Pass It On

Something Unbelievable BY Maria Kuznetsova. New York: Random House. 288 pages. $27.

Maria Kuznetsova’s fiction is distinguished by her memorable female characters, women who can find wonder—and a wry laugh—even in the darkest moments. Her second novel, Something Unbelievable, introduces two such women: Larissa, a vivacious, acerbically blunt octogenarian living in Kiev, and her granddaughter Natasha, a “weary and ruined and sweat-covered” new mother in a cramped Upper Manhattan apartment. Natasha has lost both of her parents years earlier, and her baby daughter inspires her to reflect on matrilineal inheritance. She asks Larissa to recount her family’s escape from the Nazis, and though Larissa is reluctant, she acquiesces, acknowledging that she otherwise will soon “evaporate” and leave Natasha with “no story to remember.” Larissa unspools her stories of wartime flight, family suffering, and a bittersweet love triangle over weekly Skype calls.

The novel alternates between Larissa and Natasha’s first-person narratives. Larissa reflects on her darkest days with a rich, warm wit. Natasha fumbles through her own blurry darkness, straining to recapture her selfhood and revive her flagging acting career. Each woman offers the other new prisms through which to view their methods of meaning making.

Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, and her own grandmother inspired Larissa’s history. We met over video to discuss the experience of animating family lore in fiction, the challenge of juggling alternating plot lines, and her ambivalent relationship with notions about “immigrant writing.”

The last time we spoke, you described ways that your first novel, Oksana, Behave! is autobiographical. Your new novel has a historical plot line, though it’s juxtaposed with a contemporary story. What was it like to write about someone two generations older?

Writing this novel was so freeing, especially coming off that first novel, which is a coming-of-age story, and other writing projects that could be called “things I naturally obsess over.” In both novels, I was interested in these Soviet ancestors who hover over their supposedly more-free grandchildren’s lives. These elders had hard lives, but also tough humor—so it takes some digging to understand their stories. Writing Something Unbelievable was my chance to go there.

This time, I was doing historical research. That might sound more constraining than writing from life, but it felt more focused. Since Something Unbelievable is based on my grandmother’s life during World War II, I chose to focus on a few discrete moments from her life that I grew up hearing about. For example: her family really did take a train out to evacuate and they really did hide under the train when the Germans bombed them. The kids really did almost starve to death and, like, eat a neighbor’s chocolate bar and get in huge trouble for it. My grandmother’s grandmother really did throw herself under a train (spoiler alert). I had these set pieces to work with. With more autobiographical writing, you can pull from anything, which can be overwhelming—your whole life is a bunch of set pieces. I only had so much to work with my grandmother’s life, so I mined the things I knew and made up the rest.

In the novel, eighty-something Larissa is telling her life stories over Skype to Natasha, her granddaughter. We learn that Natasha has picked up small facts and details from her grandmother’s youth over the years, but that Larissa has always resisted deeper probing about her experiences during World War II—until now. I’m curious about what family lore means to you and how you’ve learned about your own family.

Anecdote is a big part of Jewish culture. When I visit my parents, we just sit down and drink in front of the fireplace. They have one of those revolving photo frames, and a lot of the pictures in them are old, sepia photos of my distant ancestors. There’s one from 1904 of my great-great-grandmother—the one who fell under the train—looking amazing in a boa. She has always fascinated me. Who is this woman who lost everything through the revolution and got so low that she (maybe) committed suicide?

My understanding of my family comes from hearing terrible stories told in a comedic way. In my grandma’s telling, the story about getting in trouble for eating the chocolate bar is hilarious. But when you look at what the story is actually about—her family is starving to death, their neighbor had a lot of food and wouldn’t share it—it’s not funny at all! In writing about these family stories, I got to put my own spin on them. I was thinking about the stories as narratives on their own terms, rather than as objects belonging wholly to the people who first told me them. I had to figure out how to write a story that in itself isn’t funny even if the character telling it is.

The novel felt so fully imagined and truly inhabited, including Larissa’s wartime experiences. Did you have to do much research beyond family conversations?

I went through a stage that was all about picking up on the mood of the war. What was that world like materially, and at the level of the senses? In addition to understanding those years beyond my grandmother’s experience of them, I wanted to have an idea of what everyday things were like at the time, what people were wearing and eating.

