Q&A: Author Gabriella Saab

Before an appearance this month at the Ben May Library, Mobile author Gabriella Saab talks with MB about her second novel, “Daughters of Victory,” and the magic of historical fiction.

Join Gabriella Saab for a discussion and book signing in Bernheim Hall at the Ben May Main Library on January 19 at 6:30 p.m., hosted by the Friends of the Mobile Public Library. “Daughters of Victory” is also available for pre-order at The Haunted Bookshop in Mobile.

At 28 years old, Mobile author Gabriella Saab is just getting started. 

Her 2021 novel, “The Last Checkmate,” served as her breathtaking authorial debut to Mobilians and worldwide readers of historical fiction. 

Now, the McGill-Toolen graduate is releasing her second novel on January 24, “Daughters of Victory,” a gripping tale of two women whose lives are intertwined in ways that neither fully understands. Spanning from the Russian Revolution to the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union, “Daughters of Victory” tells the story of Svetlana Petrova and the granddaughter she has never met, Mila Rozovskaya. 

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In different decades and against different enemies, both women find themselves under the spell of wartime resistance. But as Mila takes up her fight, dangerous secrets and old enemies soon threaten all that Svetlana holds dear.

Do you remember the moment you first fell in love with historical fiction?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love historical fiction, but I remember two defining moments that solidified this love: The first was when I was about 5 years old and watched the movie musical “My Fair Lady” at my grandmother’s house. I was completely enamored by Audrey Hepburn, the score, the songs, the fashion, the setting — everything. It’s one of the first live-action movies I remember seeing that was set in a time and place different from my own. The second instance happened around the same age, and I read “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, which is the first work of fiction set during World War II that I remember reading. I was stunned, fascinated and had to know more about life during this time. Since those two experiences, I’ve always gravitated toward novels and films that teach me things about history, settings and cultures different from my own.  

You take us to Russia in “Daughters of Victory.” What was the spark of inspiration that led to this new novel?

I got the idea for this novel while researching my debut, “The Last Checkmate,” which is about a Polish resistance worker who is caught and sent to Auschwitz, where she plays chess in exchange for her life and seeks justice for her family. While researching, I discovered Zina Portnova, a young Soviet resistance member who poisoned Nazis. I was instantly intrigued and began to research women during another pivotal moment in Russia’s history, the Russian Revolution, to see if I could tie two story lines together. I found a few real revolutionary figures who served as inspiration for Svetlana, my revolutionary, while Portnova inspired Mila, my resistance member. My characters are grandmother and granddaughter, and I wanted to explore the impacts war and political unrest would have not only on a single person but on generations.   

Some might be familiar with the general history of the Russian Revolution, but this story explores some of its lesser-known actors. What might readers be surprised to learn?

I think readers will be surprised to learn that aristocrats joined the lower classes in the rebellion against the upper classes and that there were lots of different political factions vying for power after the Romanovs were overthrown. Those were things I was surprised to learn, anyway. And a few other things, but I can’t talk about those … spoilers! My author’s note goes into detail about the real people and events, most of which were new and surprising to me and likely to my reader, so I wanted to be up-front about the history as well as the creative liberties I took.

This book features dual story lines of a grandmother and granddaughter, almost 30 years apart. How much fun was it to jump between their stories?

So fun! I loved exploring Svetlana as a young and somewhat arrogant revolutionary who is unflinchingly dedicated to her cause, then as a hardened middle-aged woman and grandmother. Then there’s Mila, a spot of bright, brazen youth who is ultimately seeking what every 18-year-old seeks: to find her place in the world, to find love, to be accepted. And who, oftentimes to Svetlana’s chagrin, is a lot like her grandmother was at that age. Their dynamic was a lot of fun to write, from their similarities and differences to their spats and disagreements to their banter and moments of genuine affection.   

This is an action-packed story complete with some of the most resilient women you’ll find on any page. Who is the strongest woman in your life?

Without question, my mom. I’m one of five children and she’s the most loving, supportive, devoted mother and is a wonderful example to me and my siblings of what it means to be a woman. Strong women come in many different forms: There’s what we think of in terms of physical strength or strength of opinion or conviction, but there are quieter forms of strength found in love, in acts of kindness, in faith, in charity, in empathy. She demonstrates all these strengths and many more and has been my biggest supporter in everything I do. I’m so grateful and love her so much.   

Historical fiction always requires an immense amount of research (in this case, even the poisonous properties of several wild mushrooms). What’s the most obscure research rabbit hole you found yourself in?

Goodness, so many! The mushroom research was fascinating — everything from how they looked and tasted to their effects on the human body. That was probably my most obscure research rabbit hole for this book, though I also had to research different chemicals or substances that would cause vision damage, which made for some questionable emails and Google searches.

