I met Sana at LimmudLA.
We hit it off.
I just read her first book and wanted to discuss it with her.
I call her at 7 a.m. April 24, 2008, with evil on my mind.
Sana: "You’re up so early. It must get light at 4 a.m. in LA."
Luke: "About 6:15 a.m."
Sana: "Do you have a morning ritual? Do you get up and go for a jog in the mountains?"
Luke: "I get up and put on tefillin and then check my email."
"My apartment is the size of where you’d park a car."
Sana: "By New York standards, that’s luxury."
Luke: "It’s really small. Women freak out."
Sana: "That was my first trip to LA. I had a friend give me a tour of Beverly Hills after LimmudLA was over. I feel like I should’ve been more overwhelmed. He said it was all movie stars and Persian Jews."
"We drove down Rodeo Drive. We drove up and down these hills. It was a little bit like being in an Orientalist painting. All these perspectives."
We talk about her work history.
Sana: "After college, I worked for a few months in New Hampshire as a reporter at a small newspaper. Then I went to New York for a year and worked in a law firm. I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I went to the Iowa Writers Workshop for two years. Then I got a Fullbright and studied in Moscow for a year. Now I’m back in New York."
Sana spent her first years in Georgia and Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union). "We came to the States when I was almost nine."
Her parents are engineers.
Luke: "What are your memories of living under communism?"
Sana: "Phrased that way, I don’t think I had that kind of macro perpective on it. Georgia was a bit different. It was marginal in the best way. It was very ethnically diverse. There was a more casual attitude about Soviet power there. It was a little bit like New York in terms of how international Georgia was. It is a junction between East and West."
Luke: "What kind of Jewish identity were you raised with?"
Sana: "We were your typically non-practicing Soviet Jews. When I went to the Ukraine for the summers, I do remember a synagogue next to where my grandfather lived. That’s the only time I remember seeing Jews practice. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew from Georgia. I know that Georgian Jews have more of a religious identity than Ashkenazi Jews. I don’t think we went to synagogue until we came to the United States."
Luke: "Was it a regular thing?"
Sana: "My family goes on the holidays. As I got older, I’d go to Shabbat dinners."
Luke: "What role does Judaism play in your life today?"
Sana: "Let me think about that for a sec."
There’s a ten second pause.
Sana: "My interest in it deepens every year. When I was in Moscow, I started studying Torah once a week. Being a brainy person and enjoying the intellectual rigor of it, that was something I took to. I do to some degree keep kosher.
"Coming from a Soviet background where so much of the identity is being a group that hasn’t been treated well, that’s an identity I don’t relate to well. Like any old and deep tradition, there’s so much more to it than that. To approach it the way a lot of Russian immigrants do, I find kind of unpalatable. That we’re Jews because we were oppressed."
"That’s not to say I’m not a spiritual person. I do feel it at a level that’s not just intellectual.
"I don’t know if that answers your question."
Luke: "How did you experience LimmudLA?"
Sana: "As a presenter, a portion of my mind was always about the next thing I had to present. I experienced the LA part of LimmudLA. Women in kipas was not something I’d seen before. When you ask somebody their affiliation and they say, ‘I’m post-denominational.’ It was very hip. It made me want to move to LA. It seemed like a fun place."
Luke: "When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Sana: "For a while, I wanted to be a dentist. Everything in town was falling apart, but we had this amazing dental clinic. I did visual arts for many years — painting, woodcuts, etching, lithography, ink paintings. I never envisioned writing."
Luke: "When did you realize you were a writer?"
Sana: "You are what you do. When I write, I’m a writer. When I don’t, I’m not. When I went to Cornell (I started off in Chemistry and then did a joint American History/Literature major), I couldn’t take any art classes. I was depressed about it. As a creative person, you need a creative outlet. In my junior year, I didn’t take writing seriously, but it was a way to sublimate my desire to express myself. It was a lot of pent-up creative energy getting expressed."