I read Life and Fate, that nine-hundred-page monstrosity by Vasily Grossman, which is set in Soviet Russia during World War II. It discusses evacuation and covers a lot of other ground in the form of a novel. And Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize–winning Belausian journalist. She gathers the memories of the children of World War II, as they recall them from adulthood. I also read The 900 Days, Harrison Salisbury’s book about the siege of Leningrad, which took place during the time I was setting my novel in. The siege isn’t really in the novel, but reading about it helped me see what my family might have been feeling before they were evacuated. Of course, the challenge of reading and thinking about the history of the Soviet Union is that the citizens themselves wouldn’t necessarily have known what was really going on as they were living it because the State maintained such a highly controlled narrative.

I have to say, Larissa’s story is just objectively more harrowing than Natasha’s more familiar experiences as a new mom in contemporary New York. How did you think about that contrast, and what did it take to make both voices and plot lines feel urgent?

The earliest version of the book only included Larissa’s perspective. But that draft lacked context. I started thinking, “Should I do a frame? Do I want to set the story off by contrasting it with a younger, contemporary character?” And then I became more invested in the person receiving the story, because she’s the one who’s going to live on with it and carry it with her. I slowly wrote Natasha’s character and found that moving between the two made both more dynamic. Before, it felt flat: here’s my war story. Natasha’s perspective gives Larissa’s more life and more juice.

But to answer the other part of your question about the grandmother’s story being just objectively more harrowing—I think that’s something I struggle with in my own life as an immigrant, and I think it often applies generationally even if you’re not an immigrant. If you come from people whose lives were way harder than yours, how do you live up to that? And how is your story still interesting?

My way around that was to have Natasha ask those questions in the novel. She’s still a human being. Just because her grandmother suffered doesn’t mean that she’s not allowed to feel sad cause she can’t work and has postpartum depression. That’s a “me” problem, a false dichotomy I didn’t want to give my book or my characters.

Natasha is an actor in 2017 New York City, and she speaks a lot about feeling boxed into taking on “Russian” or “Jewish roles”—specifically, she’s often auditioning for roles as a “Russian prostitute.” It’s a source of a lot of humor in the book, but it’s also clearly a limiting, frustrating force, which reminded me of comments you’ve made about what it’s like to be an “immigrant writer.”

Yeah, I mean the cover art for my first novel was an extended middle finger with a Russian doll on it. That book announced itself as an “immigrant book.” Being an immigrant shapes how I see the world and myself, and the novel is autobiographical; but so much of that story was about working in Silicon Valley and Oksana meeting her husband and things in a young person’s life that aren’t at all explicitly to do with being an immigrant.

This book is presented differently. We have this cover with a train, which I love. The other option featured, like, a frying pan and a Ukrainian character and flowers that looked “ethnic.”

To me, this novel is a story about women first, and mothers first, and history. Yes, these women and mothers are Russian, they’re characters from Ukraine, but that’s not all there is to them. And I wanted to push back against the imperative that immigrants of my origin should write about oppression in a specific way—that is, not in a funny way.

I am an immigrant, but it’s only one part of me, and I want my books to appeal to people who aren’t just looking for an “immigrant story.” The older I get, the shorter the proportion of my life that I spent in Ukraine becomes. And my grandmother isn’t there anymore. It’s not that I have no connection left to it, but there are other things that I’m interested in. That’s not to say that I won’t always think of myself as an immigrant, but that I have other identities as well.

What’s next for you?

With this book coming out, I’ve been writing essays on the theme of motherhood, and I’m working on another Oksana book about motherhood. The first book spanned two decades. This one starts with a pregnancy loss and spans about two years. After that, I’m hoping to do something really different. I’m reaching the point of being very “mothered out,” you know? Not with my own daughter, but in my writing. It’s not like anyone forced me to write about family dynamics, it’s what I was interested in, but I’m done with it for now. I did feel a need to write about motherhood, and about my postpartum depression. Like I said about writing as an immigrant, I want to explore other subjects.

Now I’m hoping to move on to a project about a character who doesn’t start a family over the course of the book. I teach a class for Catapult on the young narrator, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing a younger character who stays young, like a high schooler who remains a high schooler for the duration of the book. Someone who doesn’t have a kid, doesn’t get married.

On the other hand, I also want to write a third-person family novel. I tend to kill off all the parents in my writing, because I find that the relationships are so complicated that they can be distracting. Like, in earlier drafts of this book, Natasha had a dad. But I didn’t want him stopping by to talk all the time—it was too much. I want to write a book where I haven’t killed anyone off and see what happens there.

Alex Madison is a writer based in Seattle.