An Interview with Kseniya Melnik, by Celia Johnson

In Kseniya Melnik’s Snow in May, you’ll meet a group of disparate characters who are all somehow inextricably bound to Magadan, Russia. This town, like its inhabitants, is full of stark contrasts: the Russian labor camps, the forbidding landscape, and still there is hope, courage, and even the arts flourish. I spoke with Melnik about her hometown, her unwavering dedication to writing, and her creative quirks.

SNOW in MAY jacket

After growing up in Magadan, then moving to Alaska as a teen, and later to Texas, what was your experience returning to your hometown through fiction?

Since I didn’t know much about the fascinating history of Magadan when I lived there, in writing Snow in May I was uncovering my own cultural and historical heritage, and often I felt like I was building my fictional environment from scratch. I had the emotional building blocks, so to speak, from my childhood memories, I knew the color palette, the atmosphere, the weather. I had a certain “feel” about Magadan, but that wasn’t quite enough to create a vivid setting. I did a lot of research about Magadan’s roots as the portal into a vast Gulag network in the 1930-1950s, Magadan’s boom in the 1960-1970s, and its decline in the 90s—some aspects of which I could remember from my teenage years. I tried to imagine what it might have felt like to live there as an adult, or in the decades prior to my birth. Through writing these stories, I think I came to better understand my parents and grandparents. Of course, this also applies to stories in the collection that are set not in Magadan but in other cities that are in some way connected to my family history.

At the same time, I felt like I was rediscovering Magadan. Many of the rumors I’d heard, snippets from adult conversations, monuments or memorials in town, certain photographs in the museum or the theater started making sense. Magadan is a unique place, its legacy both tragic and triumphant. For a writer, such a place is a goldmine of material and inspiration.

A boy struggling at a piano recital, a young woman contemplating divorce, and an elderly man avoiding an old friend, just to name a few… The characters in this collection aren’t bound by age or gender. Did you find it challenging to assemble such a broad cast? Were any characters particularly elusive?

I didn’t find it any more challenging than other aspects of literary craft. I am usually most interested in creating characters that are the furthest away from me in personality and social standing. There is a certain freedom in embodying a voice and psychology that is so different from your own. And yet, I think there is a small part of me in all of my creations, and connecting to that part helps in drawing a more complex character.

None of your characters are complete heroes or villains, and yet, in their relatively ordinary lives, there are moments of heroism or villainy. And some of the villainy is quite shocking! I’m thinking of the dance teacher who doesn’t understand his own dark infatuation. Also, the new wife and mother who watches her husband come close to death without trying to save him. There’s more, of course. What draws you to investigate the lines that everyday people cross or, in some cases, simply consider crossing?

I think people have a huge capacity for extreme action and, under certain circumstances, will surprise themselves. I wanted to observe my characters in situations where they behaved in ways that both sprang out of some kernel of their personality and yet were also completely unexpected to the reader and, most of all, to the characters themselves. Such twists are interesting to me as a reader of fiction as well.

What’s your creative process? Are you an obsessive reviser? And do you have any quirks, like writing in a particular color or only at night?

My first drafts tend to be pretty messy and excessively long. Before I start writing, I usually have a setting, some characters, the inklings of a conflict, and the idea of an ending. I write an “exploratory draft,” lightly outlining a few scenes ahead. When done, I put it away without reading it, then come back after some time and write the official first draft. I pay no attention to language at this point because I know that I’ll cut or change most of the sentences. I do, however, pay great attention to characters’ motivations and might write out the emotional trajectories of the main characters within scenes on paper and work out their development. I will probably share my second draft with some trusted early readers. I do revise obsessively and radically and, often, for years. I usually start revising on a structural level, then zoom in with each version from scenes, to paragraphs, to sentences and, finally, words and punctuation. In final polishing drafts, I can get quite obsessed with commas and m-dashes.

In terms of schedule, my perfect set-up is to read in the morning, then write for several hours. I love to go running afterwards so I can keep thinking about the story. I’ve gotten many ideas while running. I can force myself to do light editing in the evenings if I’m under a deadline, but usually I’m too tired and my head is too polluted with the detritus of the day. Often times, however, the set-up is not perfect. I’ve written before work, during lunch and on weekends. I’ve used a typewriter a few times for early drafts, when I needed to slow down, but usually I just use a Mac. I write in the writing program called Scrivener; I also take a lot of notes and sometimes write out whole paragraphs and scenes in notebooks. Sometimes I use the online program WorkFlowy to organize notes and research. Though I also have separate notebooks for research. It’s a complicated, unexplainable system. 🙂

Which writers, past or present, inspire you?

Alice Munro, Ian McEwan, Aleksandar Hemon, Andrei Makïne, W.G. Sebald, Nicole Krauss, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Scarlet Thomas, Vladimir Nabokov, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov, Nicolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Edith Wharton.

Where do you write?

I hate writing at a desk! I write on a recliner chair or a love seat with my laptop on a lap desk. All my books, notebooks, and libations (coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon, wine in the evening) are on a little table within reach. My cat is usually napping somewhere close by; sometimes, right on my lap as I type over her. I will write anywhere, though, if I don’t have access to my favorite love seat: I have written at office desks, in libraries and coffee shops, on planes and subways, on ferries and in cars. I probably cannot write while walking. Yet.

Kseniya Melnik - writing space

As a debut author, what advice do you have for other aspiring writers?

I would say that aspiring writers, or any writers for that matter, should read as much, if not more, as they should practice writing. Read as widely as you can: you’ll find solutions to most craft problems and help with writer’s block in other books. Revise, revise, revise. Don’t rush into publication or spend enormous time hunting down an agent. When you’re ready, things will happen easier and faster. Listen to smart readers and writers’ critique of your writing, but up to a point. Don’t buy into literary or market fads; be true to your interests but stay open-minded. Always question; be a good listener. Learn to appreciate other types of art. Inspiration and opportunities for learning are everywhere.

Photo credit: Kseniya Melnik

Celia Johnson is a writer and the Creative Director of Slice. Her most recent book is Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors.

Kseniya Melnik was born in Magadan, in the northeast of Russia, and immigrated to Alaska at age fifteen. She graduated high school a year early and attended Colgate University, where she majored in Sociology. After college, she moved to New York City and worked in independent film, classical music PR, pharmaceutical sales, real estate, and at law firms, all the while writing on the side, participating in numerous writing groups, and taking creative writing workshops at The New School. She earned an MFA from New York University and taught introductory fiction and poetry there, as well as several private workshops online at Our Stories Literary Journal. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Prospect (UK), Virginia Quarterly Review, and, in 2010, was selected for Granta Magazine’s New Voices series. She currently lives in El Paso, Texas.