How did you become a writer?
It was a two-part process, with a thirty-year-long gap in between.
When I was five years old, I fell into a pothole. I’d been walking home from a store, holding my mother’s hand, and suddenly the familiar disappeared—the poplars, the cracked asphalt, the torn mesh fence. The sky remained, but smaller and farther up, and all around me were telephone wires—red, yellow, white. Dry and quiet inside. In a few minutes (which must have seemed quite long to my mother) a passerby pulled me out. The scratches on my elbows and knees healed quickly, but what remained was the intense awareness of a reality shift. I spent a good part of my childhood disappearing into imaginary potholes, and though it would be years before I’d actually start committing some of them to paper, I think of that incident as an entry point of sorts, an initiation into possibilities afforded by a shift in perspective.
Part two happened some twelve years ago, when, late at night, I sat down at the kitchen table to write a reminiscence of my trip to the south of France. I remember deriving immense pleasure from describing all the things that had struck me—the lavender fields, the way the sky seemed to have absorbed their color, the swallows darting along the dusty road that zigzagged towards the sea. I also remember how that story should have ended: with a turn towards the airport, and a flight home. Instead, the person at the wheel—no longer me— turned in the opposite direction. I didn’t know it back then, but at that moment my life changed drastically. Slowly, writing would subsume everything else. A career I’d been pursuing would come to an end, and the new path I found myself on had no set destination. I embraced it—or it embraced me. Either way, I’ve been walking it ever since.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I grew up in the last two decades of the Soviet Union, so my literary sensibility was formed, not surprisingly, by Russian classics. Chekhov, with his humor, his insights into the human soul, and his imperceptible shifts between light and despair, was my favorite. From the Soviet literature, there was the satirical duo of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, quite possibly the funniest writers on earth. By high school, I could quote “The Twelve Chairs” and “The Golden Calf” virtually from any place.
Then, in 1986, when I was in sixth grade, my mother exchanged twenty-five kilograms of used newspapers for a coupon that entitled us to buy a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “Master and Margarita,” now in wide circulation. I read it in three nights, and to this day remain under its spell. It has everything a novel should have—language, satire, adventure, magic, philosophy, invention; good and evil. Each time I read it, I find something I haven’t noticed before.
I also had a practical insight into the writing profession early on: by a strike of good luck I had married into a writers’ family long before harboring any literary ambitions. My husband’s father and grandfather used to work for Russia’s famous satirical magazine “Krokodil,” and my husband grew up in a writers’ cooperative in Moscow, with neighbors like Vladimir Voinovich, Bella Akhmadulina, Vasily Aksenov. I had lived in that house too. And though we’d all left Russia, the “Writers’ House” stayed with us: our family conversations invariably revolved around literature. That extended “steeping” period proved to be of an enormous advantage to me when I started writing. Setting out, I had readily available advice from fine writers and critics right under my roof. They encouraged me, cheered me, and saved me from obvious missteps.
I also studied craft formally at the Pacific University MFA Program in Oregon, where I was challenged and nurtured by great writers—Jack Driscoll, Frank Gaspar, Kellie Wells, Valerie Laken. But I owe the most David Long, my first semester advisor. By refusing to cut me any slack for not being a native speaker, and by insisting I ditch abstractions in favor of concrete things, David awoke me to a higher level of writing—deeper, clearer and emotionally resonant. That first semester was like falling into one of my potholes: I emerged a different writer.
When and where do you write?
When I started writing, I was working full time and had two young kids, so I had this insane schedule of writing between 9pm and 2 am. I knew every single coffee shop in the area that stayed open until midnight, knew how to slip into my own house without waking anyone up and write a couple more hours at my own desk, knew how to get up in the morning, take the kids to school, somehow make it to the office in the city and not fall asleep at the meetings. I wrote on buses, trains, airplanes and sometimes at work, when I thought people couldn’t figure out what I was doing.
Now that writing is my main job I can work during daytime, and I am still in awe. This is when I try to do most of my “fresh” writing and save evenings for editing and research.
What are you working on now?
A book tentatively titled “The Gone Empire,” a meditation on the strange lives we lived in USSR. It continuously stuns me that the country I grew up in, along with millions of other Soviet citizens, no longer exists. But we do. So the book is an attempt to recapture the lost world, to record our collective memories before they’re buried under the sand of time, and before others could manipulate them for their own gain.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I suffer from fear of not being able to write a new good piece. The only remedy for that is to sit down and start writing. There are periods, of course, when conquering that fear results in pages of merciless garbage, and that is draining. That’s when I stop writing for a day or two, and just read, think, and run. Eventually I get to a point when I can either solve the problem, or at least talk about it. Invariably, something happens, and the fire is reignited.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t kill all your characters in Chapter 5.”
What’s your advice to new writers?
Writing is part magic, part craft. There’s nothing you can do about magic: it either happens or it doesn’t. But learning the craft is possible. So while you’re waiting for the muse to visit you, work on your craft. Study writers who succeeded where you’re struggling, push yourself hard, never coast: the gods of writing are very demanding. A writer is this lonely creature that dares to insert herself between the world and whatever it is doing at the moment and demand: “Look here. I have something important to tell you.” It’s an opening, an opportunity and an enormous challenge. The better equipped you are, the higher the chances that you will be heard.
Anastasia Edel grew up in southern Russia during the last years of the Soviet Union. She graduated with a degree in English and German studies and worked as a fiction translator. A recipient of the British Government Chevening Award, she moved to England for postgraduate studies, and then to the US, earning her MFA in Writing from Pacific University. She's the author of “Russia: Putin's Playground” (Callisto Media, 2016). Her prose has appeared in the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Project Syndicate, Quartz, and World Literature Today. She lives in California and teaches Russian politics and culture at OLLI UC Berkeley.