Suspend Your Disbelief

A Story Is a House: An Interview with Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

"Your heritage, it’s like a tree: the older you grow, the stronger are the roots."

Interviews |

A Story Is a House: An Interview with Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

"Every story begins with a feeling...And then I sit down, and try to build a house, and put that feeling inside, where it can live forever." Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry talks with Ian Singleton about her debut collection.

“I have an accent,” Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry tells me when we sit down to discuss her debut collection, What Isn’t Remembered (University of Nebraska Press), and it’s true. That, I expected. Gorcheva-Newberry is a Russian-Armenian emigre who came to the United States as an adult. What I didn’t expect were tinges of a Southern accent, similar to the one I heard growing up in Alabama. Gorcheva-Newberry divides her time between Brooklyn and Virginia, and both places serve as settings in her stories. Some of her characters would speak with a Russian accent and others with a Southern one. It’s very likely that both of her accents have influenced her writing.


Ian Ross Singleton: What’s your linguistic background? 

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: I went to a special English school in Moscow. I was raised by a single mom, who did everything she could to educate me. The first time I had my English class, I came back and said, “That’s what I want to do.” I was seven. And my mom said, “That’s not a profession. Maybe you could be a teacher.” Later, I thought about it and asked her, “Why didn’t you say writer?” She said, “What are you talking about?” It was the late 70s, beginning of the 80s. Women, they weren’t writing. There was an occasional short story, an occasional screenplay. Poetry. But in Russia, in Soviet Russia, for a long, long time, fiction writing was a forbidden land. Novels were written by men, and most of those men were long dead. After graduating from the Moscow State Linguistic University, I taught English in one of the city’s public schools for a few years. I also worked part-time as an interpreter before I met my future husband and came here. So that’s my linguistic background.

So you never wrote in Russian?


Do you write in Armenian?

No. My parents divorced when I was three. My mother left Armenia and returned to her native Moscow with me. It would be another thirteen years before I would see my father again. And never after that. So for a long time I felt that I wasn’t Armenian, but Russian. Later, when I moved here, I started reading and writing about Armenia. I think it’s the call of blood, you know? Your heritage, it’s like a tree: the older you grow, the stronger are the roots. You can’t help but feel that. At the time, we also got connected with AGBU, which is a global Armenian organization, and my son, who is a musician, participated in their Music of Armenia summer program. And I was reconnecting with my roots. A strange thing: even though I don’t remember Armenia at all when I was a child, I felt that I’d always lived there. I looked at the people, at the mountains, the food…My mother, who’s Russian, cooked a lot of Armenian food, and oddly, I felt that I belonged to that land. I also have two half-brothers, who live in Yerevan, and I was fortunate enough to meet one of them. He and his wife invited us to their home and cooked a delicious meal, and later took me to my father’s grave. The saddest thing is: I couldn’t read what was written on the tombstone. It was in Armenian. Toward the end of the trip, we visited the Armenina Genocide Memorial complex and Komitas Museum-Institute; I was moved to tears. At that moment, I wasn’t a Russian, but a full-blooded Armenian.

So what would you consider your primary language?

Well, somebody told me once that the language in which you dream is your primary language. Maybe it’s me being a writer, but, in my dreams, when I have dreams, people who’re supposed to speak English speak English, and people who’re supposed to speak Russian speak Russian. I would say this: when I speak English, I know I’m speaking English. When I speak Russian, I don’t know it. I love English. It’s so different from Russian. I’ve always loved this language, how direct it can be. Everything is done by verbs. In Russian, we use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. It can get cluttered if you’re not careful. It’s a gorgeous language, though—so descriptive. But English has a different beauty. It’s very precise. I love it. I love writing in English. I’ve never written anything in Russian. I’m hoping to translate the collection and my novel into Russian. And I don’t know if I can do a good enough job. I often translate my stories for my friends when I go to Russia, or for my mom, and I know how difficult it is. But I love it. I love languages. Maybe in my other life, I spoke English.

You’re also a fearless writer. You write about sex without much graphic detail. It’s more about the tone or the feeling of it. What is your approach to writing about sex? And I mean some negative things having to do with sex as well such as sex between a step parent and step child, you write about sexual abuse in the Gulag…what’s your approach?

