CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR
When did you start writing?
My first writing attempts date from the age of four. The earliest preserved story starts, rather dramatically, with a knock on the door; when the princess answers the door, she finds several princes behind it, “all in a row handsome.”
From that age, I wrote continuously. When we lived in Prague, we had a family tradition: every year I would write a long tale, my father would then type it (“Original orthography and punctuation preserved,” as our title page invariably announced) and bind it, I would supply illustrations, and we would present the resulting book as a gift to my mother on her birthday. Three or four of these books have survived. The first one, "Tale of a Lazy Princess,” composed when I was seven, was rather autobiographical in nature: the heroine was a princess who resented being told by her father the king to make her bed or cook him dinner; naturally, there was a suitable moral, as her domestic training stood her in good stead when she was kidnapped by a dragon with a liking for neatness and gourmet meals.
Could you tell us about your education in Prague and Moscow?
My three years in a Soviet school in Prague were full of red banners unfurling, Lenin busts towering over marble staircases, mass outings to black-and-white films eulogizing Soviet heroes, songs about Lenin’s birthday, and much else in a similar vein (the school was, after all, a Soviet outpost in a nearly Western environment), but I was too young to notice, too in love with the magic of Prague, and generally too busy having a very happy childhood.
The world seemed so much starker upon our return to Moscow in 1981: the neighborhood school, to which I had been assigned, turned out to be a grim, oppressive place. After a year or two I started looking for another school. I finally transfered in 1984, just after turning thirteen. The new school, known throughout Moscow simply as “Number 45,” was a marked contrast to the old. It emphasized English studies, was challenging and progressive, and full of amazing teachers, from a wonderful if quirky principal (whose old-guard ideas of Marxist equality included, among other things, banning earrings for girls and mandatory crew cuts for boys, yet who let us read Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye in the vernacular) to our literature teacher, my favorite, who quite happily ignored the prescribed Soviet curriculum in favor of Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Kirkegaard. It was a unique place to be, brimming with stories and characters, and it created a fascinating daily backdrop to the fascinating changes just beginning in the world outside.
How did you become a student at Emory University?
In 1988, after my high school graduation, I enrolled in the journalism school of the Moscow State University. My choice of subject was not accidental—writing had been one of the few constants in my life, and journalism was in my blood: my grandmother, mother, brother, and sister-in-law were, or had at one point been, journalists; my father taught courses at the department; a couple of my cousins were attending the program at the time. What followed, however, was entirely accidental: chosen as one of the interpreters for a group of visiting academics from Emory University, I met and talked at length with one Dr. Ellen Mickiewicz, a prominent scholar of Soviet mass media. When she casually asked whether I would like to come to Emory, I casually replied, “Sure.” I thought it to be joking banter and soon forgot all about it, but some months later, in the spring, I received a letter from the University President, offering me a one-way ticket to Atlanta and a full four-year scholarship. It so happened that I would be the first Russian citizen ever to graduate with an American college degree.
What was your career path after college?
I have always been interested in trying my hand at different things. During my college years, I worked at a snack bar (a crash course in unfamiliar sodas and candy bars), in a video arcade (quite an education in American comic book superheroes), and in a post office during Christmas season (an eye-opening, if exhausting, experience). For one summer I was a hostess at a fashionable after-hours café, where I was hired, I was told, for my accent and my then-predominantly-black wardrobe; I gave dessert tours, and learned a lot about coffee and chocolate. I even tried a stint at Victoria’s Secret; I did not last very long, though, as I did not own any frilly skirts or floral dresses, which I seem to remember as an unwritten requirement.
As my 1993 graduation neared, I faced the quandary of where to go after college, and did something unexpected: I applied to law schools. I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do, apart from writing (which, as everyone told me, was no way to make a living). I had taken a couple of classes at the Emory law school, and I thought them rather interesting; it seemed an easy, if somewhat random, choice, not to mention an effective means of pursuing the American Dream. Luckily, I tried working at a Washington, DC law firm for a year before making my final decision—and soon realized that such a life, perks and all, was not for me. The grueling experience left me no time for writing, and after many unhappy months I quit on an impulse, moved to a basement studio, found a job as a waitress in a local jazz bar, bought a typewriter, and began work on a short story. The next year or two were not easy, but after a while I started publishing my first short pieces. Eventually, in 1996, I happened upon a perfect job as an editor at Harvard University’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute. I worked there until I could dedicate myself to full-time writing. I left in early 2001 to work on my first novel.
What authors do you most admire?
I have to start with Nabokov and Gogol, my two favorite writers, but the list is quite long, and I add to it all the time. In no particular order, then: Chekhov, Andrei Bely, Bulgakov, Flaubert, Proust, Apollinaire, Laurence Sterne, Tove Jansson, Henry James, Paul Bowles, Jorge Luis Borges, Jean Rhys, Lewis Carroll, Bohumil Hrabal, Dino Buzzati, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Dante, and the poets of the Russian Silver Age, to name just a few.