The ProsenPeople

Interview: Anya Ulinich

Tuesday, July 29, 2014 | Permalink

by Tahneer Oksman

Tahneer Oksman sat down recently with Anya Ulinich to discuss her first graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, published today by Penguin Books. Ulinich was a Finalist for the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her debut novel Petropolis.

Tahneer Oksman: Is there a relationship between this book, Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, and your first, Petropolis?

Anya Ulinich: Only inasmuch as the central characters are immigrants. Also, my characters are idiots—they're not very insightful, so the stuff that happens to them ambushes them. They don't arrive at an understanding of things naturally; it has to slap them in the face.

TO: Both of your books tie love stories, and particularly broken ones, to the immigrant experience. What do you think is the connection?

AU: As an immigrant, you have this sense of duty. It takes a long time for young people in general, but I think for immigrant people in particular, to figure out what it is that they really want and what it is that others have told them that they should want or that would make them happy. You have this path laid out for you. There are so many expectations. You don't have the luxury to sit around and discover yourself.

Divorce is a little like immigration. It's a huge change. There's a physical move, but it's also a question of how you define yourself now. It's about identity as well.

TO: Is your graphic novel autobiographical?

AU: I would call Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel a semi-autobiography, but it is fiction. I used my experiences to inform it, but it's not the story exactly as it happened. Whatever I would tell in a memoir about heartbreak is here but it's better because I wasn't so hung up on specific people or events. My life is more boring than this. It would also be too painful for everyone to read my autobiography.

I argue against the whole distinction between fiction and non-fiction. I would rather those labels just go away and that we just call it a story.

TO: Your first book was all prose. What drove you to create a graphic novel this time around?

AU: I had a personal crisis—a major heartbreak—and I couldn't write at all. So I started with doodles and drawings, and I found it was an easier way to tell stories. When I write, the writing sprawls and it never stops. If you draw a scene, and there are two people talking, you have to get everything into these bubbles and into the space of the page, or else you have to redraw the scene. Sometimes, I'm just too lazy. Drawing comics forces you, like poetry or a Facebook status or Twitter—to be focused on what you're saying. This limitation really helped me tell the story.

TO: What was your process for drawing the book?

AU: When I started, everything was more cartoonish. And then I went back to drawing in a more realistic way. Once I was on a roll, it was really fun, almost like a break. Writing involves constant thinking, and drawing is fairly automatic for me. I love drawing faces and hands and landscapes, but not so much interiors. I can't be bothered with details.

Sometimes a page would start as text and sometimes it would start as an image. People always ask me, "did you illustrate the book yourself?" People assume that you do the writing and you hire someone else to illustrate it. But "illustrate" isn't the right word for it because illustration follows text; here the relationship is more complex. Sometimes there would be an image that would call for certain text.

TO: How did you decide on the style for your book?

AU: I used a more realistic style for the present and the past was drawn more in caricatures. I think memory is cartoonish. When we remember things, it's usually major events or some detail really stands out, and we forget everything else. Memories are exaggerated, like cartoons. I thought that would distinguish the flashback from what happens in the present, just for narrative purposes.

TO: Who are your major influences?

AU: I don't have influences—I have inspirations. Reading Philip Roth always inspires and motivates me and makes me think, "I can do that." He's a motor mouth, like me. And I love Alison Bechdel's Fun Home—she's a cartoonist, with a perfect way of drawing. Every image is exquisite.

TO: Now that you've written a novel and a graphic novel, do you find that you prefer one medium over another?

AU: I'm a storyteller. I could just sit here and tell stories all day. The form is a vehicle more than anything. Sometimes one form just works better than another. As long as the story gets told, I'm happy.

Tahneer Oksman is Assistant Professor and Director of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women's graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

Related Content:

Four Questions for…Anya Ulinich

Thursday, April 30, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JTA (with support from the Foundation for Jewish Culture) posted an interview yesterday with 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Anya Ulinich, here.

And, if you missed our earlier interview with Anya, you can check it out here.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Anya Ulinich

Friday, January 30, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next week, we’ll be posting “Words from our Finalists,” so you can get to know the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize finalists a little better.

First up…Anya Ulinich

Anya…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Anya

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Various forms of guilt. There are days when I spend an hour writing and five hours biting my knuckles, and then feel guilty because I’ve wasted a day. On those days, I wish I had an office to go to, and a set of clearly defined tasks. Or, the guilt about writing being inherently self-indulgent – I begin to wonder, what is my fiction doing for “the People”? What right do I have to sit in this world full of suffering and write literature? Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty because what does this line of thinking say about me as an artist? (Though I use a photo of Henry Roth for my Facebook profile, I do hope to be more productive in my middle years than he was.) See, I excel at guilt.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Grace Paley, Alice Munro.

Who is your intended audience?

People over the age of 14.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m working on my second novel.

What are you reading now?

Alice Mattison, The Book Borrower

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I never decided to be a writer. When I began to write, I thought of myself as a painter. This was about eight years ago. I had just moved to Brooklyn from California, where I had gone to art school. I had come to New York to pursue an art career, but I actually didn’t know how to go about it. Nobody teaches you these things in graduate school. I kept sending slides of my paintings along with my artist’s statement to various galleries and residencies, and collecting rejection letters. I lived in a small apartment with my husband and my two-year-old daughter. Oil paint and turpentine are toxic, and the work is hard to put away because it’s slow to dry, so I found it difficult to go on painting while also taking care of my daughter. By the end of my first year in Brooklyn I pretty much gave up on painting, except for when I tried to make some money doing commissioned portraits. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and my daughter was a very shy kid who abhorred the playground and preferred that I read to her for hours at a time. Pretty soon I began to feel as if I was overdosing on Doctor Seuss and Dora the Explorer and entering a kind of premature dementia – I could almost sense my brain cells atrophying. So I began to leave the apartment every night, go to a coffee shop, and write. Writing felt great because it kept my brain alive. During daytime, as I re-read Red Fish Blue Fish for the trillionth time, I thought about my characters, and what they would do that night. It could have been painting instead of writing, I suppose, but one can hardly drag all the painting equipment to a cafe, and I had no other place to escape to. I decided that I was a writer after I finished Petropolis, and liked the result.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

As the bear goes over the mountain, all he can see is another mountain.

