By Stephanie Stewart (Colorado 1988)
Molly Gartland, LCP of AIESEC Michigan State in 1992, says that her work experiences with AIESEC alumni in Russia gave her some unique ideas for her debut novel, The Girl from the Hermitage. The book looks back at growing up in the old communist world with its many terrors and then revisiting that past through a lens of modern, glitzy 21st century St. Petersburg. The manuscript for her novel was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Competition, the Bath Novel Award, and Grindstone Novel Award.
After finishing university in 1994, Molly heard about a job opportunity in Moscow from Mike McKiernan (AIESEC DeKalb in Chicago) who worked with Westwind International, a freight forwarder that took many AIESEC trainees. Molly rightly calls Mike, “the man who changed my life.” Westwind and its manager, Cris Arens (AIESEC St. Cloud – MN) had links with Pony Express, a new courier company in Moscow founded by AIESEC New Hampshire alumni Tim Bryant and Mark Wheeler. Cris knew they were looking for a recent grad and asked Mike if he knew anyone who would be interested. Mike knew Molly had recently returned from studying in St. Petersburg so he told her about it. She seized the opportunity and contacted Mark. With her AIESEC sales and marketing experience, it seemed to be a good fit. They agreed she would have a short training period at Westwind and join Pony Express once she graduated. Molly notes, “It was a whole web of AIESEC relationships that brought me to work in Moscow.” Molly ended up extending her one-year job and stayed in Moscow for six years. This was followed by a series of moves to Cairo, London, Cape Town, Dakar and then finally settling in London.
Molly explains, “The book is very much rooted in Russia and the experiences I had there. While the book is not about my experiences directly, it would have been impossible for me to write had I not lived there.” Molly reflects back on a boozy Sunday brunch in Moscow in 1998 when she and her husband impulsively bought a painting called “Bird Girl” by Ludmilla Mikhailovna Sgibneva. She explains, “We both liked it immediately. Perhaps it was the sun-drenched scene, or maybe it was the champagne, but we decided to buy it.” Fifteen years later, she looked up Ludmilla Mikhailovna Sgibneva on the internet and found a close image of the painting on the website of a gallery in Ekaterinburg where the artist lives. When she learned the artist had survived the siege of Leningrad and was still painting, she was inspired by this woman who had lived through such historic times. Molly started weaving together a fictional story of the painting and the painter which would grow to become The Girl from the Hermitage.
When Molly was between jobs a few years ago, she took a creative writing course at a local college. She explains, “I did this purely for enjoyment and did not have any crazy ambition to become a writer. But while on the course, this idea for a novel found me.” Molly then enrolled in a creative writing MA at St Mary's University near London which supported her through the process of writing The Girl from the Hermitage. Once the book was written, she embarked on submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers. She describes this as “a lengthy and brutal process for most people - myself included!”
In 1994 Moscow was very exciting. Russia was opening up and foreign business and capital were flowing into the country. Molly had an experience most recent graduates can’t access in more established markets. She was responsible for sales and marketing at Pony Express, starting as the only salesperson and growing the function over six years to manage a sales team of five. She explains, “At the time, like any twenty-something, I was very focussed on the here and now and I don't think I fully appreciated what a historic time period I was witnessing in Moscow. And I don't think I realized what a unique and special experience the Moscow years would prove to be.” In 1998, Russia and the world roiled under the weight of the 1998 stock market crash. The rouble collapsed and clients were difficult to retain or find. Molly explains, “We were running to stand still, which was a shock for a company that was more than doubling sales every year!”
She also reflects on the good times and the many friends she made while in Moscow. “Moscow at the time was very exciting and I was meeting fascinating people in the ex-pat community who were more established in their careers. Many of them have become lifelong friendships.” She is still close friends with Mark Wheeler, the Pony Express founder. She says, “We clicked from the very beginning and I learned so much while I was working for him.” She even met her English husband while there and now lives with her family outside London. She recently met up with the person who told her about the job in Moscow, Mike McKiernan. “It was surreal to think and wonder how it all would have turned out had he not told me about the opportunity at Pony Express.”
The Girl from the Hermitage, which is published by Lightning Books, is available as an e-book in the UK and the paperback will launch in September. In the US, the e-book is scheduled for release in July and the paperback in January. Molly encourages us in these difficult times to buy from local book shops and independent publishers like hers who struggle to stay afloat. If you enjoy a book, leave a positive review on Amazon or Goodreads. Molly explains, “Good reviews are like gold dust and when you post one you make an author very, very happy. Couldn’t we all do with a bit more happiness these days?” She has a list of some interesting debut books she likes on her blog here.