing too dramatic, compared to some experiences out there! Certainly I have not disappeared into thin air or actually felt that I was reliving a past life, as happens in my novel. What inspires the scenes in the book is, actually, precisely what seems to me the un-dramatic, almost routine nature of my own experiences—that someone as ‘normal’ as myself could experience anything out of the ordinary. It helps me to write dispassionately about strange experiences—which to me means retaining a critical faculty and always questioning phenomena rather than adopting a belief system and using my writing as some kind of platform.
Tyler: Michelle, would you say you have any literary influences or favorite writers?
Michelle: Really I have read so broadly in fiction and non-fiction, across all genres and styles, that I’m sure my influences are many, and I’m not sure I could identify most of them! Academic works have probably influenced me as much as fiction. However, as for incorporating spiritual themes in literary fiction—I was inspired early on by the classic Japanese writer Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy “Sea of Fertility,” which I read back in my early twenties. This series of four books is a serious, literary exploration of Japanese history and culture across centuries, with rich characterization and beautiful prose, and it also happens to use reincarnation as a very effective (and to me exciting) narrative device. As a child I did gravitate toward fantasy books, and as a young adult I did go through a phase of reading lots of magical realism. Favorite writers of mine, to name just a few, would include in addition to Mishima, Isabel Allende for her fantasy and storytelling, Margaret Atwood for her incredible stylistic and topical range, and classic Russian writers such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, whose rich characters and complex moral scenarios really stand the test of time. I am always finding new novels and authors who excite me. I quite enjoyed and was impressed by David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas,” for example. I just finished “Sister of My Heart,” by Divakaruni, which I also really enjoyed.
Tyler: Michelle, do you intend to write any more novels? Will they be more supernatural tales, or will you try your hand at something else?
Michelle: For the time being I am engrossed in what I call my ‘mystical trilogy,’ of which “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova” is one part, but I have an outline of a novel that does not feature the supernatural, and I am working on other non-supernatural-themed projects as well. It is fair to say that supernatural/spiritual themes are an abiding interest of mine, but by no means define my work entirely.
As for the trilogy, I have written another novel, “Jeremiah’s Cross,” which is the prequel to “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova,” but it is not yet published. I am now beginning to write the third and final book of the trilogy. This is not a trilogy in a strictly chronological sense; rather, the novels are linked by recurring characters, themes, and ultimately, in book three, a resolution. “Jeremiah’s Cross” is the coming-of-age story of Sam, who is the Shaman from “Lilya Bekirova.” The third novel, “On the Other Side of the Sea,” continues Catherine’s and Sam’s journey, with some new characters as well. Summaries of all three novels, and excerpts from the first two, can be read on my website, www.michelle-d-dixon.com. Also on my website you can find autobiographical information about me, reviews of “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova,” and relevant book news, such as that this novel has just been awarded an honorable mention in the fiction category of the London Book Festival.
Tyler: Thank you, Michelle. I’m glad you could join me today. I’m sure you will have lots of readers interested in visiting your website and reading “The Disappearance of Lilya Bekirova.”
Michelle: Thanks, Tyler. It’s not often that I have the luxury of spending time talking about my writing, my life, etc., and you asked some great questions. I enjoyed it!