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Kseniya Melnik: On Writing about Russia & the Pros & Cons of Getting an MFA

Kseniya Melnik, author of Snow in May - peoplewhowrite

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik started writing Snow in May: Stories (set for a May 2014 release) almost 10 years ago, initially conceiving the oldest story in the collection — “Kruchina” — as a short screenplay. Born in Magadan, Russia and raised in Alaska from the age of 15, Melnik sourced inspiration from family memories, personal experiences, and nostalgia.  “Underpinning all of [the stories in Snow] is Russia as a setting,” she explained in an email. “Its history, its weather, the look of its cities and towns, its ‘atmosphere.'”

From the first draft of “Kruchina” through the decade that followed, Melnik juggled a day job and completed her MFA at New York University; eking out writing time before work, during lunch breaks, and on weekends careful not to kill herself with all-nighters. “It’s good to know your limitations and try not to drive yourself to a nervous  breakdown from overwork,” she wrote. “Ultimately, all the hours you write add up — not always to a finished story or novel, but you’re always learning, practicing your art and craft. It’s never a waste.”

Maintaining a marathoner’s steady pace, Melnik read as much as she wrote. “I feel a kind of deficiency of raw material, of basic language DNA, if I don’t read literary fiction for several days,” she continued. She workshopped early drafts of Snow in classes at The New School and in her MFA program. After graduating, she shared material with her fellow NYU alums for feedback over Skype. “I couldn’t do without these talented and smart early readers.”

I asked her specifically how her MFA experience helped her take her work to the next level.

What do you think is most valuable to a writer’s growth — workshop, residency, fellowship, or MFA program?
I’ve never been on a residency or won a fellowship, but I imagine they are valuable for giving the writer time to write and, just as importantly, read and daydream with minimal interruptions. An MFA program is wonderful because it connects the writer to a group of very dedicated readers who take critiquing seriously. On the other hand, you can get all the feedback you can handle, but if you don’t have time to think of your work deeply and revise, then it’s pointless. Residencies and fellowships are good for taking everything out of the picture besides writing.

How did your MFA experience help in your pursuit to become a published author (if at all)?
There were psychological and practical benefits, as well as a few drawbacks. First of all, it was so inspiring to be in the company of people who understood and shared my passion for books and ambition to become a better writer. Though writing is a solitary pursuit, with encouragement and camaraderie, the MFA program makes you feel a little less alone. And as far as pure good times go, I’ve spent countless hours talking about books and writing with my classmates and professors, in class and at bars, and countless hours honing the nerdy art of wordplay. I felt like I was among “my people.” That’s a special kind of high.

I was introduced to many new authors and learned a great deal in workshops and craft classes. Again, not that you can’t do it on your own, but I think the MFA just makes the learning process faster. I made great connections. There are people I can e-mail with questions about publishing or to ask for
letters of recommendation or a blurb.

The negative side is that I have student debt, though part of it comes from staying in New York and quitting my day job while pursuing the MFA degree. It’s an amazing thing to be an aspiring writer in New York, to attend readings and get feedback from the authors you admire, to be shielded by the cocoon of the MFA from the worries of publishing competitiveness and the financial and cultural realities of attempting a career as a writer of stories and novels. You’re living in a fantasy world from which you’ll have to come out eventually, but why not enjoy it for a couple of years?

The other downside is that after graduating I felt some internal pressure to achieve the next thing, whether it’s publishing stories in journals, getting an agent, or finishing and selling a book. By completing the MFA, you’ve announced to the world (or at least, to your family and friends) that you’re a real writer now: so where are the results? what is your next move?

Of course, it’s harmful to the work and one’s sanity to think like that. My advice is to resist that internal pressure as much as possible, to stay in touch with writing friends but also make non-writing friends, to read more, and to keep working.

SNOW IN MAY by Kseniya Melnik_peoplewhowrite

What’s your agent-to-publication story?
I have two agents: Simon Trewin in UK and Dorian Karchmar in US, both of William Morris Endeavor.

Lawrence Weschler, one of my professors at NYU, had read and liked my story and [sent] it to some magazine editors he knew. I believe it was an older version of “Love, Italian Style.” Almost a year later, I got an email from Granta. It was such a fantastic surprise; I didn’t even know he sent the story there. Granta liked it but wanted to consider something under 3,000 words for their online “New Voices” series. I didn’t have anything ready, and usually I write stories that are much longer than that. I decided to take Granta‘s interest as a challenge to create a new story within that word limit. A few months after I submitted “The Witch,” Granta picked it up for the “New Voices.” After the story and an interview went up online, several agents from Britain and US contacted me and I went with Simon.

…I hadn’t written all the stories that ended up in the collection by the time I signed up with Simon. He gave me notes on several drafts of individual stories and then the book as a whole. And my American agent, Dorian, also gave me notes and I did some more revising with her. We also decided to cut two stories because they didn’t quite fit into the arc of the book. One of them was almost novella-length and just wasn’t working. So that was painful but also liberating.

Simon sent out the book to the UK publishers first. I think we got an offer within a few weeks. Then Dorian sent out the book in the US. Two editors were interested here, and I decided to go with Sarah Bowlin at Holt. That also took a couple of weeks.

Would you recommend other writers pursue an MFA?
The MFA route is not for everyone and it’s certainly not a prerequisite to becoming a better writer or getting published, though it can help. If you want to get a lot of feedback on your work and talk about books in almost clinical detail, of course I’d recommend it. I would also advise trying to get into a fully-funded MFA program so as to graduate with as little student debt as possible.

Do you consider yourself a “Russian writer” / “Russian-American writer”?
I don’t think I can be a purely Russian writer if I’m writing in English. Most of my stories (and the novel) are set in Russia and largely concern Russian characters; they are informed by Russian history and philosophy. Yet, my writer’s sensibility is mixed because when I started writing
seriously, I was already in America, reading American and English literature. It was the English language that excited and made me want to write. Stylistically, my short stories are probably more influenced by Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, and Aleksandar Hemon than Chekhov and Turgenev. Though I respond to Russian literature in a very different way than to American literature, much more emotionally and less critically.

A Russian writer must write in Russian, must wrestle and play and bleed in that language. I think that’s the primary requirement.

Do you feel a responsibility, in your writing, to document the Russia you knew which was such a mystery to most Americans in the ’80s and ’90s, and even now post-Sochi?
Russia can still be a mystery to me, too. I don’t feel a responsibility to explain that period to Americans through my writing; rather, I am inspired to explore it from a more grown-up point of view for myself as much as for the readers. When I write about the Russia of my childhood, I am very aware that a certain note of nostalgia and romanticism of my youth may creep in, so I verify my memories against accounts in books and movies. I interview other Russian people. None of it is objective, of course, but I try to arrive at what is true for my characters. And while my characters certainly don’t represent all Russians, when it comes to historical circumstances, living conditions, details of daily life, I work hard to get the particulars right. The circumstances of everyday life have a huge influence on our dreams and hopes, and our chances of achieving them. I think that most people, when reading fiction set in other places or times, take those details to heart. Readers are not going to run out and do independent research. So as long as research doesn’t weigh down the plot, it can make the story stronger and more interesting.

Follow her on Twitter @KseniyaMelnik.

4 responses to “Kseniya Melnik: On Writing about Russia & the Pros & Cons of Getting an MFA

  1. Pingback: Do You Need An MFA? | people who write

  2. Pingback: Book Notes - Kseniya Melnik "Snow in May" |

  3. Pingback: Eleanor Catton, Eimear McBride on Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist | people who write

  4. Pingback: Joshua Ferris Won the Dylan Thomas Prize | people who write

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