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The Magical World of Erika Johansen

  • Submitted: 29th November 2023

Welcome to the Kingdom of Sweets

Are you ready to enter? Do you know what awaits you? Well, take my hand for we are about to go where you have always wanted to go but never thought it were possible.

This is the story behind the story of The Nutcracker. That magical ballet performed every Christmas but now with a much darker side….

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

Kingdom of Sweets Erika Johansen

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

Erika Johansen, it’s over to you….

To me, The Nutcracker has always seemed like a fundamentally Russian tale. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which the ballet is based, was German, but I’ve never liked the original story much; I find it too strange a mixture of schmaltz and cruelty.

The ballet was a much greater influence upon me, and so when I decided to fictionalize The Nutcracker in my new novel, The Kingdom of Sweets, I chose to stick with my impressions of the ballet and set the real world of my novel in Russia.

Kingdom of Sweets Erika Johansen

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

Originally, my tale was not meant to be grounded in any time period or city. I’m incurably lazy about research, and so it’s always easier not to specify time and place; you leave yourself an out for uncomfortable questions from nit picking historical buffs. But I can’t seem to keep social justice out of my books, and in this particular book, vengeance is a central theme.

Red Square (c) Wikipedia

The Kremlin and Red Square (c) Wikipedia

Figure from the Nutcracker

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

The more I considered various characters of the Russian elite, the more I wanted to bring in their greatest catastrophe, and explore the concept of vengeance on a societal as well as a personal scale. The Russian Revolution has interested me since high school as one of the clearest historical examples of how well-meaning social movements often become so extreme that they cannibalize themselves, becoming the very thing they despised.

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

I’m also a sucker for fictional tales in which history is not placed front and center as part of the plot, but provided in tantalizing snippets around the edges. So while The Kingdom of Sweets begins in a place that could probably be anywhere at the close of the Gilded Age, it gradually becomes centered in St. Petersburg in the dying days of Nicholas II’s reign.

Leningrad (St Petersburg) Wikipedia

Leningrad (St Petersburg) Wikipedia

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

This definitely demanded that I do some research. Despite my interest in the Revolution, I knew next to nothing about Russian life or politics in this period. Fortunately, I quickly ran into two books that proved invaluable. Former People by Douglas Smith provided a close look at the lifestyles and eventual fall of the Russian nobility, and The People’s Revolution by Orlando Figes gave me a nice overview of the conditions and events that eventually culminated in violence.

Neva River (C) Wikipedia

Neva River (C) Wikipedia

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

I wasn’t interested in retelling history, but rather in using certain historical elements for texture: the Czar, Rasputin, the 1905 Revolution, the interesting cross-section of life that existed on the banks of the Neva River. I honestly don’t know how successful I was at translating my research into a wholly accurate setting, but even if I botched it, maybe that’s okay.

Kingdom of Sweets Erika Johansen

As I said earlier, my inspiration was really the ballet, and so perhaps my setting should feel like something ersatz, fairy tale rather than reality, an experience no more authentically Russian than sitting in an American theater watching flowers waltz. It’s only near the end of the book, when my protagonist moves west, that the book feels truly grounded in the rational world to me, and maybe that’s as it should be.

The Nutcracker

Locations in The Kingdom of Sweets

The second main setting in my book, the Kingdom of Sweets, is almost entirely of my own imagination. I haven’t been able to truly enjoy watching The Nutcracker since I was a child. This is mostly because I can’t accept the ballet at face value as the lovely experience it’s meant to be. I look at Clara and see artifice. I watch her enchanted sleigh ride through the snow and feel that disaster is hanging in the air. None of these elements prove out in the ballet, but that doesn’t change my conviction that they’re there. When the curtain falls, I always feel as though we missed the rest of the story. Thus, The Kingdom of Sweets springs from the darkness that I’ve always sensed lurking just behind the beautiful scenery in any given Nutcracker production.

 

BookTrail Boarding Pass: The Kingdom of Sweets

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