After 10 years in the making, Jan DeGrass’ long-awaited novel, Jazz With Ella, is in bookstores on the Coast. A labour of love (or is that lust?), the book brings the Cold War between the former Union of Soviet Socialists Republic and Canada back to life with a story of international intrigue and young love.
Jennifer, the starry-eyed, all-things-Russian scholar and star of the novel, has much of the writer in her character. Just how much, DeGrass leaves to the reader’s imagination; however, an interview with the author suggested plenty.
“A lot of Jennifer is Jan, except Jennifer can speak Russian much better than me,” DeGrass shared.
The story was sparked by cultural trips DeGrass took to the USSR in 1973 and ’74, designed to immerse students from the University of Waterloo (not the fictional University of Vancouver used in the book) in the enigmatic eastern country. The lines between fiction and fact blend often in both characters and customs.
While we may now find the rumours of microphones in every venue habituated by Westerners to be far-fetched, that was the reality, DeGrass said.
Along with the ongoing bugging was the recruiting of Canadians to remain in the country.
“If they suspected they could turn you, there was a lot of encouragement [for you] to stay in the Soviet Union,” she said.
“Western groups were very carefully handled and managed by the tourist guides. The key difference was that our group could speak the language. The ‘70s had relaxed over the ‘60s a bit, but they really didn’t want us talking to any Russians.”
Some of the fascinating details in the story are based on DeGrass’ unique experiences.
“The cruise on the Volga River — we were the first Westerners some of those people had seen. They were as surprised by us as we were by them.”
And what about some of those juicy characters?
“All the characters were based on people on the trip,” DeGrass emphasized.
Volodya, the sexy Russian Jennifer falls for in a big way, really existed. Whether or not all the details are based on reality adds charm to the story. The prissy little professor who is the bane of Jennifer’s existence — who was he really, we wonder?
This is a page-turning espionage romance that will leave even the most jaded reader wanting more. If someone on your Christmas list loves historical love stories, this is the book for them. It’s an easy, entertaining read.
DeGrass gave a lot of credit for the novel’s existence to another Sunshine Coast author, Betty Keller, head of a writing group DeGrass has belonged to for years.
“Betty Keller definitely gave me a lot of encouragement. She really pushed me along.”
Next up for DeGrass, the Coast Reporter’s arts and entertainment writer, is a hiatus from the paper and a whirlwind book tour beginning tonight, Oct. 19, at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt.