Your agency background informs a good deal of the Moscow section of the book. What was it like working at an ad firm during Russia’s cataclysmic shift toward capitalism?
It was a fascinating culture clash. The agency’s [Grey Moscow] clients were American and British companies who were looking to break into this potentially huge emerging market. So it was a matter of having these Westerners trying to sell their brands to Russian consumers—people who were not exactly conditioned to exercise choice and who were also terribly suspicious of outsiders. The focus group was really a new concept when I was there and, as you can imagine, people didn’t take to it right away.
There’s a lot going on in your novel, but one of the pivotal scenes echoes one of the more notorious Russian ad campaigns.
The Tsar Cola launch in the book was inspired by the famous campaign for Java cigarettes, a beloved, inexpensive brand that had been bought out by British-American Tobacco. The new owners decided to go upscale with the brand and relaunched it as Java Zolotaya, or Java Gold, and the campaign was farmed out to an American ad agency. Because Russian consumers really wanted to continue buying Russian brands—there was a sense that people really resented the sudden ubiquity of Western brands in Moscow—the campaign really played up the idea of these iconic American images being subverted by Russia. So, over the tagline “Strike back,” there would be an image of a cosmonaut painting a Russian flag on the side of the Space Shuttle. The campaign was a huge success, and few people were aware that this proud Russian brand was owned by Westerners … and that the people behind these striking images were Americans.
That definitely was the catalyst for the Tsar Cola part of the book. Plus, there’s the jokey play on words between “Cold War” and “Cola War,” which was a power struggle going on between private companies that was frankly kind of ridiculous.
As much as I imagine you enjoyed your agency career, you probably were always determined to be a writer.
As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a fiction writer. When I was 7, my mother told me that it’s really hard to make a living as a writer and that you need another job in order to support yourself. Later, my father would tell me that Fitzgerald and Faulkner were copywriters when they were young, so that sounded like the perfect job for me. Eventually I got really restless with the more formulaic stuff and realized that I was a lot more interested in the thinking that led to the brief than the actual execution … so they let me become a planner. But once I committed myself to the idea of writing the book, I realized I needed to devote a lot more time to it—so I left my salary job at Saatchi to work on the book full-time. Of course, I did so much freelancing that there were times I actually didn’t get that much done.
But now you’re a published author! Living the dream!
Well, sure. [laughs] The day I sold my book was probably the best day of my life. But I write literary fiction. So, the demand is … well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t be averse to writing a few more commercials.