Author Adrienne Sharp MPW ’87 brought to life the world of Russian ballet at the Nov. 17 Friends of the USC Libraries Literary Luncheon in Doheny Memorial Library.
Sharp discussed her path from the ballet bar to the signing table — a journey that has culminated in her latest novel, The True Memoirs of Little K, which tells the story of an ambitious dancer and her affair with Russia’s last czar.
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Sharp turned to writing when her promising early career as a ballerina came to a close.
“I discovered that I had another talent: writing about dancing,” she said.
As a 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia, Sharp shared an early short story about a dancer with her professor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Peter Taylor.
Taylor encouraged her to write more about ballet — a subject, she said, that “had not really been explored in serious fiction.”
Her first two books, a 2001 short story collection titled White Swan, Black Swan and a 2005 novel titled The Sleeping Beauty, took readers behind the curtain of contemporary professional ballet. With The True Memoirs of Little K, Sharp ventured into the genre of historical fiction.
In her book, Sharp reimagines the life of Mathilde Kschessinska, a historical figure from revolutionary Russia. Raised in St. Petersburg’s competitive dance world, the ambitious Mathilde achieved the coveted rank of prima ballerina assoluta and won the affections of czar Nicholas II. After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Mathilde escaped with her son to Paris, where she survived to the age of 99.
Sharp’s fictional retelling is conceived as a tell-all memoir that Mathilde wrote late in life for the benefit of her son — rumored to be the illegitimate child of the czar. The novel is as packed with scandal and imperial court intrigue as it is with historical detail; Mathilde watches as the heirs to a 300-year-old dynasty lose their grip on power.
Sharp’s debut as a novelist was not without challenges, as she explained at the luncheon.
“[At first] I didn’t realize the undertaking because there was an enormous amount of research,” she said. “I had to learn about Russian history and then Romanov history and Romanov private lives, and then ballet history and Mathilde’s private life.”
When she started, Sharp asked herself, “ ‘How am I ever going to sort these people out?’ They all have the same name, every one of them.”
But she immersed herself in Mathilde’s world. She studied the personalities of the era, consulting everything from historical photographs to a three-volume memoir by the French ambassador in Russia to Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir, Speak Memory. Eventually, she mastered the subject.
“It got to the point where I could open a history book and say, ‘That’s miscaptioned.’ ”
Farrar, Straus and Giroux published The True Memoirs of Little K in 2010. It was shortlisted for a California Book Award and was selected as one of the Oprah Book Club’s “10 Fantastic Books for Fall 2010.” A paperback edition is available from Picador.
The Friends of the USC Libraries host at least two literary luncheons each year. Guests enjoy lunch and a lecture by an accomplished author. In her introductory remarks, USC Libraries dean Catherine Quinlan explained the importance of the series.
“Libraries owe their existence to writers and the books they produce, and these luncheons are a way to celebrate their craft and their works that provide the foundation for a great library like ours,” Quinlan said.