Outside the Flow of Culture: A Conversation with Katya Apekina
I met Katya Apekina at a reading in Highland Park, Los Angeles, when she and I were both very pregnant. Another pregnant friend and I had gone to the reading together and the three of us saw one another from across the bookstore, moved towards each other, took over the front row of the reading, and immediately became friends.
When I read the manuscript of Katya Apekina’s book, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, I thought it was one of the best manuscripts I’d ever read. I whipped right through it. It’s a compellingly told story, with a non-traditional narrative and some of the most twisted, unusual, and brilliant sentences I’d ever come across. It’s not often you begin a reading a sentence and are completely surprised at where it’s gone by its end.
Apekina’s stories are the same way; there’s something unusual, strange, and dark about her writing, and perhaps the way she looks at the world. Though I talk to her regularly as a writer, friend, and mom of one of my daughter’s best friends, I thought it would be interesting to email back and forth about her writing and her life. We spoke about the immigrant experience, her revision process, and the shape of the novel.
The Rumpus: I spoke with your mom a bit about your book. She said there was a Russian book club in Boston and they are in awe of you for a few reasons. One reason is that the book is not about a Russian immigrant. Do you know about this? Can you expand? Your mom said they think you are a genius. She is very proud of you.
Katya Apekina: [Laughs] It’s so nice how supportive my mom has been about the book. My mom is not exactly someone who gives compliments easily. You have to usually pry them out. And I think she used to be ambivalent about me being a writer. She thought I was dabbling. But when she read my novel, she got it. She just saw it as this whole, complete thing that I had done, and she saw me struggling to write it and to get it published, and she was very encouraging and I think impressed with my perseverance. And, I think she was also a little bit relieved that it wasn’t an autobiographical novel, though I know a lot of people she knew were speculating about that, wondering what kind of terrible childhood I must have had to write that book. I didn’t have a terrible childhood.
The book is not about the immigrant experience, and yet I’m sure that being an immigrant, a person always on the outside of the flow of the culture, is what allowed me to write this book. Every book is autobiographical in some deeper, emotional sense, even if it is not literally autobiographical at all. Something in me, in my experiences, drew me to the subject matter.
Rumpus: That’s interesting, that phrase: “outside of the flow of culture.” Can you talk about your experience as an immigrant? How old were you when your family came to America? What was the process? Why did your family emigrate? Can you talk more about how being “outside the flow of culture” allowed you to write this particular novel?
Apekina: As an immigrant, I think I was aware that American culture was not the only culture, that there were other ways of existing in the world. I came to the US when I was three and a half. I remember always being strange, wrong, trying not very successfully to fit in. My favorite color was pink. I cut holes in all my clothes that were not pink using toenail scissors. I remember eviscerating this nice brown dress that someone gave me. All my clothes were hand-me-downs, and this dress was probably the nicest, and I cut a big hole over the front so that I wouldn’t have to wear it. Maybe I would have performed gender like that if I was born here, too. I don’t know. I do remember just studying other people and commercials very intensely and trying to imitate them.
I think being different, wanting to conform but not being good at it, led to me eventually giving up and then growing comfortable in this difference and feeling special for it.
I don’t know exactly how being outside the flow of culture made me able to write this particular novel, other than that if I was inside the flow I probably wouldn’t have come to writing in the first place.
Rumpus: Your writing takes on many different forms—short fiction, novel, essay, screenplay, translation. I like thinking about headspace required to work on certain projects. For example, a novel requires a totally different headspace than a short story, than an essay, etc. Can you take a moment to think about each kind of writing you produce and the difference (if any you can discern) in your headspace—meaning which parts of your brain/body/soul are working? Which are turned off? Can you write anywhere or anytime in one kind of form, but need particular surroundings for another?
Apekina: The novel required my complete concentration, attention, and faith, and I was writing it over a long period of time, every day. I didn’t work on anything else simultaneously while drafting it. (I did when editing.)
