New Voice: Annemarie O’Brien on Lara’s Gift

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Annemarie O’Brien is the first-time author of Lara’s Gift (Knopf, 2013)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

Young Lara is being groomed in the family tradition to take over as Count Vorontsov’s next kennel steward, breeding borzoi dogs worthy of the Tsar. 

But when Lara’s baby brother is born, she finds herself supplanted as her father decides to make her brother the next kennel steward. 

Lara has a special gift of understanding these incredible dogs—a gift that her father eyes with fear and superstition. 

Can Lara convince him to let her fulfill her destiny with the noble borzoi? And can she save her favorite dog, Zar, and the rest of the borzoi from a hungry pack of wolves threatening life on the estate?

Set in Imperial Russia, full of color and authenticity, this is a powerful story of one girl’s love for her dog—and her desire to fulfill her prophetic dreams and destiny.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Lara’s Gift is a story I carried in my head for twenty years. In that time, I was passionate for anything Russian and read tons of Russian literature and history. I also spent ten years living and working in and around Russia. So many of the details and images I describe come from my own memories.

There were a few key books that helped me understand life on the noble country estate during the Imperial era: Life on the Country Estate by Priscilla Roosevelt (Yale University, 1995), Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Olga Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia (Indiana University Press, 1993), and Observations on Borzoi by Joseph B. Thomas (Houghton Mifflin, 1912).

The biggest roadblock (don’t laugh!) I had was determining what kind of business the fictional Count Vorontsov owned. I didn’t want his money to come from the Tsar or some typical Russian business in caviar, fur, or vodka.

I kept telling myself, “It will come to me.”

Almost two years passed and I wasn’t any closer to finding an answer until I ordered a 1914 National Geographic magazine that featured Russia from cover to cover. In it, I read about the world-renowned Russian bell foundry industry and that’s when it clicked. My Count would own several bell foundries!

I also utilized the sound of the bells to evoke an often difficult to capture fifth sense, as well as to increase tension and show emotion.

As someone with an MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

The best thing I ever did to develop my craft was to get an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. In fact, I’d love to go back to the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) to do another round! I’ve no doubt I could improve my craft. There’s always room for growth. Even if you’re published!

Before I started VCFA, I asked a dozen writing teachers about the function of prologues. I never got a satisfactory answer, yet didn’t consider looking into it myself more deeply. Part of me didn’t think I could and another part of me wanted a quick and easy answer.

When I did my critical thesis on the function of prologues in YA fiction, I was amazed that with a little thought I came up with some good stuff that I used to anchor the opening in my debut novel, Lara’s Gift.

I had struggled with where to start my story until I realized what it needed was a prologue. A bolshoe thanks to Mal Peet for using one in Tamar! His prologue taught me how to use one in Lara’s Gift.

The best advice I can give students/graduates transitioning between school and publishing:

1) trust your gift;

2) give yourself goals/deadlines; and

3) never give up hope.

Don’t let one, two, or even dozens of rejections cripple you. Take what advice you’re given (or not given) and learn from it.

Don’t take the rejection personally and always move forward.

2 thoughts on “New Voice: Annemarie O’Brien on Lara’s Gift

  1. Annemarie, I'm so looking forward to reading Lara's Gift. How perfect that you chose bell foundries as the business for your Count Vorontsov. From my days in Russia, I have very clear memories of bells–especially of a wall backstage at the Bolshoi, lined with bell after bell, two stories high. A perfect choice.

    Your book trailer, by the way, is beautiful.

Comments are closed.