Luke: "If you were to read a book, with how much accuracy could you guess whether the author was male or female?"
Sana: "That is a great, great question. I think I could guess with high accuracy. Men and women use language differently. Men think more verbally and women think more adjectivally. For women, our brains are databases of preferences. We can go into a room and without a lot of verbal communication, we can know what everybody wants in that room. You can see that male writers have a different approach to sentences and they do use stronger verbs."
Luke: "What have your parents most wanted from you?"
Sana: "To be happy. They both work a lot. They’re pretty busy with their own lives."
"Parents want you to be passionate about something boring but they realized after a while it wasn’t going to work with me."
Sana has an older sister.
Krasikov says she enjoyed her few months as a reporter "in a really sadistic way. Writing fiction you’re on your own a lot. When you’re a reporter, you see people every day. You’re like a tourist in different worlds. You have to churn stuff out. You can’t think about craft."
Luke: "Where were you a reporter?"
Sana: "I’m not telling you."
Luke: "Why are MFAs so popular among novelists?"
Sana: "It gives people socially sanctioned time to write. They don’t have to justify why they’re dropping out of life for two years."
Luke: "What effect does it have on writing that all these writers have MFAs?"
Sana: "I was told that my writing was not MFA writing."
"People focus a lot on language and that’s a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful to explore language in novel ways but there’s much more to writing than that. I too want to push my writing but only to the degree that I can still tell a good story and say something about human beings and the social world. I don’t think you can teach that.
"Writing has become very much about sentence writing. That’s not the most interesting thing about fiction to me."
Luke: "Is writing a lonely profession?"
Sana: "It’s a solitary profession. Even as a kid, I never felt lonely. I enjoy solitude. After being social, I need to withdraw into my own space."
Luke: "Has anybody in your life complained that you used them for your writing?"
Luke: "Is there a genre of Jewish-American-Russian fiction and do you belong in this? Your work reminds me of Gary Shteyngart, only not as absurd."
Sana: "Really? I don’t think so."
Luke: "OK. Here is where I given an opinion to invite your feedback."
Sana: "Go ahead."
Luke: "It seems with all the other post-Communist Jewish writers who come to America, this is just a feeling I have, together with your book, it seems like all the characters are Godless and as a consequence they’re hopeless. And the result is depression [for me]."
Sana’s shocked. "By godless, do you mean they don’t believe in God?"
Luke: "They may believe in God, but he doesn’t have a role in their life. I’m thinking it comes from growing up in atheistic communism. Therefore, there’s a hopelessness. I always get depressed when I read this genre."
Sana: "I’m not sure it’s a genre, but can you give me an example of writing where the characters are not godless?"
Luke: "Say, Dostoevsky, where some of the characters are God-intoxicated. Tom Wolfe’s novel A Man in Full. You know what it is to deal with someone where God is a vital part of their life?"
Luke: "In Gary Shteyngart’s books and in other post-Communist American-Jewish literature I’ve read, all the characters lead pointless lives."
Sana: "Do you think there may be an element of projection in this?"
Luke: "Maybe. I’m throwing this out there."
Sana: "You’re dealing with some issues and you see them around you.
"I do find that writing fiction is a Rorschach’s test for people. They see what they want to see. Maybe you’re struggling with these issues yourself now and in a strange way it’s flattering for me to hear this because it means you are seeing my characters as people who you can pass judgment on, which is fine by me.
"I think God is in every life. God has a way of making his existence manifest. Some people are more conscious of God’s existence in their day-to-day life."
"I would venture to disagree with you about my characters. Some of them do grapple with God. I do write about the kind of people I encounter. They do come from a world where spirituality has not been at the top of their list of priorities. I’m a pretty spiritual person and I see God’s existence in a lot of different ways. I don’t think it’s always clear. It’s arrogant to think we know God’s plan for us. Something that prosaic in our lives may lead us to a place of spiritual growth."
