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An Interview with Kseniya Melnik, Author of Snow in May

by Alisha
May 05, 2014

It's with great pleasure that Raincoast Books is featuring an interview with a debut author Kseniya Melnik, where we discuss how Russian soul affects the work of an American writer.

Larisa: First of all, congratulations on your very first book Snow in May which very symbolically is being published in May 2014. By the way, is it just a coincidence or it’s been carefully planned?

Kseniya: Thank you! I sold my book in March of 2013, and it usually takes at least a year to get it published. So I’m sure that the publishers thought: if we’re aiming for spring of next year, why not try for May to make that additional little connection with the title. It’s a good timing.  

Larisa: Your family immigrated to America when you were in a tender age of 15. Basically, you grew up and developed your personality here. Do you feel more Russian or more American? Or, maybe it’s a mix of genes and environment that shaped your soul?

Kseniya: My upbringing was definitely a mix of cultures and ideas, and whether I feel more Russian or American can change depending on what country I am in. In America, I feel more Russian; when travelling, I usually feel more American. No matter how much they say that one person doesn’t represent his or her country, we still reveal a certain amount of cultural and historical baggage when we tell people where we are from. Since I still have my Russian accent (most of the time), even in America people often say things like: “Oh, you’re from Alaska, but where are you really from?”

So if I was pressed to choose, I’d say I’m more Russian. I have a very strong connection to the Russian culture: literature; classical, pop, and folk music; film and cartoons, children's fairy tales. I feel like that’s almost more important than where one lives at present. Culture, truly, is the language of the soul. 

Larisa: How does this affect your writing?

Kseniya: I’m probably too close to my own writing to say how my dual heritage affects it beyond pure subject matter.

Larisa: How did you like it in Alaska? I believe, the climate is not much different from Magadan, so it shouldn't have been a big change for you?

Kseniya: When I had just moved to Alaska from Russia, I didn’t like it very much. I was cut off from all my childhood friends, my favourite activities and neighbourhood haunts. Plus, I was pretty stressed out at school, catching up on the English language and the way the American education system worked. I couldn’t wait to graduate high school to leave Anchorage. 

When I returned to Alaska from New York in 2010 and lived there for two years, I completely fell in love with it. I learned about its history and saw a lot more outside of Anchorage: the glaciers, the national parks, the rivers, the mountains. I did a lot of hiking and skiing, too. To really love a place, I need to connect with its history and self-mythology: the Native-American legends, the Russian fur trappers, Captain Cook, the Gold Rush, the Battle of Attu and Kiska, the building of the Alyeska pipeline, etc.  As for the weather, it’s actually considerably warmer in Anchorage than in Magadan. Much less windy, and the summers are warmer.

Larisa: Many people in North America never heard about Magadan, which plays a significant role in your stories. If you were to describe your home city in five words, what those would be?

Kseniya: Cold, windy, isolated, beautiful, enchanting.   

Larisa: Most of your stories are set in Russia. Why is it important for you to write about Russia? Is it mostly nostalgia and the need to preserve your memories and feelings about your childhood or are you trying to tell American reader about Russia and Russian people?

Kseniya: I don’t think I write purely out of nostalgia or to preserve childhood memories. But there is probably a bit of feeling that, having grown up in Russia, I can identify some stories that haven’t been told yet, or told enough or told in a certain way, in North America. Also, I often feel a tug to write about the places I have left; I like writing from a distance of miles and years. Ultimately, it’s all about interest and inspiration. I read somewhere that the story finds its writer, not the other way around. Sometimes you don’t know why you become obsessed with a certain story, a certain set of characters, or just a voice. It will haunt and obsess you until you write it.

Larisa:  The stories are set in different eras—late 50th, mid-70th, 90th. How was it possible for you to take in such a big period of time when you weren’t even born, and all the complex details of reality such as living in communal apartments in Moscow or military dormitory in Vladivostok—things you haven’t experienced yourself? Where all the details come from?

Kseniya: I did a lot of research online, in books, films, and through interviews. I believe that those little details of daily life have a huge influence on how we see the world and what dreams we dare to dream.

Larisa: Some of your stories are written from the voice of children. How much of Kseniya Melnik herself is in those characters? Or, let me put it this way: is Sonechka’s character drawn from Kseniya?

Kseniya: There is probably a little bit of me in all of my characters, including Sonya. She’s not my psychological alter-ego but her story arc contains the most autobiographical details from my life. For example, I too used to have a somewhat morbid interest in medicine: I loved hospitals and medical tools; I worshipped my grandmother, who was a chief doctor, and I wanted to be a doctor myself; and I worked at her clinic for a summer when I was fourteen. I wrote a memoir piece about this on granta.com called “A Dose of Winter Medicine,” which is a companion piece of sorts to “Summer Medicine.”   

Larisa: Did you take piano classes? From reading your story "The Uncatchable Avengers" I believe it wasn't quite happy experience, was it?

Kseniya: Piano was a very big part of my life. My mother is a musician, and she sat me at the piano when I was four or five and taught me for a year before I began attending music school in Magadan. Growing up, I had a very love-hate relationship with piano as well as with my piano teacher, who was very strict. It wasn’t so much an unhappy experience, it’s just that when you’re a child, often times you’d rather be doing something other than practicing piano for two hours every day. So I spent a lot of time daydreaming at the piano, and I always yearned to play a different instrument, like violin or saxophone. I imagined it would be so much easier to learn. And I did pick up violin and viola when we moved to America so that I could be in the high school orchestra. Of course, those instruments are just as hard if you want to be good.

