A Conversation with Irina Reyn, Author of What Happened to Anna K.
Q: What influenced you to become a writer? IR: As an immigrant, writing was the last vocation I imagined for myself. In fact, I avoided it as long as I could, waiting for a calling in medicine, computer programming, or public relations. In order to allow myself to be a writer, I first had to discard or fail at every other sensible profession.
Q:What inspired you to update Anna Karenina, specifically? IR: In graduate school, I took a seminar organized entirely around Anna Karenina. It was amazing how such a protracted, close reading revealed insights hidden during my previous forays into the novel. Before, Anna had struck me as a helpless, lovelorn victim of her society and time period. However, further examination revealed her to be an artful self-saboteur, overly influenced by books and suffering from romantic illusions. Vronsky fit Anna’s plot perfectly, and I could identify with her impulse to dismantle a well-structured life in order to chase the narrative arc of fiction. As I read the book, I thought of people like me who arrived in this country as children, and how often we were tempted to sabotage our parents’ expectations of us, to subvert the model of hard-won immigrant success. I think What Happened to Anna K. must have emerged from those considerations.
Q:Was the process of updating a classic text different from your usual way of working? How closely did you choose to follow the original structure and story, and how did you decide which elements from the original to include and which to omit? IR: I did not set out to reimagine Anna Karenina. I wrote a short story called “Vasilisa the Beautiful” and a few others exploring Anna’s adolescent years (but the character had a different name then). When I looked at these stories together, perhaps with the Anna Karenina course still fresh in my mind, it occurred to me that these stories were all concerned with the consequences of immigration. Once I decided to make the references to Anna Karenina overt, I worked directly from my memory of the book, drawing on the scenes that created the biggest impression on me (when Kitty is forced to witness Anna diverting Vronsky’s attention at the ball, the famous train scene when Anna and Vronsky first lock eyes, Vronsky’s horse race which leads to Anna’s confession to her husband, Levin and Kitty ice skating, etc.).
What I did not want to do was a direct, mechanical transposition of Tolstoy’s novel into my own; instead, I let it whisper to me.
Q:How much of this novel was drawn from your own experience as a Russian immigrant? IR: The whole novel, I would say. For better and worse, it is the experience that defines me.
Q:You reference Russian folktales throughout What Happened to Anna K., and you’ve written several short stories about them as well. Are these stories a particular influence on your writing? IR: What is most intriguing to me about fairy tales is their undercurrent of menace. The Russian imagination tends to revere superstitions that happen to be derived from these ancient folk traditions. Some of us were raised to sit before a journey, not to sing before noon, never to step over supine legs for fear that they will cease growing. I think I was always aware that each journey, each step, carried with it potential danger. In that way, fairy tales must have always indirectly inspired my fiction.
Q: Other than Tolstoy, who are some authors who have influenced your work? IR: The list is long and varied: Nabokov, Chekhov, Gogol, Dostoevsky. Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe was a revelation at a crucial time in my artistic development. Also Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera. In college, I was thrilled to discover the burgeoning genre of immigrant/multicultural writing. Having little Russian-American work to turn to, I was uniquely inspired by memoirs from writers like Eva Hoffman, André Aciman, and Richard Rodriguez, along with novels by Chang-rae Lee and Salman Rushdie. These authors first made me question the concept of “home,” forcing me to grapple with what it means to live a hyphenated existence.
Q: You enter the perspectives of several characters in this novel with very unique viewpoints. Was there a character you felt a particular affinity with or enjoyed writing about the most? IR: I felt very close to Anna, but living with the increasing pitch of her despair was exhausting. In that way, Lev was a more pleasurable character to inhabit because a kind of optimistic hope drove his desires and struggles. In many ways, if Anna was my past, then Lev is my future. For a long time, I reveled in the dark and pessimistic aspects of my personality, but these days, I surprise myself by striving for happiness. Writing from Lev’s perspective allowed me to consider the crucial pleasures Tolstoy so strongly advocated: a daily appreciation for the joy of being alive.
Q: What Happened to Anna K. raises questions about imagination and the dissatisfaction that can spring from a love for the worlds of books and films. Do you think there is a danger in living too much through fiction? IR: Like Anna, I was a bookworm who superimposed fictional narratives onto my own life. The result of this was a kind of paralysis, an ongoing sense of anticipation and a deep disappointment when life began to veer from the desired arc. When I neared thirty, I realized I was in danger of leading a wholly fictional (read: delusional) life and it was time to take myself in hand. But even if I’m more centered now, I still miss that heroine of Rego Park, the tragic one of my imagination, and the glamorous life she never got to lead.
Q: As both a published author and a teacher of creative writing, what are your suggestions for first-time writers inspired by your work? IR: Once I decided I wanted to pursue writing seriously, I was impatient to succeed. I hated revision, deeply craved approval from my teachers and peers, and wanted to see my work in print yesterday. My skills, alas, needed to catch up with my newly unleashed desires. It took time and work and much frustration before anything I could take real pride in surfaced on the page. So my suggestion for first-time writers is the very thing I dreaded to hear: be patient and work.
Q: What’s next for you? Can you discuss any upcoming projects? IR: I’m working on another novel and finishing up my collection of fairy-tale stories. I recently published a travel piece about returning to Moscow after twenty-six years (in Town & Country Travel). But I feel there is more material there that I need to explore, perhaps in an essay or a longer work of nonfiction.