Marina Stepnova on The Women of Lazarus, literature, life and writing

miercuri, 9 septembrie 2015

Marina Stepnova (photo: personal archive)
I heard about her book before knowing her name - a name which, at the time, meant nothing to me. The Women of Lazarus, the second novel of Marina Stepnova (who doesn't consider herself a writer, at least not yet) proved to be a surprising and special experience for me. I fell in love with her dense and savory writing, with her carefully-wrought stories filled with tenderness, humor and witty remarks, with her words infused with an almost magical power of arousing images and emotions. At some point in the book, two of the secondary characters turned out to be the writer's parents; thus, overcome by curiosity, I decided to write to her on Facebook. Marina Stepnova proved to be unexpectedly affable and communicative, answering all my questions, although she had to do it in English. The idea of an interview came spontaneously, and there I was, wrecking my brains, trying to find some good enough questions for the occasion. I wished we were face to face, because her answers arose more questions (like whether receiving an important literary award would validate one's identity as a writer) which I abstained from asking, as this interview would have never come to an end. Who knows, maybe we'll meet someday, when Marina's wish to live in Bucharest for a couple of months will come true - and then I hope she'll have enough patience for all my questions, as her name has acquired weight and significance for me in the meantime. I am not aware if you've already read "The Women of Lazarus", but I encourage you to open the book, wherever you might find it, and read a couple of pages: maybe this novel was meant for you, after all.

Only in about 50 years after an author’s death it can become clear what your texts are really worth. To become (or not) a part of literary history you have to die, that’s the price.

E.C.: Who is the writer Marina Stepnova? Your name is starting to become known also in Romania due to the recent publication of your second novel, "The Women of Lazarus", very well received in Russia and winner of the Bolșaia Kniga prize. When and how did you take up writing? 

M.S.: I think there is no such writer as Marina Stepnova. Not yet. Writer is a destiny. All I did was writing a few books. Of course I’m very happy that readers and even critics liked my books, but it’s not enough to become a real writer. Only in about 50 years after an author’s death it can become clear what your texts are really worth. So to become (or not) a part of literary history you have to die, that’s the price.
From childhood I loved creating stories and read really a lot – and it’s a good mould to start writing. And so I did when I was about 16 years old. :) Luckily I write very slow and hard, so readers have nothing to fear. Their bookshelves won’t collapse from my writings. 

E.C.: Starting from 1997, until last year, you have been working for the XXL magazine. How did your work for a glossy magazine, moreover one dedicated to men, went along with writing of serious novels? At first glance, these two activities don't seem to click together. Maybe your readers would have expected the editor-in-chief of the XXL magazine to write erotica or chik-lit, but I could see that "The Women of Lazarus" was of an entirely different kind: smart, witty, very well written and, in terms of Russian contemporary literature, it sits on the same level with Lyudmila Ulitskaya's novels. Did you receive any feedback from the readers of XXL magazine with relation to the books you've published?

M.S.: You are absolutely right, editing and book writing are not even two different activities, those are two different parts of your brain. I always loved my work in the magazine, we had a great team and our magazine was funny and quite intelligent. But all of it had nothing to do with my books. Even stylistically my articles and my books look like they were written by two different people. And it’s ok, from my point of view. Creation is an area of absolute freedom and a very personal thing. But at work, even at the best one, you however do something that other people want instead of what you want yourself. 
I always had good relationships with the readers of the magazine, some of them keep writing to me until now. I know their opinion, they are polite people and don’t blame or criticize me. What others think – I don’t know, I can only hope that I didn’t disappoint too many. 

E.C.: It seems that you lived in Chișinău for ten years and studied Romanian language during college - moreover, you even translated Mihail Sebastian's play, ”The Nameless Star”. How did you come to learn this language? Do you still practice it? And did you visit Romania?

