Katya Apekina is the author of two novels, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish (Two Dollar Radio) and her latest, Mother Doll (Abrams Books). Mother Doll is a ghost story. A historical dive into the Russian Revolution. A pearl necklace of intergenerational matrilineal trauma. “The baby will have shards of all of us in it whether Zhenichka likes it or not,” says the ghost of Zhenia’s great-grandmother Irina, referring to Mother Doll’s pregnant protagonist’s unborn child. As the cover and title suggest, the novel is a matryoshka, a Russian nesting doll of a book—as eclectically expansive as it is neatly bound. It follows the young recently pregnant Russian translator Zhenia as she searches for purpose amidst a failing marriage, a dying grandmother, and a demanding ghost of a great-grandmother who insists on reciting her memoir through a medium named Paul, amongst other things. Apekina manages to weave a story that is somehow as humorous as it is weighted with ancestral grief. I spoke to Apekina over Zoom about the Russian soul, American niceness, ancestral hauntings, the books that inspired Mother Doll, and more.

The below interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Diana Ruzova: So let’s start with something light. Tell me about the Russian soul. What does it mean to you? Why is it so mysterious and fascinating? Can it exist in today’s fraught war-ravaged politically divided world? Is literature where it belongs? 

Katya Apekina: Oh, that’s such a good question. When I was talking about the Russian soul in the book, I was sort of being tongue in cheek, but also serious at the same time. I do feel like it exists in literature. I think it probably exists outside of capitalism. I think it’s connected to obsession. A depth of suffering. I’m thinking about it in terms of the individual versus the collective. The tension between those things and where the Russian soul fits into that, because it seems important.

I think it’s doused in suffering. And how you deal with the suffering.

Yes, but when I think of suffering it is often looking really inward and disconnecting you from other people. But that’s not necessarily how I think of the Russian soul at all. I think of it as acknowledging our suffering, our collective suffering. I think of it as a connection point with other people. Exquisite pain. I think there’s also a perverse enjoyment of suffering. It’s like, there’s something kinky about it.

That’s great. I totally agree. And that explains the Eastern European attitude that a lot of Americans just can’t understand.  

It does feel very dramatic. Fatalistic. Because it acknowledges those truths and that pain. There’s also humor and warmth in it. So when I think of it being confronted with more of a fake “can do” sort of American Protestant we-don’t-acknowledge-pain-type, like we smile to make other people comfortable, but we’re withering on the inside, I see how different they are. 

“He had a niceness Zhenia lacked and a desire to make the people around him comfortable—in short, he wasn’t very Russian.” I double underlined this line about Zhenia’s American-born younger brother and immediately sent it to my cousin Shura who was raised in the Soviet Union. She replied with an all caps LOL. This distinction is so poignant. I teeter somewhere between Zhenia’s brother’s niceness and the detached coldness of some of my older Eastern European relatives. But mostly, I am like Zhenia’s brother. What about you? 

I don’t like conflict. It stresses me out. But I also don’t feel like that kind of niceness comes naturally to me at all. It’s a learned behavior that I’ve had to acquire with great difficulty in order to be a functional member of American society. If you are raised with people who are very critical and very blunt like we were, that is annoying in a lot of ways, but on the positive side, it’s like everything is very much laid out. I don’t feel like I have to hide myself. I’ll be criticized no matter what. It’s just a fact. But the criticism is not the same thing as not being accepted. I’m accepted and criticized, and that’s a distinction that I think is important. Because sometimes in families where there’s no criticism, there’s also a distance or rejection. Ideally, you can be accepted and not criticized constantly.

That sounds nice. 

In your LARB interview with Sasha Vasilyuk, you mention that your grandmother wrote a memoir about her tragic losses during World War II. I’m curious why you chose to focus on the Russian Revolution for Mother Doll? Did this stem from any personal fascination? 

My own grandmother wrote a memoir that inspired this book in a lot of ways. When I was reading it and translating it for my daughter, I felt like I was in conversation with my grandmother after she died, which is what this book is about: a person talking to their ancestors. I wasn’t writing about my actual grandmother or about myself. Even though I took these sorts of elements that were interesting to me, and my own experience, I really placed them in something completely unrelated to me. 

