Published in Macalester Today
An ability to imagine “what if” took R.D. Zimmerman ’75 from Russian class to Hollywood filmmaking.
It was Robert Massie’s 1967 book Nicholas and Alexandra that ignited R.D. Zimmerman’s curiosity about the Romanovs, the glamorous imperial family whose dynasty ruled Russia from 1613 until the 1917 revolution. A Russian and creative writing student at Macalester, Zimmerman ’75 has always found himself wondering “what if.”
That curiosity led him to study and later work in Russia, then part of the Soviet Union. It also inspired him to write his fictional Russian Revolution trilogy, the first of which, The Kitchen Boy (2003), was a New York Times bestseller and is now being made into a movie. Actress Tilda Swinton has shown strong interest in the role of Empress Alexandra.
Although historians knew that shortly before the imperial family was massacred a kitchen boy had been dismissed from the house, Zimmerman wondered, what if he actually saw it all—and lived to tell about it?
The movie’s producer, Glenn Williamson, was the executive on such well-received films as American Beauty and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Zimmerman serves as executive producer on the film, a role he describes as “a step below—Glenn has all the knowledge and wisdom.”
The film project came about when Williamson saw a full-page ad for The Kitchen Boy in the New York Times. Zimmerman, who was on a book tour at the time, was just landing in L.A. when Williamson called. “Glenn picked up the newspaper, called my agent, and I had lunch with him that day,” says Zimmerman. “Then it’s an eight- or nine-year process to make a movie. You’re talking about taking an idea and trying to get $15 or $20 million to make it into a film.” The movie is slated to go into production in fall 2012 in Russia and Berlin for a proposed theatrical release in 2013.
Zimmerman wrote the trilogy under the nom de plume Robert Alexander—both to get his books near the front on author-alphabetized bookstore shelves and to differentiate his Russian novels from his earlier mysteries, including three thrillers featuring blind detective Maddy Phillips and five Lambda Award-winning mysteries featuring gay detective Todd Mills.
Zimmerman’s life has taken many twists and turns since he enrolled in Boris Ganusowsky’s Russian class at Macalester back in 1972. In hindsight, the writer is an enthusiastic pitchman for the liberal arts, but he left the college after two years for Michigan State’s more vocational hotel/restaurant program. He soon dropped out, however: “I was in Meats 104 and Beverages 110 and I thought, ‘What have I done?’”
Ultimately he returned to MSU, graduating with a degree in the same fields he’d pursued at Mac: creative writing and Russian. He also studied in Leningrad, later working for the U.S. Information Agency in Russia as a cultural exchange exhibition guide.
The resultant grounding in Russian daily life brought him more than fluency. Zimmerman’s experience of being followed by the KGB inspired his first political thriller, The Cross and the Sickle (1984). At Leningrad University he met his partner of 32 years, architect Lars Peterssen, and together they met a woman who later became their business partner in a St. Petersburg customs clearance warehouse that stored and processed automobile imports to Russia. They sold the business several years ago, but for a time the business was processing half a million cars a year.
There’s a deeper, more personal side to Zimmerman’s interest in Russia and specifically, the fall of the Romanovs.
But there’s a deeper, more personal side to Zimmerman’s interest in Russia and specifically, the fall of the Romanovs. A hundred years ago, his own family was rich and powerful, true titans of Chicago. His paternal great-grandfather Charles Wacker, for whom Chicago’s Wacker Drive is named, was a brewer who helped pioneer commercial refrigeration and the director of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (familiar now from Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City). But over several generations, the Wacker fortune was largely lost, families floundered, and talented people died far too young. When Zimmerman was a teenager his father died at 46 from complications of alcoholism.
“What made the family great was alcohol—they were brewers—and what killed them was alcohol,” writes Zimmerman in his latest book, When Dad Came Back As My Dog. The book, an exploration of the family’s crumbling fortunes, is available as an e-book through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Zimmerman’s own website. “It’s a very different kind of book—an unconventional way of telling a family story.” An entertaining glimpse at the lives of the rich and famous, When Dad Came Back is also a heart-wrenching look at family life before the tools of Alcoholics Anonymous were broadly available.
Writing about the Russian Revolution became a metaphor for understanding the loss of his own family’s prominence, says Zimmerman. “A metaphor is a great way to work things out,” says Zimmerman. “Relive it, but in a safe way.”
Even with 24 books to his credit, Zimmerman still speaks to classes and book clubs around the country, but now does it free via Skype. At 58, he has no plans to retire. “People work all their lives and retire to write,” says Zimmerman. “I feel lucky to be a writer; what I do is who I am.”
But for now, there’s a major motion picture to produce. Zimmerman handles his end mostly through frequent phone calls and occasional meetings and says, “Making the film is very fun and incredibly interesting in terms of the number of smart people involved.” His delight at learning his way around the filmmaking world is tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism about Hollywood. Williamson, he says, warned him, “You’re never making a movie until you’re two weeks into production and it’s too expensive to turn the cameras off.”
According to the blogosphere, historical fiction fans are already looking forward to the film, at least in part because the Russian Revolution is such a fascinating piece of relatively recent history. “One of the Romanov princesses died a few years ago in Lake Forest, Illinois,” says Zimmerman. “She was 103. It’s not that long ago at all.”
Jan Shaw-Flamm ’76 is a writer in Macalester’s communications department. She was in Russian class with Zimmerman in the 1970s.