Anya Ulinich, 'Petropolis' Author, Takes Questions Author Anya Ulinich stops by to discuss her book Petropolis, this month's, and now, the final Bryant Park Project book club selection.
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Anya Ulinich, 'Petropolis' Author, Takes Questions

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Anya Ulinich, 'Petropolis' Author, Takes Questions

Anya Ulinich, 'Petropolis' Author, Takes Questions

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MIKE PESCA, host:

It's BPP Book Club Time. A little more than a month ago, we told you to read "Petropolis" by Anya Ulinich. It's the story of Sasha Goldberg, a teenager living in post-Soviet Siberia. Her tale and her travail, she makes it to America. She's a mail-order bride. She has misadventures as she tries to cobble together a family. It's very much about family and traveling and Russia. So, you read the book. You told us what you thought of it. Now, it's time to talk to the author. Anya is here. Hey, Anya.

Ms. ANYA ULINICH (Author, "Petropolis"): Hey.

PESCA: Thanks for coming by.

Ms. ULINICH: Thank you.

PESCA: So, you left Russia at what age?

Ms. ULINICH: Seventeen.

PESCA: Seventeen years old, and I think whenever anyone reads a book about a girl leaving Russia in her teens - I think, in the book, she is in her teens when she leaves.

Ms. ULINICH: Yes. She's 16.

PESCA: She's 16 when she leaves. You were 17. You're from Russia. You wrote a book - they have to ask a certain question, and Rebecca from Berlin is on the line with us. Hello, Rebecca.

REBECCA (Listener, Berlin): Hi.

PESCA: So, what's your question?

REBECCA: Well, how much of this book is autobiographical?

PESCA: That is the question I was wondering, too. Anya?

Ms. ULINICH: There are definitely parts in the book that are from my experience, but not the main storyline. Do you - if you would like to ask something more specific, I can tell you exactly.

PESCA: What I'm wondering about the autobiographical is how much of her perception - how much of her attitude was maybe now, or at times, your attitude? And one of the things that goes through the book is she just doesn't understand the touchy-feely-ness of America. She doesn't at all. There is a language barrier, but the way that Americans speak in euphemisms, and at one point, one of the characters says to her, you don't have to be cruel, and Sasha thinks America stretchy definition of cruelty, far more things are considered cruel here than just a cigarette burns and electro shock. So, have you had thoughts similar to that?

Ms. ULINICH: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it's - on one hand, it's a cultural difference. Americans are all about sort of individualism, and they tend to sort of think of themselves and loving themselves. And I couldn't understand, at first when I came here, I couldn't understand they were talking about what. I was at the trade school when I was an illegal alien. I was sort of snuck into this, one of those, you know, graphic-design technical colleges, because you didn't have to have any papers then.

So, at one point, the teacher brought in this motivational tape. We had a lot of people in the class who were having kind of trouble. You know, they were sort of this, recovering something or other. She brought in this motivational tape that talked about, you know, being a winner and not being a loser. And I kept listening and I was like, well, but she's not talking about any competition. You know, in order to be a winner, it has to be something, at something, you know, you win. You know, you play soccer, you win or whatever, but you can't be just a winner playing without actually it being about something, but apparently you can, or a loser.

PESCA: You're a winner in life.

Ms. ULINICH: In life, yeah, that's sort of the thing and that's a very alien kind of terminology for Russians. But I also think for Sasha, she is basically surviving. She has to steel herself against being sensitive, you know, because otherwise she will just go to pieces, you know, with what's going on with her. So, she sort of has this very cynical kind of a hard shell that she kind of bails through her journey with.

REBECCA: One more question. One character, Mrs. Tarakan, reminds me of somebody I know very well, a rich, Jewish woman who's had lots of face operations, who looks very scary, but who is very active in her temple and gives a lot to charity, but mistreats, basically, the people in her nuclear family. Did you actually meet somebody who is like Mrs. Tarakan?

Ms. ULINICH: Yes, but I think it's more complicated, because in my book, Mrs. Tarakan doesn't really mistreat people. She misunderstands them.

REBECCA: She's not very nice to her children.

Ms. ULINICH: No, but she's not terrible to them either. She sort of wants to - wants for things to be proper, but she takes care of her children to the best of her emotional abilities ,you know. And, you know, her relationship with Sasha is complicated because she is convinced that she's doing good. You know, and she doesn't understand why it is that Sasha has this resistance.

