OB: Your portrayal of the child’s illness is creative but highly convincing. Why did you choose this as a subject?
KM: I wanted to write a story about the levels of pain, the ways people describe and explain sickness, and to what lengths they go to find a cure. The material came from several sources. I’ve heard many stories of people in Russia seeking help from healers and witch-doctors if traditional medicine has failed them. There are usually interesting rituals involved, ranging from head manipulation to lifting of a curse through the victim’s photograph. At the same time, the topic of how emotional lives affect our bodies is constantly in the news. We’ve all heard that many illnesses are caused by stress. But I’ve also heard people attribute cancer to a destructive affair or a toxic relationship, or hypertension to a curse from a jealous neighbour. A recent New York Times article, ‘Death and the Broken Heart’, discussed medical and anecdotal evidence of the broken heart syndrome. There are instances of this on a larger scale. In his book, Awakenings, Oliver Sacks documented case histories of people affected by the sleeping-sickness epidemic of 1918. Could this have been a psychosomatic response to the world changed forever by World War I?
In my story, the narrator tries to make sense of her world in fantastical terms because this is a language familiar to her. She is a bright and sensitive child who has read a lot of fairy tales. Another level of pain in the family is explored through the mother, who has fallen madly in love with someone and is contemplating an affair. In this case, love could be seen as a certain kind of sickness. Finally, although the Witch is not an especially reliable character, she brings up an interesting point about the accumulation of suffering caused by large-scale tragedies. How does the collective pain affect the health of a particular society or country?
You taught an introductory creative writing course at New York University in the spring semester of this year. People often find it impossible to teach and write at the same time – did you?
I didn’t find that teaching interfered with writing as long as I scheduled my literary activities throughout the day in the correct order of influence. Start by reading good literature (preferably the classics), then write, then critique the writing of others, and finish the day with fiction unrelated to one’s own work.
I learned as much, if not more, from my students than they did from me. In addition to workshopping stories, I led discussions on literature from the craft perspective. In the beginning of the course, it was hard to get the students interested in the nuts and bolts of a story. After all, one doesn’t need to know the exact mechanism of the circulation system in order to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the human body. At the same time, it was eye-opening to hear young people’s pure emotional and intellectual responses, unadulterated by excessive concern for literary technique. Sometimes they didn’t like the stories that my graduate classmates and I considered to be at the very peak of literary sophistication and vice versa. The students related the stories and poems much more directly to their immediate life experiences. In one or two precious instances, I witnessed a declaration that a story or poem changed a student’s life.
You lived in Russia until you were fifteen. Do you only write in English? Do you think your stories would be read in a different way there?
I started writing in English at fourteen and still do exclusively. I’ve never had a strong desire to write in Russian, though, depending on the mood of the piece and whether I’d been reading in Russian beforehand, I might come up with whole passages in Russian, which I then translate. I often think of words in Russian first when I’m searching for the right nuance. And I’m usually not satisfied with the English equivalent, despite the fact that there are more words in English than Russian. Russian forms seem more flexible, more responsive to tonal and emotional adjustment, at least to my ear.
It’s hard for me to imagine how my stories would be read in Russia, especially in translation. My only Russian audience so far has been my family – and that’s a whole other type of animal. I’m always concerned with whether I am saying something new. Writing about Russia and Russian immigrants in America is a built-in shortcut to newness and exoticism (up to a point, of course), which I wouldn’t have in Russia. Because I haven’t been back since I immigrated, I’d also be worried about inauthenticity in my writing, although I realize that I didn’t, and no writer ever does, sign a contract to represent their entire culture throughout all of history.
I guess it comes down to the fact that Russian literature is holy to me, and, however pretentious it might sound, writing in Russian would be akin to jumping into the ring with Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, Bulgakov and the other heavy-hitters – a scary proposition.
You work for an online journal – any tips for writers submitting to magazines?
In my experience at Our Stories Literary Journal and as a reader for The Paris Review, I found that most people start submitting too early in their writing career; either the plot, or the characters or the prose isn’t strong enough. But, it’s also important to remember that editors have their own tastes, and journals often have themed issues and/or general style preferences. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of the stars aligning. I’d like to believe that a good story will eventually find a home.
Incidentally, Our Stories (ourstories.us) provides written feedback on every story submitted to our contests, so writers get more than a rejection for their reading fee.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?
I am working on a collection of linked stories that centre around my hometown, Magadan, and emigrants to the US from there. Magadan, which is located in a remote tundra region across the Bering Strait from Alaska, called Northern Far East, has an interesting history. From the 1930s on, it served as the administrative centre of a vast Gulag system. During its renaissance in the ’60s and ’70s, it was home to a curious mixture: highly educated, cultured new arrivals, and former Gulag inmates – many of whom, of course, also came from the higher echelons of society. Then there was the economic collapse of the ’90s and exodus to central Russia. The stories are set in different eras, ranging from the ’50s to now, and feature narrators from various walks of life.