One kind of a mountaintop is a good sentence, or a finished paragraph, a finished story. Reaching these is absolutely satisfying.

Career mountaintops are many, and they’re not nearly as clearly satisfying as the writing mountaintops. When I found out that Petropolis was going to be published, I was elated. For me, it wasn’t just about the money, or the prestige of officially becoming a “novelist.” I was mostly happy that having a book contract gave me a professional identity. I had my first kid right after college, and then went directly to graduate school. I always worked when I was in college, and in grad school I had a fellowship, but after getting my MFA and moving to Brooklyn, I found myself as a stay-at home mom with no marketable skills (the kind of jobs I could get would barely cover the cost of childcare). Then I had another daughter. I was raised by a mother and a grandmother who were both successful professionals, and my state in life worried me a lot. Unlike women who have their kids later in life, after establishing a career, I worried about reentering the world of adults – would it even take me back? Writing was an act of faith, and I had huge confidence in the writing itself (if I didn’t think what I was doing was any good, I wouldn’t have been able to keep writing) – but I’ve never even taken a writing class, so technically my writing was a dilettante’s hobby. I was aware of being a stereotype – a Brooklyn mom working on a novel in a coffee house, with the baby asleep in a stroller. When my second child started preschool, I decided to go back to City College for nursing, and then my agent sold Petropolis. It was an amazing feeling, such a vote of confidence – to be paid for creative work, to be a professional writer.

But once I got used to the fact that I was a writer, I saw new mountaintops ahead, an endless procession:

How will the book do?
How will it be reviewed?
Will anyone pay attention?
Will it win any awards?

Worrying about these publishing mountaintops turned out to be incredibly distracting. I engaged in all manner of unhealthy behaviors, from obsessively checking my Amazon rank to Googling myself. Worrying about my newly-found career proved paralyzing – I kept over-thinking my writing, wondering what must I do for my second book to be successful, to at least live up to the first one. And how long did I have to write it, and what if no one wants to publish it?

This stuff has absolutely nothing to do with the writing process. When I write, I live inside the world that is my novel, among the characters. The vividness of that world is the ultimate success. Once the world you make gets packaged into a book, other types of successes (awards, foreign translations, good reviews) follow. While they’re pleasant, they’re not up to me – I do my best to keep this in mind.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I have to leave my apartment. I have to be away from the Legos that need putting away, and the laundry that needs doing, and the bathtub that hasn’t been washed. Housework is my ultimate form of procrastination – it’s probably true for most people with flexible jobs, because housework doesn’t feel like procrastination but like something that “has to be done.” I’m terrible at housework, too, and every task takes me forever. So I still write in coffee houses. Being out in public keeps me upright and working. And I drink ridiculous amounts of coffee.

**all artwork from this post can be found on Anya’s website here.

Stay tuned for more “Words from our Finalists.”


2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction Finalists Announced!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction finalists have just been announced!

Congratulations to:

Elisa Albert for The Book of Dahlia (Free Press)

Sana Krasikov for One More Year (Spiegel & Grau)

Anne Landsman for The Rowing Lesson (Soho Press)

Dalia Sofer for The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco)

Anya Ulinich for Petropolis (Viking Penguin)

Coming soon…words from our finalists…



Free Hors d’Oeuvres & Drinks + Anya Ulinich and Harry Bernstein

Friday, December 12, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In the D.C. area? If so, don’t miss the opportunity to attend the awards reception honoring the winners of the Goldberg Prize for Emerging Fiction by Jewish Writers and Handelsman Prize for Jewish Nonfiction from the Foundation of Jewish Culture and Moment Magazine, Anya Ulinich (Petropolis) and Harry Bernstein (The Invisible Wall), respectively.

This free (and open to the public) reception will be held at:

Grand Hyatt
1000 H Street in Washington, D.C.
Room Independence I
Monday, December 22, 2008, beginning at 6:30 pm

More information is available here.

From the Fall 2008 issue of Jewish Book World. . . here’s reviewer Juli Berwald’s review of Harry Bernstein’s The Invisible Wall:

Reading The Invisible Wall is like having a grandfather spend several relaxed evenings entrancing you with the story of his childhood. This debut memoir, written by Harry Bernstein at the spry age of 93, is at once a deeply personal memoir, a historical document, and a love story. With wonderfully readable language, Bernstein brings to life the colorful characters who inhabited one street in a small English mill town just before and during World War I.

The title refers to an invisible, but no less tangible division between Jews who live on one side of the street and the non-Jews who live on the other. But if two people on opposite sides of a wall touch the wall, instead of acting as a separator, it is a connector.

And so it happens, that the people who live on either side of the separated street are in fact inextricably bound together. As the trials and devastation of world war make their way along the street, neighbors find profound connections they never knew they had. Bernstein takes the reader on a powerful journey through a book in which emphasis in the title shifts from Wall to Invisible.