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Anya Ulinich on Autobiography in Fiction, Drawing, and the Perverse Pleasures of OkCupid

Anya Ulinich’s debut novel Petropolis, about a Russian mail-order bride on a quest to find her estranged father in the U.S., earned rave reviews back in 2007. After a publishing hiatus she’s back with a new book—Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel about love, divorce, immigration, art, and online dating. In The New York Times, Ayelet Waldman described her as “a rare, indeed magical, talent.” Gary Shteyngart says she’s the “David Sedaris of Russian-American cartoonists,” and he would know.

Michael Orbach caught up with her recently to talk about autobiography in fiction, drawing, Bernard Malamud, and the perverse pleasures of OkCupid.

So your new book begins with your lead character blaming the U.S. State department for her sexual awakening. That’s actually coincidental since I blame the U.S. Department of Agriculture for my own belated sexual awakening…

[Laughs] Actually I would like to stop you right there—it’s a novel, not a memoir, so I don’t want to discuss my own sexual awakening. It’s definitely semi-autobiographical. It’s informed from my own experience, there’s no question about that, but it’s not straight out of it. My life is much more boring.

I think some people are writers who write stuff because they’re very interested in what happens to them; other people aren’t like that. I can think of many writers who write about places they’ve never been to. Some people can’t do that. I need a personal connection to the material.

What was the genesis of this graphic novel?

My first novel [Petropolis] came out in 2007 and I wrote another one, and it was just not good. I didn’t entirely like it; I showed it to my agent and she didn’t exactly love it; my editor didn’t like it. After that, I was in a kind of bad personal state. I couldn’t get myself to start writing another novel but I was doing a lot of drawing and doodles. I haven’t drawn for ten years and then a freelance illustration job fell in my lap. I found that drawing was soothing. I showed those drawings to my agent and she said maybe this was my next project. I have never done any comics before—I didn’t grow up with comics. And I haven’t read that many graphic novels. The graphic novels I did read were basically literary fiction or memoirs: Persepolis [Marjane Satrapi], Fun Home [Alison Bechdel], and stories by Adrian Tomine. I read them the same way I’d read any fiction. I didn’t really know what I was doing at all.

But when I was telling stories with drawing, the space constraints of a comic panel or a speech bubble actually helped me construct a story. When I write fiction it tends to sprawl. With handwritten text, there is the issue of space constraint. It forces you to get the story out. It was an easier process in a way. Do I wrap up a scene or extend it? The choice was obvious; I have to say what I have to say, or draw it all over again. It gave me a kick in the pants as a writer. It made it more vivid. It was a good experience overall.

How long did this take you?

I started it in May 2012 and I finished it last summer—less than a year. I sold it to Penguin on proposal and they gave me a few months. I was really rushing. Drawing takes up a lot of time; the first draft was completed in a few months. I did 16-hour days, it was crazy. I work at home and my kids would be like “There’s no food!” and I’d be like “Here’s twenty bucks, go to the grocery store.” I was disappointed that I didn’t have time to perfect the drawings. Writing is finite, there’s a stopping point when you can’t improve, but with drawing it’s much more ambiguous. I’m much more judgmental of my artwork than of my prose. I would have loved to have more time to make the book more more beautiful. On the other hand, when it was finished, I was happy because the speed gave the book a kind of urgency. The momentum is more intense because the pace is intense and it’s matched by the quality of hand-written text.

I love the dialog. Did some of that come from your own experience on OkCupid?

Yes, I have that in common with my character. I spent my whole adult life in a marriage; I was married at 21, and I had a kid when I was 24 and another one when I was 28. I stayed in this marriage for 15 years. I never dated; you don’t “date” when you’re in college, you “meet people” which is different. I was absolutely fascinated by the whole dating thing; I met people whom I never would have encountered in my normal social circle. All these crazy different stories.

