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.”

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.