I was recently asked a similar question by Christine Sneed. How do I write sex scenes so well without being overindulgent? There are two aspects to that, I would say. One is that, for a long time, any kind of mentioning of sex was forbidden in the Soviet Union. If you watch any old Soviet movie, all the nudity and sex scenes had been omitted. Everything looked so sweet and innocent in that regard. But people talk. And we used to live in tiny apartments, where parents conversed in kitchens. You couldn’t help but overhear. When I was growing up, we knew that incest existed, rape existed. All those ugly despicable sides of sex existed, yet nobody discussed them openly. They were nowhere in books or movies or theater. After perestroika, of course, things began to surge up. But there has always been a rebellious streak in me. Sex is as much a part of our life as anything else. It can be beautiful, it can be ugly, but it’s a part of us. So that’s one thing.

Another thing is that I write by ear. I would never write anything just to entertain the reader or draw the reader in. It’s mostly an intuitive process. And I work on those scenes a lot. I had a story published just recently in the summer issue of Zoetrope. It’s called “Poplars.” That story deals directly with rape. The main part of the story is set during the Stalinist era. So it’s also political. But did I have to put in that scene? Yes, I did. The narrator’s life became very different after that. It changed everything. So, to me, sex scenes are also plot points. “Champions of the World” deals with incest. But there’s no sex scene between the stepfather and the stepdaughter. The reader can imagine what happened. The sex itself isn’t that important. What it did to the girl and her friendship with the narrator, that’s what I focused on.

And if you look at “What Isn’t Remembered,” there are no explicit images except for one—“sticky, trembling fingers that still smelled of flesh.” But Mana, the protagonist, doesn’t remember that peculiar detail until long after. For one thing, Mana can’t even verbalize or explain her desire because it’s more about intimacy than sex, connection than infidelity, while for Tori sex is exactly the opposite—a moment of lust or passion, unimportant. She could never have known that an hour in a hotel room would change the narrator’s life. So that particular detail, the flashy, sexy detail was there to show the disparity between the two women, what that single experience, that sexual embrace meant for one woman and what it didn’t for the other.

So, again, it happens almost by ear, but then I think about it and take out all the words and all the details that don’t belong. Do they distract the reader from the main narrative? Is it gratuitous in any way? Is it too vulgar? Mana is a former pianist, and she also likes to read. She’s dreamy, lonely, insecure. How would I describe that sex scene from her point of view? It cannot be obscene or graphic. It cannot be overtly explosive either. But in “Boys on the Moskva River,” that tiny snippet of sex is described from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old boy; his older brother pays for that sex as a graduation gift. The brother is violently killed, so the scene almost had to have this violent tinge, something raw, because the whole story is like a wound. It is a wound. Will that wound heal for the narrator? No. Because his brother is gone. And even though the little boy, the brother’s illegitimate son, for a brief period of time distracts both the grieving mother and the narrator from their loss, soon those two people will be left alone, confronted by the brother’s absence. So, once I wrote that sex scene, I had to make sure it’s not too beautiful, not too domineering, so that it doesn’t distract from the main conflict but adds to it.

It sounds like it has to do with the character. The character in “Boys on the Moskva River” is a teenager. It’s his first time having sex. It happens very quickly. It’s almost over before it even begins. Again, he is a teenager. Then we get to the other end of the book with “Champions of the World,” and it starts out as a story of girls, children, innocent children and then becomes such a serious matter. It’s introduced well with Milka’s body language in that early scene when she confesses that she’s had sex. But she doesn’t reveal with whom. So later on we’re going back to that scene. It sounds to me like what you’re saying, in light of what I’ve read, is that you’re looking to the characters’ perspectives and how their bodies would respond to another’s to guide you.

Absolutely. With “Boys on the Moskva River,” I knew that the sex scene couldn’t be romantic. It’s brief, it’s vulgar. It’s raw. It’s there. But in “What Isn’t Remembered,” there’s a completely different sensuality to it because the characters are different. They’re older, and there’s not much sex happening between the wife and the husband. When they go to bed, they don’t kiss or touch, as if there were some physical barrier that separated them, dividing the mattress in two halves. “The center line painted by a thick brush,” which is an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the last scene when Lily Briscoe paints that final line on the canvas. So you’re absolutely right—it all depends on the character and on the story.

When I taught fiction, I’d always tell my students that they had to be true to the story they were trying to tell. Somebody says, “Well, it didn’t happen that way.” It doesn’t matter. It needs to happen on the page. The story needs to be true to itself. You can’t be standing behind the reader, whispering, “That’s how it happened. Here I wanted to do this and that.” You can’t explain everything to everyone. The readers have to be able to read and deduce all the necessary information from the story, and it must feel true to them, even though it might be the most bizarre, spooky premise.

