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Sue interviews freefic author Aleksandr Voinov
Sue: First of all Aleks, I’d like to sincerely thank you and Marquesate for creating my most beloved story of all time… Tell me, did you have any idea while writing this that it would have this kind of impact on leagues of readers? Did you sense you had made something so special?
Aleks: Absolutely not. From my perspective, it was “just playing”, one of those crazy things you do to entertain yourself. We were posting some bits and pieces in a forum, and people were asking to read more, so we did. It built quickly from there, but the size and vehemence of the response left me largely baffled. By now, I kinda get it, but I don’t think you can manufacture this kind of response. It is driven by people recommending it everywhere.
Sue: Special Forces covers a lot of very sensitive ground. From rape to killing, prejudice to torture, and promiscuity to self discovery. Was all this something that was planned for shock value or as a representation of “this is how bad it can be”?
Aleks: As it was never written with readers in mind, “shock value” never figured anywhere in the reasons or planning. It was clear that Vadim was a very, very bad man as a soldier, and I enjoyed writing a “villain” very much. I’ve always been drawn to deformed characters, and I had to get my head around a man who’s a rapist, a racist and ultimately a mass murderer, as well as a supporter/silent benefactor of an inhuman totalitarian regime.
As far as promiscuity goes – Special Forces was never meant as a romance. Personally, I never knew the “rules” of romance (ie, no cheating), so how Vadim constructs his relationships is not owed to any reader or genre expectation. He did what was authentic to him. I didn’t know “the rules” or cared very much for then, so even had I known, I’d not have bent my characters to conform to those rules.
And I guess we can all agree that war is bad and makes people do bad things. I’m a military historian and am always shocked when war is being “sold” as any kind of morally superior undertaking (or crusade). At that point, we’re in the realm of propaganda, not history. Reality looks very, very different.
Sue: I understand that Vadim is your character. He changes immensely throughout the whole series. First from the despised villain to adored sweetheart Then through his capture by the KGB to a person who tries to reclaim “himself” following subsequent PTSD. How well had you formed his character in your mind at the onset of writing Special Forces?”
Aleks: It all happened during the writing, as I started with this concept of the ultimate badass, and most definitely a villain, but as the story grew longer and longer, writing a one-note character is just not sustainable. You cannot write one million words about a character who never changes — okay, maybe you can if you have a larger-than-life character like James Bond or a Marvel superhero — but I can’t.
Vadim left the Soviet Union and encountered other ways of being, and he learned to be his authentic self, and he stopped suppressing certain things, and actually had a few long, hard looks at himself. His darkness always remains, though, and he’s carrying the scars, and gods know he got off fairly lightly for the things he did.
In a way, he became a fully realised person in conflict with his environment and himself. It’s an interesting journey, and one, I think, that we’re all undergoing in life, as we spend decades becoming who we really are and learning to be authentic to ourselves and dealing with our weaknesses and scars and guilt and fucked-up families and all that emotional baggage. Also, “man versus society” is one of my favourite themes/conflicts to work on, and Vadim is very much in conflict with his environment – he struggles with the distinct issues of somebody born in Stalinist Russia, having gone through the Army and Special Forces, and having been indoctrinated with a certain brand of Soviet/Stalinist masculinity.
He’s ill at ease speaking his mind, he’s ill at ease with all casual contact where hierarchies aren’t clear, and there’s all this internalised rage, shame, guilt, and self-loathing, but mostly rage. People sense that about him – the distance, the capability for violence, the darkness, the fact that, very often, Vadim is just wearing masks. Very few people ever get to see who he really is, but he got better at that over the decades.
The longer I spent in his company, the more I understood what made him capable of doing such thing in the beginning, but when he was conceived, he was basically my take on Ivan Drago, minus boxing, plus an Afghanistan war record. So, over the 2.5 years it took writing him, he just evolved and got more layers.
