Best known for her 2007 novel “Petropolis, Anya Ulinich’s second book leaves the world of prose behind. “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel,” a graphic novel that utilizes her skills as a writer and illustrator, takes its title from a short story by Bernard Malamud about a man who visits a marriage broker in search of a wife. In Ulinich’s book, the magic barrel is the world of online dating, presented as the messy and complex world familiar to many readers.
In speaking with CBR News about the Penguin-published project, Ulinich explained that she made the book despite knowing little about comics. We also discussed how her young daughter helped copy edit a decidedly adult project, learning to depict speech versus thought in comics, and people who read her fiction as though it’s autobiography.
CBR News: I had read your novel “Petropolis,” and I’m curious why you chose a graphic novel for your follow-up work.
Anya Ulinich: I have an MFA in painting. I moved to New York and wrote “Petropolis,” and I stopped doing any visual art for, like, ten years. I just didn’t have time. I was a writer and I had two kids and there was also no space at my place. I used to paint really large oil paintings, which is a big mess. I got back into drawing because of a freelance illustration job that fell into my lap. At the same time, I finished my second novel and nobody liked it. My agent didn’t like it. My editor didn’t like it. Then my agent kept asking, what else am I working on?
Instead of saying, “I’m not working on anything — I’m just being depressed and miserable,” I showed her some of these doodles that I was doing. They were diaristic. They had characters who looked like me and my daughters. I did one about picking up my kid from school, and also about this conversation I had with my best friend about running into her son’s psychiatrist at a coffee shop. My agent got excited about them — or maybe she wasn’t excited, but just grasping at straws — and she said, this is your next project. Make a book.
Neither of us knew anything about comics. She’d never represented a graphic novel, and I didn’t really read comics. I’d read some graphic novels, the ones everybody has read, like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and Satrapi’s “Persepolis.” I wasn’t in the comics world. When I first started, I showed these to my friends and they said, aren’t speech bubbles supposed to be smooth and thought bubbles bumpy? That’s how you make them separate for clarity. I had to figure out all that stuff. Once I started doing it, I loved it. I loved the drawing. The writing was easier in a way because the space limitations of comic panels gave my writing a good kick in the pants. It was a good thing for me to switch mediums.
What was the process of making the book like?
My agent wanted a synopsis, so I wrote a summary of the story. She said, this is lame, do something better than this. I ended up doing a comic book for the book proposal, basically. I made a beautiful — if I may say so myself — bunch of pages that described what the book was going to be. It was mostly me working out who the characters were. I didn’t really know the ending, so I faked that. That was really helpful for me because I had never worked that way before. My first novel involved a lot of rewriting. There are bunch of major characters in it that I didn’t even know would be in the story until late in the book. It took forever. Starting out with a visual outline was really helpful.
Still, I didn’t know what I was doing at all. The first fifty pages I did in full color, and they were huge. When my agent went around trying to sell this thing, everyone was like, no we can’t print this huge, full color book. When we sold it to Penguin they said, black and white, and smaller. I redrew all the first pages. That was annoying, and by the time I got to the new pages, I had all this pent-up energy. Then it was really fast. I was on this deadline that I really resented. There is so much text in the book and I think some of that could have been turned into images. I could have done a more imaginative job of working with images rather than just having two talking heads and massive bubbles. I really had a few months to finish this book. I worked sixteen-hour days and I was resentful the whole time, but once I was done I looked at it and saw the deadline gave me an urgency that was good for the book. The story has an emotional urgency that was good for it, I think.
There is this real emotional urgency in the second half, and you can see that come through in the drawing.
Maybe it was good that I didn’t have more time. In the beginning, there are all these gorgeous landscapes of St. Petersburg, and towards the end, it’s just a lot of faces and closeups.
It works, because the scope changes and becomes about this relationship. It becomes much more intimate.
That’s true. There’s a lot of exposition in the beginning, and this condensed focus in the end.
Was there a graphic novel or a model for what you wanted to do?
