Svetlana Satchkova: “I almost never say no,” an Interview with a Russian-American Novelist

This fall, Svetlana Satchkova, a writer, journalist, editor, and a contributor to Punctured Lines, has published her third novel. Released in Russian by Moscow-based Eksmo Press, People and Birds has been welcomed by critics and received popular acclaim. According to critic Alexander Chantsev, “The main thing is that this book is very much about Moscow. Not about the Moscow that God sent us, but about the one we deserve.” Curiously, Satchkova currently resides in New York and is attending an MFA program at Brooklyn College, aiming to publish her future work in English.

Satchkova’s path as a writer is both unique and representative of a generation born in the USSR and coming of age in its wake. It includes complicated geographies (she spent several years in Syria as a child, studied in New York, and lived in Moscow before returning to New York), a secret marriage, and quirky jobs. Her biography itself reads like a novel. To give our English-language readers a glimpse, we asked Svetlana to translate an interview she had given to Egor Mikhaylov of Afisha Daily. Please enjoy!

For Russian-language readers: you can purchase Svetlana Satchkova’s Люди и птицы on Eksmo’s website, among others.

When you meet someone at a party, do you introduce yourself as a journalist or as a writer?
© Alena Adamson

As a writer and a journalist. I had to work on myself a lot to be able to say that. My dad dreamed of me becoming a successful lawyer or a businesswoman (though we didn’t know this word at the time, I think). The humanities, even though no one said so directly, weren’t appreciated in my family. Despite all that, I started writing quite early: at the age of eleven I already produced my first novel. I would’ve never voluntarily shown it to my parents, but I had to. The thing was, we lived in Syria at the time: my father worked as a representative of the Soviet merchant fleet in the port city of Latakia. Terrible things were happening at the Soviet customs then: the officers believed that people who worked abroad were all trying to smuggle illegal goods into the USSR, and they went so far as to squeeze toothpaste out of tubes, looking for diamonds. Once, when we came to Moscow on our vacation, they confiscated my collection of chewing gum inserts with Japanese cartoon robots, claiming that those pictures promoted a cult of violence.

My point is, my dad couldn’t take a work of fiction across the border, even if it had been produced by a child, not knowing what was actually written in it. What if there was something anti-Soviet in it? We were all very careful then. I remember asking him, “Can I use the word отель?” (“hotel” in Russian; this word sounded foreign because it had an English origin). It seemed to me that it was an ideologically questionable word. Dad thought about it and said, “I have no idea. Write гостиница (a Russian-sounding synonym) just in case.” Anyway, my dad read the novel and was impressed. He still remembers it sometimes and comments, “I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel like that even when I was forty!” But I was more critical of myself and burned the manuscript because I wasn’t satisfied with my level of writing. It’s a pity, of course: it would be so interesting to read it now.

At first, it didn’t even occur to me that writing could be a profession. My parents didn’t socialize with people who could be identified as intellectuals even if you stretched your imagination: everyone they knew did something very practical for a living. If I’d had role models, I would’ve probably looked in that direction, but it seemed to me that writing could only be a hobby, and not very much encouraged at that. Apparently, I got used to thinking along those lines. Only now, when my third book came out, I started calling myself a writer. Who was holding me back before, I have no idea.

Tell me about your first two books.

Both of them came out in such a way that they seemed to not have come out at all. My first novel was published in 2000, when the Russian book market was in its infancy, and only one person reviewed it – Slava Kuritsyn. It was a short review, literally one paragraph long, but a very nice one. And something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Turning on the TV one evening, I saw that Cultural Revolution was on; I didn’t even have time to grasp what was being discussed when Lyudmila Ulitskaya got hold of the microphone and said, “You know, there’s this young writer named Svetlana Satchkova, and in her novel she reinterpreted Dostoevsky’s theme, the murder of an old woman, in a very interesting way.” I almost collapsed with happiness at that moment. But everything was over before it even began: the readers never found out about this young writer.

If we go back to the imaginary party from your first question, in America, when you introduce yourself as a writer, you could be asked, “What do you write? Anything I might have read?” The same goes for film directors and musicians. I’ve read interviews with very accomplished people, some of them award-winning professionals, and they said they wanted to fall through the floor and disappear upon hearing this question because it usually implies: if a regular person hasn’t heard about you, you’re not worthy of their attention. That’s how I used to think of myself, too, but now I believe that we have to be more generous both to others and to ourselves. I know people who don’t even need to publish in order to think of themselves as writers, and I can only applaud them.

And what about your second book?

I wrote a novel called Vadim, showed it to different publishers, but all of them rejected it, saying the same thing, “This is neformat” (in Russian, this means “not fitting any of the existing categories”). Then I found out that the very same Slava Kuritsyn, whom I didn’t know personally, was curating a book series called Neformat at AST publishing house with the purpose of printing misfits – in other words, people like me. I found his email address and wrote to him, “Hello, Vyacheslav. Five years ago, I had a book out, and you seemed to like it. I’ve written another novel.” And he said, “I’ll take a look at it.” He published my novel, but after a month or two, the project was canceled, and books were removed from stores: readers didn’t show any interest in the series. This time, two people wrote about my book: Maya Kucherskaya, who didn’t like it, and Galina Yuzefovich, who half-liked it.

How’s that?

I tracked her down myself, and she told me to come to where she lived and to slip the book into her mailbox. Then we spoke on the phone, and she said, “You know, your novel made a strange impression on me. I even discussed it with my dad.” I thought, oh God, with Leonid Yuzefovich himself! And then she added, “You know, you have to rewrite it.” – “What do you mean, rewrite it? It’s been published already! I’m holding it in my hands.” In short, I didn’t understand what she meant. Many years later, I saw this book of mine on the shelf, leafed through it, and everything suddenly became clear. I realized that, at the time, I simply needed a good editor, someone who would have said, “Sveta, this part isn’t working, you have to revise it.” Some parts of my novel were very well written – I was even surprised that I was the one who had actually written them! – while others were monstrously bad.

And now, when you were working on your third book, did you have the editor you needed so badly then?

I didn’t. As far as I understand, having an actual editor is an extremely rare occurrence in the Russian publishing business. I’m familiar with a few American writers, and I know from them how things work in the American book industry. First, the publishing cycle is very long here. I’ll tell you how my book was published at Eksmo. In the spring, they informed me that they were taking my novel, and we began to work on the contract; in September, the book was already in stores.

In the United States, the cycle usually takes one and a half to two years. Here, your literary agent is your first editor. A writer can’t send their manuscript directly to a publisher – no one will read it – so you have to find yourself an agent first. This is very difficult; various writers’ manuals advise you to make a list of the best four hundred agents who work with the kind of prose you write, and then to send them your manuscript. An acquaintance of mine told me that five agents agreed to work with him, and that he chose the one who was the most critical of his novel. Consequently, he had to rewrite it three times before it was even sent out to publishers. He rewrote it from beginning to end, can you imagine? Then, when a publisher signs a contract with you, you start working on your manuscript with an editor, and they, too, can make you revise everything. It takes a colossal amount of time, but the end result is usually a high-quality product.

Do you think the American approach is better?

I can’t say that I’m all for it – who wants to revise a novel a hundred times? On the other hand, this approach rules out what happened with my second book – I open it and feel terribly ashamed because some parts are so weak. I think that now I don’t need an editor as much, since I’ve worked as an editor for many years, albeit in magazines, and I can look at my own text with a professional eye.

So, at some point after the release of Vadim, you thought that you needed something else and decided to venture into journalism?

I didn’t have to choose between literature and journalism because you couldn’t make a living writing fiction – I had to work somewhere where I’d be paid. I actually became a journalist thanks to my first book, One Giraffe’s Life, or A Woman of Childbearing Age.

How do you feel about this title now?

Now, of course, it seems funny and cringeworthy, as a friend of mine says. But this just goes to show that an author must have an editor. Anyway, when my first book came out, one of my acquaintances read it and said, “I’m friends with the editor of Marie Claire magazine. Do you want me to introduce you to her so that you could write for them?” I have this trait that has served me well in life: I almost never say no – I’m up for anything because I want to find out what will come of it. So, I met the editor-in-chief of Marie Claire and began writing for them. The assignments they gave me were unusual – perhaps those no one else wanted to take.