REBECCA: I mean, she uses her as a maid. She doesn't give her any money and she has no freedom. You really think that Mrs. Tarakan thinks that...

PESCA: Rebecca is arguing with Anya about her characters.

Ms. ULINICH: It's OK. Yeah, actually, it is kind of a conflict between, you know, benefactor and a charity case. Someone who is a benefactor thinks that a charity case should be grateful, because, even though Mrs. Tarakan doesn't pay Sasha with money, Sasha is also a fairly inept housekeeper. So, there is not very much material gain for Mrs. Tarakan to keep Sasha in her house, but Mrs. Tarakan keeps Sasha in this period of sort of taking in a stray. Sasha is sort of like her pet, you know, her pet Soviet Jew.

PESCA: Thank you, Rebecca. Those were really good questions.

REBECCA: OK. Thank you. Anya, thank you for writing such a wonderful book. I loved it.

Ms. ULINICH: Thanks, Rebecca. Thank you.

PESCA: All right. Who is this on the line?

JULIA (Listener, Denver): This is Julia.

PESCA: Hello, Julia from Denver. Am I right about that?

JULIA: That's right.

PESCA: So, Julia, do you have a question for Anya?

JULIA: I do. I'm married to a disabled man who has cerebral palsy, and I found the relationship between Sasha and Jake to be fairly realistic in the sense that I rarely see relationships between able-bodied people and disabled people in the media. And I was curious to know if you knew somebody who is disabled, or if you had dated someone who is disabled...

Ms. ULINICH: No.

JULIA: Because it seemed to be fairly realistic.

Ms. ULINICH: Well, I'm glad you say that, because that was one of the things I was struggling with. You know, can I write this character? No, I have never - I mean, I have met people, obviously, met disabled people, but no, I never dated one, and I just, you know, did the research and that's all. You know, I made him up. So, I am glad you say that because that really makes me happy.

PESCA: Thanks for the question, Julia.

JULIA: You're welcome.

PESCA: I wanted to talk about just the turns of phrase. I wanted to know how effortless they were, or if you labored over them. At one point, she talks about her hip, young boyfriend and they just had, quote, "misaligned nostalgia." She comes and encounters these paintings. Do you like them, she's asked. "Like wasn't the right word for it. The whole experience was like bumping into your best friend at the bottom of the ocean." "He looked an inch above her head as if she were a ghost. These drunken guys were God's dandelions." I mean, just every page had phrases like this.

Ms. ULINICH: First of all, I really got excited about literally translating certain Russian sayings into English because when you translate them, they acquire this kind of new metaphorical power. So, "God's dandelions" is Russian. We are referring to someone who - actually, I think it refers to old people, and it's just someone who is kind of barely, this, like, harmless, you know, weak individual, is God's dandelions. Like, my granny was a God's dandelion in her later years. You know, she had these little wispy hairs. That's what it is.

PESCA: Yes.

Ms. ULINICH: And also things like, you know, too many cooks spoil the soup is in English. In Russian, it's seven nannies have a baby without an eye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ULINICH: And so a lot of them are sort of this unwittingly wily things so - that was, you know, something that I really was conscious of and I was looking for. And as far as, you know, meeting your best friend at the bottom on the ocean, no, that just came to me.

PESCA: Right.

Ms. ULINICH: I mean, I guess I write that way.

PESCA: But, I would imagine is someone where English wasn't your first language, maybe nuances of the languages pop out at you more...

Ms. ULINICH: Definitely.

PESCA: Maybe you have a facility for it because of that.

Ms. ULINICH: Let's - I think it's a great observation, because I - English - Russian is kind of undifferentiated goo. You know, that's what I think of it as. I just kind of sink in it, and I have too much attachment to it. It's too much a part of my bones. So, actually I find it easier to write in English, because English is more like Lego bricks rather than the goo. So, I can construct sentences and stories easier somehow because there is that detachment. I also lie in English much easier than I do in Russian.

PESCA: Because it's like you're playing a role, anyway.

Ms. ULINICH: It's like I am - yeah. It's like I am lying anyway on a certain level.

PESCA: Is your book published in Russia?

Ms. ULINICH: No.

PESCA: And are there plans for it?

Ms. ULINICH: I wish.

PESCA: Yeah, that would be cool.

