Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Q&A with Alina Adams




Alina Adams is the author of the new historical novel My Mother's Secret. Her other books include the novel The Nesting Dolls. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write My Mother’s Secret, and how did you create your character Lena and her family?


A: My July 2020 historical fiction, The Nesting Dolls, was set in Odessa, USSR, of the 1930s; Odessa, USSR, of the 1970s; and present-day Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.


When I started doing book club talks (over Zoom; that’s what happens when your book comes out at the height of a pandemic!), so many readers told me that, while they were very familiar with what was happening in Western Europe in the first half of the 20th century, they had no idea about the havoc Josef Stalin was wreaking in the Soviet Union at the same time.


In addition, the feedback I received was that the 1930s section of The Nesting Dolls was the most compelling, and they wanted to learn more.


I decided that the bulk of my next book would heed the fans’ request and be primarily set in the USSR of the 1930s and 1940s. But where exactly?


I wanted the setting to be unique, educational and, most importantly, dramatic. 


The Jewish Autonomous Region was established in the late 1920s on the border of Russia and China. It was intended to be an alternative to Israel which, at that point in time, was assumed to be a non-starter. Jews would never get a homeland in the Middle East, so why not come to the USSR and set one up there!


Here’s the kicker - people did.


The more I read about the Jewish Autonomous Region, the more convinced I became that it would make a fascinating - and original - location for My Mother’s Secret. What those early pioneers went through, and what happened to them once World War II began, practically made the drama write itself!


As for the “modern-day” section of My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, I set it in San Francisco, California, in the late 1980s.


I was born in Odessa, USSR, but when my family immigrated in 1977, we came to San Francisco, and the 1980s were my teen years. I knew the area, and the Soviet-Jewish community there, quite well.


In addition, the trip back to the USSR which Lena and her mother take draws inspiration from one that my own mother and I embarked on soon after the dawn of perestroika. Though ours had a slightly less dramatic denouement.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I researched the book through a combination of reading Masha Gessen’s brilliant Where the Jews Aren’t, diving into Swarthmore College’s archives, and via this fascinating 1936 Russian language propaganda film


The thing that surprised me the most was that it wasn’t only Soviet and Eastern European Jews who made the trek out to “the end of the world” and Birobidzhan, but that it was Western European Jews, South American, and even North American Jews.


American families sold their US property to pay for the privilege of being able to live in barracks and literal holes in the ground, toil in mosquito-ridden fields from dawn to dusk, labor in soot-encrusted factories, and starve due to harvests made inadequate via the implementation of “scientific” theories exalting how socialism makes crops grow better. (Darwinism was deemed “capitalist, imperialist facism.”)


As one character declares, “The West deliberately pushes their false theory of gradual change to keep the USSR from out-producing them and demonstrating the superiority of our Soviet system. We know evolution can be manipulated to create a superior result [through] Marxist-Leninist principle of revolutionary biologic development.”)


Some were true believers. Classic Jewish-American socialists who wanted to build a Jewish state. They didn’t care where. Others came because they were promised work in spite of the Depression, or an end to antisemitism.


The Nesting Dolls was about innocents caught up in the winds of history. With “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region,” I wanted to write about people who made deliberate choices, who believed that they were in the right, that they were making a difference. And how their idealism fared in the face of brutal and violent reality.


Q: The Foreword Review of the novel, by Erika Harlitz Kern, said, “Love is the driving force in Alina Adams’s intimate novel My Mother’s Secret, set in Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Isn’t love the driving force in any novel? A driving force for good and for bad?


In My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, love certainly drives my heroine, Regina, to put herself and her daughter into dangerous situation after dangerous situation, and to take chances that she never otherwise would have. 


Love is also what compels her to make a decision which she second-guesses for the next four decades. Regina’s self-loathing over what she did poisons her relationship with Lena, and even trickles down to Lena’s relationship with her husband and her daughter. The irony is, it all stems from love.


Q: Given the focus on Russia today, how would you compare Putin's Russia to the Soviet Union you write about in the novel?


A: Vladimir Putin began his career in the KGB. He is still a KGB man, no matter what he calls himself. The Russia of today has the same imperialist ambitions as the Soviet Union, which swallowed up the Baltics on one side, and Asian republics on the other. The invasion of Ukraine proves this without a doubt. 


After the USSR collapsed, anyone who dared express the opinion that the Russia of the present was simply the Soviet Union of the past under new and slicker branding, was accused of being a paranoid warmonger, a brainwashed neo-con, and just a plain old idiot who didn’t understand the situation nearly as well as someone who’d read a whole article on it!


The people running Russia today cut their teeth on implementing Soviet repression. They miss the USSR and their iron-fist rule of law. And they are doing everything they can to bring it back.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Those who like my Soviet-based fiction can check out this serial which I published on SoapHub. Go On Pretending is set during the 1957 Moscow World Youth and Student Festival.


With Stalin gone, Nikita Khrushchev wanted to demonstrate Soviet openness and progress, so he invited the world into his country. Young people of all nationalities descended on the capital to share art, music, drama, and literature in the name of building understanding and world peace. 


Just like The Nesting Dolls was about apolitical victims and My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region was about true believers, Go On Pretending features an interracial American couple who trust the Soviet Union’s promise of a utopia with no racism, antisemitism, classism, or sexism. And how that works out for them through the years.


Also, for soap-opera fans, I go behind the scenes of the genre’s early days, when daytime drama transitioned from radio to television, and share inside secrets of the stumbles and scandals along the way.


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to give book club talks! Here are videos of some of my best ones. Please reach out via: if you’d like me to speak to your synagogue, women’s group, or just digitally pop into your living room. I promise to be fun – and educational!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Alina Adams.

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