M.S.: Indeed I lived in Chisinau for 10 years, it’s my childhood city, it’s still dear to me. I’ve studied Romanian at school as everyone did, but nothing really came out of it. I also studied arithmetic at school, but still can count only with calculator. So deliberately I started to learn Romanian only in Moscow, at the Literature Institute. I had a wonderful professor, Tatiana Svesnikova, who loved Romanian language and knew Romanian literature really well. She implanted this love in me. We started to read ”The Nameless Star” during classes just to practice and later I decided to translate it into Russian, because I fell in love with it. 
Unfortunately I lost most of my skills in Romanian because in Moscow I have no one to speak with and every language needs constant practice. But when I visit Moldova or Romania, I try to speak as much as I can although I do terrible mistakes sometimes. Fortunately people are very indulgent and tolerate all of it. 
I love Bucharest very much, it is indeed a wonderful city. I know that some people call it “little Paris” but it reminds me more of Vienna. Bucharest is also a very literary city, you can feel it in the air. I’d love to live in Bucharest for a few months just to walk around and write. 

I just wanted to write a story about a little ballerina who does not want to dance and wants to be just an ordinary person.

E.C.: "The Women of Lazarus" made a stir among Russian readers and the novel is already sold out at the publishing house in Romania. Only after I read it myself did I understand why. How did you come up with the idea for such a complex story, built on several levels, in which a genius' personality emerges from the points of view of the women he loves, portrayed in their turn in such a minute and extraordinary fashion? Did you have some real-life models for your characters? 

M.S.: I just wanted to write a story about a little ballerina who does not want to dance and wants to be just an ordinary person. Because talent is not a simple thing and it not always makes you happy. The book pretty soon overpowered me, it became to grow and turned into a big novel about home, love and family. About Russia. It just happened. 
Almost everyone in the novel - except historical characters - are fictional. I like coming up with my own stories and not to retell other’s. It’s more complicated but also more interesting. 

E.C.: At some point in your book, two of the secondary characters, Elia and Isaak, turn out to be your parents. As far as I understood, your father was actually born in Basarabia and your parents still live in Chișinău. I was wondering how much of their story, as you have depicted it in your book, is real? Did your grandmothers - Russian Valia from Voronej and Jewish Anele from Moldavian Fălești - really went through all those horrific trials during their forced eviction? 

M.S.: Indeed prototypes of Elia and Isaak are my parents and Russian Valia from Voronej and Jewish Anele from Moldavian Fălești are my grandmothers. It’s a rare occasion when real and not fictional people appear in my book. My mother and father were evacuated during the war, it’s also true. But they were at almost 100 km distance from each other and met each other after the war when they grew up. I wanted to give them an opportunity to be together for a little bit longer. Sadly, dad died this spring and it hurts even to think about it. Him and my mother lived together for 54 years. 

E.C.: Some readers were appalled by the part in which you speak about the inhuman treatment at the ballet school in Ensk, where thirteen-year-old girls are allowed by their teachers to smoke, in order to fool their hunger. This is a bit too shocking to believe, yet, in the light of your other pieces of criticism made throughout the novel, it looks like you are indeed criticizing the institution of the famous Russian ballet. How did you come to learn the situation behind the scenes?

M.S.: Oh that’s absolutely true! Many people in ballet start to smoke quite young because it deadens hunger. And indeed during their education children have to endure a lot of hardships that seem to be impossible for regular people. Great beauty of classical Russian ballet conceals great labor, great humiliation and great selflessness. And the vast majority of students do sacrifice themselves in the name of art. I do not criticize anyone; I admire ballet people, their willpower, courage and patience. I was just interested to show a ballerina to whom ballet is not a great goal, but everyday hell. 

I really do not like that nowadays in Russia there is a tendency to divide the world into friends and foes. Looking for enemies is a stupid thing, one must look for friends.

E.C.: The events in "The Women of Lazarus" come to a close at the end of the 1990's and the novel contains some witty observations and criticism on social and political aspects, done with humor and sarcasm, often in the form of allegories. When speaking about Russians, you tell that they are honest, kind and hard-working people, yet they are driven by a simple, somehow naive idealism. Russian people believed in the ideal Soviet power, but not in the real, concrete one, which betrayed their expectations. How is the Russian mentality nowadays, how do people see the past and how do they see the future? Would you write a book in which you could comment on the faults and flaws in modern Russia? 

