Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kseniya Melnik's Competing Passion

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kseniya Melnik, author of Snow in May (Henry Holt and Company) talks about how she gets unstuck and where she finds inspiration.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I think I would be a medical doctor or a therapist. I was seriously interested in both professions when I was younger; both have caring and storytelling aspects to them. My grandmother was a doctor, and I worked at her clinic one summer and spent much time hanging out with the doctors. I was fascinated by medical gadgets, scalpels, and other surgical instruments. (The main character in my story “Summer Medicine” shares this early interest of mine.) I took premedical classes in college and afterward and volunteered at the emergency room at a Brooklyn hospital. Writing, of course, was the competing passion, and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to devote enough time and attention to it if I were to be a good doctor, too. I admire writer-doctors: Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Janusz Korczak, Chris Adrian, and many others.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
For Snow in May, I borrowed several situations from life and then developed them in new directions. These premises often come prepackaged with the main players, and I had to decide whether to substitute them with completely fictional creations or model the characters on the people. I found that sticking too closely to real life details froze my imagination; I felt pressure to tell "the true story," which is impossible anyway. I prefer to pick one or two psychological and physical traits that are most interesting to me in the real person and fill in with my imagination from there. So far only my family members have recognized facets of their lives in the book, but they knew I was using some biographical material. They are pleased that I'm interested in telling their stories. 

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I don't know whether it's the best idea I've ever had—in fact, it might’ve been the worst one—but for a while I was really excited about a story in which a girl begins dating the Devil in New York City. My Devil was a sort of exhausted, jaded Wall Street banker type who made deals with singularly ambitious people. It was a bit burdened by description of the mechanics of these deals and explanations of how various celebrities throughout history were connected to the Devil: Caesar, Lincoln, Bonnie and Clyde, Marilyn Monroe, Hitler, etc. I could never quite figure out why the Devil would be interested in my girl-next-door character, though, aside from the fact that maybe he needed someone to take care of him, to offer him a safe haven for respite from his difficult career. 

Where do you do most of your work?
I’ve written at office desks, in libraries and coffee shops, on planes and subways, on a ferry sailing through Alaskan and Canadian waters, and even in a car on cross-country trips. Ideally, I prefer to be alone and in a more relaxed environment, so that I can fool myself into thinking that writing is not hard work. Right now I work at home in El Paso, Texas; my love seat stands by the window from where I can see the Mexican border. I place the computer or a book on a lap desk. With a cup of coffee and my purring cat wedged between me and the computer, it's quite perfect.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I read! I have gotten the majority of my breakthroughs while reading, and I believe that most craft issues can be solved by reading a writer who does excellently whatever gives you difficulty. If you have spent enough time on the story, your brain will continue to work on it subconsciously while you do other things. Reading often engenders surprising connections, so does going for a walk or a run while listening to music that you relate to the story in some way.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Keep writing, keep revising, keep reading, and keep believing in your story and the importance of telling it.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
All kinds of other arts: music, dance, painting and sculpture, film, photographs. Snowy and rainy weather always puts me in the mood for daydreaming. Looking at (not in—that would be creepy!) lit-up windows at night and imagining what kind of people might live in those houses, what kinds of lives they might lead.