The secrets we kept: AN INSIDE LOOK

The Secrets We Kept began with my name. As a young girl, my parents had loved David Lean's film adaptation of Boris Pasternak's masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago. And who hadn't? The film won five Academy Awards, and for years after its premiere, in 1965, the name of Zhivago's heroine, Lara, shot up in the baby name popularity rankings—thanks to Julie Christie's beautiful portrayal. As a child, I'd wind up my mother's musical jewelry box again and again just to hear it play "Lara's Theme" and watch the tiny ballerina spin. My fascination with the story continued through adolescence and adulthood.

So, in 2014, when I first learned the incredible true story behind Zhivago's publication—a story involving clandestine propaganda missions, vying governments, books used as weapons, personal intrigue, and heartache—I was hooked. Here's the gist of it: 

During the Cold War, Eastern and Western governments believed literature could be weaponized to change ideologies. Today, tweets, bots, and Facebook posts may be propagandists' weapons of choice, but 60 years ago, the Soviets and Americans used books. As the CIA's chief of covert action stated in a 1961 secret report to the Senate, books differ from all other propaganda media. "One single book," he wrote, "can significantly change the reader's attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium."

Doctor Zhivago was one such book. Written by Boris Pasternak, Zhivago's plot revolves around a love story between Lara Antipova and Yuri Zhivago. But its depictions of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War, as well as its themes emphasizing the importance of individual freedom in the face of the USSR’s required collectivism resulted in Zhivago being deemed subversive by the State. But to me, Zhivago is more about life and love than politics. It's about individuals who think and laugh and love for themselves.  

The CIA, just a decade out of WWII and fresh into the Cold War, decided to use Pasternak's novel as a weapon. The Agency obtained the banned manuscript, clandestinely printed it, and smuggled it into the USSR. The journalists Peter Finn and Petra Couvée uncovered the details through petitioning the CIA to declassify documents related to its mission (codenamed AEDINOSAUR); it was seeing all the declassified documents—with their blacked-out and redacted names and details—that first inspired me to want to fill in the blanks with fiction. 

The Secrets We Kept began in Elizabeth McCracken's fiction workshop at the Michener Center for Writers. It began as a short story centered on a group of fictionalized (and mostly-unnamed) female CIA typists working on the Zhivago mission—my attempt to fill in those redacted blanks. Over the course of nearly three years, I expanded that story into The Secrets We Kept. And as I did so, I realized that to tell the full tale, I needed to write not just from the perspective of the CIA in the West, but also tell the story as it unfolded in the East—which I've done mainly through the voice of Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak's real-life mistress and inspiration for his character Lara. I was fascinated with Olga's harrowing story, and, like Pasternak, she became my muse as well. 

I was fortunate to not only work with Elizabeth McCracken during this process, but also other wonderful writers including the historian H.W. Brands, Geoff Dyer, Ben Fountain, Deb Olin Unferth, Bret Anthony Johnston, Jim Magnuson, and more.

The result is a polyphonic novel told in alternating perspectives that's driven by strong, female voices, and that—like Zhivago itself—is about war, propaganda, persecution, and, above all else, love. 


I received great pleasure from my research—which kept me invested (read: obsessed) with the story.

In the Western thread, most of the characters are fictional. But peppered throughout are historically accurate details—including some real names, as well as direct quotes and descriptions pertaining to the mission. For this thread, The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée proved an indispensable asset. Sergio D'Angelo's self-published memoir, The Pasternak Affair also proved important for the Western thread. As well, the following titles also helped immensely: Legacy of Ashes, The AgencyThe Cultural Cold WarThe Georgetown SetThe Very Best MenHot Books in the Cold WarThe Spy and His CIA BratThe Lavender ScareSisterhood of SpiesFinks, Washington ConfidentialExpo 58and Feltrinelli

Throughout the Eastern thread are many direct descriptions and quotes, including excerpts of conversations, as documented in first-hand accounts. Many titles informed the Eastern thread, including, but certainly not limited to: A Captive of Time (Olga Ivinskaya's autobiography), LaraInside the Zhivago Storm, Zhivago's Secret Journey, Safe ConductBoris Pasternak: The Tragic Years 1930-60Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His PoliticsBoris Pasternak: A Literary Biography, Fear and the Muse Kept WatchThe Nobel Prize, and Inside the Soviet Writers’ Union.

In addition to books, the historical artifacts I procured (hooray for eBay—and a supportive husband who knows how to use it!) and photos I found were also of great value, including:

  • Feltrinelli's first edition of Doctor Zhivago in Italian;

  • a miniature copy of Zhivago in Russian produced by the CIA and covertly distributed behind the Iron Curtain;

  • maps and other documents from the '58 World's Fair;

  • original articles on Pasternak and Zhivago circa late 1950s;

  • and items related to early female spies.

I believe there's a power in objects and felt a certain magic when holding these historic items. I surrounded my writing desk with them, hoping some of that magic would rub off. 

I also visited Russia during spring break of my first year at the Michener Center. (Who ever said Cancun is the ideal spring break locale?) These visits greatly informed the Eastern thread of my novel, especially by providing a sense of place and atmosphere. It was truly a magical moment getting off the train in Peredelkino and walking the same route Pasternak had walked to his dacha on the hill. Visiting his gravesite and its modest tombstone was an incredibly moving experience.

The Western thread was informed by my many years spent living and working in D.C. and additional visits to the city for research purposes (including to visit specific locations relevant to the 1950s-era intelligence community). Walking through Georgetown, I felt as if I had a secret to what had happened within the beautiful brick homes, manicured parks, and wood-paneled bars that line its narrow streets. I also visited London and Paris for research and inspiration.

Music also played a pivotal role during the writing of my novel. I’m often inspired by music and use it to tap into a certain emotion or place while writing. I usually write listening to the same song, over and over again, until I tune out the words and am left with just the feeling.

While composing the Western thread, I listened predominantly to 1950s and 1960s music. I especially listened to R&B, jazz, and soul music popular in Washington, D.C. during that time—artists like Shirley Horn, Duke Ellington, Ruth Brown, and more. I also listened to 50s and 60s-era Italian and French music while writing this thread, including Edith Piaf and Mina.

For the Eastern thread, I listened mostly to atmospheric music. This includes contemporary artists like Sufjan Stevens, Philip Glass, and Explosions in the Sky.  I also listened to sparse classical music—such as Franz Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and two Ukrainian pianist friends of Boris Pasternak's: Heinrich Neuhaus (who was also the first husband of Pasternak's wife Zinaida), and Sviatoslav Richter (who played at Pasternak's funeral).  


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