Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Over the next week, we’ll be posting “Words from our Finalists,” so you can get to know the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize finalists a little better.
First up…Anya Ulinich
Anya…meet our Readers
What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?
Various forms of guilt. There are days when I spend an hour writing and five hours biting my knuckles, and then feel guilty because I’ve wasted a day. On those days, I wish I had an office to go to, and a set of clearly defined tasks. Or, the guilt about writing being inherently self-indulgent – I begin to wonder, what is my fiction doing for “the People”? What right do I have to sit in this world full of suffering and write literature? Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty because what does this line of thinking say about me as an artist? (Though I use a photo of Henry Roth for my Facebook profile, I do hope to be more productive in my middle years than he was.) See, I excel at guilt.
What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?
Grace Paley, Alice Munro.
Who is your intended audience?
People over the age of 14.
Are you working on anything new right now?
Yes, I’m working on my second novel.
What are you reading now?
Alice Mattison, The Book Borrower
When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?
I never decided to be a writer. When I began to write, I thought of myself as a painter. This was about eight years ago. I had just moved to Brooklyn from California, where I had gone to art school. I had come to New York to pursue an art career, but I actually didn’t know how to go about it. Nobody teaches you these things in graduate school. I kept sending slides of my paintings along with my artist’s statement to various galleries and residencies, and collecting rejection letters. I lived in a small apartment with my husband and my two-year-old daughter. Oil paint and turpentine are toxic, and the work is hard to put away because it’s slow to dry, so I found it difficult to go on painting while also taking care of my daughter. By the end of my first year in Brooklyn I pretty much gave up on painting, except for when I tried to make some money doing commissioned portraits. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and my daughter was a very shy kid who abhorred the playground and preferred that I read to her for hours at a time. Pretty soon I began to feel as if I was overdosing on Doctor Seuss and Dora the Explorer and entering a kind of premature dementia – I could almost sense my brain cells atrophying. So I began to leave the apartment every night, go to a coffee shop, and write. Writing felt great because it kept my brain alive. During daytime, as I re-read Red Fish Blue Fish for the trillionth time, I thought about my characters, and what they would do that night. It could have been painting instead of writing, I suppose, but one can hardly drag all the painting equipment to a cafe, and I had no other place to escape to. I decided that I was a writer after I finished Petropolis, and liked the result.
What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?
As the bear goes over the mountain, all he can see is another mountain.
One kind of a mountaintop is a good sentence, or a finished paragraph, a finished story. Reaching these is absolutely satisfying.
Career mountaintops are many, and they’re not nearly as clearly satisfying as the writing mountaintops. When I found out that Petropolis was going to be published, I was elated. For me, it wasn’t just about the money, or the prestige of officially becoming a “novelist.” I was mostly happy that having a book contract gave me a professional identity. I had my first kid right after college, and then went directly to graduate school. I always worked when I was in college, and in grad school I had a fellowship, but after getting my MFA and moving to Brooklyn, I found myself as a stay-at home mom with no marketable skills (the kind of jobs I could get would barely cover the cost of childcare). Then I had another daughter. I was raised by a mother and a grandmother who were both successful professionals, and my state in life worried me a lot. Unlike women who have their kids later in life, after establishing a career, I worried about reentering the world of adults – would it even take me back? Writing was an act of faith, and I had huge confidence in the writing itself (if I didn’t think what I was doing was any good, I wouldn’t have been able to keep writing) – but I’ve never even taken a writing class, so technically my writing was a dilettante’s hobby. I was aware of being a stereotype – a Brooklyn mom working on a novel in a coffee house, with the baby asleep in a stroller. When my second child started preschool, I decided to go back to City College for nursing, and then my agent sold Petropolis. It was an amazing feeling, such a vote of confidence – to be paid for creative work, to be a professional writer.
But once I got used to the fact that I was a writer, I saw new mountaintops ahead, an endless procession:
How will the book do?
How will it be reviewed?
Will anyone pay attention?
Will it win any awards?
Worrying about these publishing mountaintops turned out to be incredibly distracting. I engaged in all manner of unhealthy behaviors, from obsessively checking my Amazon rank to Googling myself. Worrying about my newly-found career proved paralyzing – I kept over-thinking my writing, wondering what must I do for my second book to be successful, to at least live up to the first one. And how long did I have to write it, and what if no one wants to publish it?
This stuff has absolutely nothing to do with the writing process. When I write, I live inside the world that is my novel, among the characters. The vividness of that world is the ultimate success. Once the world you make gets packaged into a book, other types of successes (awards, foreign translations, good reviews) follow. While they’re pleasant, they’re not up to me – I do my best to keep this in mind.
How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?
I have to leave my apartment. I have to be away from the Legos that need putting away, and the laundry that needs doing, and the bathtub that hasn’t been washed. Housework is my ultimate form of procrastination – it’s probably true for most people with flexible jobs, because housework doesn’t feel like procrastination but like something that “has to be done.” I’m terrible at housework, too, and every task takes me forever. So I still write in coffee houses. Being out in public keeps me upright and working. And I drink ridiculous amounts of coffee.
**all artwork from this post can be found on Anya’s website here.
Stay tuned for more “Words from our Finalists.”
Originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Naomi is the executive director of Jewish Book Council. She graduated from Emory University with degrees in English and Art History and, in addition, studied at University College London. Prior to her role as executive director, Naomi served as the founding editor of the JBC website and blog and managing editor of Jewish Book World. In addition, she has overseen JBC’s digital initiatives, and also developed the JBC’s Visiting Scribe series and Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation.