Alina Adams is the author of the new novel The Nesting Dolls. Born in the USSR, she moved to the United States as a child, and now lives in New York City.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Nesting Dolls, and for your cast of characters?
A: I was born in the former Soviet Union and immigrated to the U.S. with my parents in 1977. I have previously written romance novels, figure skating murder mysteries, and soap opera tie-ins. But, whenever I tried to pitch a story set in the USSR, I was told, "Russia doesn't sell, no one is interested."
About three years ago, I was speaking to my agent, and she told me, “You know, Russia is very hot right now!” (I wonder why!) She also told me that editors were getting tired of Holocaust books. So I said, "What about the USSR in the 1930s? You can get all of your Jewish suffering, but in a new setting!"
As a result, The Nesting Dolls is set in Odessa, USSR in the 1930s, during Stalin's Great Terror; in Odessa, USSR in the 1970s, during The Great Stagnation and the campaign to free Soviet Jews; and 2019 Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where so many Soviet Jewish immigrants ended up settling. (And before COVID!)
I love to read family sagas, so I made all my characters multiple generations of the same family. Five generations of women who, because of the time and place where they lived, had to make very different decisions in order to survive.
Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The book went through multiple titles. I'd initially called it Love Is Not a Potato. Because that's the first line of the book and refers to the Russian expression, “Love is not a potato. If it goes bad, you can't throw it out the window.” (It rhymes in Russian and, as we learned from The Lego Movie, everything is true because it rhymes.)
My agent thought it sounded like a children's book. So I changed it to Mother Tongue, because a big theme in every woman's story is communication, both the political - in the USSR, saying the wrong thing or even speaking the wrong language can get you deported to Siberia - and the personal, parents and children not saying what they mean, or misunderstanding what is said.
My editor thought Mother Tongue sounded like a nonfiction title. We wanted a title that suggested Russia, as well as love, family, and relationships.
Unable to think of anything, I turned to Facebook, where one of my friends offered The Nesting Dolls. Nesting dolls are dolls where one is inside the other, inside the other, inside the other. It was perfect, since, inside everyone, are all the family members who came before, and what they lived through. They're what makes you, you!
Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I did a great deal of research for the 1930s section, especially about what life was like for the entire families who were deported to Siberia as enemies of the state. The most fun research was for the 1970s Odessa section. I took my own childhood memories, and then combined them with my parents' recollections, as they were the age then that my characters are in the story.
My parents would get random emails from me asking about how public bathhouses worked, or where someone applying to Odessa University would wait, or what the back of the Odessa Opera House looked like (I found lots of pictures online of the front, but not the back).
I checked what food was available, what people wore, how much things cost, and all about life in a kolhoz - which is when university students were forced to work in the countryside at harvest time. I think I did a pretty good job, as so many of my parents' friends have told me reading The Nesting Dolls was like reliving their youth!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm writing a proposal for my next book, also set in the USSR, but in a different region, with different characters.
I am intrigued by the stories of those who were true believes, who really thought Communism would be good for Jews and all other minorities and disenfranchised peoples, and what they thought of how it turned out, not to mention that, by the end of their lives, they saw what they'd fought for, what those they loved had died for, completely collapse and prove to be a total sham.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Even though The Nesting Dolls is my first book actually set in the USSR, my figure skating mysteries touched upon Russian athletes and what that system was like, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, when everyone was left to fend for themselves. It's a less often told story, but an interesting one.
If anyone would like an autographed copy of the The Nesting Dolls, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your address, and I am happy to mail you a signed bookplate.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Alina Adams will be speaking virtually at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington on Wednesday, Sept. 9.