"I would have to read my stories over and look at it through that lens. They are certainly characters who live a different life from you but I’d like to think that if they were real people, God would try to help them out."
Luke: "I feel like all these characters are products of this 70-year atheistic experiment in communism."
Sana: "What are you thinking of in particular?"
Luke: "For 70 years in the Soviet Union, there was no religiously directed character building, no sense of the transcendent, and these people all leave me depressed."
Sana: "Maybe you’re just depressed, Luke? What’s going on in your life?"
Sana: "Did you go outside yesterday?"
Luke: "I go outside every day."
Sana: "Good, good."
Luke: "You don’t find your characters depressing?"
Sana: "I don’t. They just feel like regular people leading regular lives. They’re people stuck between a rock and a hard place. They’re struggling. We feel God’s presence when we struggle. I don’t have an interest in writing about characters who aren’t struggling. If everything was going great in their lives, why would I want to write about them? I’m not sure that in the 70 years of socialism, people were completely Godless. Spirituality has always been pretty important in Russia. People just sublimate it in different ways. Russians have always worshiped literature. They often say that’s their spirituality. People did still secretly go to church. We always had matzo on Passover. People always held on to their traditions there. From a western standpoint, yes, the dogma was Godless, but if you look at people’s day-to-day lives, they weren’t as Godless as you’d think."
Luke: "Are any of your characters triumphant?"
Sana: "That’s a very male question. Interesting. Do they triumph over adversity? Is that your question?"
Luke: "Just, are they triumphant? I’ll just leave it there."
Sana: "What do you mean by ‘triumphant’?"
Luke: "Do they triumph?"
Sana: "Over what? Over their circumstances?"
Sana: "Yeah. At the end of Companion, for example, you have a woman who’s in a really tough situation but she makes her life beautiful. The last thing she does in that story is make an omelet and put garnish on it. She makes up a beautiful meal inspite of everything else going on in her life. The way to be triumphant is to live in the present. Some characters can’t but others can. Everything in her life is going down the tubes but she will look good and she will do her hair and she will make a beautiful meal. That’s a form of triumph. I’m not sure triumph has to be climbing a snowy mountain peak. It can be about maintaining a certain kind of feminine dignity."
Luke: "Is your story that just came out in The New Yorker in this book?"
Sana: "Yes, the second to last one [‘The Repatriates’]. You didn’t read it, did you?"
Luke: "I read the whole book."
Sana: "That’s OK. I’m not judging."
Luke: "The dissolving of the marriage…"
"Do you belong to a school of writing?"
Sana: "I hope not."
Luke: "You’re certainly a realist."
Sana: "Yes. I’m not a fabulist. I’m inspired by life."
Luke: "How do you feel about writing about parts of life you know little about?"
Sana: "I do that."
We talk about research.
Sana: "Truth is transcontextual."
Luke: "What does that mean?"
Sana: "I don’t know where that came from. I read about the resurgence of Islam in Central Asia. I read about it from different angles. I made sure that things added up and there was nothing glaringly wrong with the story I was telling."
Luke: "What do all your characters have in common?"
Sana: "They’re all so different. What do we all have in common as human beings?"
Luke: "They’re almost all immigrants."
Sana: "Not all of them come to stay in America."
Sana thinks for more than ten seconds. "They’re kinda on their own, all of them, in some ways. We’re used to thinking of people coming and they’re immediately embraced by a community. And that’s the immigrant experience as we know it but a lot of people come without that support. They come to work as domestics. They’re on their own. I kinda feel that we as people are on our own. I feel like I’m on my own. That sense that there’s not much behind you. There’s not much to fall back on other than yourself. Maybe that is what’s depressing for you."
Luke: "Who wouldn’t that be depressing for?"