Ms. ULINICH: My book's was published in so many countries, I've lost count, but I guess there is no interest, and I think Russian people are fed up with the 1990s, when they had all that hard economic time. And I think Russia now is so entirely different from what I write about that it almost has no relevance. You know, people don't want to hear about the troubles. They are extremely happy to be living under the soft dictatorship that they have there now and earning twice the amount of money they used to and, you know, being, for once, middle class. So, I don't know if there is a market for my book there. You know, I don't know what the deal is. I want to tell, if any Russian publishers are listening, please buy my book. I would love to come visit. I haven't been there for six years.

PESCA: So, when you read news of Putin, you said soft dictatorship. Do you read - the way he's framed here is that he could be a problem for the United States or you know, Medvedev, the successor. What do you think? Do you say, but the people are so much better off? How do you think about news from Russia?

Ms. ULINICH: Well, I think that would be great if people were better off and there were no dictatorship.

PESCA: Oh, yeah, you want it all?

Ms. ULINICH: Do you know what I mean? I want it all, yes.

PESCA: We had a question asking about Sasha's mother, you know, and the way the question is phrased is something like, should we love her? Should we hate her? Is it important to you that we do either? But could you just talk a little bit about the mother, and what the character was - I don't know, not supposed to represent, but you know, how do you feel about the character once you've killed her off, like you did, and put her to bed?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ULINICH: Well, the question is, what else was I suppose to do with her?

PESCA: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. ULINICH: No, but my book started out as much more as a sort of straight-up farce, but it kind of revolved into this book with the very human face, a book about a girl. But it's also, you know, a book about history, and Mrs. Goldberg is probably the most, you know, farcical, most caricatured character in the book, in that she is just the sort of inflexible, demented person who holds on to the past and entirely tries to ignore the reality, not so much because she doesn't like the past, but her resistance mechanisms are all inside her head, and they don't serve her very well in the physical world.

But I think that's the only way, you know, that she can cope. And to me, that kind of represents the past and what Sasha is leaving behind and why, you know, she finally dies the way she does. It's over. You know, it's basically over. Asbestos 2 is over and the resistance is over. Now, like, there is an entirely different game going on with entirely different rules that Mrs. Goldberg can't participate in.

PESCA: I don't think anywhere in the book you used the phrase Mother Russia, but I thought of that phrase many times, as I read the book about her and about, you know, Sasha and how Alexandra had come from a place that no longer existed and was now into a place she didn't understand. And there is a line about the book about how Russia was, you know, just about how it was falling apart, and I said, oh, that's exactly what the mother is doing.

Ms. ULINICH: It's just that, also that particular culture. The Soviet Union is really a blip on the historical radar, and by now, it's over. It's done. You know, there is a generation of people now who don't know who Lenin is and they're graduating high school. You know, those are adults. They kind of know sort of who that was and if they see them, you know, him on the wall in the restaurant maybe, but - so the culture that produced Sasha's mother, and in a large part, Sasha as well, because Sasha had that education, it's just gone.

So, then what do you do when what you miss is, you know, a world that no longer exists? You know, what do you do when your private culture is made of stuff that essentially is not worth missing? I wanted to write about a kind of double-edged thinking on the part of an immigrant. On one hand, a lot Americans, and I'm sure Mrs. Tarakan, thinks that, you know, people should just come here having escaped, be grateful. But it's more complicated than that because you do have, you know, your whole life before that, you know, that you miss even if it is absolutely, objectively awful.

PESCA: What do you do next? What are you working one now?

Ms. ULINICH: I'm writing stories now and haven't quite - I mean, one of them might turn into a novel and I have some ideas for characters, but that's what I'm doing now.

PESCA: Anya Ulinich is the author of the BPP's Book Club selection "Petropolis." Thank you very much. I very much enjoyed it.

Ms. ULINICH: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

PESCA: The conversation and the book, very good.

Ms. ULINICH: Thank you.

PESCA: Unsentimental Russians who see the world through gimlet eyes. Perhaps that is the perfect tonic for today, or perhaps we need a stronger cocktail than a tonic. Anyway, that is it for this hour of the BPP. We are down to single digits. Stay with us over the next two weeks, as we endeavor to bring you the best radio show we can, best blog we can, best Twitter feed we can, couple of videos. We'll make it worth your while and we're always online, well, for another couple of weeks at least, at npr.org/bryantpark. I am Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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