Excerpted from One More Year by Sana Krasikov. Copyright © 2008 by Sana Krasikov. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Sana Krasikov
Random House Readers Circle: What are the greatest challenges in writing fiction?
Sana Krasikov: Deciding where to begin. There are so many ways to tell a great story–especially a story with different perspectives. You spend months building a house in your mind and then have to make a practical decision about where to put the door so that the reader can enter and not feel completely bewildered.
RHRC: What or who has been your greatest inspiration for writing fiction?
SK: I’m always relying on new sources of inspiration, and they’ve changed over the years. Just talking with people has been a big part of it–conversation for me is one of the great pleasures of life. I was in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, talking to a woman who was selling lentil soup, and she said, “I hate Saddam Hussein, but I like him for one thing: invading Kuwait.” It turned out that she had been able to escape an arranged marriage, and take her kids, because she was on a plane heading to Egypt when Saddam entered Kuwait. In the chaos that followed, her husband was stuck in Kuwait while she fled to the States. An event that meant disaster for thousands turned out to be the agent of her deliverance. I heard somewhere once that Isaac Bashevis Singer would eat his meals at cafeterias on Broadway just so he could chat people up and listen to their stories. It’s such a shame we don’t have cafeterias anymore.
RHRC: Who is your intended audience?
SK: I try not to think about audience. The task of piecing together a story is all-encompassing enough without having to worry about that. While I write, my commitment is to the char - acters. This may be because as a reader I was always hypnotized by stories that contained the shape of an entire life. I remem - ber reading a John Updike story, “The Other,” about a man married to an identical twin. He watches her change physically over the course of their marriage. At the end, we meet the second twin–the West Coast version–whose skin has been tanned and weathered by decades of California sun. It’s the moment we feel how much time has really passed. That commitment to a character over a lifetime makes a story feel almost like an ode.
RHRC: What are you reading now?
SK: I’m going through a Murakami phase. When I spent a year in Moscow, I’d go into the English-language section of the book- store on the main strip and see books by exactly three authors: Candace Bushnell, a single copy of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, and about a dozen Haruki Murakami novels. I thought, wow, they really like Murakami here. Now that I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I can see why. He’s willing to push the mystical boundary of realism the way an author like Dostoyevsky did. Underneath a lot of my own writing, there is a bedrock of realism–a classical, sometimes dark realism that’s very much rooted in a Russian tradition. I wouldn’t exactly call Murakami’s writing “magical,” but I love the way he tries to get at a reality beyond the senses.
RHRC: When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?
SK: It came in bits and spurts. My second job out of college was at a law firm in downtown Manhattan, on Battery Park. About two months after I started, I lost my sublet–and for about a month, while I looked for a place to live, I moved into one of the “war rooms,” where they kept boxes of documents for the legal cases. I kept an inflatable mattress there and showered at a gym across the street. In that month, the biggest challenge was not getting found out by the lawyers–I’d be there at eleven getting ready for bed, and people were still in the offices working. I think those few weeks shifted my frame of mind somewhat, being in the middle of that environment and also existing in an alternate reality from it. I ended up doing a lot of writing in the evenings and mornings–there was an odd seamlessness to the days. I couldn’t go on living like that, but I ended up writing a story that helped me get a fellowship a year later, and the experience gave me a taste for a kind of iconoclasm that’s served me well. After all, writing is all about finding a place for personal freedom in the public sphere.
RHRC: What is the mountaintop for you–how do you define success?
SK: I think with any art, it always takes a while for your skills to catch up to your vision. I want to become someone who is capable of executing her vision. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to be given the gift of growth without paying your dues through some form of failure. You almost have to embrace it.
RHRC: Your title, One More Year, seems to be a theme of the story collection. Did the stories come first, or did you set out to thread this theme throughout each one?
SK: The title was actually the last piece that fell into place with this collection. I wanted to find a thread that ran through all the stories and elevated them to a larger whole. I ended up recalling a line in “Maia in Yonkers,” in a scene where mother and son are arguing:
“I don’t need your rags, Maia! You’re here. You can keep your crap here.”
“You know why I’m here!”
“I don’t know anymore. Every year you say ‘It’s one more year, one more year’!”
It occurred to me that this was the predicament of so many of my characters–they were living in temporary arrangements that had somehow become permanent. Many of them weren’t “immigrants” in the traditional sense that they’d arrived in a new country to start a new life. More often they had a foot in one world and a foot in the other. In “Asal,” Gulia was still very much embroiled in a relationship with her husband. In “The Repatriates,” Grisha regretted his decision to come to the States the way some- one who marries for money regrets not marrying for enough; every year he planned on returning. Ilona kept telling herself that her arrangement with her elderly “companion” would last only another year. “One more year” seemed to be their unspoken motto.
RHRC: Can you discuss the way that your characters’ lives are affected by the political and historical changes around them?
SK: I’ve always loved the way fiction can be a window into the changes happening all around us. I think reading about the post- Soviet reality is always a bit like reading Gone With the Wind–a whole civilization was pulled out from under people’s feet and they had to scramble and hustle to get a foothold again. I think my characters are fundamentally good people who don’t always have the luxury of being virtuous. Because of various social and political forces, they’ve found themselves in situations they never thought they’d be in. But such is life.
1. In “The Repatriates,” a successful Wall Street professional returns to Russia, whereas in “Maia in Yonkers,” Maia leaves her son in Georgia to earn a living and help support her family. In “Asal,” Gulia abandons a more than comfortable material life to work as a nanny in Manhattan, and in “Better Half” Anya interrupts her education in Russia to work in a diner in Upstate New York. Discuss the role that financial decisions play in these stories. How are the characters’ motivations different from those of other immigrant characters you’ve read about? What motivations aside from financial ones drive them? Do the stories address a larger theme or message about the role money plays in our life decisions?
2. Most of the stories in One More Year are about women in relationships that are unresolved in some way or that require certain sacrifices and compromises. Do you see a similar vein through all of the stories? Discuss a common thread with respect to the theme of compromise in relationships.
1. When Ilona thinks about the waiter at Delmonico’s referring to her and Earl as Mr. Brauer and Mrs. Brauer, she thinks: “Did she really look old enough to pass for his wife? Or were they playing the game, too? Well, it didn’t matter to her what those people believed, whether they thought she was his wife or his girlfriend or his mistress. She was happy to cooperate with whatever public fantasy he had planned.”
How does the idea of “public fantasies” operate in this story? Do you believe Ilona when she says it doesn’t matter to her what “those people” believe? What are some other “public fantasies” that people you know perpetuate, passively or actively, in their relationships with others?
2. What roles do gossip and innuendo play in the story? In what sense is Ilona’s situation less scandalous than the rumors? In what ways more desperate? How does Ilona compare to nineteenth- century heroines such as Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary? In what ways is she similar to or different from these women?
“Maia in Yonkers”
1. After speaking with her sister, Maia wonders, “Must every simple decency now be counted?” How is this a telling statement about the link between money and familial obligation in the story? What are the ways in which these “obligations” get outsourced in both families?
2. Gogi is very particular about the brand-name clothes and electronics he wants his mother to send him. He’s infatuated with a hip-hop style, but when he overhears two black teenagers talking on the ferry, he surprises Maia with a racist comment. Do you see Gogi as prejudiced, or does his statement reveal more complex feelings about visiting the United States? In what other ways is his behavior surprising to Maia? In what ways does he seem younger than the image he projects?
3. The word deda means mother in Georgian. Gogi calls Maia deda at the end of the story but otherwise uses her first name. Discuss their relationship. Do you think Gogi has learned anything by the end of the story?
1. What does Victor expect from his meeting with his old lover’s daughter? Why is he determined to meet her?
2. What roles do ambition and envy play in this story? In what ways have Victor’s aspirations been frustrated by life? Do you think it’s possible for a person like Victor to be happy? Do you think he has any regrets?
1. Gulia feels “invisible” in New York. Walking down the street, she realizes that people are not looking at her and “seeing a servant,” but that they also don’t care about her at all. How does Gulia’s new anonymity influence her thinking and behavior? How is a metropolis like New York liberating for her? How is it disorienting?
2. Gulia tells Vlad that the Soviets would have punished open polygamy, but “now it is like time is moving backward.” What does she mean by this? In what ways are Gulia and Nasrin, though only five years apart in age, representative of two different eras?
3. Do you see Rashid as manipulative or do you find him sympathetic? Does he feel as trapped as Gulia and Nasrin or is he alone responsible for his actions?
1. Do you see Anya as a victim, as somebody taking control of her life, or as both? How would you characterize her romance with Ryan? Who has more power in the relationship, in your opinion?
2. Various characters, including Nick, Alexis, and Anya’s lawyer, Erin, address Anya in ways she considers patronizing. How does she tolerate their attitudes in order to benefit from them? Can you think of times in your life that you’ve done the same? Discuss the role of class in this story.
1. What are some ways the story’s title applies to the different characters? What are the different types of “debt” at play?
2. Why does Lev’s wife, Dina, distrust Sonya’s precociousness? Is her assessment fair?
1. The theme of “cons” looms throughout “The Repatriates.” What are the large and small ways people con one another in this story? What do you think about the attitude, expressed in the story, that those who get conned have it coming?
2. How does Grisha’s frustrated ambition compare with Victor’s in “The Alternate”? The exploration of religion and spirituality plays a role in both these men’s reevaluation of their lives. Do you think there is any connection between their spiritual searchings and their respective success or failure in business? Discuss.
3. Do you think there are ways in which Grisha is justified in what he is doing? Do you believe that Lera’s forgiveness of him is genuine? How do you read the last paragraph?
“There Will Be No Fourth Rome”
1. Like Gulia in “Asal,” Larisa feels herself at odds with the social changes taking place around her. In what ways are she and Nona mirror opposites of each other? How does Larisa represent a romantic dimension of Russia that is the opposite of the cynical dimension depicted in “The Repatriates”? Do you find Larisa to be a naive or a romantic character?
2. What do you think of Regina’s use of Dr. Spock as a manual for human behavior? Do you believe that “you can’t change another person’s character, though you can change their behavior”?