Sana: "It’s not depressing for me. They’re vulnerable characters but they’re tough because they know there is nobody to rely on. I’m drawn to people and to characters like that who have to just make it on their own. One of my characters — Nona — becomes a trophy wife in Moscow (in ‘There Will Be No Fourth Rome’). She makes her fate. She makes her compromises and she’s comfortable with them. My worldview came through in that character."
Luke: "Who would you say is your happiest character?"
Sana: "I write and I forget."
Luke: "Or any happy character?"
Sana laughs. "Happy is such a funny term because there are so many different ways to be happy. Americans often equate happiness with pleasure. Even as a writer, I’m not happy in a day-to-day way. It’s grueling. On a deeper level, you’re tapping into a deeper dimension than you would if you were doing something else. They may be moving toward a goal or trying to untangle things in their lives. Life is tough but it doesn’t mean that they are totally miserable.
"Happy characters? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
"Happiness is like, Americans always fetishize happiness and harp a lot about it. I don’t always understand what is meant by that. Russians never ask you, ‘Are you happy?’ Happiness isn’t a category as important for people with a Russian mentality. The pursuit of happiness is a uniquely American way of thinking."
Luke: "If ten is ecstatic and zero is miserable, what happiness score would you give your average character in your book?"
Sana: "Five. And let’s just leave it at that. I feel like this interview should turn. What? Are you thinking about happiness? Do you feel like there are things that could make you happier right now?"
Luke: "Sure, but the happiness of your characters is as important a question as anything in life."
Sana: "Is that how you read characters? You wonder if they are happy or unhappy? Are there other ways of looking at a character’s psycho-spiritual state? No?"
Luke: "I read for pleasure. I don’t read for technical reasons. I can get enormous pleasure out of getting depressed in a book. I’m not reading a book to feel yippee! So, my primary response to what I read is emotional. I don’t have a degree in literature and I’m not terribly interested in literary criticism."
Sana: "Neither am I."
Luke: "These people are as real to me as you are. I spent maybe 20 minutes talking to you at LimmudLA. These characters are like people I meet in real life. I’m wondering about what to me are the most important questions in the world — ultimate meaning, happiness, purpose, fulfillment."
Sana: "Purpose and fulfillment are different from happiness. I think about those terms as well. Are they fulfilled? Are they working towards a purpose? We always read things from the cultural lens we come from. I don’t see someone who’s struggling as being necessarily unhappy."
Luke: "Neither do I."
"What’s your story with community? You mentioned that all your characters are alone and that you identified with that feeling. We typically replicate our experiences with community no matter which community we enter."
Sana: "I’ve always felt supported both by family and friends. I don’t feel like I live in a vacuum or that I’m an island. The sense that we’re on our own is more of a feeling, not because I haven’t felt people’s love. Jews always have a connection to a broader Jewish community. Are you asking me specifically what are my connections to a Jewish community?"
Luke: "I’ll talk about myself for one minute to use it as a springboard to ask you that same question."
Luke: "I replicate my experiences of community wherever I go. They are all pretty much the same as when I was a child. One of my keenest memories is from second grade when I did not get invited to classmate Gavin Brown’s birthday party. My therapist suggested that I call my memoir, ‘The Uninvited.’ I go through life antagonizing a tremendous number of people. I’m always in danger of getting kicked out of a community but if I can hang in there with a community for a time, I will gradually and awkwardly work my way towards its middle. Without pushing myself into a community, I naturally isolate myself."
Sana: "You don’t strike me as particularly offensive."
Luke: "Are you a person completely different from your characters or are you a joiner?"
Sana: "I’m not a joiner. I’ve always been pretty independent and straight forward but I haven’t found that has alienated me. I respect where people are coming from so I don’t impose too much of myself on others. I don’t necessarily get super-influenced by others as well. I always give people the respect of their reasons. I tend to be nonjudgmental. When I meet new people, I try to enjoy their company as much as I can. I’d rather learn something from them than give them a particular impression of who I am. Maybe it’s easier if you are a woman to do that. I don’t take a lot of things personally. That experience you talked about of rejection at an early age, come on Luke, everybody’s gone through this. There’s always some snotty-nosed kid who doesn’t invite you to a birthday party. People always have unique reasons for doing things and it depends more on who they are than who you are. It’s hard to be a writer if you care a lot about what people think. Talent is not as necessary as a certain kind of temperament."
