Paullina Simons was born Paullina Handler in the Soviet Union. She lived with her engineer mother, civil lawyer father, uncle, aunt and cousin in the two rooms in which her heroine Tatiana would live. Her paternal grandfather lived through the first deadly winter of the siege of Leningrad before joining the Red Army in 1942.
In 1968, when she was five, her father was arrested for anti-Communist agitation. This included writing letters to the ‘Pravda’ newspaper advocating the rule of law. He was jailed for a year, then tried and convicted in three days and sent to the GULAG for another two. After his release and two-year exile, he decided it was time to put his dream into action – getting his family out of the Soviet Union. His years in prison had given him time and opportunity to do a life-changing thing: Yuri Handler learned English.
So in 1973, he asked the Soviet government for permission to emigrate, and Leonid Brezhnev agreed. They arrived in New York on Thanksgiving, 1973.
Because her father had learned English he was able to get a job working for Radio Liberty-Radio Free Europe. The family settled in an Italian part of Queens, and then Kew Gardens. During these years, Yuri Handler got his brother and his family out, his best friend and his family out, and finally his parents out. He and his wife also had their second child, Paullina’s sister, the first U.S. citizen among them. Needing a (much) bigger place, they moved out of New York City into the suburbs with a house, a yard, a pool and two cars in the driveway. All the things many Americans take for granted, Yuri Handler took as the realization of his grandest dream.
All Paullina wanted to be besides a novelist was a successful American, but unsuccessful romantic endeavours at university led her to flee the North American continent and move to the northerly isles of the European continent in her senior year. There she met husband number one and followed him to Lawrence, Kansas, for her senior senior year. Kansas made little impression on her at the time; ironic since it would serve as the stark setting for her first novel, ‘Tully’.
After graduating in political science, Paullina followed husband number one back to England, where she found a job as a financial journalist and became pregnant – not necessarily in that order. Her first daughter was born in 1987 and in 1988 she wrote the first two chapters of a book called ‘Tully Makker’. But with a full-time job and a full-time family, that was all she wrote.
After four years, her unsuccessful marital endeavours led her to flee England and return to the United States. She told her best friend from high school that she was running out of continents. He responded by (in due course) becoming husband number two and keeping her in America.
In New York she was offered positions at a number of news agencies. She chose to accept a job as a writer for the Financial News Network.
It was a fateful choice, if not the wisest.
Six weeks after her hiring, the company went into Chapter 13 bankruptcy – through no fault of Paullina’s (so she says). Now on unemployment, she decided that destiny was knocking on her door, and so she put her daughter into daycare three days a week, and instead of finding gainful employment, wrote ‘Tully’.
It took her two years to finish, and on the afternoon in March 1993 as she was printing it out, ready to send to prospective agents, her employment recruiter called her telling her he had a job for her. She accepted the position with Prudential Securities in May, but in June sold ‘Tully’ and was able to quit her day job.
Her new (and improved) second husband and she built a house, had a baby, and she wrote her second novel, ‘Red Leaves’.
Then destiny came knocking once again. Her husband was headhunted to Dallas, Texas. So they left New York and moved to Texas during the blistering summer of 1996, when Paullina was seven months pregnant with her third child. She had just started what she thought would be her third book, set in Barrow, Alaska – one of the coldest places on earth. For some reason this book was difficult to write in the 115°F heat of Dallas. The pregnancy in such extreme heat made an impression on her, firing her up in a different direction – which would become, in a matter of a few short months, ‘Eleven Hours’.
In the middle of the revisions, during one late sleepless night, in the dark, with her infant in the bassinet at the foot of her bed, and her husband sleeping soundly, Paullina saw Tatiana and Alexander. She was small, and he was tall. They were walking through the empty streets of a darkened city, Leningrad. She was looking up at him. They were desperately in love, and they were starving.
Their story became ‘The Bronze Horseman’, which has been translated into 18 languages and published in 27 countries.
But between inspiration and publication flew three years of building a (not so little) house on the prairie and going to Russia. Three years of agony and uncertainty. Three years of changing publishers, agents, her husband’s job, of leaving Texas, returning to New York. Oh, and of writing another book, while everyone waited for ‘The Bronze Horseman’. That was ‘Six Days in Leningrad’, a non-fiction account of her return to Russia in 1998. Three years passed and when Paullina looked up from her computer, she was in a cramped apartment in Brooklyn, now with four children, ‘The Bronze Horseman’, a prequel, a sequel (or two) and a screenplay.
Finding the overcrowding unacceptable and unpleasantly reminiscent of her Soviet communal apartment dwellings, Paullina and her family found a small house in a small seaside town, with a small bakery, small post office, small restaurants, small closets. But the town sits on the edge of a glacial harbor, the Long Island sound is vast, and in the park by the water bands play for free on summer nights, and every year there’s Cow Harbor Day in September when every one comes out with their kids and balloons and dances and has ice cream. The closet may be (mercilessly) small, but the imagination continues to run wild, and has taken Paullina to Australia (three times) and back to England (thrice) and across the breadth and length of the entire United States, and for her latest creative endeavours first to a luxury mall in New Jersey and soon to Jindabyne. It has taken her to Arizona for ‘The Summer Garden’, to the transformative Sonoran Desert, to the Grand Canyon. It has taken her to Las Vegas (more times than she cares to mention-all in the name of research!) to Atlantic City, to Reno (a lot of research). Since ‘The Bronze Horseman’, after which she told her agent she would never write again, she has published ‘Tatiana and Alexander’, ‘The Girl in Times Square’, ‘The Summer Garden’, and has spent a year gaining twenty pounds while doing research for a cookbook, ‘Tatiana’s Table’, published in Australia and New Zealand, and soon to be translated into Polish. Her ninth novel, ‘Road to Paradise’, about two girls travelling across America and picking up a third who changes the course of their journey and their life, has been published to critical acclaim and commercial success in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada. She is also working on a series of children’s books, called ‘Adventures with Poppet’. And still trying to finish that pesky screenplay.