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An Interview with Kseniya Melnik

15 Jan
Kseniya Melnik's debut book Snow in May blends history and fable to bring her real-life hometown of Magadan, Russia, to life.

Kseniya Melnik’s debut book Snow in May blends history and fable to bring her real-life hometown of Magadan, Russia, to life.

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Kseniya Melnik

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik's story, "The Witch," was included in Granta's New Voices series.

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” was included in Granta’s New Voices series.

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.

Michael Noll

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?

Kseniya Melnik

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.

Michael Noll

In "Selling Your First Soul," an essay in Granta, writes about returning to Russia to visit her sick grandmother.

In “Selling Your First Soul,” an essay in Granta, writes about returning to Russia to visit her sick grandmother.

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?

Kseniya Melnik

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.

January 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Build a Story around a Fairy Tale

13 Jan
Kseniya Melnik's story, "The Witch," was included in Granta's New Voices series.

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” was included in Granta‘s New Voices series.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May and published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

The challenge facing Melnik is how to craft a modern story around this well-known character. This doesn’t mean simply rewriting the fairy tale. Angela Carter once put the problem this way: “My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

In short, the writer must create a world that feels modern (which often means realistic, though not always) and somehow adapt the fairy tale to this world. To that end, Melnik follows her description of Baba Yaga with details from the trip deep into the woods:

The car smelled of gasoline, and a cauldron of nausea was already brewing in my stomach. I didn’t need the migraine diary to predict another cursed day.”

These details are entirely realistic and contemporary: gasoline, migraines, medical diary, and they also nod to the fairy tale with words like cauldronbrewing, and cursed. But if the story only nodded to the fairy tale in that simple way, we might feel cheated. And so Melnik further commits to the fairy tale in the next lines:

Soon the world would be ruined by blobs of emptiness, like rain on a fresh watercolor. Everything familiar would shed its skin to reveal a secret monstrous core. And, after a tug-of-war between blackness and fire, an invisible UFO would land on my head. The tiny aliens would drill holes on the sides of my skull, dig painful tunnels inside my brain, and perform their terrible electric experiments. I’d rather get eaten by Baba Yaga.

This description is contemporary since it describes the way a migraine feels (and also because it references UFOs). But it also introduces a surreal element that will continue through the story. As the narrator’s migraine sets in, the world around her begins to resemble something more at-home in a fairy tale than a story of modern-day Russia.

So, when the narrator arrives at the witch’s house, her mother appears as a rabbit, her grandmother becomes a bear, and the witch is transformed into a fox. These transformations have an utterly realistic cause, but they also fit the fairy tale at the story’s foundation. To some extent the way the story resolves this tension between realism and fairy tale sensibility determines the outcome of the story.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s begin to write a story based on a fairy tale, using “The Witch” by Kseniya Melnik as a model:

  1. Choose the fairy tale. It doesn’t really matter what story you choose. You can even move beyond the realm of fairy tales: folk tales, religious stories, Greek myths, etc. Steven Millhauser has a great story—”A Voice in the Night”—that is based on the Old Testament story of Samuel and Eli and was selected for the 2013 Best American Short Stories anthology.
  2. Choose a modern setting. This doesn’t necessarily mean contemporary or realistic. Instead, it simply means the story is written as if its readers are familiar with the literature and stories that have been created since your fairy tale was first told or written down. It’s not enough to simply rewrite the tale.
  3. Establish the language of the fairy tale. This is what Melnik does by telling us about Baba Yaga and her fence of bones and flying mortar. You’re telling the reader, in the original version of this tale, here are the language and images that were used.
  4. Establish the language of the modern setting. This is what Melnik does with the descriptions of gasoline odor. If your story is set in some historical time, give us details that put us in that time. If it’s set in some science fiction/fantasy world, create the nitty-gritty of the world so that we’re there. The important thing is to create a world that exists independently of the fairy tale.
  5. Connect the fairy tale and modern setting with plot. Melnik’s story is about a young girl going to see a witch in hopes of a migraine cure. The plot is drawn from the fairy tale (seeking a cure from a witch) but is also set firmly in the modern world (the problem is a migraine and the witch is a local healer). In most cases, fairy tale plots are relatively simple. In “Hansel and Gretel,” two kids are lost in the woods. The plot of “Sleeping Beauty” is not so different from the plot of “Rip Van Winkle.” Someone falls asleep or leaves, and when they awake/return, everything is weirdly the same or different. In “Little Red Riding Hood,” an evil character dresses up like someone familiar to the main character. When you think about plot, think about it in these simplified terms, not in all the nuances and trappings of the original tale.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Write a Murder Scene

18 Mar
Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, "The Last Thing We Need," appeared in Granta 111.

Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, “The Last Thing We Need,” appeared in Granta.

American films are full of violence; in fact, the anticipation of death is probably one of the reasons that people go to the movies. There’s a visceral, perverse thrill in seeing someone killed in front of your eyes, and that feeling is harder to create in writing than it is on the screen. It’s difficult to replicate the speed of a gunshot or the blind, chaotic feeling of participating in a fight. Some writers try to copy the techniques of film: a lot of choreography (punches, kicks, and ricocheting bullets). But the best writers use techniques that are only available in written fiction to create powerful scenes of violence.