Luke: "When I say the phrase, ‘Join a community,’ what does that evoke in you?"
Sana: "I don’t tend to see communities as a group. I’m very much about dealing with people one on one. That’s where I get the most social pleasure, not from being the life of the party and telling some story that’s going to make everybody crack up. When I’m in a new environment, I tend to have intense conversations with one person and then another person. I don’t envision community the same way you do."
Luke: "How do you feel about subsuming your individual identity with a group identity?"
Sana: "’Subsuming’? That’s a strong word. I don’t think it has to be subsumed. Individual identity and group identity has never been in conflict for me. I always like learning new things from people but there are very few people who’ve been able to change who I am in a fundamental way."
Luke: "How does it feel to you to subsume your individual identity into a group identity?"
Sana: "It feels dystopic. The way you frame it, it feels like a strange nightmare scenario. Otherwise, I don’t think about it."
Luke: "You said earlier that you identify with the aloneness that all your characters feel. Is that correct?"
Sana pauses for ten seconds. "I don’t know. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t."
Luke: "How does being right-wing in your politics affect your relationships with other writers?"
Sana: "I’m not right-wing. I’m pretty moderate. I’m socially liberal. It doesn’t affect it all. I have pretty vanilla views in most things."
Luke: "You said to me at LimmudLA that you were a Republican."
Sana: "Yeah. I don’t always vote the party line. I’m a small government, federalist type of person. On a lot of individual issues, I probably fall more to the left. I think I’m a very tolerant person and an open-minded person. In terms of my relationships, where I stand politically does not have a lot of consequence."
Luke: "Do you believe there’s universal good and evil?"
Sana: "I have a theory about good and evil. I think good is whatever makes us connect with other people and evil is whatever makes us put up boundaries. The force of the ego makes us want to defend a particular projection of ourselves. So we operate under the illusion that we are separate from others. That leads to evil in the world. Whatever makes our ego boundaries break down and connect with other people in a genuine way, also leads to good. That’s a principle I try to live by."
Luke: "By the standard you just elucidated, are you more good or evil?"
Sana: "I don’t know. I can’t judge myself. When I die, I’ll be judged by God. I don’t go around thinking about good and evil. When you start thinking that way, you become a self-righteous asshole."
Luke: "Do you think some civilizations are superior to other civilizations?"
Sana: "Whatever civilizations have survived up to this time in history, they are clearly doing something right. Some civilizations put more of a focus on individual rights and defending civil liberties. America tries more than most countries to defend individual civil liberties. That’s the yardstick by which I measure whether one society is superior to another."
Luke: "Would you say that the United States today is a more civilized country than Russia?"
Sana: "I don’t know. That’s a really complicated question. Russia has had a very complicated history."
Luke: "Would you say communism is evil?"
Sana: "Communism is an idea. Can an idea be evil? I don’t know. Communism certainly didn’t erase the sadistic inclinations in individuals from what we see in Russia and the history of the Soviet Union. I can’t say a concept is evil. One thing I can give communism credit for is that by virtue of being communist, Russia brought its country into the 20th Century. Within decades, communism took an agrarian society and made it an industrial society, a process that in Europe took centuries. It was communism that made a huge portion of the Russian people bourgeoisie. I’m not a dogmatic person, so I’m not going to slap a label on things. Russia in the 20th Century does not have a strong history of defending human rights."
Luke: "But you wouldn’t say that communism as practiced in the Soviet Union is evil?"
Sana: "In general, I wouldn’t make such a blanket statement. I would have to launch into a complicated discussion about it."
Luke: "What about Nazism? Would you call Nazism evil?"
