Volunteer Andrea interviews Nadia Kalman, author of The Cosmopolitans.
Andrea: How did you know that you had to write a novel about a family of Jewish Ukrainian-Americans?
Nadia Kalman: Growing up, I had many chances (bored substitute teachers, no cable television) to watch and re-watch the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Many years later, I became interested in taking the themes of the musical and the Sholem Aleichem stories it was based upon – generational discord, cultural confusion – and applying them to a modern family. Then as well as now, parents and children can have very different ideas about what makes someone a “perfect match.” Then as well as now, misunderstandings can lead to tragedy, comedy or both at once.
Of course, there are differences between my family and Tevye’s. For one, the Jewish traditions the musical celebrates are the same ones the Soviet regime tried to strip away. I began to wonder what “tradition” meant for families like mine and tried to find answers through the characters I invented for The Cosmopolitans.
Andrea: In your novel, you do a great job of switching between points of view (three daughters, a mother, a father and an extended set of family and friends). How did you learn how to communicate point of view so well?
Nadia Kalman: First, thank you! Some publishers turned down the novel because they wanted a single point of view. I knew, though, that I wanted a novel that was like a shtetl, where people meddled in and commented upon each other’s stories. As I wrote, I found it was helpful to follow my curiosity: if I wanted to know what Yana thought of her sister’s marriage, I entered Yana’s head.
Andrea: Why did you decide to tell the story of Russian sensibilities through the mother’s relationship with a talking scrap of her wedding dress?
Nadia Kalman: The elusive identity of the Russian soul is a common cultural trope. The literature is always asking just how great, or base, it really is. Until recently, a show on Radio Svoboda, entitled Encyclopedia of the Russian Soul, explored the question on a weekly, thematic basis. There is even an online quiz in English, no less, that will tell you whether you have a Russian soul, and lend insight on its capaciousness.
In writing this book, I wanted to give the Russian soul concrete form and set it loose on someone. That someone had to be Stalina, the mother. Of everyone in the family, she is the most eager to cut all ties to the Russian past. People like that are often involved in a lifelong, secret argument with a deeply nostalgic part of themselves; or, in Stalina’s case, with a deeply nostalgic scrap of fabric.
Andrea: How did you find your agent and/or publisher?
Nadia Kalman: I found a literary agent through a friend, but that agent was unable to sell the novel. I then began sending it around on my own, to independent presses, and eventually sold it to Livingston. My experience with independent presses in general, and with Livingston Press in particular, has been very positive.
Andrea: How is your book promotion structured? Any lessons you can share?
Nadia Kalman: Before one of my first readings, the organizer of the event, Gabriel Cohen, sent us an essay he had written. I quote a part of it below, because I found it so useful:
And that’s my biggest tip: think about your reading in terms of what the audience wants. They’re not interested in helping you test your material in order to see how it might go over with future readers. They’re not worried about whether your reading provides the most accurate representation of your book. They’re at your reading for one paramount reason: they want to have a rich, enjoyable live experience. So conceive of your reading as a unique, self-contained dramatic performance, designed to make your listeners happy.
I’d also advise writers to space readings apart from one another, so that friends have a chance to rest.
Andrea: What’s your next project?
Nadia Kalman: I’m writing a novel about a high-school chemistry teacher with Messianic delusions; its working title is The Skeptical Alchemist. An excerpt from the novel will be published in the next issue of PEN America.
As a child, Nadia Kalman emigrated with her family from the former Soviet Union. Formerly a teacher and assistant principal, she now works as a writer-in-the-schools with Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York City. She was a two-time fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and has published stories in Subtropics, the Canadian magazine The Walrus, and elsewhere. Her first novel, The Cosmopolitans, won the Emerging Writer Award from Moment magazine and was a finalist for the Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature. Nadia recently received a 2012 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. On June 5, Kalman be speaking at the Long Beach Hadassah on Long Island. On June 7, she will be at the Palisades JCC. And on June 12, she will be at the JCC in Los Gatos, CA.