This week, we are welcoming Maria Kuznetsova to the Debutante Ball. Maria is a debut novelist whose lovely book Oksana, Behave! will immediately become your newest favorite. I first became aware of her work in 2018 after I picked up a copy of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and read an excerpt of the book, which I was delighted to see would be published the following year. Today, Oksana, Behave! has only been out in the world for less than a month, and if you haven’t heard of it yet, here’s a brief summary:
When Oksana’s family begins their new American life in Florida after emigrating from Ukraine, her physicist father delivers pizza at night to make ends meet, her depressed mother sits home all day worrying, and her flamboyant grandmother relishes the attention she gets when she walks Oksana to school, not realizing that the street they’re walking down is known as Prostitute Street. Oksana just wants to have friends and lead a normal life—and though she constantly tries to do the right thing, she keeps getting herself in trouble.
Sounds fantastic, right? What follows is the mesmerizing story of Oksana’s coming-of-age. Her journey, which leads her from New York to Ukraine is not only a complete joy to read, but also humorous, absorbing, and gorgeously written.
I am so pleased to welcome Maria to the Debutante Ball, and you too should be glad because this means you have a chance to win a copy of her novel! As part of our giveaway, we will be sending one copy of Oksana, Behave! to one lucky reader who shares this interview. More details at the bottom of the post!
Stephanie Jimenez: At the Debutante Ball, we often talk about the twists and turns in publishing our first novels. I first came across your work in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and am curious to know about the steps you took before publishing Oksana, Behave!, your debut novel.
Maria Kuznetsova: OKSANA is actually the third novel I’ve written, so getting a book published has been a bit of a journey for me! I’m glad that this is my debut, though, because writing the other two books taught me a lot about how to write a novel – how to sustain narrative tension, how to find autobiographical details that are genuinely interesting, and also when to deviate from reality in ways that make the writing more compelling. OKSANA began as a side project – while I was working on a historical novel about Chernobyl, I began to write these little autobiographical stories that were set in different places where I lived – Ukraine, Florida, Ohio, Oakland, etc – and during my first year at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it dawned on me that the stories should all come from one narrator and that they should be part of a novel. Once I had that idea set, I needed to find a throughline for the book, which was Oksana’s initial embarrassment of her family, which by the end was really her love for the complicated people who shaped her life, and even her desire to have a family of her own. In terms of publishing the book, I met my amazing agent, Henry Dunow, at Iowa, but I didn’t send the book to him for almost two years after we met. Once he offered me representation, I revised the book a bit, most notably throwing out one chapter and replacing it with one that fit the book more, and then sold it to Spiegel & Grau/Random House a few months later. So it was a long journey to publish a book – about ten years of writing novels as well as drafting the chapters that became OKSANA – but getting OKSANA published was a fairly smooth process.
SJ: Tell us about writing from the perspective of a child. You do it so well! Your protagonist’s voice is so believable and authentic, and I’m in awe of your ability to get that perspective down. It’s not easy to write a young character without it sounding cute or cliched. What’s the trick?
MK: Writing from the perspective of a child can definitely be tricky, and since the first third of the book follows OKSANA through elementary and middle school, I wanted to make sure that her desire to understand the world, and her frequent misinterpretation of it (thinking condoms are called “kingdoms,” for example) felt realistic for her age. I hope her sense of humor kept those chapters afloat, as well as the fact that the adults around her were struggling with real adult things – her father looking for jobs, her grandmother mourning her husband and daughter, her mother’s miscarriages – while she either tried to ignore those things or to grapple with them. Though I don’t think of the novel as purely realist, and there are moments where Oksana’s thoughts are a bit more sophisticated for the sake of humor, like when she feels she is never first best and declares herself to be “the Ross Perot of real life” – maybe a real sixth grader wouldn’t have had this thought, but it felt right for the story!
SJ: Oksana grows up in the 90s – what would be different for Oksana if she were growing up today?
MK: She got to spend so much time outside! I hope kids still do this, but I’m not sure if they do – she had the chance to run around her apartment complex, get in a fight with a bully, bike around with a crush, and to call her friends on the phone if she wanted to know what was up instead of texting them. I don’t need to get into how social media, online bullying, etc, would have changed things for her, but I will say that there’s something that feels really pure about having a character just walking around and interacting with the world – the beach, the high school track, even a beer pong tournament – without thinking about what to post about it. Maybe this has been on my mind a lot because I’ve been on social media a lot more recently to promote my book, which feels kind of icky, but also necessary, and writing about a character who doesn’t have to worry so much about that aspect of existence was really refreshing!
SJ: What’s the last book you read and what’s next on your list?
MK: One of the last books I read was Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher – it was the best kind of book – completely hilarious throughout with an utterly devastating ending. The next book on my list, or rather a book that I started and intend to finish relatively soon, is Vasily Grossman’s classic, Life and Fate. My next novel is largely set in WW2 Russia and I hope to learn a lot from this book – and already have.
SJ: Let’s end with a fun question. What was the last song you had stuck in your head?
MK: Lately, “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones has been stuck in my head. I’m always looking for songs my 9-month-old daughter can bop her head around to, and she absolutely loves this one, oddly enough!
And now, ENTER THE GIVEAWAY for a chance to win Oksana, Behave! Here’s how to enter: Follow us on FB/Twitter and either tweet or share, making sure to tag us. Leave a comment on this blog post for an extra entry. The winner will be mailed a copy of Oksana, Behave!
Maria Kuznetsova was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to the United States as a child. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and OKSANA, BEHAVE! is her first novel. Excerpts from the novel appear in the Southern Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and Kenyon Review Online, and her other fiction can be found in the Threepenny Review, Indiana Review, the Iowa Review, Bennington Review, and other publications. She lives in Iowa City with her family.
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