For example, take George Saunders’s brilliant story, “Sea Oaks.” It’s absurd, funny, tragic, preposterous. Can a dead person (the narrator’s grandmother) come back from the grave and start losing her body parts? Of course not. We know it’s impossible. But we believe every word of it because the story remains true to itself. It does exactly what it set out to do. And most importantly, we want to believe it, we want it to be true. We want to believe in some magical presence, some restless spirit rising from the grave to warn us about the future. George Saunders has created a fictional world that seems real to us. We’re in a dream, a fictional dream, and we don’t want any distractions, any details, images, sex scenes that might break the spell.

You write about mothers, daughters, relationships between women. In that first story, “Boys on the Moskva River,” you write through the perspective of a boy, of a man. How does being true to the story work when it comes to gender? How do you approach writing genders with which, I’m presuming, you don’t identify?

All writing is watching and analyzing. If you pay attention to people around you, you can learn a lot. I’m married, and I have a son. And even though all husbands/men are different, as are all children, still some things are characteristic of a certain age or of fatherless children, for example. I pay attention. That’s one thing. And the other thing is that, again, I write by ear. So sometimes I almost have to inhabit the character. I have to pause and think about it, ask myself, “Would a man say that?” Occasionally I would consult a male friend, or my husband.  But I don’t like to make any kinds of general assumptions because all people are different.

Cultural differences play an important role too. A Russian man is very different from an American man. Women are also very different. Yet, I try to avoid cultural clichés and prejudices. I mean, not all Russian men are drunks, and not all Russian women are subservient housewives, and it doesn’t snow all the time in my native country. But, again, it depends on the story. I love all my characters, even those who aren’t positive, especially those who aren’t positive. They have a lot to endure, and I have to make them somewhat empathetic. I try not to create one-dimensional characters who are just villains or just heroes. It’s never that simple. We’re people. We have ugly traits, and we have beautiful traits. We have bad days and good days. We have moments of violent anger we unleash on people we love most, only to wallow in remorse years later, thinking, “Oh my God, how could I have done that?”

So I work hard, especially on male characters and also on gay characters. There’s this concept introduced to us by Michel Foucault—“the indignity of speaking for the other,” meaning that you shouldn’t appropriate someone’s identity. So should straight people write from the point of view of gay people? Should women write as men? Men as women? Are we stealing someone’s identity? I hope not. I’m very conscious of it, though, and I try to be honest and truthful to the story. That’s what matters most.

And sometimes I fail. I just know, feel, that something is missing from the character. A nugget of truth I failed to acknowledge. So I have to go back and start over, to learn as much as I can about that character, even though only one tenth will go into the actual story, maybe less than that. But I have to know.

And also, I often ask myself: Why do people continue to read Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov? People all over the world still read them. But those writers lived and wrote in different times. They wrote primarily about Russia, not any other country or culture. They wrote about their motherland, no matter how imperfect or cruel or corrupt. Nabokov is different. He’s a planet. He’s on his own because he lived in Germany, America, and Switzerland and wrote in three languages, but I’m talking about Russian writers who wrote in Russian a century ago. Why do we still read them and find their stories, their truths, interesting and even remarkable? People are people, no matter where or when they live. We all have hearts, and we all have feelings. We all experience grief and loss and love and desire. We struggle and suffer, win and lose. And I don’t think it depends on age, race, culture, or gender. Do men hurt just as much as women? Of course, they do. Are gay people just as lonely as straight? Of course they are. Do Russians love harder, stronger, with more abandon than Americans or the rest of the world? No, they don’t. We are all people. We live. We fight. We hurt. We desire. We long. So that’s how I approach all genders, all characters. Sometimes I succeed, other times not.

Do you think of your writing personality, your writer’s identity, as having a gender? And, perhaps, is it a gender not necessarily the same as the gender in which you identify in your personal life?

I think I’m a transgender as a writer. I’m all those people I have created. I’m a straight man. I’m a lesbian. I’m a son, a father, a grandparent. But also a mother, a daughter, a wife. I haven’t written a story from the point of view of a gay man. I have a few gay friends who are writers, and I’m sure if I ask them to read my story, they’ll tell me if I have in any way transgressed the boundaries or depicted a gay man incorrectly. But then again, who is a gay man? I hate stereotyping; it only breeds fear and hatred. Everyone is different. Some writers talk about racial division: one should stick to his/her own race. But that’s like segregation—“together but separate”; it doesn’t create empathy for the other, but pulls us apart even further.

