Natasha Pulley's The Half Life of Valery K is shortlisted for the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.
The truth must come out.
In 1963, in a Siberian gulag, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive: the right connections to the guards for access to food and cigarettes, the right pair of warm boots to avoid frostbite, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life. But on one ordinary day, all that changes: Valery’s university mentor steps in and sweeps Valery from the frozen prison camp to a mysterious unnamed town hidden within a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within.
Here, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he’s expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises: what, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?
Based on real events in a surreal Soviet city, and told with bestselling author Natasha Pulley’s inimitable style, The Half Life of Valery K is a sweeping historical adventure.
About the Author:
Natasha Pulley studied English Literature at Oxford University. After stints working at Waterstones as a bookseller, then at Cambridge University Press as a publishing assistant in the astronomy and maths departments, she did the Creative Writing MA at UEA. She later studied in Tokyo, where she lived on a scholarship from the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, and she is now an associate lecturer at Bath Spa University and panel tutor at the Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education. Her first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, was an international bestseller, a Guardian Summer Read, an Amazon Best Book of the Month, was shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and won a Betty Trask Award. The Bedlam Stacks, her second novel, was published in 2017, followed by The Lost Future of Pepperharrow in 2019 and The Kingdoms in 2021. She lives in Bristol.
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?
Natasha: I definitely didn’t consider myself an adventure writer — that sounds much too cool for me! I always feel like a very dusty historical fiction writer who might one day be discovered mummified in the stacks of an obscure library in Wales. But I’ve always loved adventure writing and it’s brilliant to think I’ve finally, accidentally, written an adventure novel.
WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you?
Natasha: I love Terry Pratchett. I think one of the best books ever written is Small Gods; it shows you can do huge, terrifying ideas with a gentle humour that makes them somehow easy, but no less profound. Probably my second favourite novel in the world is Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: it sounds like a difficult read, but actually it’s a brilliant, hilarious mystery story about an elderly lady trying to work out who’s been killing animals — and people — in her rural town, much complicated by her dedicated belief in astrology.
WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?
Natasha: I try to go on adventures every few years (a couple of years is how long it takes to forget how extremely stressful adventures are). After I graduated, I got straight on a plane to rural China, having cleverly done no research at all, and taught English for a couple of months in a city that routinely flooded — we put breeze blocks vertically across the road and hopped to the bun shop every day.
A couple of years after that I went to Japan for two years, where I went on an ill-advised trip up a mountain, enraged a monkey, and ended up having to have anti-tetanus shots for six months afterwards in Tokyo (but I had a very cool bite mark on my leg to show for it). Then I went to Peru to learn Spanish, as research for a book, and loved it — especially when a happy llama chased me halfway up Machu Picchu for an apple
Toward the end of the pandemic, I joined the crew of a tall ship as a volunteer sailor and went partway round the UK, and then again the following year. There’s a powerful medication you take for seasickness that didn’t altogether agree with me, though; it opens your pupils too far and for a day so or, before we realised what was happening, I went blind, but the drug also makes you feel quite zen about the whole thing, so it all balanced out, and I could see again by the time we stopped on a wonderful island full of friendly puffins. My mum told me I wasn’t allowed up the mast, so I lived up the mast.
Next month, visa providing, I’ll be in Shanghai learning Mandarin.
WNSF: The Half Life of Valery K could be considered historical fiction. Why did you choose to write about this time? Or this particular place in this time?
Natasha: It is historical fiction! It’s set in 1963. I’ve never set anything in the twentieth century before (I’m more of a gaslight and clockwork person usually) but I wanted to write about an enormous, well-covered-up nuclear disaster that happened in Russia in 1958.
WNSF: How do you make sure your characters, their voice and actions, sit comfortably within the historical context?
Natasha: Just lots of research. I learned as much Russian as I could (online classes with a school in Moscow sadly, because initially it was lockdown and I couldn’t go, and then the war began), made myself a reading list of important Russian literature from about 1820-1980, did a nuclear physics course, listened to lots of lectures about the era — there are amazing lecture courses available just on Audible, so I learned all about the early days of Communist Russia while I was standing masts on a boat in Bristol shipyard.
WNSF: Can you tell us about a particular relationship between two characters in your novel and how you made it feel genuine?
Natasha: The narrator, Valery, finds an unexpected friend in the form of a terrifying KGB officer called Shenkov. Valery is a prisoner-scientist, serving in a nuclear facility as part of a ten year prison sentence (this was common: it meant lots of very qualified people worked unpaid) and Shenkov is his police supervisor. But, Shenkov turns out to be quite a nice person and the two soon join forces to try and work out what’s happening in the bizarre city they’re living in. As to how to make things genuine — my experience is that humans are humans wherever they are.
WNSF: A strong sense of place is vital to any great adventure story. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make your setting feel realistic?
Natasha: Research plays a big role. I didn’t know anything about the time or the place when I started writing. So, the process becomes, write a bit, research a lot, write a bit, research a lot. Most of the research will never make it into the story, but that’s still great, because it stops you making mistakes.
WNSF: We find that adventure often crosses into other genres, including crime and historical fiction. What kind of books do you like to read?
Natasha: I love thrillers. I love Robert Harris. Anything horror-supernatural-y is very much up my street too. I like Laura Purcell and Catriona Ward, and anything with a ghost in it.
WNSF: What would you consider to be the upsides, and the downsides, of being an author?
Natasha: The upside is autonomy. There’s no office politics, and you don’t have to learn to live with a deeply unreasonable boss, because that’s you. The downside is isolation. No office politics — but no colleagues either. For a lot of writers, every day is lockdown: it’s easy not to see anyone for weeks at time, which naturally turns us a bit peculiar.
WNSF: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing? And the easiest?
Natasha: The hardest thing is learning what a novel looks like from the inside. They have shapes, and it takes at least three or four goes to start to get a sense of when something is genuinely novel-shaped, rather than just long enough. The easiest is that fantastic stage when you have a good idea and you’re about a third of the way through, it’s really exciting and you have no idea where it’s going. It’s like being on a bicycle going down a very steep hill. No effort required and a sense of exciting peril.
WNSF: What has been your toughest criticism as a writer? And your greatest compliment?
Natasha: The toughest criticism always comes if someone feels you don’t have the right to write what you’re writing — so, The Half Life of Valery K is a book about a Russian man in the Soviet Union, and I’m not Russian, which is a completely fair thing to say. But, I think the greatest compliment is the other side of that coin — when someone says you’ve got it right, even though you haven’t lived the life the narrator has.
The winner of the 2023 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize will be revealed at an awards ceremony on 18th October 2023. Support Natasha and buy a copy of The Half Life of Valery K: