Kseniya Melnik’s debut book is the linked story collection Snow in May, which was short-listed for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.. Born in Magadan, Russia, she moved to Alaska in 1998, at the age of 15. She received her MFA from New York University. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Epoch, Esquire (Russia), Virginia Quarterly Review, Prospect (UK), and was selected for Granta‘s New Voices series.
To read Melnik’s story, “The Witch” and an exercise on building a story around a fairy tale, click here.
In this interview, Melnik discusses writing a Baba Yaga story, creating echo chambers in fiction, and avoiding easy descriptions of complex places.
The story is about visiting a traditional healer (a witch), and it’s also a Baba Yaga story. In both cases, it seems like a story that you might, as a Russian, feel obligated to tell—that it’s one of those stories that is so closely entwined with the place that you both want to write and also dread trying to write. I’m curious if this was the case. How do you approach a story that has Russian Story stamped all over it without getting trapped by the gravitational pull of the fairy tale and the stock characters? I ask because this story feels so fresh. You even manage to have characters turn into animals in a way that is natural and unexpected.
Baba Yaga is an Eastern European incarnation of the archetype of a malevolent older woman that is culturally universal. We see the variations of this archetype in many cultures as compiled and expanded in the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Anderson, Charles Perrault to Disney. I grew up reading fairy tales and watching movies and cartoons based on them, and I think certain associations are ingrained in my head: forest—hut—witch, for example; or dark forest—girl—wolf. I didn’t feel obliged to write “a Russian Baba Yaga story,” but rather, once that automatic association came up in my mind, I wanted to see whether I could put a new spin on it.
I think the key in “The Witch,” as in any other story, is specificity. It’s told from the point of view of Alina, who is just young enough that, in combination with the hallucinations produced by her migraines, fairy tales feel real to her and help her understand life directly rather than metaphorically. The reader is left to decide for themselves what is a hallucination and what is really happening. I think it’s the juxtaposition of the Soviet and Russian and occult culture with very real emotions, fears, and concerns that make the story fresh. Each character has a specific desire and is desperate enough to do almost anything within the framework of the story to satisfy it.
The story begins with clear stakes. The narrator suffers from debilitating migraines: “No medication had helped. The witch was our last resort.” In a way, this opening promises a particular ending: the witch will cure the migraines or she won’t. Certainly, one of these is how the story ends, but that ending feels much larger than simply the closing off of possibilities, in part because of what we’ve learned about the narrator’s mother. How did you approach the ending? Did you always know, as you wrote, where you were headed?
This is one of the shortest stories I’ve written, and I knew the general trajectory from the beginning. You are right in saying that on the surface level, there are only two options for the ending: either Alina is cured, or she’s not. After a trusted friend of mine read the story, he said that it needed a “larger echo chamber” for the characters’ conflicts. I introduced more thematic vectors so that the concerns of the characters could be amplified and enlarged to the concerns of the whole country, or perhaps even concerns of the whole world. In this way they become philosophical concerns. But again, to achieve that effect, I had to start small. I began with Alina’s singular problem and gradually built up desire upon desire, pain upon pain, and introduced enough doubt and possibility to create an ending that was both right and unexpected. (I hope!) In the end, the roles of the characters are somewhat reversed and challenged: who is the witch? who is the patient? who needs to be cured? and who is truly powerless in their pursuit of relief from pain.
I love this description of the migraine: “Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor.” It’s such a lovely line. How many attempts at describing the migraine did it take for this line to appear? Or, did it simply write itself?
Thank you. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m sure the line went through a couple of revisions. They all do. Even though Alina’s vision is blurry and confused, the images that express that cannot also be blurry and confused. I read a lot about migraine symptoms and auras and wanted to describe them with language that was both poetic and at least somewhat scientifically accurate.
You returned to Russia a couple of years ago for the first time since leaving at age 15. In an essay for Granta, you write about the thrill of encountering some of the absurdities that we’ve come to expect from tales of Russian life: “I was finally observing it all first hand. I would out-Shteyngart them all!” But then, you write, “When, upon my return home, I was retelling some of the choice anecdotes to a friend over the phone, I caught myself sounding like a hack stand-up comedian.” I think this probably rings true for many people who have moved away from the place where they grew up. It’s easy to find yourself telling funny stories that are perfectly true but that, somehow, distort the real experience of living there. Is this something you struggle with in your fiction? How do you avoid it? Or, how do you find the right tone for writing about a place like Magadan?
I do research. I try to write about the place, the weather, and, most importantly, the characters with nuance to avoid caricaturization. Russian clichés cannot be avoided entirely because so many of them are true! I think the key is to inhabit a character or a situation as fully as possible when writing, to see their Russia through their eyes, to be aware of whether you are distorting an experience as innovation or commentary, or because of automatic writing and laziness. The solution may be equal parts criticism and compassion for my characters, for Russia, and for myself.