Interview: Katya Apekina
Katya Apekina’s debut novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was published by Two Dollar Radio in September, 2018. The book has received much praise, including a starred review from Kirkus Reviews which says, in part, “Apekina’s inventiveness with structure and sentence marks the book’s every page, and the result is a propulsive and electrifying look at how family—and art—can both break people and put them back together again.” We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Apekina via email about her craft and her process and to learn more about how she wrote this unique and amazing novel.
CRAFT: Your debut novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, is written in short sections, with the POV shifting frequently between two main characters, but also giving us glimpses into more ancillary characters through occasional narration, but also through letters and other documents. How did you decide upon this form of storytelling? Did the book begin with this idea of fragmented structure, or did it start in a more traditional place and come to this structure over time?
Katya Apekina: For me the form almost always comes first. I had been reading a lot of oral histories, including the brilliant Edie by Jean Stein. I loved the space in between the accounts, the things that weren’t said, the contradictions. I was thinking too about how everyone is the hero of their own story, that we often hurt others without malicious intent but through self-absorption. So, I knew from the start that I was going to use multiple voices. My short fiction is often structured in an unusual way as well. Whenever I try to write something in a third person omniscient voice it just comes out so smug sounding. And then, also, this is my first novel, and writing it really intimidated me. Switching voices was a way to trick myself into thinking I was taking the easy way out because I wouldn’t have to sustain one voice for an entire book-length work. I’m not sure it was the easy way out…haha.
C: The book primarily takes place in New York and in New Orleans. I know you have lived in both places. How did you decide to set the story in these locations? How does the setting impact the story that you are telling?
KA: I went to college in New York in the early 2000’s, but I would visit it in high school in the 90’s, and that, in my mind, was peak NY, before everything interesting was priced out of the city. The end of the book takes place in LA—where I live now. I feel a little limited to writing about the places I know well, but I’ve lived in a lot of places so maybe it isn’t that limiting. I moved around a lot in my 20’s. I lived in New Orleans for a few years too and that is one of my favorite places that I’ve lived. Some of the book is also set there but in the past. I had done a lot of research about the South in the 1950’s and 60’s. This book was actually born out of the ashes of a nonfiction project, and I had spent a lot of time in archives. I felt like I knew that world well enough to include a few glimpses of the backstory—though I don’t think I knew it well enough to sustain an entire book. I do feel like I have to really be able to picture a place very clearly in order to write it.
C: The two main characters are sisters, Mae and Edie. Mae’s sections are written in the past tense, as she recounts the time in her childhood when she moved in with her father in New York, with occasional references to her present. Edie’s sections, which are about the same moment in time, are written in present tense. How did you decide to present the two narratives in these different forms? Did you experiment with different choices before you settled on these?
KA: It started off as a choice out of necessity. When I just started writing this, they were both in the same tense, and I was having trouble differentiating them and Kathryn Davis, who’s a brilliant writer and my wonderful mentor from my MFA program, was actually the one who suggested that I do one in past and one in present to keep them separate. And, this allowed them to evolve into separate people. Also, from the beginning, I did not want to literally make an oral history—a document that was being compiled for some reason. There are a lot of books like that, and it seemed too neat for this story and it did not resonate with me. I knew I wanted it to be messier and a little uncomfortable-making structurally.
C: If I counted correctly, I saw 11 POV characters, in addition to Mae and Edie, and two characters who are represented by documents only, although we do get to hear their voices through letters and journals. Interestingly, those two characters are Mae and Edie’s father, Dennis, and their grandfather, Jackson. How did you decide which characters to include and when to break up the main narrative—that of Mae and Edie—with other voices?
KA: I knew that I did not want to write from the POV of Dennis. He interested me in so far as he affected his daughters, and his wife. His story, his POV, is the one that gets told in our culture over and over. I did not want him to take over the story. If given the chance he would have. His self-justifications, his tears, his guilt—I don’t have a ton of patience for it. I presented him enough that I think the reader can plausibly understand where he was coming from. He’s a person, not a caricature, but his story is ‘The’ story in our society and I didn’t want to tell it. I also didn’t want to spend the whole book dismantling or engaging with his story, because the book is not about him. It’s about his daughters.
As for Jackson, he’s dead, so he couldn’t really talk. Edie is the only character who is in the present tense (until the end), and everyone else is looking back at what happened, so only characters who are able to do that got to talk.
C: One of the most satisfying elements of this novel is the way that you used transitions between each short section. The section that follows always opens up and often answers a question that may have been in the reader’s mind. Once we learn how to read the book, it’s difficult to put down, because we understand how one section will bleed into the next. It’s somewhat addictive, actually. How did those transitions come to be? Were they there early in a draft, or did you work on those later in revision?
KA: Thank you! Those transitions were what interested me in the form—I thought of the way each one refracted on to the others. They flowed pretty naturally, one into the other, but of course they were sharpened a lot in revision. There was a lot of revision!
