Now that is a hook!
I’m super curious about Katia’s life in Soviet Russia and I’m excited that she’s agreed to guest blog for me about it – not once but on a regular basis!
But first, a convo with Katia. Feel free to eavesdrop.
1. Katia, clearly you’re a lover of words and literature. I’m curious - what did you read as a child? And how were your options limited or shaped by the Soviet system?
Well, first of all, keep in mind that I grew up in the 80s and became a teen in the 90s, after perestroika had already opened many doors, and even though there were still political prisoners sitting in the Gulag, information from the West was pouring in by then, and people were pretty much reading everything.
Then again, even if I were born earlier and say had to grow up in the awful stagnant 1970s under Brezhnev (whom I remember only briefly), I think my options as a child would still have been equally open. Kind of ironic when you think about it, because grownups’ choices were much more limited.
Either way, in addition to all the regular childhood propaganda picture books about the nice grandpa Lenin, the Russian fairytales and those by Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm (all of which I absolutely loved), like other Soviet children, I read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” Rudyard Kipling’s short stories and “The Jungle Book,” known in Russian as simply “Mowghli,” things like that. I remember at around 11 years old, reading and re-reading getting into French literature: Voltaire I didn’t like so much, and Balzac I didn’t get at the time, either, but I loved George Sand (considered to be the first French woman writer, 19th century). I was especially crazy for Alexandre Dumas – I re-read “The Three Musketeers” six times and wept at the end every single time!
The Russians have always been fascinated – and enamored by the French culture.
Finally, I just want to add, after I turned 13, my new favorite became “Master and Margarita,” a totally insane fantasy/satire written in the 1930s, by Mikhail Bulgakov, in which the devil himself travels to Moscow where he of course wreaks all kinds of havoc. THAT book didn’t get published until the 60s, well after his death – and was definitely forbidden literature during stagnation, because it pokes fun at the Soviet Union. It is still my absolute favorite book of all time – still influencing my own work and making me laugh out loud every time I read it.
"It's funny when I was a kid I read all this hefty literature, and now it's hard for me to even open a book for grownups (with a few great exceptions). These days I devour American YA, especially contemporary and fantasy.
I am not really on a mission to educate young readers – or anyone about life under communism. The reason I write these stories is because they are making trouble inside me, wanting to come out, driving me crazy sometimes. That said, I think it’s always a nice bonus for young American readers to “see the world:” they are so centered on what’s going on in their own beautiful, rather large, and isolated country. And I don’t blame them for that AT ALL – I think it’s a matter of simple geography: everything, except Canada and South America is just so far away! Of course, now, the world is shrinking, isn’t it, so what better time to find out what life is like – and was like – in far-off corners of the globe.
I think the main two things I’d like the readers to get out of my stories about life under communism is the fear – the pervasive fear people felt of their own government – and worse, their own neighbors, friends, people they wanted to fall in love with. In another story I wrote that is set later, in the 1990s, when Communism was collapsing, I wanted to show the widespread confusion that the changes have created in young people. On the one hand it was exhilarating to find all this freedom, you can be who you are now! Except, who exactly are you now? After learning that half the things you had been told your entire childhood were lies, it is hard to re-forge a new identity.
If I were a publisher choosing titles: I’d mostly go for what other publishers go for, I’d think: fun, quirky reads that make you laugh and cry and push the boundaries of your imagination, no matter what lands and times they are set in. I wouldn't concentrate oon historical fiction only -- but I also wouldn't shy away from it! Also, I think I would try and remember to give the kids the credit they deserve for being intelligent readers, for understanding the subtleties of human emotion, and for knowing right from wrong. Sometimes the grownups worry so much, and overprotect -- from too much emotion, too many story threads, too much information, or even a protagonist who makes wrong decisions. If I were a publisher, I would make it a point to not always assume everything must be explained to the young reader, to not always assume, the kids won’t get this, or they can’t handle that.
3. Can you tell us about your earliest impression or memory in which you felt at odds with the system you were living in? How old were you and what troubled you about it?
My mom was the one who was really at odds with the Soviet system, and she wouldn’t dare just flat out tell me about it, but she kind of let me know in bits and pieces. She told me that there was God, for example, even though Soviet children were taught not to believe that. She also told me I had a grandfather who lived in America, and I often dreamed about it – visiting him in a skyscraper – or even living there, even though we were taught that America was the enemy. The crazy thing was, when I was little, it didn’t feel like a contradiction – what my mom told me, and what I was taught in schools. Those two things were just two separate parts of me that wouldn’t mesh together till later.
I was about nine years old when I became aware that the contradiction was there. I told my mom I had a dream – a very dear dream I would do anything to make happen. She got all excited – she loves dreams, even now. “What is it?” she asked me. I said I wished and I hoped with all my heart that I would become accepted into the Young Pioneers organization – which every kid actually did get accepted into, it was like being a prelude into the Communist Party membership. I distinctly remember her reaction: “Oh,” was all she said. She didn’t say anything else. But her disappointment, it was so loud between us. I was stunned. I realized I had said something wrong – something “not cool” – something that let my mama down.
4. And now here you are, happy to be in the US. How old were you when you came and what brought you here?
I was just a few weeks shy of my 16th birthday. My mom brought me and my grandmother to New York City. We received the status of Refugees, and the fact that my mom was a political dissident, and that her father lived in California helped, of course. By then I was so-o excited to go. When I arrived, the moment my foot stepped into JFK, I felt home. More home than I ever was in Russia. It was a truly mystical moment – like meeting a love of your life. I just felt like this was where I had always belonged.
Maybe if I was older, I would have said that. Because the government, the heavy propaganda, it dominated everything, it probably dominated who you were, too. When I was a really young child, my country probably did define me in too many ways. (And I hope to get into that a little more in some of my upcoming blog posts for you, Joyce. Some of my early childhood memories were actually pretty scary – I have one in mind I am thinking of sharing with you and your readers a bit later.
But even then, even in the scary times under Stalin, in the 1930s, when a wrong joke could send you and your entire family to the camps – or to death, even then there were people who let this awfulness define them – and then there were the brave souls who chose to define themselves, on their own terms. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to do that, if I lived in more oppressive times. I know my mom would have. I guess I am lucky to have been born a little freer.
6. Want to tell us what you’re working on?
My first manuscript, “Castle of Concrete,” set in the early 1990s, against the backdrop of the falling apart Soviet Union, is about a Jewish girl who befriends another Jew, while falling hard for a boy she fears might be an anti-Semite. The story is now on submission to editors, represented by Jessica Regel of Jean V Naggar Literary Agency.
Right now, I am working on another Soviet-based manuscript for teenagers – this one set in Stalin’s late 1930s, the times when the oppression was at its worst. It’s a historical fantasy. I am so sorry, but as this is still a work-in-progress, I am feeling a bit superstitious about telling the world more about it at the moment. If things go well (meaning, if I finish it – no, when I do, and if my agent loves it), I will tell you all about it – hopefully soon!
Thank you so much Joyce for having me!
Oh wow, Katia - the pleasure is entirely mine. I am so touched by your story and so eager for more. I can't wait for that first guest post! (Soon, please!) Oh, and a hearty congrats on getting the agent. I'm cheering for Jessica, you, and Castle of Concrete.