Saturday, June 24, 2023

Q&A with Mary Kay Zuravleff




Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of the new novel American Ending. Her other books include the novel Man Alive!. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: You’ve said that American Ending was based on your own family history--can you say more about what inspired you to write this novel, and how you created your character Yelena?


A: The answer to most of your question #1 is in this Daily Beast article I wrote, if I may attach it here:


Basically, I listened to stories about living in a coal-mining town from both sides of my family (all four grandparents were Old Believer Russian Orthodox and were either from Suwalki or their parents were). And I couldn’t find my people on the bookshelf, so I wanted to put them there.


That’s why the book is written in first person and why I made Yelena the first person in the family born here, so the narrative keeps asserting “I am here.”


To create her, I kept drilling down on her insistence about her identity: when the teacher gives lessons on Russia with her family in mind, Yelena says “I am American.” But she also says, How can people see me as American when I live on Russian Hill and am Russian Orthodox? 


Q: This novel is something of a departure for you--was your writing process similar to that of your previous books, or did you find it a different experience?


A: My other books are devoted to imagination, whimsy, and wonder—this one is personal and based on fact. It was challenging to me to invent a story and be “true” to history, family, and religion. And my language was constrained by the era, Yelena’s age, and the immigrants’ lack of education. I turned out to appreciate and find creative language within those constraints!


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Zuravleff richly describes the hardscrabble setting, capturing the horrific working conditions, her characters’ will to provide for their families, and how all of it is stifling to Yelena.” What do you think of that description, and how did you research the novel?


A: Love the PW description. I researched this book up one side and down the other—the goal was to inhabit that research so the characters live and breathe it!


Q: What do you think the novel says about the act of immigrating to the United States, and do you see connections to today's immigration debates?


A: As I said in that Daily Beast article, immigration laws have always and are still capricious, paranoid, sexist, and difficult to navigate.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m at a crossroads as to the next project. Thinking this was going to be several generations, I’ve written many chapters of Yelena’s descendents. But I’m also starting a book set in D.C. with yarn-bombing elderly protesters…


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mary Kay Zuravleff.

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