For example, they sent me to a clinic where women went to have their virginity restored, and I had to pretend to be one of the patients: in all seriousness, I discussed the restoration of my hymen after the doctor had examined me in the gynecological chair. Then I confessed that I was a journalist, and she told me about her patients who came to get the procedure done and gave me the statistics.

At Marie Claire, they called this type of article a “social”: I had to write about modern life and social mores. After a while, I stopped working for this magazine because of another article. At that time, I was a young divorcee with a small child, and, for my next assignment, I had to meet single men on the Internet and write a report that was also meant to be a “social.” I began to meet men through dating sites, through newspaper advertisements, through a marriage agency, and even through a matchmaker who later turned out to be a scam artist. In the end, I wrote a very entertaining article – or so it seemed to me. At the time, I worshipped Sergei Mostovshchikov who was editor-in-chief of the famous Bolshoy Gorod newspaper, and I wanted to write in the style his journalists wrote in. I brought this text to Marie Claire, and they said, “This isn’t what we want. All of the men you describe have to represent common types.” But everyone I’d met was a freak; I tried to artificially fit them into some categories, but the result wasn’t very good.

I really liked the text, though, and besides, I’d spent a huge amount of time working on it. I asked them to pay me a penalty. At Marie Claire, they had this system: if they asked you to write a text, but didn’t publish it, they had to pay you half of your regular fee. But they didn’t pay me anything, so I took the article to Bolshoy Gorod. I came to see Mostovshchikov’s deputy, the legendary journalist Valery Drannikov. He read the article, looked at me carefully, and said, “At first, we let young journalists write one sentence, then two. Then, after a year, maybe half a page. But you’re very lucky: we just had to pull out an article that was six pages long.” So, they printed this text of mine on six pages, and I, as they say, woke up famous. Marie Claire editors wrote to me immediately and said, “Sveta, please give us back the hundred dollars that we’d given you for the matchmaker.”

The one who ran away with the money?

Yes, that one. I replied, “I’ll gladly return the one hundred dollars if you pay me my half of my fee.” They said, “Fine, we’ll call it even.” After that, I began to write for Bolshoy Gorod a lot, then started to spill out into other publications. And in 2004, I got my first full-time job as a magazine editor.

You said that you wrote your first novel in Syria, and now you live and write in America. And this is actually the second time you came to the United States to live. How did that happen?

After finishing high school in 1992, I enrolled at New York University and, in four years, graduated with a bachelor’s in philosophy. I could stay in America by getting a job or a master’s degree, but, to everybody’s astonishment, I returned to Moscow. It seemed to me that all the exciting things were happening in Moscow, that life was in full swing there. In addition, while I was still a student at NYU, I came to Moscow and fell in love with a guy there and secretly married him. Secretly – because he was a punk rocker, worked in a shop that made metal doors, and drank quite a lot, so my parents would never have approved of him. When I returned to America after my secret wedding, it turned out that I was pregnant. So you see, it’s a young girl’s romantic story. I gave birth to a son and came to live with my husband in Moscow, but our marriage fell apart quickly. I didn’t even think of returning to America and began to build my new adult life where I was. But four years ago, I came to New York, and now I live here.

So you wrote this third novel, People and Birds, after having moved to the USA?

I completed it here, but I started it much earlier. Did you notice that it’s not entirely clear when the novel’s action takes place – is it the early 2000s or is it present time? The thing is, I wrote it in chunks, taking long breaks between them, and it sort of stretched out in time. When I was finishing it, I asked myself whether I wanted to bring all of this to any one specific time period. But I realized that I didn’t, because, in my opinion, nothing changes in Russia except for external things like the appearance of various apps for getting a cab. In general, the feeling of being in Russia remains the same – at least for me. Deciding that I would make this into a literary device, I was very happy with myself, but then I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to use it. I know several people now who are working on novels set in Moscow, and they deliberately mix different eras in them.

Between novels, did you write any fiction?

