Ella Leya is the author of the new novel The Orphan Sky. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, she received asylum in the United States in 1990. A singer and composer, she lives in Laguna Beach, California, and London.
Q: How did you come up with your main character, Leila, and how much were her experiences based on your own?
A: The whole thing started with a sort of memoir. I came to the U.S. as a single mother, and a few years later I lost my son to leukemia. I threw myself into my music. We’re all human beings—music was survival. I felt I had almost run out of music, and then it came.
I met the first Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson. It was six months after I lost my son, and she said, You have to sit and write and pour it all out on paper. I wrote, in a way, a memoir, and put it in a drawer and that was it.
After doing [the CD] Russian Romance, I looked at the material and started playing with it. Gradually, as I started going more into my childhood, the changes happened naturally.
Of course, Leila is me, and she’s also a composite of my sister, a wonderful pianist. Leila is a composite of the women and girls I was, my sister was, my girlfriends were. It felt right. I think she thinks like me.
Q: Did you have to research the time period in which the book is set, or did you mostly rely on your own memories?
A: Emotional memory was wonderful, but I needed facts too. I asked my dad to find a map of old Baku. Everything is different now. [Remembering] intersections, parks—a lot of research went into that. I had to go back and learn a lot, also.
I’ve done a few events for British and European Azerbaijani groups. They all remark on the fact that it’s almost like a time capsule.
Q: How do writing and music complement each other for you?
A: Immensely. I say that it’s almost the same thing for me, floating between words, notes, and melody. I learned English from [listening to] Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. It came to me through emotional expressions.
That’s how I started writing in English. I had never written prose in Russian. Having a thought, and forming it into a musical phrase. The process of writing was very musical. Writing prose is also very inspiring for me [in] writing new music…
Q: In the book, when you describe Leila’s playing the piano, it’s very powerful.
A: [One book review] pointed to the synesthesia there of music, art, and word….[I realized] I did not hear music through my ears but through imagery, forms, and colors, and with my fingertips. I sit at a concert and unless I see imagery, I really cannot absorb the music.
Q: What role do you see religion playing for Leila, and in the book overall?
A: This is very accurate, though I grew up Jewish and Leila is Azerbaijani. Azerbaijan was a secular Communist republic based on Islamic tradition. It’s very complex.
Traditionally, religion—we called it folk religion. It was in certain customs, celebrations, certain restrictions on women. On the other hand, we had Communism, with feminism and equality. We grew up as atheists. Religion was a hydra, an enemy.
In the historical aspect, religion does play some role here. 1979 [saw] radical Islam in Iran [and clashes] in Afghanistan. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War, [and by the end] two opposing forces remained, the Western world and radicalism. In that respect, to me it’s very important. 1979 was a crucial year in our recent history.
For Leila, it’s atheism, with respect for folk religion.
Q: What do you hope those readers who are not familiar with Azerbaijan learn from the book?
A: It was not the intention of writing the book…[As an immigrant,] I wanted to be American. Then you realize the land of your childhood, nobody knows where it is. I realized I was on some sort of mission to introduce Azerbaijan to a Western audience….
Azerbaijan is an important nation. The book put me in touch with the Azerbaijani diaspora after 23 years of being in the West.
Another aspect that’s more important to me is exploring the artistic experience, exploring the notion of freedom for the artist, internal and external freedom….I was trying to understand myself. You get to the West and you don’t have external oppression. How free an artist can you be?
What I want people to wonder about: What is this world of artists? How do they exist? What do you sacrifice for art?
Q: What are you working on now? Both writing and music?
A: I agreed to do a show in New York, a program I was going to do 10 years ago and cancelled at the time. I am preparing a program of songs with piano. It’s just going to be me with a couple of special guests.
I’m returning back on stage, thanks to this book. I wasn’t planning on it. Step by step, it brought me back to the stage.
In terms of writing, I’m working with a jazz journalist, Don Heckman. We are working on a novel about rock and roll in New York in 1969. It’s far away from the theme of this book!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb