The Columns

Knopf to Publish Radulescu’s Debut Novel

— by on July 24th, 2008

Sitting in her book-lined office, papers strewn over her desk, Domnica Radulescu, professor of Romance languages and Women’s Studies at Washington and Lee University, has years of impressive academic research under her belt, but in August 2008 she will realize a life-long dream by becoming a published novelist, acclaimed even before publication.

Knopf will publish her novel, Train to Trieste, in the United States, and Doubleday will publish it in the United Kingdom (both are subsidiaries of Random House). Translation rights have already been purchased in France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Israel, Romania, Serbia and Greece. To sell so many translation rights before the novel was even fully edited is unusual, according to Radulescu’s European agent, and are a good indicator of its expected success.

“As soon as Knopf took it, that created a big buzz,” says Radulescu.

The novel has received rave reviews, including one from Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, who describes Radulescu as a “new and astonishingly fresh voice” and says he was “swept away” by her debut.

Josip Novakovich, author of April Fool’s Day, calls Train to Trieste “Startling… a passionate narrative, intertwining political and love intrigues in the most thrilling ways… seductive and suspenseful, shimmering with linguistic brilliance and marvelous images… a story full of intelligence and beauty.”

Train to Trieste tells the story of 17-year-old Mona Manoliu, who falls in love in the summer of 1977 with Mihai, a mysterious, green-eyed boy who lives in Brasov, the romantic mountain city where she spends her summers. But life under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu is difficult. Hunger and paranoia infect everyone; fear, too. And one day, Mona sees Mihai wearing the black leather jacket that the secret police favor. Could he be one of them?

As food shortages worsen, as more and more of her loved ones disappear in “accidents,” Mona comes to understand that she must leave Romania. She escapes in secret—narrowly avoiding the police—through Yugoslavia to Italy, and then to Chicago, a city she calls “fit for my hunger.” But she leaves without saying a final good-bye to Mihai. And though she struggles to bury her longing for the past—she becomes a doctoral student, marries, has children—she finds herself compelled to return to her country, determined to learn the truth about her one great love.

Radulsecu herself escaped from Romania as a young student in 1983. “I was at a point where I felt things were not going to work out for me,” she says. “Censorship, oppression and lack of freedom, all the aspects of living under a dictatorship were getting too much for me–and I felt that I didn’t have much of a future there. So I devised a plan and applied for a tourist visa to Italy.

“People always ask me how much of my novel is autobiographical, but almost everybody writes autobiographically, it’s just a matter of degree. To me, ultimately, that doesn’t matter,” says Radulescu. “Yes, it emerged from some lived experiences, but a lot of it didn’t. In the end it is all fiction, and there a lot of things that are a complete invention. For instance, it’s called Train to Trieste, and I had never been to Trieste until after I wrote the novel.”

It took Radulsecu four years to write the book, including many rewrites. “It has always been my greatest dream, since I left Romania, to become a fiction writer. So I’ve always been writing and going through various drafts of short stories and novels. But at some point something happened and I found my voice,” she said. “That was a crucial moment for me. I found I had matured to the point where I found an authentic voice, that sounded real, evocative, and then I went ahead and wrote the first draft.

“I sent it to a literary agent because I know you can’t get into the big time publishing world without one. She wrote back, a handwritten note, ‘I love your writing but it needs more work. Send me the whole thing.’

“I sent her the whole novel, and she agreed to represent me. And then I went through several rewrites under her guidance. I just had some strokes of luck, good matches, good encounters and a lot of perseverance. And then she tried to market it, and it got several rejections. Then I worked on it some more, and my agent advised me to send it to writers that I admire a lot to maybe give me guidance or endorsement.” So Radulescu sent the novel to Sandra Cisneros, a writer she greatly admires, who supported the new author and gave warm advice on plot and character development, which Radulescu followed. Finally, the novel was ready to send to Knopf.

Radulescu, who has a two-book deal with Random House in UK (Transworld-Doubleday), says she has lots of other stories in her head, acknowledging that many of them will probably involve Romania and exile experiences and strong women characters. “In Train to Trieste, Mona is a courageous, passionate, complicated character, capable of making radical, life-changing decisions, but with a lot of humor. She’s a combination of courage and naivety, and maybe that’s one of her flaws, causing her to sometimes throw herself into experiences headfirst. So she may get herself into trouble but she also gets into exciting experiences and forges her life and creates herself.

“These are the kind of heroines I like to create; female characters who don’t depend on men for their sense of self fulfillment, who have a strong creative voice or drive, but at the same time can throw themselves into passionate loves. My next heroine is actually going to be a painter, since I like to write about creative women.”

REVIEWS

“I was swept away by Domnica Radulescu’s debut novel. It’s at once a haunting journey to a faraway country, beautiful and terrifying, and an odyssey straight to the heart of a young girl and the remarkable woman she becomes. Deeply moving and deeply felt, Train to Trieste is an unforgettable story that introduces a new and astonishingly fresh voice.”
— Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha

“A spirited, passionate, funny look at the world in the time of the new millennium. Domnica Radulescu is a remarkable writer enriching American letters with her Romanian perspective. We are lucky to call her ours.”
— Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street

“A page-turner. I read Train to Trieste breathlessly and quickly, with multitudinous gasps of delight.”
— Andrei Codrescu, author of The Blood Countess and commentator, All Things Considered

“Startling … A passionate narrative, intertwining political and love intrigues in the most thrilling ways. Train to Trieste is seductive and suspenseful, shimmering with linguistic brilliance and marvelous images. Lovers seem to be spies, and informants fall in love, in this story full of intelligence and beauty.”
— Josip Novakovich, author of April Fool’s Day

Watch a video of Radulescu reading an excerpt from her novel.