How I wrote it: Sophy Roberts on The Lost Pianos of Siberia

Over the course of five years, Sophy Roberts embarked on an unlikely mission: to track down the forgotten pianos in one of the most remote places in the world. She tells us how she transformed it into a book.

Sophy Roberts writing in Siberia
Sophy Roberts at work. Image: Sophy Roberts/Penguin

The fact that objects can hold histories is one that journalist and author Sophy Roberts knows very well. “Often all that is left of a piano’s backstory can be gleaned only from the serial number hidden inside the instrument – stories reaching back through more than two hundred years of history,” she writes in The Lost Pianos of Siberia. “Yet there are also pianos that have managed to withstand the furtive cold forever trying to creep into their strings. These instruments not only tell the story of Siberia’s colonization by the Russians, but also illustrate how people can endure the most astonishing calamities”.

Over the course of five years, Roberts pursued an improbable agenda: to find pianos in the depths of Siberia, and tell their stories. She doesn’t speak Russian, had a family in England and visited the country's most remote places in the depths of winter. Still, The Lost Pianos of Siberia tells her story. This is how she wrote it.

Why Russia, and why this story?

My work had been as a travel journalist and for the past 20 years, it has been dominated by the tourism industry and luxury hotels. I felt so incredibly empty in that professional space: I wanted to tell that more adventurous, immersive, longform kind of story, and was drawn to more challenging places where the only infinity pool was a great big square carved out of the ice in the frozen Pacific. I’d worked in Mongolia as a journalist at the start of my career and it just resonated with me in a way that I’d never really felt before, so I kept going back. I made friends there and that’s where the story began.

Your adventure begins, quite literally, with the challenge of finding a piano for a talented Mongolian pianist to play. How did you decide to write a book about this?

I’d completed an unpublished novel, prior to this. I thought fiction would be an escape. But I’m too much of a journalist, I’m drawn to real people’s stories. This was the first time I could see a non-fiction, book-length story in an idea that had that kind of fantastical element that I love in fiction. I became friendly with the pianist in July 2015, when I was visiting Mongolia. It was an idea I couldn’t quite shake off. I found myself reading into the history of piano culture in Russia through that late summer and autumn. In early 2016, I was in Russia on an assignment about a tiger conservationist. It gave this strange kind of self-belief that if I could find a Siberian tiger, of which there’s only 500 left in the wild, then surely I could find a piano.

How, practically, did you manage to write a book about Russia while balancing the demands of a life and home back in the UK?

I took eight trips in all, and cumulatively they were about 160 days. I think my longest trip was four weeks without stopping; I have kids, and it was really tough. I did it as cheap as I possibly could, sharing rooms with my interpreter, sleeping as rough as we could and working full time as a journalist and writing campaigns for advertising companies alongside.

What challenges did you encounter?

I was a British writer working in Putin’s Russia. At any moment in time I knew that I was there under sufferance. And I had to toe the line and that created a sense of jeopardy to get this thing done. It created an urgency, which was a very powerful creative force. There was no chance to squander that window. I was 24 hours off the last day I would have ever been allowed on my visa, so I did the maximum I could until my visa ran out, but I’d already finished the story by then.

a colour photograph of Sophy Roberts on a train in Siberia
'I was a British writer working in Putin’s Russia': Sophy Roberts on a train in Siberia. Image: Sophy Roberts/Penguin

You credit your translator, Elena Voytenko, whose ‘fortitude helped [you] through many a black hole in Siberia.

Other writers have said, “Why are you so upfront about all the things that enabled you to do this?” Because often it’s hidden. But for me it was a collaboration, without her those doors just wouldn’t have opened in the same way, and she took some finding. I don’t speak any Russian. Working with interpreters is very hard and when it works it’s beautiful, and I worked with two or three interpreters before I got to the magic of Elena.

I found her after I had hit a wall, despairing at finding the right person. Elena had written a blog post about the Altai, a region of Siberia, and she wrote about it very beautifully. I tracked down her number and called her and said, “Listen, I want to go to the Altai in January. I’ll need a four-wheel-drive, a tough driver and an interpreter for four weeks.” She said, “Give me 10 minutes” then called straight back and said, “I’ll do it”. I flew out three weeks later, met a stranger at 10 o’clock at night at the airport and I got in a car with her and we worked so hard for the next two, three years. It was definitely a turning point in being able to do this.

You meet some incredible characters in the book – it really is a story of people as much as it is place. How many interactions didn’t make the cut?

For every character in the book, there’s 10 on the cutting room floor. One dark moment was a guy who had a lot of pianos, right at the beginning. I flew out to see him and was due to meet him at breakfast, but got a call at 11pm at night saying he’s left town. He just didn’t want to talk to me any more. That was gutting. But there were so many more; I’ve got two filing cabinets of transcriptions.

How did you find the process of turning your adventures into a book?

I was writing as I was travelling, because I was on a tight deadline and I also know I’m the kind of writer that makes multiple revisions. I needed to get it down as I went, and I followed the classic chronology of a traveller: starting at the West and finishing in the East. Once I filed my first draft, though, my editors told me to re-write it according to the chronology of the piano as it enters Russia. So start with Catherine the Great and finish with the end of the quest in the present day, which takes you back to Mongolia.

For about 48 hours I felt like I had all the air punched out of me and then I took the book, I took the chapters, printed them out and I put them on a big floor and I re-ordered then according to that chronology, and they were absolutely right. It was what completely changed the book’s narrative pace.

And do you have any plans for another book?

I finished that book, I remember going through the final pages and suffering panic attacks at night and terrible self-doubt that I was some kind of fraud in the world of book-writing. I said to my husband, “Never, ever let me do that again”. And now I look back on it and I’ve truly never felt more alive. It’s what I want to do. So I am working on another book, it’s Africa-based. It’s again trying to use a single lens to tell a bigger narrative. People are more interesting than places, that’s what I learned with this book. I think it’ll take as long, but I really want to do it. Whether it’ll come off, we’ll see.

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