My favorite writer from whom I’ve learned more than I learned from Tolstoy is Toni Morrison. I met her two times. One time was at a reading. The other time, she was honored at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. She and Maya Angelou. So I came to a private reception and brought fifty roses. Morrison was in a wheelchair, and I kneeled in front of her and said, “All I know about life, I know from my mother. But all I know about fiction writing, I know from you.” She asked, “Are you Russian? Did you bring any vodka?” And then we both laughed. I’ll never forget that moment. But it’s the truth—I’ve learned everything from her brilliant novels, even how to write sex scenes.

In fact, I started writing fiction because of her. When I was getting my Masters in English at Radford University, I took a class on the political art of Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison. And when I read The Bluest Eye for the first time, I knew I wanted to become a writer. I’d never read anything that powerful. I was transfixed. My life changed when I’d encountered Morrison’s work and then, of course, Woolf’s. A few of Morrison’s novels are translated into Russian, but the translation is poor. So she’s not as revered there as she is here. But it isn’t because of racial prejudice. Which reminds me, when I taught, I had her portrait on my desk, and one of the math professors came by the writing center and asked, “Who is this?” And I said, “Toni Morrison. The Goddess of American literature.” And he looked at me and asked, “Doesn’t she write about black people?” That gave me a pause. I said, “Do you know how profoundly racist that statement is?” And he said, “Why? She writes about black people.” I said, “What’s the difference? What is the difference? She writes about people.” We all have mothers, who birthed us and whom we’re destined to lose. Our fathers too. Our first loves. Our best friends. Our dreams, our hopes, and even our countries. We lose everyone and everything. We’re people. All we do is try to survive the best we can. And to me, that’s what good fiction does—allows us to survive. It connects cultures and generations, men and women, estranged parents and orphaned children. If I read Toni Morrison, I feel that she’s writing about me. I grew up in a different country, a different culture. I did not encounter any racism. But I feel those people. I feel everyone: Pecola, Sula, Pilate, Milkman, Guitar, Sethe, Paul D, all of her characters. Somehow I become them, male or female, old or young. To me that’s the power of her writing, of all the great literature.

How do you approach endings? My favorite now is the ending of “No Other Love”: “The stars did give the loneliest feeling, but not unbearable and only until dawn.”

Katherine Anne Porter once said that a story begins with an ending. If you don’t know the end, you have no story. The artist doesn’t work with the acts, but the consequences of those acts. In other words, it isn’t enough to have an experience but to understand what it means, all the possible implications and outcomes, which may take months or even years. Actual events can provide raw material for a writer, but the story is an organic thing, it takes root, grows, and matures over time. She thought of a story as a long journey.

With me, it’s a bit different. Occasionally, I’ll know the ending. Or I’ll know it vaguely. But a lot of times, I don’t. Katherine Anne Porter is a genius, and I’m not. So there you go. I don’t know the endings of my stories right away. I’ll be writing and writing, and then the story ends. I can’t go any further. It just ends. So endings are a spur of the moment thing for me. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I can’t say. But I have to feel surprised in some way. That moment of surprise is very important. But also, I like for a story to end where there’s something left unsaid, and where there’s this projection. Imagine that you’re standing in a room and can see everything in that room, but also a little bit more out the window. A story is a house. You go from one level to another, from one room to the next. These are your scenes, your plot points. But then, at the end, you’re standing in one place. It doesn’t matter where. It can be a kitchen, like with Bonnie and Bell in “No Other Love.” Through the doorway or a window, you can glimpse something else, something not clearly defined, but it’s there. I don’t like blunt, definitive endings. They feel constrained to me. But the ending also depends on the story.

Imagine that you’re standing in a room and can see everything in that room, but also a little bit more out the window. A story is a house. You go from one level to another, from one room to the next.

I taught poetry for a few years. I write poetry, but I don’t think it’s very good. When I taught it, I used a craft book by Ted Kooser. And he talks about how you have to decide whether it’s an “exterior” poem or an “interior” poem. You have to decide whether it’s dark outside or it’s daylight. If it’s dark when you come to the window, what do you see? You see your own face. So the poem is going to be about you in some way, it will be an “interior” poem. But if you come to the window and it’s daylight, you see the landscape, other people—the outside world. So it’s going to be an “exterior” poem. It’s a brilliant idea I apply to writing stories. It also determines the ending. Do you want to give a glimpse of the outside or the inside? Of what is happening to the character or the world he/she inhabits? Or both? Scene by scene, you have to decide.

Also, because I write by ear, the ending has to have a sound, a certain sound, and maybe that also has something to do with my son being a musician. I’ve heard a lot of music over the years, classical and jazz. Some pieces/songs have bright, affirmative endings. Others kind of linger, hovering about the room. Again, it all depends on the story. Is the ending true to the story? Should there be some hope or not? Is the main character better off for taking the journey or not? You have to decide whether your story is a tragedy or a comedy.

Last summer, I took a Gotham Writers screenwriting class with Doug Katz. We watched and discussed films, as well as our own screenplays. At the end of each discussion, we had to answer the same question: is it a comedy or a tragedy? And I always thought: That’s easy. But it’s not. Even though you might weep through an entire movie, it might still be a comedy because the protagonist is still better off for taking the journey. And sometimes you laugh all the way until the end, but the protagonist doesn’t achieve much and his/her life doesn’t change, and then it’s a tragedy. So you see: endings are crucial.

Now, when I craft my endings, I always ask that question. Sometimes it’s hard to decide. It’s very hard to decide. Are we better people for having witnessed a crime? Or for having lived through this pandemic? Or are we much worse? Sometimes it’s hard to understand right away, but everything important in life is like that, right? It’s hard to know for sure. You can say, “Murder’s murder.” But even there you have manslaughter and you have a crime of passion and killing in self-defense. Even within that, there’s a modulation.

In “Nepenthe,” there’s a quote: “Many students eat there, young women who haven’t really known failure, blooming with optimism. Irene can’t help but listen to their insouciant, often inept, conversations and marvel at their youth. Not so much their age, but the excitement of all things possible, still ahead.” Does that have something to do with writing? Is failure and, even, pain, a part of the experience writers need to encounter in order to move forward?

I think so. Yes. We need to fail. And we need to hurt. Somebody told me when I first started writing that a happy writer was never a good writer. Obviously. What do we do? We look for wounds. We don’t heal but expose. I know a lot of writers, just as you do, I’m sure. Some are more published than others. Some are famous. But I’ve yet to meet a serious fiction writer who has a happy, unperturbed life. Who hasn’t really experienced much of anything, great loss, great love, great misery, and who can write the most beautiful, soul-wrenching prose. I’ve never met such a writer. They might exist somewhere, but I firmly believe that all our books are us. So, the more experiences we have, diverse experiences, the better we are as writers.

And I do think we have to experience loss. I’m not just talking about physical loss, which is of course dramatic and tragic. But I’m also talking about loss of dreams, loss of innocence, loss of a country, which is what my friends and I witnessed in the 1990s. Those losses, they enlarge and deepen our understanding of the world and of our existence in that world. My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was pregnant with my son. I even wrote a creative nonfiction piece about it, titled “The Reunion” and published in Calyx. And I remember being in that hospital, while they operated on her, thinking: Why is this happening? It’s not fair. It’s cruel. I have one life coming in, and the other is being taken away from me. And we haven’t even done that many things together, my mother and I. She was a single mom. She worked three jobs. And then I emigrated. I was twenty-three. She came to help me with the baby, her first grandchild, and a few months later she was dying from cancer. That feeling of impending loss, of something bigger than you, something you can’t control. It’s like the sky. It’s enormous. You can’t ignore it. But that feeling, I’d say, goads all of my work. It’s not fear. It’s a feeling of an imminent loss. I understand that to live a life is to embrace loss. Life ends, right? So, in a sense all our lives are narratives of loss, but our fictional stories don’t have to be. I talked about it in my Author’s Note for The Orchard. I lost two friends in the 90s, those terrible years when the two putsches took place and street crimes and ordered killings escalated. One of the friends was murdered execution style in his apartment. “Boys on the Moskva River” grew out of that loss, that feeling of hurt and loneliness and desperation. I had just moved to America, living in Virginia, in my husband’s family home. But I remember sitting on the porch that morning, on an old wooden swing, and it was my friend’s birthday, and I was calling to congratulate him. Someone else answered the phone, which had never happened before. He always picked up his phone. So I knew, even before they said anything, I knew something terrible had happened. Something that I wouldn’t be able to process immediately or reverse. There was this frigid permanency to the air, the smell of dead grass and leaves. That feeling, it never left me.

Every story begins with a feeling. It’s like a little seed. It swells, sprouts, and starts growing, and I wait for it to get so large, I can’t ignore it. And then I sit down, and try to build a house, and put that feeling inside, where it can live forever. And I know that I have succeeded when I read that story five years after I wrote it and I can still feel it, that feeling is still there, still lingering, tucked between the pages.

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