No, I just figured out that the frames had to read from top to bottom and left to right, and that the thought bubbles had to be bumpy and the speech bubbles had to be smooth. That’s it. Only later on did I figure out most graphic artists separate text from the picture. My way of doing it was to handwrite everything on the same piece of paper. I’d use Wite-Out to edit. It was a mess. Then I would ask my agent what resolution to scan these things to send them off to Penguin, or something basic like that. She’d be like, I don’t know, why don’t you write to Alison Bechdel and ask her? [Laughs] It was so crazy. I was turning in the pages as separate files to Penguin on a succession of flash drives. It was a really a crazy experiment for everyone. We were all in new territory. They weren’t used to publishing things like that, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It was interesting.
You use two styles in the book: A more realistic and textured style for the present, while the flashbacks are drawn in a very cartoony style. When you showed some art to your agent, what did you show her?
From the very start, I happened upon the way to draw flashbacks as cartoony, and the further back in time, the more cartoony. The very first page I ever did involving these characters, I tore a chunk out of the page and used a different color paper for a flashback. In the final version, I used notebook paper for flashbacks.
As far as flashbacks being cartoony and the action that takes place in the present being more realistic looking, I thought about how memory works. I think memories are cartoony. We remember a certain detail really, really specifically and in high relief, and the rest we forget. Or we remember a strong emotion, or one big thing, but there are all these other things that are excluded. Everything is a little exaggerated in memory. The more chronologically removed the memory is, the more cartoony it is. Childhood memories are super cartoony, and then later memories are a little less so. I tried to do it that way.
Did you spend a lot of time finding the right style or approach for the book?
I did not. I didn’t think about it at all, honestly. I had to stop myself from thinking about it. I get easily intimidated. I go into a comic book store, and I don’t know what’s going on. You look at some people’s work, and so much of it had references to other comics artists’ work. So much of it is very aestheticized. I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing, so I had to say, I’m not going to think of it as a graphic novel — I’m just telling a story using some pictures and handwriting. If I started thinking style, I would just intimidate the hell out of myself into inaction. [Laughs]
Did you have the Bernard Malamud story in mind from the beginning?
Yes. I read this Malamud story and was really impressed with it. I saw parallels between going to a marriage broker and online dating. I was also struck by how it ends with falling in love, but there’s this facile way of describing that last scene with candles and violins — it was reminiscent of a Disney movie. You can read it either as sweet or you can almost see it as sarcastic. I myself was in the middle of a major heartbreak and I just thought, I’m going to take this story and extend it to see what happens after the characters meet and have a relationship.
Also, the whole idea of someone searching for a way out of an existential crisis and then just being so desperate to find that meaning and emotional breakthrough that they latch onto someone else as salvation. Malamud’s protagonist gets obsessed with this picture of a girl. In my character’s case, one review said that this guy Lena falls in love with has more red flags than the Bolshevik Revolution. [Laughs] I wanted the reader to understand things before Lena does. I do that a lot in my books.
I enjoyed Philip Roth’s appearance in the book. Why did he appear in the dream?
He inspires me because he’ll just write whatever he wants, and all his thoughts get spewed on paper. I wanted to pay tribute to him because I felt like in a lot of ways, Lena is similar to his characters. She’s very self-obsessed and has no filter, and she’s very reckless, emotionally and sexually. I actually had a dream about meeting Philip Roth on a Greyhound, and he was really nice to me in the dream. In the book, I made it a nightmare where she meets him on the bus and he’s really, really mean to her. I just had fun with that.
It’s a very funny book, and you set the tone at the beginning where your character thinks about how realistic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” is. I laughed out loud thinking, “That’s the sign of a doomed relationship.” Did you set out to write a funny book?
Everything I write is funny. I can’t help it. Funny is a way to keep from being sentimental. I can’t pretend that being funny is something I do on purpose, because it’s just what I do. In real life, as well. I’m a clown. I guess it’s a Russian writer thing, setting really funny and really sad close together. It’s something Russians do really well in their prose. I feel like American writers are much more polite that way. They take a much more roundabout way to get from the funny to sad, whereas Russians are very deadpan. If there is a place where it doesn’t go really fast from funny to sad, I will edit it to be tighter that way.
It’s a very different book from “Petropolis,” with a very different tone, but I would say the humor is very similar.