Claire Vaye Watkins has written such a scene in her story, “The Last Thing We Need.” It was published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The scene takes place at a gas station in the Nevada desert. The narrator is a high school kid working the night shift for the station owner, a man who keeps a shotgun under the counter. He’s doing his homework and doesn’t see a car pull up. As you read the scene, pay attention to two things: the choreography (who did what) and the delay (what details are given to slow down the action):

I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.

I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?

There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.

I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.

Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile.

Every time I read this passage, I’m struck by the line, “I shot him in the head.” It’s blunt and direct. The language does not try to convey anything other than the barest of facts. This is important because badly written violence tends to be overwritten. The language tends to tell the readers not only what happened but also how they should feel about it (anxious! afraid! sickened!) and how it occurs (in a flash! suddenly! out of the blue!). So, how does Watkins avoid those mistakes and write a powerful scene? She does two things:

  1.  She uses simple sentence constructions to convey the choreography. By simple, I don’t mean in the grammatical sense—one subject/verb pair—though there are several of those types. For instance, this is a simple sentence: “I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried.” The beauty of a simple sentence (in the grammatical sense) is that it’s usually crystal clear. While you never want your readers confused about basic elements in a story, you especially don’t want them confused during the moment of greatest importance. That said, by simple construction, I mean sentences that use as few words as possible, like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Imagine how else that sentence could have been written. Stop is a vague word, right? Another writer might have described the exact physical movements used in the attempt to stop the man. It might have worked. Who knows? But it might also have lost the sense of purpose. In all the arm-grabbing and shuffling, the reader might have forgotten the elemental goal of stopping the man with the gun. Who really cares how motions were involved? The same is true of the word muscled. Again, Watkins eschews detailed description and again boils the movement down to its essence: stop and muscled back. She’s conveyed the physical dynamics of the scene (one person is stronger than the other) and also the basic action in only twelve words. Written stories can never approach the speed of film, but they can still move quickly, as Watkins has shown.
  2. She interrupts the action with plain information. Beginning writers tend to try to make each sentence in an action sequence more intense than the previous one. But this is almost always unsustainable. Another strategy is to switch back and forth between intense action and something that isn’t intense. Watkins interjects the actions in the gas station with basic info: “But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me.” Imagine if, in advance of reading this scene, someone told you that the best way to write a murder scene is to tell the reader, just before a man is shot and killed, how big the town is. You’d likely think it was terrible advice. But what it does in this scene is heighten the tension. A man with a gun is one thing, but a guy you know with a gun is entirely different. Watkins keeps switching back and forth between action and info: “The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.” She does the same thing with the narrator, telling the reader that he’d never touched a gun before. These interjections slow the action down but also make us lean into the page in anticipation. What started as “stop and muscled back” becomes “The fucking money, Frankie said and I’d barely touched a gun before.” In other words, the information makes the scene more personal, which, of course, makes it more tense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a violent scene, using the scene from Claire Vaye Watkins’ story “The Last Thing We Need” as a model:

  1. State what will occur. Know what your destination is. In Watkins’ story, a teenage gas station attendant shoots an armed robber. Don’t worry about crafting a great sentence. You’re just reminding yourself what the endpoint of the action is.
  2. Describe the choreography in simple sentence constructions. Your goal is a sentence like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Boil the action down to quick descriptions of purpose. What are the characters trying to do? When the purposes are clear, it becomes easier to introduce complications. So, for instance, you might write, “He grabbed at the money, and I tried to pull it away. The bills  ripped down the middle.” Try to choose words that accomplish two things at once: statement of action and description of how that action occurs. Consider the difference in the scene if muscled was replaced with slipped. It might make the man harder to shoot in the head. He might be too quick, and so the scene would play out in another direction.
  3. Interrupt the action with plain (uncharged) information. By uncharged, I mean that if you read the information out of context, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But you can’t insert just any old info. You need a goal in mind. Are you trying to make the scene more personal for one of the characters, as Watkins does? Are you trying to make the characters more hesitant or eager? Do you want more or less urgency?  Do you want them thinking of ways to safely extricate themselves from the scene, or do you want them escalating the tension? How do you want the characters to feel after the scene is over? Regardless of your goal, the information should be simple. Characters who are about to engage in violence probably don’t have a lot of mental space for abstractions or reflection. The information should be the sort that they would likely be instantly aware of during the moment.
  4. Switch back and forth between action and information. The idea is not so much to keep applying pressure on the reader but to take short breaks from the tension so that the reader wants to know what will happen. One way to do this is to repeat one of the pieces of information that you’ve introduced. Watkins does this by revealing and repeating the identity of the man with the gun: who his mother was, who his sister was, his name, and his name again. The result is that the scene becomes increasingly personal for both characters because they know each other. You can do something similar by taking one piece of information and showing it to the reader in slightly different ways. (Genre writers, especially mystery/detective/crime writers, often do this. At a moment of high tension, the character will notice a refrigerator humming too loudly or a scratch on the floor. Sometimes this fact will get incorporated into the scene somehow, either directly or by causing the character to remember/realize something.)

The key to a scene like this is twofold: use short, clear language that reveals multiple things at once and add moments that step away from the tension to reveal information that is initially uncharged but that becomes important as the scene progresses.

Good luck!

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