With my stories I find it’s best to just write them in one or two long sittings. When it stretches out beyond that, the story loses steam and never gets finished. I might think about it for a very long time, and make notes—but the actual writing usually comes all at once, pretty quickly, and does not change much.
A lot of times I flit between projects trying to settle into something. It’s nice with a novel because every morning I wake up and I know what I will be working on—I don’t have to endlessly go in circles choosing. Screenwriting is collaborative, so that can be nice to have a joint momentum. It’s also the medium I understand the least.
I think a lot about this birthing video I saw once, where the woman is pushing and pushing and pushing, and finally the baby crowns, and the head is out, and then the rest of the body just slips out in one quick swoop, like a magician pulling out a colored scarf. I think there is a lot of work that goes into the thinking and understanding it as a whole, and then once the head comes out, it’s just typing. If you don’t get distracted, it happens pretty easily.
For all the kinds of writing, I need long stretches of quiet time alone. I need time to read and stare at nothing. I am always in awe of people who can integrate work into the chaos of life. I can’t. And, when I am in the middle of something, it’s hard for me to switch gears, to take care of life stuff.
I am also very slow and very impatient, which is not the best combination.
Rumpus: Speaking of pregnancy and books—we were pregnant at the same time, and I know you worked on your book a lot at the end of your pregnancy and when your daughter was a baby, while I was unable to enter into a new project at that time. How did it work for you, being pregnant and having a baby while writing your novel?
Apekina: I was sick during my pregnancy and couldn’t think straight. I thought—I need to finish this book before the baby is born or else I will never finish it. I barely wrote anything when I was pregnant. It was miserable. But then after having the baby, a few months out, I started working again, and it was fine. I had gotten a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and that allowed me to pay for childcare. I don’t remember really how I made it all work, but I remember it as being a pretty happy time. I did not feel overwhelmed by parenthood until later.
Rumpus: Can you talk about being overwhelmed by parenthood and how that related (or didn’t) to your writing? Also, how do you feel about these kinds of questions about writing and parenthood? I know there are some writers who despise this line of questioning because male writers don’t get asked parenting questions.
Apekina: I guess I think male writers should be asked, too, rather than nobody getting asked. Parenthood is an important and time-consuming part of my life. It’s not really connected to my writing life. I would say the two parts of my life are not very integrated. Maybe that is bad? Maybe it creates some sort of tension between the two that doesn’t need to be there? I don’t know. I feel like I have to protect my writing mind, generally, from the onslaught of daily life as best as I can. I think about writers I admire who seem to integrate the two so well—I’m specifically thinking of Grace Paley. Though she did not start writing until later. I don’t know how old her kids were.
Anyway, I guess keeping the experiences of parenthood out of my writing is something that will probably change. I take forever to process things. I will get around to writing about it, I’m sure, and then will understand things about it that I don’t right now. It’s overwhelming, the combination of the mundane, annoying, transcendent, and joyous. It is all a big pile. I think all the time that I want to be left alone, that I want everyone to stop climbing on me and to be quiet. But the permanent absence of those things would be horrifying.
Rumpus: A central and fascinating theme of the book is about the relationship between a mother and her daughters, and specifically the relationship between Marianne, the mother, and Mae, her youngest daughter. It’s a relationship with very blurry lines. I know it is fiction, and nothing at all like your own relationship with your mother, but I think it’s interesting to think about the shifting relationship of a mother and her daughter. Can you speak a bit about your relationship with your mom, and with your own daughter. Did you ever feel a shift in the borders between your body and theirs?
Apekina: I have not felt that with my daughter. She has always felt like a separate entity to me, not an extension of myself. I think I am fairly attuned to her, but we are not at all enmeshed. Who knows if this will change and evolve as she gets older. And who knows how she feels about it.
With my mother, I was very close, especially growing up. I had a lot of trouble differentiating my opinions and feelings and anxieties from hers. I was in my late twenties, flying on a tiny airplane to an art residency in Wyoming; it is actually where I began writing the novel. And the plane was tiny. It had maybe ten or twenty seats. My mother has always been scared of flying, especially on little planes. And I was very tense, staring out the window at the snow covered mountains, gripping my arm rests until my knuckles were white. And suddenly I thought—”Wait, I’m not afraid of this. This is not my phobia. It’s my mom’s phobia.” And the fear was completely lifted. The rest of the flight was fine. I felt relaxed. How strange, right? To have this epiphany and immediately lose the fear.
