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How A Famous Fraud Brought A Kind Of Hope In 'I Was Anastasia'

The narrator of Ariel Lawhon's new novel asks readers on the first page: "Am I truly Anastasia Romanov? A beloved daughter. A revered icon. A Russian grand duchess? Or am I an impostor?"

Lawhon's new novel, I Was Anastasia, is a kind of dual biography that imagines the story of what led up to the execution of Russia's royal family (including Anastasia)by the Bolsheviks in 1918, and another woman known as Anna Anderson, who threw herself off a bridge in Berlin in 1920, survived, and convinced many people — most of whom wanted to be convinced — that she was the surviving Romanov daughter.

But there's no doubt about what happened to the real Anastasia, "and that actually creates the first dilemma when you're writing a novel about the Romanovs," Lawhon says, "when everyone knows how the story ends, so how do you make it different and new and interesting?"

Interview Highlights

On why Anna Anderson was so convincing

You know, it's funny, you and I look at this story through the lens of history, and we have the benefit of hindsight, but her contemporaries did not have that. They didn't have DNA science. All they had was a woman who stood in front of them, who bore a very striking resemblance to Anastasia Romanov, and who was claiming to be this woman. And she had information that only the Romanovs had, she had supporters who were close to the Romanov family, many of their friends, some of their relatives. And I think, to be honest, there is an element to which people wanted to believe ... and that's a really powerful thing.

On her description of the royal family's final moments

I try as hard as I can to stay as close to historical fact as possible. Usually when I am building my own story, it's within the cracks of what we know for sure. So those scenes at the end, they were incredibly well-documented, those details were taken from my biographies, they were taken from letters and affidavits written by the soldiers who took part in that execution, and it was really hard to write. That's one of the things that surprises me with every novel is, I will pick a subject, and I will approach it really methodically, I research it, I plan everything out, and I will kind of look at a thing that's coming — in this case it was the execution of the Romanovs ... these moments that you can kind of look at it from a distance and think, oh, I can do that, I can get that on paper. But then there comes a day when you have to sit down at your desk and do it. And that is always far more traumatic than I think it will be.

... what Anna Anderson gave our culture, really the worldwide culture, was an opening. The possibility, the chance, that one of them made it out.

On the difficulty of writing traumatic scenes

If you're making something up entirely, you kind of can always fall back on the, oh, it's just a story, it didn't really happen, I'm just making this up. But for what I do, it's not just a story, it's history, and it really happened, and to bring the full emotional impact of a story to fruition, you have to write it. You asked earlier why Anna Anderson's story, you know, why we wanted to believe her. I think so much of it goes back to, there were children involved. There were four daughters and one son, the oldest was 21 years old. They were innocent. They shouldn't have been there in the first place, and they were lost, in this really horrific, really tragic way. And what Anna Anderson gave our culture, really the worldwide culture, was an opening. The possibility, the chance, that one of them made it out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 24, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio version of this interview, Alexander Kerensky is incorrectly identified as a Bolshevik leader. Kerensky was not a Bolshevik; he was briefly prime minister of the Russian provisional government in 1917.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.