Tolstoy and me - The Last Station

JAY PARINI IS TRYING OUT HIS Scots accent on me – and it's no' very guid, as James McAvoy has already pointed out to him. "I think James got very frustrated by my accent which I insisted on trying out on him," laughs Parini. Indeed, "You're no' very Scottish to ma ear!" was the Glaswegian actor's verdict.

Nonetheless, the best-selling novelist and St Andrews University graduate insists that he's an honorary Scot, after living in the country for seven years and visiting at least twice a year for almost 40 years. He's also the founder of StAnza, the St Andrews Poetry Festival, to which he will return for the first time next March to talk about homecomings.

"My artistic and cultural sensibility was completely shaped by Scotland – it's still my home," he explains.

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Parini befriended McAvoy on the set of the actor's latest movie, The Last Station, based on Parini's 1990 novel, a fictional account based on fact, about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, in which the dying Russian author is played by Christopher Plummer. The Oscar-winning Helen Mirren is his tempestuous wife, Countess Sofya Andreyevna.

It's the first time McAvoy, who plays Tolstoy's shy, virginal amenuensis, Valentin Bulgakov, has starred opposite his wife, the actress Anne-Marie Duff, since they met on the TV series Shameless.

The movie is due out later this year. "They have to gear these things to the timing of the Oscar nominations, apparently," says Parini, who is tipping The Last Station for at least seven nominations. "If we don't get them, I'll eat my hat," he says. And in which categories? For a start, best picture and best director, for Michael Hoffman. (Hoffman's previous movies include Restoration and One Fine Day, with George Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer). He's backing best adapted screenplay, too – another nod to Hoffman, who wrote the screenplay.

Parini, whose play Mary Postgate ends an Edinburgh Fringe run today, predicts that McAvoy will be up against Plummer for best actor; that Mirren, the descendant of white Russian aristocracy, will be nominated yet again for best actress; and that Duff will be up for best supporting actress – she plays Tolstoy's youngest daughter, Sasha, who acted as a typist and secretary to her father.

It's McAvoy's movie, though. "As Tolstoy's young secretary, he's in every scene and he's brilliant as the ingenue. He was born to play this part. He's one of Scotland's treasures."

Filming began this spring at a small railway station near Wittenberg, south of Berlin. The "station" was dressed to resemble Astapovo junction in Russia, where Tolstoy died in 1910, in the stationmaster's house, after fleeing his family and disciples.

It has taken 18 years to bring The Last Station, which uses diaries kept by Bulgakov, Sofya and Sasha among many others, to the screen. The late Anthony Quinn, best remembered for his performance as Zorba the Greek, begged Parini to let him play Tolstoy. "We spent six years working on the screenplay together; then he died. I have to say the screenplay wasn't right – it was Zorba the Russian. But then Michael got involved. His screenplay is much more like my book. Then Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep came on board. Finally, we were ready to roll and neither actor's schedule fitted. We had to shoot or lose the money, although James (McAvoy] was always our Bulgakov."

After such a long wait, Parini was deeply moved to walk on to the movie set in Germany last May. "It was thrilling," he exclaims. "I arrived in time for the night shoot. It was dark, Tolstoy was dying at the railway station. I arrived just as the Countess – Helen – arrived on the royal train that Sofya hired, with her entourage of children and 30 servants. I almost freaked out when I saw Helen looking out of the train window. She was Sofya! I imagined all of this in my book and here it was actually happening.

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"Then this figure with a long white beard lurched up to me and said, 'How do you do?' It wasn't Christopher Plummer; it was Count Maxim Tolstoy, Leo's greatgrandson, who's been an adviser on the film. I thought I was going to die."

THE GENIAL 60-YEAR-OLD Parini is on a flying visit to Edinburgh when we meet. He's here to see students from Durham University stage the world premiere of his play Mary Postgate – based on a sinister short story by Rudyard Kipling and set during the First World War. Parini is surely the only Fringe playwright to arrive in Edinburgh fresh from editing a major Hollywood movie.

"I'm a Kipling fanatic and a theatre fanatic," he says. "I'd always wanted to make a play or a film of this story, about a governess who tortures a German pilot to death. The story was written out of Kipling's grief at the death of his son in the war; it's a revenge drama."

Fresh from paying homage to Sir Walter Scott – "I always go to the monument and bow to him, he's been such an inspiration to me" – Pennsylvania-born Parini is nervous about seeing the production of his two-act play, which he gave the students as a gift, but which has been heavily cut for the Fringe. Later he says that he really loved K2 Theatre Company's production. "These young people have done such a splendid job; not easy, as some are playing characters decades older than themselves. And the cuts don't seem to matter."

Mary Postgate is only the second play Parini has written, although he is the author of six novels, several volumes of poetry and biographies of John Steinbeck, William Faulkner and Robert Frost.

His connection with Frost made headlines recently. Last winter, a gang of 25 teenagers broke into and trashed a farmhouse in the snowy woods at Ripton, Vermont, which had been Frost's summer home. The drunken youngsters caused more than $10,000 (5,000) of damage by partying, even setting fire to items of furniture.

The prosecutor in the case prescribed poetry as punishment for the perpetrators, with the judge's blessing. The father of three sons, Parini, who is married to clinical psychologist Devon Jersild, had been horrified to hear of the break-in at a house which he loves and where he had stayed several times when writing his biography of Frost. To his amazement, he was asked if as part of their community service the young invaders could discuss Frost's poetry with him.

Parini, who reads a poem every day before breakfast and then works on his latest poem, had just finished his book Why Poetry Matters. He quotes Frost: "Unless you are at home in the metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world," adding that he was convinced the poet would have endorsed the poetic justice of this bizarre plan.

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He taught the vandals two Frost poems, Out, Out and The Road Not Taken. Despite some initial surly faces, over two weeks Parini finally won their rapt attention.

"I think at least one of them had said he would rather go to jail than read poetry, but Frost once again worked his uncanny magic. He unlocked some hearts," Parini says.

Although he can't say what all the youngsters got out of the programme, Parini, who is now writing a novel about Herman Melville, knows that he got something personally, because he's a missionary about poetry and literature. "And, you know, these kids could have been my kids."

After reading The Road Not Taken, one shy, frightened boy in a back-to-front baseball cap admitted: "I took the wrong road." "You did," Parini replied. "But there are other roads. Lots of them."

• Mary Postgate is at the Pleasance, Edinburgh, until today. The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy's Final Year, by Jay Parini is published by Canongate, priced 8.99. The film adaptation, The Last Station, will be released next year.

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