Reading Group Center

Ariel Lawhon on Juggling Chainsaws—Or, What It’s Really Like to Write a Nonlinear Timeline

At the heart of Ariel Lawhon’s latest novel, I Was Anastasia, is a question that has captivated our collective imagination for generations—was Anna Anderson in fact Anastasia Romanov, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II? Lawhon tackles this historical mystery in the perfect way—using a unique and unconventional narrative structure that makes the book impossible to put down. As Anastasia’s chapters progress chronologically, Anna’s travel backward in time. We admit it took us a few chapters to get comfortable with this style, but once we did, it was completely worth it. You might think starting at the end of the story would ruin the surprise—especially when the real-life answer is just a google search away*—but Lawhon keeps you guessing the whole time. We asked her to tell us more about her writing process and why she thought this strange construction was the only way to tell this particular story. We hope you enjoy the short essay she wrote in response!

*If you don’t already know, we encourage you to resist temptation and leave yourself in suspense just a little longer. And if you do know, allow yourself to be swept away in the mystery anyway. You might be surprised at how doubt will find its way in.

I have a thing for timelines. The more inventive, the better. I love to read them and I love to write them. It’s like a puzzle. Only I’m creating it and solving it at the same time. With my first novel, The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, I used flashbacks to heighten the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of a missing judge. With my second novel, Flight of Dreams, I used a locked-box, compressed-time scenario (the entire novel takes place over three and a half days aboard the last, doomed flight of the Hindenburg). But with my latest novel, I Was Anastasia—the story of Anastasia Romanov and Anna Anderson, the woman long believed to be her most famous imposter—I wanted to tell the story straight, from beginning to end. And I did try. Honest, I did. Until I got fifty pages into the book and realized everything felt wrong, as thought it was missing a pulse.

I knew, almost immediately, that half of the narrative needed to be told in reverse so that the two points of view would collide at a very specific moment, right in the middle. I knew it was risky. I knew it would be hard to write. But I’ve always loved a good puzzle. So I got to work. And I began by reading half of my research books—the ones about Anna Anderson—in reverse, from last chapter to first. I did this so that I would feel a little off balance the entire time I was writing. (Only fair considering that was the very thing I would be asking of my readers.) I needed to second-guess everything I thought I knew about the life and death of Anastasia Romanov. And I needed that uncertainty to bleed onto the page and into the minds of my readers. I was asking people to read a novel in which they already thought they knew the ending, and I knew a little doubt would go a long way.

It is, admittedly, a strange way to write and research a novel, but in this case it helped me keep the mental framework needed to maintain the structure of the book. A structure that—for the record—felt a bit like juggling chainsaws. Only the chainsaws were on fire. And I was blindfolded.

Two years have passed since I finished writing I Was Anastasia. The paperback edition is about to be published. And I am almost done with my fourth novel—currently untitled and set amid the French resistance in World War II—and, true to form, it has a unique structure and a nonlinear timeline. I guess I just can’t help myself.

—Ariel Lawhon