I had this grandiose failure that traumatized me so much that I stopped writing fiction for several years. Now, I tell this story as a very amusing one, but back then it didn’t make me laugh. In 2009, I wrote a collection of short stories about teenagers which turned out to be very lively and dramatic: there were betrayals, intrigues, love, sex, fights with parents, and violence in it, and also a lot of teenage slang that I learned by spending hours on internet forums where high school kids hung out. When I completed it, I found the literary agent Julia Goumen on Facebook – I work with her to this day. She really liked the collection and said, “Sveta, this is very cool, and I’ll sell it very quickly. I just need you to add a couple of more stories – about a gay boy and a migrant boy.” She thought that these two stories were necessary to round out the collection, and she was absolutely right. Believe it or not, on the day that I sent her the finished manuscript, I turned on the TV and saw the first episode of Valeria Guy Germanica’s series School. My collection was also called School. I immediately realized that no one would publish my collection because it was the same thing, essentially, even though the names and the characters were different. I was right: Julia went around all the publishing houses with my manuscript, but everyone said, “Well, Guy Germanica has already covered this topic.” I must add that I didn’t know anything about the series while I was writing the collection, and Guy Germanica didn’t know anything about me either – it just happened that the same idea came to two different people at the same time.

Now, you live in America and write in Russian. Do you have any ambitions for writing in English?

Actually, I do. I must say that Russian-American writers of approximately my generation – Shteyngart, Litman, Vapnyar – have a gigantic head start in the sense that they all came to the United States at a young age and stayed here, that is, all this time they’ve been living in an English-speaking environment. I returned to Moscow after university and didn’t speak or write in English for twenty years – and, of course, I lost this language to some extent. Now I have to catch up, and in order for this to happen faster, I enrolled in a master’s program in fiction.

Is it easy to get accepted into one of these programs?
© Vladimir Badikov

If it’s prestigious, one of the top 25, it’s very difficult. Among other things, you need professional recommendations, and that’s why I spent the whole of last summer workshopping with established writers. They liked my fiction and wrote letters of recommendation for me. It makes no sense to apply to only one program – you may not get accepted, and I applied to twelve or thirteen universities across the country, all of them from the top 25 list. To be honest, I absolutely didn’t want to move to another state, and it so happened that I was accepted into three master’s programs in New York. I was very happy. When you get admitted to several places, you then have to choose where to go, and the programs begin to court you, as it were: they introduce you to students, invite you to parties and to classes as an observer. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic these parties didn’t happen, but I met a lot of people through Zoom. And I really liked the program at Brooklyn College: I got the feeling that those were not just wonderful people and professionals, but my family.

And when I had made my decision to choose that particular program, I suddenly got an email informing me that I would receive a scholarship from the Truman Capote Foundation, which would cover the cost of my education. At that moment, I had no idea what this scholarship was – I thought it was simply named after one of my favorite writers. Then I googled it and found out that Truman Capote bequeathed his wealth to aspiring writers like me. Realizing that I would study with the help of Truman Capote’s own money, I lay down on my bed and lay there for a long time, trying to absorb this information.

Did they give you this scholarship based on the stories you wrote in English?

In my application, I provided a writing sample that included one of the stories I wrote last summer and a chapter of my new novel.

Wait a second, what novel?

I have an interesting story to tell about it. When I completed People and Birds, I started writing a novel about a dentist who was a narcissist and a highly toxic person – in Russian. It’s just that I had no idea at all about what would interest an English-speaking audience. At one of the writing workshops I attended, in the beautiful city of Provincetown, I was randomly assigned to a group of people who worked on novels. I thought, fine, I’ll just translate a couple of chapters about the dentist, and the workshop might still be useful. Unexpectedly, it turned out that the American readers were interested in both the novel and the main character. They told me that the novel should be published in America and that they couldn’t wait until I finished it.

Are you finishing it in English?

I finished it in Russian and started translating it into English. The people who read the first two chapters said that they felt a trace of Russian in the text, and that that was one of the reasons they liked it so much. They were quite familiar with the Russian classics which they read in translation, and my text reminded them of Dostoevsky and someone else. When I write in English, I have a different mentality: I choose different words and a different intonation, and the result is a different text. So the work is progressing, but I don’t know when I’ll finish it. After all, I’m translating from my native language into a non-native one, and this, of course, isn’t easy.

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The best way to support authors is by purchasing their books. Readers in the US can buy Svetlana Satchkova’s novel here.

The Russian-language original of this interview appeared in Afisha Daily. Thanks to Afisha Daily and to Egor Mikhaylov for allowing us to publish a translation of this material.

Take a look at Svetlana Satchkova’s gorgeous and informative website.