Did we hear that you’re a barre instructor, too? What’s it like balancing that with your writing routine?

Yes, I teach Pure Barre, which means I write every second in between. On a teaching day, I’ll work on writing before and/or after barre and usually into the night. On a regular workday, I get up, check emails and social media, then start the book work. If I’m planning a novel, this involves researching, note taking and developing my chapter outline, characters, themes, that sort of thing. If a book is drafted and I’m in edits, I have an edit plan laid out, so I work on implementing it, which is my favorite stage. If I have a book to promote, throw in an interview, podcast or social media post somewhere in my day, too. In general, I must keep up with the business side of things, too, like expense reports and tax documents. When all is said and done, you might be surprised by how little of an author’s day consists of simply writing.

Are there any unique challenges to writing a second novel?

There’s a lot more pressure on the sophomore novel — what I call the “sophomore scaries.” You’ve written a book once, but what if you can’t do it again? Sure, the first one got published and was well-received, but what if your next one isn’t? There’s a lot of fear and doubt, but you can’t let the sophomore scaries win. The best way to silence that little voice in your head is to simply focus on the work, trust your instinct and your story and remind yourself that yes, you did write a book once, so why shouldn’t you be able to do it again?

Your stories have taken readers to Poland and now Russia. Any idea where we might go next?

The next project is remaining stateside. As much as I enjoy writing stories set outside the U.S., my next project is inspired by my family history. It’s a post-WWII story about first-generation Lebanese Americans in the South. This manuscript is near and dear to my heart; I’m in the middle of my first edit following the first draft, so we’ll see what happens with it.

Excerpt from “Daughters of Victory” 

Book cover for historical fiction novel, "Daughters of Victory" by Gabriella Saab

All day, I watched, and I waited, consumed by one certainty: The fate of the revolution relied on me and the bullets inside my pistol. 

My grip on the gun remained steady, eyes trained on the crowd below, where the throngs gathered before the Mikhelson Armaments Factory in south Moscow, spilled across the street, seeped into the small square. A hot summer breeze drifted through the open attic window. Its efforts to ruffle my hair and skirt were futile, lost in a battle against the sweat plastering them to my skin. Neither the heat nor the filth deterred me; I had not spent hours hiding in this abandoned building on Pavlovskaya Street for my efforts to come to nothing. Salvaging the revolution was never a matter of questioning my own ability. How could it be, when my Browning and I never missed our target? It was a matter of waiting. Waiting for him. 

Stillness settled over the crowd; the same quiet found me inside this squalid attic. Perhaps the multitudes below sensed something monumental was coming. We were united, reverent silence tinged with anticipation—though I imagined our expectations vastly differed.

He condemned democracy for favoring capitalists and the bourgeoisie; though such claims held truth, he had blinded the working people by promising to free them from a government that had suppressed them. Did they not see that his party, too, would enslave them beneath its oppression, as imperialism had? I saw it. Understood where it led. The people had already overthrown the tsar, and rightly so; now it was up to me to prevent a new dictatorship before it began.

After he emerged from the factory, he stepped to the waiting podium and delivered his speech with a bravado that nearly made me shoot the bushy mustache and goatee from his face. Instead, as he concluded and a swell of commotion rose into the air, I suppressed the urge to act. Of all my self-appointed revolutionary missions, this was the most vital. Success would come, but not yet. Not until the proper time.

What would my aristocratic father say if tomorrow’s headlines featured the name of the daughter he had likely spent over a decade trying to forget? Then a girl, now a woman defending every socialist belief he had tried to make her renounce. The seconds were purposeful and concentrated, like the barrel of my gun as it shifted centimeter by centimeter, following my target’s passage through the crowd, waiting for the best opening. For the proper time.

At last, it arrived. And I fired.

Three shots, each more accurate than the last, flowing from my gun as effortlessly as air from my lungs. One struck his coat, one his chest, one his neck. I was deaf to the screams of the crowd, immune to everything but the bright crimson pouring from the wounds and staining the pavement.

Another sound pierced through the uproar, that of the door to my hideout banging open. I whirled while someone entered—someone familiar. Someone aiming a revolver at my head.

It was the only thought I formulated before the crack split the air and the bullet struck.

I had no time to return fire before a strange, burning sensation spread across my scalp. Blood poured down my face and into my eyes, blinding me until my vision went white. Perhaps the bullet had lodged in my skull, perhaps not—either way, there was no use fighting it. But as my knees gave way and my pistol slipped from my grasp, I sought the windowsill, the wall, anything to keep me on my feet a moment more. I wanted to listen to the screams below, to wipe the blood from my eyes and relish what I had caused. No one could steal this moment from me.

From DAUGHTERS OF VICTORY: A Novel by Gabriella Saab. Copyright © 2023 by Gabriella Saab. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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