C: The book is often funny, but it’s also extremely dark. Does one attribute come to you more easily as you write? Do you use one to temper the other, or do they exist as necessary sides to the same coin?
KA: I think that comes from a Russian sensibility. A lot of the Russian lit I grew up on (Nabokov, Bulgakov, Gogol, all of them really) were like this. This book is about an American family and deals with the weight of American history, but it’s still filtered through my Russian soul. I have kind of a bleak/ absurdist/ odd sense of humor.
C: Did you write the novel in a linear fashion, as it’s currently presented—moving from one character to the next—or did you write each character’s story, in their voice, and then piece them together at a later date? How difficult was it for you to change voice from one character to the next? Did you find that you had greater affinity for one character over another?
KA: I wrote the whole thing in the order that it appears. At first it was difficult to change voices, and I would have certain tricks to keep myself consistent. I think because Edie is in the present tense, she ended up being the character I had the most affinity for because I was with her when all the action was happening. But I love all the characters, and I love to hate some of them.
C: Even given the book’s unique structure, it still follows a classic rising action, climax, and falling action model, with both Mae and Edie’s storylines following similar trajectories. How difficult was it to create arcs that shadowed each other and peaked close to the same time?
KA: I outlined a lot. Constantly. I am a pretty disorganized person, and I am not naturally thinking in terms of plot, so I feel like figuring out the structure, took a lot from me. It wasn’t something that happened organically. I also do screenwriting, so that was maybe slightly helpful.
C: There’s a way in which this reads like non-fiction, as though we’re accessing primary documents, with the letters and the way in which the sections often read like confessions. There’s an immediacy to that which really draws the reader in. Was that there from the start with this project or did you come to this design later in the revision process?
KA: That was there from the start. That was really what captivated me originally when I was doing research for another project—reading oral histories and journals. I wanted to recreate the excited feeling I got reading them.
C: The confessional nature of each of the sections also makes me wonder about how you thought about audience as you were writing. One of the effects, I think, about the various POVs, is that it makes the reader constantly question their own understanding of the truth. We’ll be with one character and buy their version of the story and then immediately be in another character’s head and question what we just believed. I can imagine that this was difficult to construct, as you, too, must have been trying to discover the truth. Can you talk a little about the effect of multiple POVs on identifying the “truth” of a novel?
KA: I’m glad you asked this as it was one of the things that kept my interest in the process—this idea of cruelty as a byproduct of self-absorption. And I’m always asking myself about truth, and how it shifts depending on the person you ask. Truth is slippery. I think maybe because I don’t believe in one absolute truth, and think it’s always more complicated—this is why I don’t think I am ever comfortable writing in an omniscient 3rd.
C: There are some fascinating ideas here about the creation of art and especially about the role of the muse, and about family dynamics, particularly the effect of absent parents on their children. In your process, how do thematic issues work themselves into story? Do you start with story and allow the themes to bubble up or do you begin with bigger issues and drill down to character and plot?
KA: I started with the characters. I had been reading this Janet Malcolm biography of Sylvia Plath, or really of her relationship with Ted Hughes. It was so biased in favor of Ted Hughes, so dismissive of Sylvia. It lists all these petty grievances against Sylvia, like she ate something out of the refrigerator when visiting someone. I mean, it’s not news that there’s a huge double standard towards women and their behavior, and I’m not even defending Sylvia, because she probably was unpleasant, I don’t know. It was just interesting to read a biography that was seething under the surface with bias, because I had assumed biographers tried to be impartial. Anyway, that was one the early seeds for the book. I definitely don’t start with bigger themes though—not consciously. I just follow what interests me and see what unfolds. I started the book over completely about 2 years into writing it because there were some flawed choices at the beginning and it pushed my book into being a novel about grief, and grief overwhelmed the other things that I wanted to write about. It was like accidentally dumping a box of salt into the soup.
C: The ending—without giving anything away—does that thing that all good endings do: it changes some of the rules of the book as it opens the book and its characters up to possibility. Was the ending difficult to come to? When in the writing process did you decide how the book was going to end?
KA: I was writing towards the end from pretty early on. I started working on the book in the spring of 2012, and then I started it over in 2014. When I started it over, the end came at the end of part 1, but everything before it kept growing and growing, until I realized it was the end.
KATYA APEKINA has published stories in various literary magazines and translated poetry and prose for Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008), short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award. She co-wrote the screenplay for the feature film New Orleans, Mon Amour, which premiered at SXSW in 2008. She has an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she was an Olin Fellow and a Third Year Fiction Fellow, and she’s received support from an Elizabeth George Grant, an Alena Wilson Prize, a Key West Literary Seminar scholarship, and residencies at VCCA, Playa and Ucross. Born in Moscow, she currently lives in Los Angeles. The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish is her first novel—New York Magazine, Harper’s BAZAAR, BuzzFeed, Bustle, The Millions, Publishers Weekly, and Fast Company all recommend it, and a Kirkus (starred) review called it “A dark and unforgettable first book.”