I have a lot of epiphanies, usually the same exact ones, over and over. My journals really attest to that.
Rumpus: That’s really fascinating, especially if you consider the current research in epigenetics that phobias may actually be transmitted genetically, though of course we absorb so much from our parents in terms of shared experience.
How about your characters—do you feel close to them, like they are a part of you? How do they come to you? Can you expand on the origins and growth of your characters in this novel? Do you have empathy for all of them?
Apekina: I don’t know where most of them come from. They just revealed themselves in the writing as it went. As for having empathy for them—I think I get where they’re coming from, and I understand how they got there. Is that the same thing as empathy? Does empathy imply more warmth? I have a varying amount of warmth, but I do feel like I can split off from myself and my judgments and imagine how they felt. I tried not to let my judgments bleed into the work too directly. I mean, I obviously have opinions! But they felt irrelevant, since I was telling the story from their points of view.
Rumpus: Talk about the intersection between writing a draft and a revision. What happens during the revision process? Where is a story? How many times did you revise?
Apekina: I revised a lot. I revised as I wrote. I started over. I revised after it was finished off of notes my agent gave me. I did seven rounds of revisions with my agent! My revisions were almost all about adding and expanding things. I don’t think I cut much, if anything. People always say that you should just write out the whole draft and revise later, but I have no idea how to work like that. When the writing does not feel right on a sentence level, when the point of view feels wobbly, I lose the thread and am disconnected from the emotional thrust. How do you keep going with it? So, I don’t know. I did outline continuously as I wrote. Maybe that was a self-soothing thing. I felt like I needed to remind myself constantly of where I was going so that I wouldn’t wander away.
Rumpus: Can you draw what you think the shape of your novel is?
Rumpus: Some consider your book to be a bit dark. Are you attracted to “dark” subjects, whatever that means? Psychologically complicated characters, with tumultuous pasts. Why do you think this is what you gravitated towards for your first novel? Is there anything in your past or your family’s past that would lead to your comfort with complex, strange, or somewhat damaged characters.
Apekina: I was curious about how people with good or neutral intentions can still fuck each other up. I was interested in the way people go through the same things but have completely different experiences of these things. I was curious about where in a family one person ends and another begins.
I guess it’s dark. I wasn’t thinking about it in those terms when I was writing, but I understand why people would see it that way. My grandmother read the first chapter with a dictionary and cried. That surprised me.
Rumpus: Why did she cry?
Apekina: I think because she felt bad for those girls. She grew up as a middle child with two sisters. Maybe it brought something up for her.
Rumpus: You wrote this book sort of a long time ago now. Do you feel different having written and published a book? How did your expectations match up to reality?
Apekina: I am still processing all of it. Maybe I will be forever. The book will be out a year on September 18. I’m doing a European tour in the spring. It has been so cool and so overwhelming. I thought, going into publication, that I had terrible stage fright and that I would hate giving readings. I was very stressed about that. And then I discovered that I am kind of a ham. I don’t have stage fright at all. Maybe this also was not one of my own phobias? I am perfectly comfortable reading in front of large groups of people.
I think my life has probably changed, but I don’t know that I can really see it fully, because the process was gradual. The book felt like a huge burden of responsibility—like I needed to shepherd it out into the world. Once I did that, and I could see it was getting to readers, I felt free of it in a nice way. It exists on its own.
So that is how I feel, but simultaneously, there is a bottomless pit inside of me and it can never be filled, and nothing will ever be enough! So, I think I was thinking, when the book gets published I will be fulfilled, and of course no amount of external validation can really do that. So… I’ve been meditating a lot. And trying to write another novel, which feels just as scary as the first time. Scary and exciting.
Photograph of Katya Apekina by Andrew Wonder.