M.S.: I think people all over the world want to believe in the best and Russians are not an exception. 20th century was hard for everyone in the world and 21st century started with troubles. After the fall of Soviet Union many things in Russia changed, and not for the better. People became harsher, they think more about themselves now. Human feelings depreciated and it’s sad. But we got something in return - freedom to say what we really think. And to think what we say. And of course freedom to travel around the world. 
I really do not like that nowadays in Russia there is a tendency to divide the world into friends and foes. Looking for enemies is a stupid thing, one must look for friends. Isolation means the fall of the country, it’s a dead end. And history just proves it. 

E.C.: What are your other novels about? Which one do you believe would appeal best to the Romanian readers? Unless it were that difficult, I would start learning Russian in order to be able to read your latest novel, Безбожный переулок (I have no idea what it means), but I am hoping that it will be translated into Romanian in the near future.

M.S.: I would not advise to use my books to learn Russian. There is Nabokov, Bunin, Pushkin – those are the ones to learn from. Besides my new book «Безбожный переулок» (in translation - “Italian lessons”) is about modern Russia, how it changed. How have people changed and even things around. The world (and not only Russia) is falling into dark times again. To my great regret. That’s why the novel turned out to be sad. I don’t know either it will be translated into Romanian or not, it’s up to the publishers to decide, not to me. But I’d love to, because Romanian readers are wonderful. After the Romanian translation of “The Women of Lazarus” has been published, I realized that I was lucky not only with the translator – fantastic Antoaneta Olteanu - but also with the readers. “The Women of Lazarus” has been translated into 22 languages, but I got letters from Romania most of all. 

E.C.: Your writing style, which I loved, is fresh and almost magical through its ability to convey feelings and images. Which are the authors who have shaped and influenced your writing style, if there are any? I noticed that in "The Women of Lazarus" you often make references to Nabokov and Pushkin, although some of the remarks may be interpreted as ironies on their expenses.

M.S.: I read a lot and my favorite writers, their texts become a part of me. I think this is how an author’s style is being shaped. I keep saying that style is like a fingerprint. But the fingerprint consists of many lines where each line is a book you’ve read, your emotion, your observation. But the ability to write is an innate gift. Just as an ear for music – you can develop it, or you can ruin it. 

I don’t think we should be afraid of predecessors, great roots give you great strength.

E.C.: With so many literary giants towering over Russian contemporary authors, how does one find one's path in order to evade the shadow of a Tolstoy or a Dostoyevsky? How is literary life in Russia nowadays? 

M.S.: I don’t think we should be afraid of predecessors, great roots give you great strength. It’s impossible to think of literature without Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, not only the Russian one. But world is changing, style is changing, the rhythm of life is different and it gives us an opportunity to write new books, to look upon life differently. There are a lot of great writers in Russia - Yevgeny Vodolazkin, Mikhail Shishkin, Zakhar Prilepin, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Andrey Volos. But only time can decide which of them will stay in literature forever. 

E.C.: How about the Russian public, is reading an important part of peoples' lives? And which do you think their expectations are from the contemporary authors?

M.S.: In Russia people have always been reading with particular passion. Every writer and poet here is a prophet. People are still sure that writers know the answers to all their questions, especially the inmost ones. Of course it is no so. But it’s very endearing. Literature in Russia is bigger and more important than life itself. 

E.C.: I understood that you taught writing classes in Moscow. Do you have any piece of advice for those who dream to write a book one day? As you were stating in another interview, do you really consider that being a writer is in fact a job which can be learned, or does it require much more than that?

M.S.: I honestly believe that writing is a trade. Hard and beautiful, but still a trade that you can learn. There are a lot of writing schools all over the world and it’s a right thing to be. There are a lot of people who want and can learn how to write and they should not be deprived from this opportunity and this happiness. Another thing is that real creation requires talent. Which can only be given by God. As I’ve said already you can’t just be born as a big, true writer, you have to live as one and you have to die as one. 

*Marina Stepnova's novel, "The Women of Lazarus", will be published in English in October, at World Editions (see publisher's webpage).
**My review of "The Women of Lazarus", unfortunately in Romanian, is here.

Un comentariu

  1. Marina, would you have a copy of The Women of Lazarus by Marina Stepnova that you can
    sell to me? Also, perhaps, given the critical acclaim of the book it could be republished. Thank you for the fine book and for your assistance.
    Barry J. White, Miami


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