Sana: "You mean like fascism?"
Luke: "I mean Nazism as practiced in Germany between 1933-1945."
Sana: "Well, it certainly was responsible for the murder of millions of people. So yeah, to that degree, it was evil. And communism was responsible for the murder of millions of Russians. To that degree it was also not a manifestation of people’s best qualities."
Luke: "What, if any, moral responsibilities do you have to society as a writer?"
Sana: "I don’t have grand and lofty ambitions. Once writers start doing that, they get a little heavy handed. It’s hard enough to tell a good story and to then say something about the world. We often don’t know the net result of our actions, which is a good thing. To reflect the world back to itself, I don’t know if it’s a noble goal, it’s one purpose. It takes all kinds. I don’t go around thinking I’m making the world a better place. That’s what communists did in Russia. They went around thinking they were making the world a better place. It’s exactly that kind of thinking that leads to what you would call evil."
Luke: "But it’s not what you would call evil?"
Sana: "No, no. Let me rephrase. An effort to try to make the world a better place in any kind of self-righteous way doesn’t always end up in the world being a better place. I would never have the hubris to say I’m making the world a better place. Communism tried to achieve this good for the future and made the present a living hell. Is that good?"
"This is good. I realize that a lot of these questions must seem weird but these are just the questions I think about all the time when I encounter literature and when I encounter life."
Sana: "You’re just working through your own stuff. You’re going to ask whatever questions are on your mind at a particular point in life, right?"
Luke: "This is the template I’ve been asking everyone for years."
Sana: "Good and evil? Really?"
Sana: "Huh. What does everyone answer?"
Luke: "Unless they’re active in an organized religion, they answer what you do."
Sana: "Am I Godless?"
I think for ten seconds. "I remember asking the author of ‘The Jewish Century,’ Yuri Slezkine, if one could call the United States a morally superior country to the Soviet Union. He said no."
Sana: "Did I say no to that? I don’t know. Your questions seem like they are leading questions, frankly, which makes someone a bit weary of answering them. It’s hard to feel rapport with your interviewer when you feel there’s a veneer of judgment radiating from the voice. You seemed like a good cool guy but I kinda feel like there’s a right and wrong answer with the way you’re phrasing your questions. Maybe there is. Maybe you have a thesis that you are looking for support of. There’s not a whole lot I can say that’s going to control how you interpret it. Right?"
Luke: "Well, that’s bad interviewing technique on my part because as soon as you put a judgment in a question, you’re not going to get a good answer. I work really hard to not put a judgment in a question. So if I fail in that respect, I fail. My interviews rise or fall with the rapport I develop with the people I interview. It will be interesting to see how other people react. I’ll send you a copy of the transcript."
Sana: "Do you have your own questions as part of that transcript or is it like an NKVD interrogation where it’s just my side, and your side is flat and polished? You’d be a great interrogator for the KGB."
Luke: "Thank you. People say that. I sent you a link when I first emailed you with the 30 or so other interviews I did [with writers of Jewish fiction]."
Sana: "I read them. They were pretty great."
Luke: "Well, I used the same questions with you that I used with them."
Sana: "I don’t remember the good and evil stuff. Oh well."
"So how’s everything else?"
Luke: "It’s OK. I’m just struggling to make a living as a writer. That’s what I think about day in and day out."
Sana: "I hear that. It’s tough."
Luke: "That’s the main issue in my life for years. I’ve been making my living as a blogger for almost eleven years."
Sana: "Your blogs are pretty widely read. A friend of mine was telling me about it and I hadn’t even mentioned you."
Luke: "I’m one of the first bloggers to make a living at it. I have a wide audience. Your experience may vary, but the thing most people say I’m best at is interviews."
Sana: "You’re thorough."
Luke: "The drawback of doing interviews is that they are exhausting to transcribe. We’ve spoken for two hours and this is going to take me twelve hours to transcribe."
Sana: "I’ve got to run."