I think studying piano from such an early age made me a better writer. My mom and my teacher always encouraged me to come up with narratives for the pieces, to infuse musical phrases with emotion just like you would a line of dialogue. It’s a great training in focus as well as paying attention to tiny details: in a music piece, every note and pause matters. That’s how I approach writing, too: no word or comma is too insignificant to be swept up in a passage, to be written automatically.

When it came to writing “The Uncatchable Avengers,” I tried to tap into that familiar feeling of how hard it is to concentrate at the piano—your thoughts are way faster than your hands—and also how amazingly light and happy you feel after you’re done with a recital. It feels like the weight of the world just slid off your shoulders.

Larisa: In a story "Kruchina" you mention a song "Oj, da ne vecher".  It’s a magnificent, but very sad song which I like a lot. Is it being sung in your family?

Kseniya: Yes, we really love that song in my family. I always thought of it as a woman’s song, but the words in the later couplets—which I'd only recently discovered— suggest a groom whose bride had died and he doesn't want to live anymore without her. This just shows that we often appropriate the art in whatever way suits our mood.

Larisa: What is your favourite story in the Snow in May collection? Which one was the easiest and which was the toughest to write?

Kseniya: I honestly don’t have a favourite one. They are like my children, and I love them equally even if somewhat differently. I’ve given my entire heart and mind to each one. I do feel extra tenderness for “Kruchina,” which I started writing in late 2004 as a short screenplay. It’s been with me through a lot! 

Larisa: How long does it take for you to write a story?

Kseniya: The fastest one was “The Witch,” which took just a few months. Usually, each story takes a few years from the spark of an idea to the final draft. I rotate the stories in a big revision cycle with all the different things I’m writing. I am an insufferable perfectionist.

Larisa: Who is usually your first reader? Who offers the most severe critique? Is it easy for a writer to accept critique?

Kseniya: My first readers are several of my writer-friends from NYU, as well as my husband. Both my NYU friends and my agents and editors are very honest when it comes to feedback. My husband is usually left to pick up the pieces of my broken ego. I’m just kidding smile The ego doesn’t belong in the creative space.

It’s always a little uncomfortable to hear criticism—even smart, constructive criticism—but over time I’ve learned not to base my entire self-worth as a writer on one or even five opinions. I am endlessly grateful for a thorough critique from a reader who really gets what I’m trying to do; at the same time, I no longer feel that I have to take into account everyone’s suggestions and please all. I’ve become a little more confident in my own voice.  

Larisa: Are you planning to write more about Russia, or you told your reader everything you wanted to tell about your Russian soul and now it's time to move on to writing about your present in America?

Kseniya: Nope, I’m not done with Russia yet!

Larisa: Are you planning to write in Russian?  Would you consider translating the existing stories and publishing them in Russia?

Kseniya: I’ve never really felt the calling to write in Russian, though I translate a lot of words from Russian when I write. I’m afraid my Russian is not strong enough for professional Russian translation, and I feel like I’d be tempted to rewrite the stories completely. I’d be equally curious and anxious to see someone else do it, though. Would I recognize my stories afterwards? Translation is such a curious animal.

Larisa: How did MFA at New York University affect you as a writer? Did it help to develop your own style or to become more comfortable with your own voice?

Kseniya: It definitely made me more self-assured, in my voice and in the value of what I have to say. I’d like to think that it pushed me along the path I was meant to take but at a greater speed. I had amazing professors who taught me how to read as a writer, how to dissect and deconstruct a short story or a novel so that I could learn from it, how to think about stories differently. My classmates were a joy to have workshops with—I learned as much from them as from the professors—and to discuss books in class and afterwards. It’s so inspiring to hang out every day with a group of people who share your love of language and books as well as the crazy ambition of writing something great.

LarisaKseniya, I know you are an avid reader. Can we speak about your reading preferences? Is there a book (or books) you would always have with you wherever you go and reread over and over again?

Kseniya: I mostly read literary fiction, but I try to read as widely as possible, everything from classics to books in translation to debuts hot off the press. Some of my favorite writers are Alice Munro, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Ian McEwan, Vladimir Nabokov, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aleksandar Hemon, W.G. Sebald, Ludmila Ulitskaya, and Andreï Makine. Makine immigrated from USSR to France in ’87 and writes in French, though his subject matter is mostly Russia. I read him in English. I love the Russian classics, too, all the biggies.

As far as rereading, I keep returning to Childhood. Adolescence. Youth by Leo Tolstoy; Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev; The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald; Novel with Cocaine by A. Ageyev; and certain stories of Chekhov, Munro, Hemon, and Lahiri. 

Larisa: Do you prefer reading in English or in Russian?

Kseniya: I like reading in both language equally. Reading in Russian is always more intense for me; the native language touches a live nerve.

Larisa: As a writer you want to be unique and certainly don't want to imitate anyone. But is there a writer whose talent is sort of leading light for you, the ideal you would like to follow?

Kseniya: Aleksandar Hemon is a bit of a role model for me. He came to America from Sarajevo in ’92 and writes magnificently in English. I love his work. 

Larisa: Now when your book had been published, are you taking some time off and enjoying life of an accomplished author spending your days reading and travelling or you are back to your desk working hard on new stories?

Kseniya: Maybe if the book is a bestseller, my publishers will send me on a world tour of reading and wine-drinking! For now, I feel very happy that this book is done, and it’s as good as I can make it at this time. I’m working on new material and travelling the world via books from the comfort of my couch, with a glass of wine.

Larisa: Kseniya, thank you very much for this opportunity. It's been a great pleasure to read your stories.

Kseniya: Thank you!

To learn more about Kseniya Melnik and her work visit www.kseniyamelnik.com. Snow is May is available May 13, 2014. 

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