Sue: Many readers seem infuriated by the promiscuity in the series. I never felt much concern because they were consenting adults, but it’s interesting to me that although there didn’t seem to be an underlying message in the story, I still felt as though there was a lesson to be learnt regarding accepting alternative lifestyles. In fact, I stated in my GR review “it had me questioning my own understanding of relationships, societal norms and the boundaries, or perhaps the possibilities, of a loving commitment.”. Is there anything you like to say about this?
Aleks: Well, let’s say I’ve encountered different types of relationships in my life (both my own and those of friends/family) that are not conforming to that old “they fall in love, they marry, they raise a bunch of kids and it’s happily ever after” fairy tale pattern. And I’ve seen many instances where that “ideal” pattern ended up destroying people, so I’m kinda cynical about what society expects of us and how we’re supposed to organize our lives.
I think many readers expect it to be a New York-style Romance – the romance cliché that is being sold at nice profits by big-city Romance publishers, a safe kind of wish fulfilment fantasy. I’m not and never will be interested in writing “safe” fiction nor am I particularly interested in wish fulfilment. I do believe that much of hetero romance fiction is ossified and does not deal with real people and how real people live their lives. I have nothing against that kind of fiction, but it’s nothing I want to do as an author, nor would I be very good at it, because my primary concern is to write about authentic human beings and stay true to my characters, even if it costs me readers and mass-market appeal and if they do things that are unpopular and break the rules.
But Special Forces is not an anti-Romance – it still has pretty much all the structural elements, which makes Romance readers judge it as a Romance. And now we’re discussing what a Romance actually is. As somebody who’s studied literature at university, I go back way further than New York City-type hetero romances built to (lucrative) formula. I look at love stories that are hundreds of years old, sometimes even older, and tell a story about love and how people deal with the absolute horror that love can be. I mean, what is scarier than this emotional force that challenges our assumptions about who we are, and makes our joy and happiness dependent on another person? Personally, I find those themes and structures much more interesting and challenging, but that might be just me. I know lots of NYC-style hetero romance readers and writers who are perfectly happy, and all power to them. And there are many who are breathing new life into the genre, so I’m not dissing the genre as a whole. Lots of interesting things are going on in the larger context of the genre.
So yeah, I’ve taken the relationship patterns (that “loose tribe” of friends, sometimes friends with benefits) from real life rather than romance fiction or genre rules. Vadim is more trapped in the idea of monogamy – he used to be married to a woman, raised (or rather didn’t raise) two kids, and that’s his internal model of how people do things. He gets out of it eventually, working out over time what works for him and what doesn’t and what’s actually important to him.
Generally speaking, I think any model works that people agree on and that allows them to meet their emotional needs. That said, these models can look extremely different from what hetero Romance publishers are selling us as the perfect model to aspire to.
Sue: Can you give us a “Day In The Life of Vadim”? How is he? Has he gained control of his demons?
Aleks: Well, being retired, I think his life is pretty slow generally and will involve travelling, good food, probably getting into arguments on the internet (like military discussion forums), a healthy disgust of news and war propaganda, coaching his fencing/self-defense classes, exploring wildernesses on the planet, and therapy. There will be trips to cultural events/exhibitions or performances, and he’ll likely spend time with Nikolai in London. It’s a pretty content, slow, calm life, and he’ll likely spent most of that totally in his head. He’s really quite self-contained in his own inner world. We see glimpses of that in Gold Digger, which is about his son, who’s just entered his first gay relationship and gets some good pointers from Vadim.
The demons are still there – healing PTSD of that scale I’d expect to be unrealistic, and I know a lot of old men who died with the condition, so there’s no “easy fix”, and I think it would be disrespectful to people who live with the condition to just make it miraculously go away in fiction.
Sue: Thanks Aleks, clearly Special Forces is my most beloved story, but alongside that I’ve adored the rest of your work. Skybound and Dark Soul rocked my world… Oh, and the Market Garden series – yes. And Break and Enter. And I can’t wait to get started on Scorpion too. :)
Aleks: Thank you for having me!
Aleksandr Voinov can be found at: