What We’ll Remember: An Interview with Debut Author Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
“My stories often start with a feeling that unspools somewhere deep inside.”
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What Isn’t Remembered
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What Isn’t RememberedThe Orchard
Christine Sneed: is your first book. Would you say a bit about the experience of getting here—for example, how long it took to write these stories, and besides the contest, were there other contests you submitted to? Did your agent also send out this collection?
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What Isn’t Remembered
CS: Last year, as mentioned above, you sold your first novel, , which will be published next March. Is it the first novel you’ve written? Tangentially, both and include Russian characters who at times confront extreme physical and emotional hardships before and after perestroika. Do you see as a natural companion to the stories in your collection?
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CS:Russian is your first language, but I believe you write fiction in English. How long has it taken you to reach your current level of impressive fluency? (Nabokov comes quickly to mind as a native speaker of Russian who also sometimes wrote in lyrical and playful English.)
CS: Many of the stories in are intensely romantic, are darkly comic, and also feature elements of magical realism. I know you read widely and are very familiar with Gogol, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, to name a few of the most influential Russian fiction writers. Who else do you count among the writers who inspire you?
CS: Musicians populate some of your stories, and classical music is especially important in the title story, which focuses on a former pianist, Mana, whose husband, Victor, still makes his living as a cellist. Are you a musician or have you studied music? I had the sense as I read this collection that music is as important to you as a writer as literature is.
KGN:In the Soviet Union, arts, and especially classical music, played a major role in people’s lives. My family was no exception. My mother spent the last of her money on books, theater, or tickets to the philharmonic. With my classmates, I also attended operas and ballets at the Bolshoi. Just like most of my friends, I was forced to take piano lessons. I wasn’t gifted enough to pursue music seriously and hated learning pieces by memory; I always made mistakes.
My son, however, grew up to be a pianist—classical and jazz. Over the years, my husband and I endured countless hours of his daily practices. We drove him to lessons, recitals, auditions, concerts, and summer festivals. One such festival took place in Cremona, Italy, where we spent a few blissful weeks, surrounded by ancient buildings and classical music, the pulse of centuries. I began writing the title story while still there, after attending one of the concerts, where Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata in G minor had been performed. It was so gorgeous, so voluptuous, so heartbreaking, the sound engulfing the theater and the audience. It haunted me for days. At the time, I was also rereading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and the two experiences assimilated—as often happens in life and art—and later converged into “What Isn’t Remembered.”
CS: There’s a striking sensuality to many of your characters, a lust for life as well as for the flesh of a lover. Writing sex scenes is difficult for many writers, but you’re very adept at it. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle to write good sex scenes? And who are the writers you’ve learned from in this regard?
KGN: Ah, sex scenes—my favorite subject! I hesitate to give any prescriptive writing advice because it depends on the story: characters, setting, language. I often compare sex scenes to nudity in paintings. It differs exponentially from one artist to another—from Rembrandt to Klimt to Picasso. Also, I think that a sex scene in any story must serve some developmental purpose, must function as a plot point. A writer shouldn’t embed sex to entertain the audience, just as she shouldn’t describe a meal or what everyone wears, unless those details reveal something meaningful about the characters. Short stories have no room for any gratuitous information.
I admire eroticism in Jeanette Winterson’s and André Aciman’s work. But I’ve really learned how to craft sex scenes from reading Toni Morrison. It’s impossible to gauge how much her books have taught me. When she died, I was in Russia, but my American friends kept sending me their condolences—they knew what she meant to me. She was my literary godmother. The Bluest Eye made me want to become a writer.
You see, I grew up in a country that ignored or forbade sex. Women and men were kept in the dark and as separate as possible. Other than condoms, no birth control existed, and women often had to get abortions, and frequently illegally. Men weren’t allowed in birth houses, so they weren’t privy to all the pain, or anything their wives and lovers went through while delivering babies. They couldn’t relate.
Before perestroika, in novels and short stories, as well as in movies and plays, sex scenes had been omitted. Or they happened to be so chaste, depicted in sighs and whispers. No one talked about rape, incest, pedophilia, or women trafficking, although we knew all of that existed. Yet those ugly, raw, despicable sides of sex had never been discussed. In the USSR, two people couldn’t even rent a hotel room unless they were married.
Homosexuality or homoeroticism remained a shameful, forbidden land, even though it did exist, but no one would ever admit their sexual preferences or lustful urges. Sex was meant for procreation and procreation only. In that regard, writing sex scenes for me is an act of rebellion against those false moralistic norms and the sanctimoniousness, the prudishness that is still present, to some extent, in my home country, and here too. Many Americans I know, especially in the South, feel overwhelmed and even disturbed while reading sex scenes, no matter how tastefully done. But sex, like love, is an inseparable part of our lives until it isn’t, until we’ve grown so old that an image of a beautiful naked woman or man no longer evokes a desire but a memory of one.
Short stories have no room for any gratuitous information.
CS: When you start a new short story, do you begin with a character, an image, or an idea for a scene set in a particular place? Do you write several drafts, or do you tend to rewrite as you go?
KGN:It depends. All stories are different—some come to me almost fully formed; others demand weeks, months, years. Julio Cortázar once said that any story/novel begins long before its first sentence and ends long after its last. Or something similar. I can’t agree more. There’s all that life, all that experience, all those loves and joys, sorrows and disappointments, longing and heartache a writer brings into each story.
My stories often start with a feeling that unspools somewhere deep inside. It’s hard to describe, but I recognize it immediately and wait until it grows, looms so large I can’t ignore it. It might be lonely or angry or sweet or bitter, but it’s there, waiting for me to turn it into a story, to build it a house. And sometimes I fail, like the rest of us. The house crumbles.
CS: What is something you’ve learned in the last year about publishing your first two books that you’ve been surprised by?
KGN: I’ve learned how tireless the editors, copy editors, project managers, and proofreaders are; how many friends I have; and that publishing a book, not to mention two, is an honor, as well as an enormous responsibility—to those who’ve been reading and supporting my work for twenty years, but also to my future readers, who will encounter my work for the first time. It feels both fascinating and terrifying.
CS: What are you working on now if you don’t mind sharing a few words about it?
KGN: I’m writing a new novel. It’s inspired by my visit to Sputnik Hotel, where my aunt worked as a receptionist and where my father happened to spend one night in the 1980s. I was sixteen and hadn’t seen or talked to my father for fourteen years, since my parents’ divorce, so my mother and my aunt decided that I should surprise him. They wanted to see if he would recognize me.
Christine Sneed is the author of two novels and two story collections, the most recent of which is The Virginity of Famous Men. She has two books forthcoming in October 2022: Please Be Advised: A Novel in Memos and Love in the Time of time's Up: A Short Fiction Anthology (as editor). Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, Ploughshares, and New York Times. She is the faculty director of Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies’ graduate creative writing program. She also teaches for Regis University’s low-residency MFA program. She lives in Pasadena, California.