Kilburn Literary Festival sees Vanora Bennett explain her novel from Russia with love

PUBLISHED: 11:20 30 October 2014 | UPDATED: 11:20 30 October 2014

Vanora Bennett, journalist and novelist

Vanora Bennett, journalist and novelist


At the age of three, Vanora Bennett had an invisible friend called Mr Katchinska who lived under the stove and had to be fed chocolate Smarties.

Albeit an imaginary relationship, it proved the start of a lifelong love affair with Russia – one that last year culminated in the release of her novel, Midnight In St Petersburg.

The story tells the tale of Inna Feldman, a young Russian girl who flees the pogroms of the south to take refuge with distant relatives in the country’s capital in 1911.

On the cusp of the 1917 Revolution, Inna is welcomed into the flamboyant Leman family, who specialise in making violins. Soon however, she finds herself falling for both her brooding, revolutionary cousin, Yasha, and Horace Wallich – an older, more respectable and safe-minded Englishman.

As the revolution descends into anarchy and blood-letting, Inna is given a means of escape, but which man she takes with her proves a difficult decision to take.

This Saturday, Bennett will be reading out loud from the story at the Kilburn Literary Festival. Born to a musical house – her father a flautist, her mother a cellist – she hasn’t always been a novelist, but then nor has her life ever been predictable. She studied Russian at school and after graduating from Oxford with a degree in French and Russian, she landed a job with Reuters and soon found herself in conflict zones in Asia and Africa as a foreign correspondent.

“Because I spoke Russian, I thought they’d send me to Russia, but I had a thing or two to learn in those days about institutional logic. Portuguese-speaking Africa seemed the obvious place to my bosses,” she laughs.

In total she spent seven years in Russia, based in Moscow but travelling around from 1991 to 1998. “I used to say I was there from the putsch to the crash,” she says. “It was really fun, so exciting; I don’t think there’ll ever be a time like that, a whole society in flux, so difficult and uncomfortable for people but not so uncomfortable for me.

“Selfishly I had a better time than most people in those years but it’s definitely the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.”

Now living in Kentish Town with her husband and two sons, she has to date written two non fiction novels about her time as a journalist, four historical novels about England and has recently completed her second novel based around Russia, A White Russian.

Her Midnight at St Petersburg talk at the Literary Festival will feature violin players playing before she reads; she is also joining a judging panel in the festival’s speed dating-style event, which offers people five minutes to pitch their ideas for a book.

“It really is a marvellous festival; it’s full of these brilliant events with a real emphasis on people going out and doing some writing for themselves, with talks and workshops about things that people really want to know, like how to blog and tweet yourself to success or how to write erotic fiction.

“I’m just going to go with the flow and do whatever they tell me!”

Vanora Bennett speaks this Saturday (Nov 1) at the Sherriff Centre at St. James’ Church, 2 Sherriff Road, London NW6 2AP. Visit

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