I was interested in the revolution. I started writing this book in 2016. Everything that I had taken for granted in the US, our democracy, started to feel a lot shakier than it ever had before. I think for many people. I was thinking about the political instability. I wanted to write about something historical, to give myself some distance. 

I’m also very interested in the individual versus the collective. This sense of losing yourself in something bigger than yourself and how intoxicating that can be. How powerful and how dangerous it could be. I don’t think it’s inherently good or bad. The protagonist Zhenia’s great-grandmother Irina was a revolutionary. She was a teenager, a punk-rock type with a burn-everything-down ideology. She doesn’t have a super developed philosophy. She’s just sort of being guided by people around her. I did a ton of research for this. And I think there are and were plenty of people like that.

It’s so interesting how these big movements just sweep people under them or into them.

The things that Irina was rejecting, like living in Imperial Russia, were pretty terrible. And so that sense of righteousness is very powerful. And can propel you to do things that are . . . you know, she kills people. 

My boyfriend is in library school, and I feel like I have inadvertently become research-obsessed reading all his papers. I would love to hear a little bit about your research process. 

I started doing research for this book in 2016. I was in Mexico City for the summer, and I had visited Trotsky’s house, where he was exiled. Actually seeing a physical space from history, where a historical figure lived, where all the objects are still there, was so exciting and interesting. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to write. Something connected to the Russian Revolution, but I didn’t have any characters yet. I didn’t have the story really—that came to me later. I was connecting these disparate pieces. I’m not in any way a historical expert. It took a lot of me just trying to get a bird’s eye view of what exactly was happening during this time. There are several short months in history that I know a lot about. At first I was like, “Oh, I need to know everything. I can’t start writing until I’m an ‘expert.’” But the reality became so clear that I would never write anything because it takes a lifetime to become an expert. 

So, I followed intuition within the research. Once I knew who my characters were, I was able to focus that research. I was reading diaries and oral histories and memoirs. Some amazing first person accounts, with different amounts of distance. The diaries of Marina Tsvetaeva from her years in Moscow during the revolution from the New York Review of Books. They also put out these three books by Teffi. She was a journalist who wrote under a single name. She’s a really fascinating figure. She was sort of a humorist, but had a dark sense of humor. She was able to appeal to all sides of the political spectrum somehow and survive, while also being not dishonest. Looking back, I was also reading novels that were written at the time, about the time or near the time. I was also reading alongside more contemporary historical books, just to orient myself, and get the big picture sense of what all these details mean. 

Were you reading/researching in English? Or in Russian?

I can read in Russian, but I was reading mostly in English because I read a lot faster in English. A lot of the books that I have already read in Russian, that I grew up on, like Bulgakov’s The White Guard and The Master and Margarita inspired Mother Doll. The Master and Margarita was a major inspiration. It was a book I read so many times growing up. 

During your book launch interview at Skylight with Ottessa Moshfegh, you mentioned how your fascination with literature started young. You took Russian literature classes in middle school. How did this early education shape you as a writer? Did you always want to write?

I was forced to take these classes. This wasn’t something I liked. But there was a lot of social stuff that I enjoyed. We would put on plays. And there were parties and spin the bottle and things like that. I was there for spin the bottle, not for the Russian literature. The literature was so beyond age appropriate. 

That feels so Russian. 

You mentioned that you weren’t sure if you wanted to be a writer back then. What made you decide to write? 

When I was really little I wanted to be a spy. I was obsessed with Harriet the Spy. When I was a kid, I would eavesdrop on people and take notes just like a spy, you know? So I feel like that’s kind of the makings of a writer. But I don’t think I was in any conscious way interested in writing until college when I took a writing class. Before that I was more interested in visual art.

Because your mother is an art teacher? 

Yes, she’s a ceramic artist. She also teaches.

The dialogue in Mother Doll is so good and often hilarious. I especially love the scenes with Paul the medium and his partner Sergio and the moments where Irina breaks out of her memoir trance and addresses the people in the room she is channeling through. You’re also a screenwriter. Does writing dialogue come easy to you? What do you love most about writing dialogue?