In the acknowledgments, you mention your daughter copyedited the book. Or at the least child-appropriate parts.
Yes, because it’s hand-written, it was bound to have more basic spelling errors than something you’d type in Microsoft Word. Also, when I speak, I use articles properly, because speaking is intuitive, but writing is slower. I drop articles a lot, because in Russian, there are no articles. I didn’t want it to be so embarrassing when I turned it in, so I gave it to my kid — but only the child-appropriate parts. My kid has very stringent requirements to what child appropriate is. She is a very modest individual and doesn’t want to see what she doesn’t want to see, so there was not much that she could look at. [Laughs]
I’m sure knowing her mother made the book, meant that she set a very hard line.
Oh, yes. I feel like it generally balances out. If your parents are really private and secretive, you end up being the kind of child who rummages through their drawers and desks. I’m a single mom, and I was dating people. I don’t come home with sob stories about my personal life to my children, but they see a lot more of me being a human being with a messy life than I saw of my parents. When that’s the case, children protect themselves by stepping back and saying, you do your thin, and I’ll do my thing.
My protagonist had two daughters, and I have two daughters. Early on, my daughters basically told me, we don’t want any of our personal life inspiring any of these pages. What happened then was, the children characters aren’t really part of the plot. They’re what’s called flat characters. They don’t have their own drama. They’re comic relief.
I’m curious, do you get a different reaction to the two books? Do people read one as thinly-veiled memoir more than the other?
They read both of them as a memoir. They always call my protagonists “You.” With “Petropolis,” I got a lot of, what did it feel like to be a teenage mother? What did it feel like to be a mail order bride? “As a person from Siberia –” I’ve never been to Siberia!
With this one, it’s the same thing. If a white American — especially an American guy — writes a book featuring a white American guy, people don’t automatically assume that the guy writing the book is the guy in the book. If you are an immigrant and write a book about an immigrant, you are that immigrant.
I just wondered if the subject or the form made people think one was autobiographical more than the other.
I don’t know if it did or not. I think it’s the same. “Petropolis” attracted a lot of immigrant Russian readers and I got a hard time for not getting minute details right. Because again, somehow you become the voice of your people a little bit if you’re an ethnic writer. The history in the book has to be correct — even though fiction writers who are American writing in English for Americans don’t have such a burden. They can use fantasy. Who cares if someone like Jonathan Safran Foer sets a book in Ukraine that’s nothing like Ukraine with a Ukrainian who speaks in broken English that doesn’t sound like someone who was Ukrainian speaking in broken English would sound like?
For me, fellow Russian people reading “Petropolis” would say things like, “An academic in the seventies would never drive this brand of a car.” Or, “the town is clearly based on my hometown, and it’s nothing like that — you got it all wrong.” “Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel” is marketed differently, so I haven’t gotten so much of a hard time about specifics from people.
Is there freedom in knowing that people will read it as autobiography no matter what you do, so who cares?
It’s fine. Everything matters a lot with the first book, because it’s very personal and for the first time all these strangers are talking to you. With the second book, you grow thick skin for that stuff. [Laughs] It gets easier.
Are you working on something new right now, or have you thought about what to do next?
I have started thinking about it, but I feel like I should keep doing comic books because it got noticed so much more than my first book. I want to write another novel. I have a story in mind, I just don’t have a format yet. Maybe something in the middle. Roz Chast’s memoir is a graphic memoir, but it also has pages of solid text handwritten and pictures, and that’s something in-between. Text can do things that pictures can’t, and the other way around. I love the specificity of pictures. The way it nails down what the character looks like and the reader can’t get around it. It’s nice in some ways and in some ways it’s a hindrance.
Are you glad to be back making art?
It was really, really fun, but I was tired by the end, saying, “I’ll never do this again!” But yeah, it was great. I like drawing certain things better than other things. Some things were a burden. If I could do a book just by drawing hands and faces, I would be in heaven, but with this realistic style, I occasionally had to draw a street or exterior scene or a scene in a bar. Anything that calls for the use of perspective. I can do it, but I don’t want to do it. [Laughs]
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