Past Tense 

The 17th century comes alive again in Christi Phillips' novels.

In Christi Phillips' 2007 novel The Rosetti Letter, modern-day Ph.D candidate Claire Donovan finds romance and intrigue in Venice, where she's researching her dissertation on a mysterious courtesan who penned an urgent secret missive to the Venetian Council warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Republic in 1618. Claire Donovan and the 17th century resurface in that novel's new sequel, The Devlin Diary, which Phillips discusses at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Thursday, August 6. In this book, Claire — now teaching history at Cambridge — probes the links between a colleague's death and the tangled travails of Hannah Devlin, personal physician to the mistress of King Charles II in fire- and plague-ravaged London.

Although Phillips has always been an avid reader, given to devouring the entire collected works of authors she admires, it was historical fiction that made the strongest early impression. While reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series at age nine or ten, "I knew I wanted to be a writer," she reflects now. Her favorites include a wide range of authors including Madeleine L'Engle, Evelyn Waugh, and fellow Bay Area residents Beverly Cleary and Michael Chabon — but the one book she tried and failed to finish, time and again, has been Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

Currently she's working on a third novel, set in 17th-century France. But, as is true for so many novelists, fiction was not her first writing gig. In the early 1990s, Phillips worked at Mosfilm, the Russian film studio: "At that time it was still the Soviet Union. Moscow was suffering from one of its worst-ever food shortages, and Gorbachev was about to be toppled from power." Her job was to compose synopses "of what were considered to be the hundred best films in the extensive Mosfilm library," she recalls, "which included such classics as The Battleship Potemkin, Andrei Rublov, and Solaris. When it was first proposed to me, it seemed like a relatively easy job" — except that Phillips didn't speak Russian. The films weren't subtitled. A translator accompanied her to the screening room every day.

Considering "the lack of food, the ready availability of Russian vodka and Georgian brandy, and this steady diet of mortally depressing Russian films about punishments and crimes," Phillips felt "as near to comatose as it's possible to be ... without actually being in a hospital bed." What could be worse? Well ... the day came when she sat down to watch the four-hour film version of The Brothers Karamazov. During its second reel, her translator gave up — because, he lamented, the screenplay's language was too arcane and philosophical. Nor would he summarize the whirlwind plot.

For Phillips, history was repeating itself. The saga of Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha "had defeated me again." 7 p.m., free. GGPBooks.com

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