Not every guy I met was somehow interesting or entirely insane, like the guys in the novel. The novel does its fiction thing—even if based on reality, everything is kind of exaggerated and tweaked… But still, it was a really interesting experience for me. Doing online dating as a writer, I couldn’t help deconstructing the way people misrepresented themselves online; even if they are trying to say one thing about themselves, they said another. The way they write about themselves and what they include or choose to exclude, it’s very telling. You learn to read between the lines.

I never looked at OkCupid like that, but I probably should.

I’m almost tempted to do a sociological study of OkCupid profiles and what people do. Our relationship with our photographs for example: we all have something we think is our best feature and our worst feature and we take pictures accordingly. Or something that’s meaningful and sentimental and we put it in our profile, but it’s not necessarily our best picture or looks like that you, or that you’re visible in. Another interesting thing is the language people use and what we chose to include in our reading lists. We don’t put down our favorite guilty pleasure, we put down the kind of stuff that we think will attract the kind of people we want. The men OkCupid matched me with usually “loved” David Sedaris and Charles Bukowski. There’s a list of three writers that the guy who doesn’t actually read books likes to use. No man ever likes any women writers, except for Sylvia Plath.

I’m going to my OkCupid profile to add a female writer now.

Add one who isn’t Sylvia Plath. You can so get the chicks.

Our interview is on hold, while I add Margaret Atwood.

She’s okay. Put Lorrie Moore in there.

Alice Munro?

Yeah, that’ll help.

If I get laid because of this interview…

You can buy me a drink.

I waste a lot of time on OkCupid, but you really made something useful out of it.

To me it was not a waste of time. I waste time professionally, I’m a writer. I gather material. It was fascinating, especially the way people answer some of the questions. Probably 90 percent of men answer the question “Are you smarter than most people?” in the affirmative. I get matched with a certain sub-set of men: basically, educated New Yorkers. And lot of them are white people, and I guess white men think they’re smarter than most people. I wouldn’t date anyone who said that he was smarter than people. What kind of thing is that to say?

I liked how you picked up on the question OkCupid has about whether people with low IQs shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce. They should rename the site OkHitler.

How many over-educated hipsters actually say yes—that the world would be a better place if people with low IQs couldn’t reproduce? It’s really crazy.

In the book, Lena has this moment where she has a nightmare about Philip Roth and picks Bernard Malamud instead. Can you talk a little about that?

Lena has a nightmare about Philip Roth on a Greyhound bus. I had a good dream about Roth on a Greyhound bus, he was really nice to me, but narratively speaking it needed be a nightmare. Malamud is a great artist—his writing is so fine. I like him as an artist better than Roth—but I identity with Roth’s autobiographical characters more. But although I identify with them, I also think if Roth and I met he wouldn’t have given me the time of day. He’d dismiss me. I relate to Alexander Portnoy but I’m not supposed to, because I’m a woman. It’s complicated with Philip Roth… Anyway, sometimes things in novels aren’t put in to be straightforward; it’s not like Lena picking Malamud over Roth. it’s just a sequence.

The story “The Magic Barrel” spoke to me so much because it’s about an existential crisis and desperate scramble for meaning and love. I really related it and I got a kick out of the parallel between the marriage broker’s Magic Barrel full of girls and OkCupid. It’s just a nice framing device for the book. Lena is similar to Leo [the lead character in “The Magic Barrel”], but Leo becomes depressed and is pretty passive. He gives up and mopes around his apartment and finally finds the girl he falls in in love with in an envelope of photos, right in his apartment. But Lena is a woman and women tend to be proactive about fixing their fate. They get off their ass—if things aren’t good, let’s make them better. Especially immigrant women; they’re kinda into survival of all sorts. Lena’s actively searching, rather than throwing up her hands and saying “There is no such thing as love and meaning.” She thinks there might not be, but she doesn’t give up and then she finds it.

Related: Russian as an American Language: A Conversation with Anya Ulinich
Graphic Novelist Liana Finck on Yiddish Letters, Teen Angst, and Becoming a Book Person
Boris Fishman on Grandfathers, Russian Hirsuteness, and the Immigrant Experience

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