I do love writing dialogue. It does come easily to me. I just hear it in my head. I always thought that this would make me a great screenwriter, but it turns out that writing dialogue is probably the least important part of screenwriting. The things that are a lot more important to being a screenwriter are things that I struggle with naturally. With screenwriting, it’s actually so much more about formulas. It’s so much about structure. It’s like a completely opposite process. Writing fiction is like this intuitive growing thing, while writing a screenplay is like building a skeleton and then putting on its flesh. And it’s interesting because I feel like doing both. But writing fiction is a lot more natural for me. 

I feel like I’ve inherited the good and the bad and all the insecurities in between from the women in my family. There’s a great quote in Mother Doll, “The baby will have shards of all of us in it, whether Zhenia likes it or not.” This intergenerational matrilineal trauma is a connecting thread throughout the novel. Overall, the story feels very Soviet Jewish, in particular. I’m wondering, why is it important to tell the story from a Soviet Jewish lens?

I feel like that is probably just me drawing on what I know. It wasn’t something I was consciously wanting to tell. I’m Soviet Jewish. So that’s just the flavor of trauma that I know. But I think most immigrants who come to the US, they’re fleeing from something. And their trauma is just a different flavor.

Like you, I was also born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to the US as a toddler. So much of my life and my own writing is centered around belonging. I found Zhenia’s character to be both familiar and infuriating. She clings so tightly to this ideal version of her grandmother Vera without allowing space for her own personal development. Why is she so infuriating?

That’s such a good point. Right? Like her allegiance or loyalty to her grandmother stunts her in some ways. And it makes it so that she can’t see her mother objectively because she’s enmeshed with her grandmother. It would be disloyal to see the world differently from her grandmother. At the same time, there’s a longing to become her own person. And she has to go all the way to Los Angeles, to have that physical space. She hasn’t visited her grandmother in her final years. Part of it is she doesn’t want to see her deteriorating. It’s difficult to see someone deteriorating, and scary, so she clings to that as her excuse. She can’t become her own person or see things clearly until her grandmother dies. I think Zhenia is infuriating, but I think she’s also young, like she’s in her early twenties. Who isn’t infuriating in their early twenties? You’re learning to become a person in the world. You don’t understand that you do have agency, that your actions affect other people. She thinks that she’s so insignificant. Her behavior doesn’t matter. What she does to other people doesn’t matter. I guess it’s low self esteem.

She is haunted by her great-grandmother Irina. I am a firm believer that we are haunted by our ancestors and their stories and the need to tell them or bury them. What is your relationship with ancestral hauntings? How did they influence the writing in this book? What haunts you? 

I’ve never literally been haunted by my ancestors. I think we’re all haunted in the sense that we’re epigenetically haunted and we’re raised by people who are raised by people who are raised by people. I was just thinking about my great-grandmother, who came to the US when I was little. She was a double amputee. And a chemist, a biochemist. And she raised three daughters. I don’t know if my mother had the warmest relationship with her, but I think people are very different with different people in different generations. 

That’s something that I talk about in the book, where Zhenia has one kind of relationship with her grandmother, Vera, who she’s very close with, but Vera and Zhenia’s mother, Marina, have a completely different relationship. Vera was not a good mother to Marina. She didn’t want to be a mother. She wasn’t emotionally available. She had a very difficult life. She had reasons to be the way that she was. 

I wanted to show in the book how people have reasons to be the way that they are. Zhenia has a reason to be the way that she is, but also that way changes through time, as she addresses these generational traumas. That sense of passivity, of frozenness, of just being stuck in her life, of having no agency—that is a direct result of the way she was raised and the pressures that were put upon her. And the pressures that were on her mother and her grandmother. And when she’s able to address those more head on, and understand these things about herself, then she’s able to shift things in herself. And it’s not a 180 overnight. By the end of the book, she’s different, but she’s not that different. It’s the beginning of a process of her becoming more connected with her actual self, of being able to sort out the baggage, the hauntings that she was handed and what is authentic to her. That’s a messy process. 

Diana Ruzova is a writer based in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in literature and creative nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her interviews, reviews, essays, and articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, LAist, BOMB, Flaunt, Oprah Daily, New York Magazine’s The Cut, and other publications.

Katya Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter, and translator. Her new novel, Mother Doll, is out now. Her debut, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus, Buzzfeed, and others, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. Katya translated poetry and prose from Russian for Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008), short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. She lives in Los Angeles.

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