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'Winterland' explores the cost of perfection through the story of Soviet gymnasts

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

The setting is a country that no longer exists. The time, two generations ago. I'm speaking of "Winterland," a new novel with themes that endure. It's the story of a girl anticipating what it is to be a young woman, a girl struggling with aspirations, with her family's expectations and with her society's demands.

RAE MEADOWS: (Reading) Her ankle throbbed in its taped cast. Her lower back was sore. Her arms were quivery. A tendon in her thigh was pulled taut. And her neck was stuck, so she couldn't turn her head very well to the right. She leaned against one of the metal supports. Exhaustion was just how it was. It was necessary. Gymnastics, doing well, was her job, her way to serve her country.

FOLKENFLIK: In "Winterland," author Rae Meadows delivers us the tale of a budding gymnast in 1970s Soviet Union, a fictional tale partly inspired by real people and by the secrets that haunted that nation. Meadows immersed herself in Soviet history but also in the sports of gymnastics in surprising ways. And she joins us now. Rae Meadows, welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

MEADOWS: Thank you so much. I'm delighted to be here.

FOLKENFLIK: What made you turn your gaze to the Soviet Union?

MEADOWS: You know, I've always been interested in the Soviet Union. When I was in high school, I took Russian for four years, oddly enough. I love gymnastics. And the Soviet golden era of gymnastics during the '70s and '80s was a period that I particularly love - and their style which kind of combined classical athleticism and ballet in a way that we've never really seen again. I - also, I think in setting the book in a small, isolated town in the Arctic, it allowed me to create this fictional world that was Soviet but was also its own little private city.

FOLKENFLIK: You're talking about Norilsk. This is a city inside the Arctic Circle where your main character, Anya, and her father live. What set that apart?

MEADOWS: You know, it's kind of amazing. Norilsk's a city that was built by gulag labor.

FOLKENFLIK: Basically prisoner or slave labor of a kind.

MEADOWS: Yes. Slave labor. And it was carved out of the Arctic. I mean, there was really nothing there other than a vast store of copper, nickel, cadmium and some other things that are mined. And it's still a city that exists today. It has 175,000 people. It's one of the most polluted places in the world. The temperature is below 50 in the winter. And for many months, there's no light at all. The sun never rises. So for me, it was fascinating. I think inhospitable landscapes I find very interesting in the way that humanity plays itself out with that kind of backdrop. One of the things in the novel that I think we see on different levels is that people are amazingly adaptive, and they can adapt to life in a gulag prison camp. They can adapt to a grueling training schedule and also just living in a town where they don't get sunlight for much of the year.

FOLKENFLIK: To that end - want you to sketch out a little bit for our listeners more information about Anya, your main character, and the mystery surrounding her mother, who also had a physical expression of artistry that was valued in that culture.

MEADOWS: Yeah. So the book begins with a bit of a mystery. Anya's mother, who was a former ballet dancer for the Bolshoi, disappears. And I think using ballet for the mom is a throughline with Anya, who becomes a gymnast in a way for her to connect to her mom a little bit in using that body in an expressive way but also one that is valued - was valued very highly by the state. There is still a part of Anya that has some agency in that she believes in herself. She loves gymnastics even though she is kind of thrust in this world where she has no agency as far as what happens to her and her life as a child.

FOLKENFLIK: There are also characters from Anya's parents' generation - I'm thinking particularly of her father and his girlfriend - and then characters from her grandparents' generation, those who maybe understand the promises, the compromises and the betrayals of the Soviet system and the compromises and betrayals that they had to make to survive. Tell us about Vera.

MEADOWS: She is someone who, when the book opens, is in her late 70s, and she - when she was younger, she endured 10 years in the Gulag camp right outside of Norilsk. And she lost both her son and her husband in that camp, and so she understands just the unbelievably cruel existence that these forced labor camps were and the sacrifices that she made even to just survive. And I think one of the kind of interesting things about Vera is that she stays in Norilsk. She doesn't necessarily have to, but she does when she's let out because she doesn't know quite what else to do. She sees in Anya this young child who she takes care of and in Anya's mother, who she had befriended, something that she wants to protect, a kind of spark of life that she doesn't want to see pushed out like what had happened to her and her generation.

FOLKENFLIK: What set - during this sort of several decades of real competition, what set Soviet gymnastics apart?

MEADOWS: I mean, it was truly fascinating. The Soviet Union won team gold for eight consecutive Olympics. They had a system that was unrivaled for so long, for decades. It was an all-consuming system that children were taken young from their families and lived in training centers. And their whole life - as we see with Anya, their life becomes this push for victory. And I think when you have a system like the Soviet Union that, certainly after Stalin, believed that athletics were an extension of a heroic belief and an extension of the political system in showing its success that the push for gold was kind of non-negotiable. There were real consequences for girls in this system who did not live up to their potential. When the Soviet Union fell apart, obviously, the gymnastics program fell apart. It was no longer state-sponsored. There was no more money. There are still good Russian gymnasts, but it is not at all the same thing.

FOLKENFLIK: The girls in this book are repeatedly told they'll be washed up by the time they reach their mid-to-late teens, yet you plunged back into gymnastics as you wrote this book. You were in your 50s. What was that like?

MEADOWS: (Laughter) I mean, my kids will roll their eyes 'cause they - (laughter) at my love of gymnastics, but I found so much joy at doing gymnastics in middle age. It's hard to really explain. I never thought that I could - A, that I could do it and B, that I could continue to get better at this age. My daughter is a competitive gymnast, and I could watch practice for hours. I think it's beautiful. And to be able to still participate - I will do it as long as I can. Don't be fooled. I feel bad most of the time. My body hurts all the time. But it's really fun.

FOLKENFLIK: That's fascinating, though. I mean, having immersed yourself in this world, how has it changed the way you look at competitive sports? Especially - you just told us that your daughter does competitive gymnastics.

MEADOWS: Yeah. No, I know, and I have such a high regard for athletes who push to such a level because I know what it entails. I mean, in my daughter's case, I'm tall. She's tall. She's not cut out to be at the elite level. And that also requires a sacrifice that I was not willing to do. And I don't think she is, either - to kind of give up a life. And as we see with Anya, even, you can't live a normal life and pursue gymnastics at that level. It has to be all-consuming. It has to be - but I have such incredible respect and regard for athletes at this level and particularly gymnasts 'cause I know how much it costs the body to be able to do the kind of things that they do.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Rae Meadows sticking the landing. Her new novel is "Winterland." Rae Meadows, thanks for talking with us today.

MEADOWS: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.