Between Winters / Nick Martinez

Kseniya Melnik debut collection of stories, Snow in May, will be available May 13, but her work is deeply personal, and her non-fiction, as much as her fiction, is at the heart of her writer's identity.

Melnik spent her formative years in Magadan, a port town on the Sea of Okhotsk, before immigrating to Alaska. She majored in Sociology in college, but has since gone on to pursue a variety of things, including: film, classical music, public relations, pharmaceutical sales, real estate, law, and of course writing.


But despite her variety of interests, it is Melnik's immigrant experience that drives her writing. In the four non-fiction pieces available on her website, all of them in some way or another tackle what it's like to be "suspended between two worlds. "

The longest and perhaps most poignant piece is "A Dose of Winter Medicine, " about Melnik and her mother returning to Russia to take care of her dying grandmother. "Winter Medicine " is notable for two things. First, the way Melnik describes graphic decay of both her grandmother and her former country. Second, the way returning home can make you feel like an outsider, a message that is resonant not just for immigrants, but anyone who has left home with no intention of coming back. 


"Babi Yar Triangle, Brooklyn, " Melnik's shortest piece, chronicles a trip to Brighton Beach, the Russian immigrant neighborhood of Brooklyn, with an ex-boyfriend. Again, Melnik seeks some sort of connection to her past. 

While her writing's subject matter is usually dark, dealing with death, isolation and loneliness, it never teeters on bleak. In Melnik's writing there is hope, there are answers, she just hasn't found them yet.

Recently, I had the chance to ask Melnik a few questions via email.

Nick Martinez: Nostalgia, both from your past and events you never personally experienced, appears often in your non-fiction. What are some of the reasons nostalgia seems to resonate with you?

Kseniya Melnik: I try to avoid nostalgia in my non-fiction as much as possible. Nostalgia can be a default feeling that sweeps over you when thinking of the past, because it is both human nature not to appreciate what we have now and not to remember the problems, the troubles when thinking of the past. 

It was never ideal, it was never heaven, not in Russia, not anywhere else at any time, and definitely not for the majority of people. So, while I can be nostalgic about my mostly happy childhood, that nostalgia is always tinted by the knowledge of the upheavals my family and the whole country experienced in the 80s and 90s. In essays and memoirs, a writer must be self-critical and always question his or her assumptions and feelings, including nostalgia. That's what makes personal essays interesting. 

In fiction, on the other hand, a character can be nostalgic of certain times and things. It's a valid indirect way to characterize them, as well as their present situation and struggles.

NM: In "Staying Current by Retelling the Past " you mentioned several writers that you admired. Who are some authors that you feel directly influenced your writing?

KM: It's probably the authors who really spoke to me when I studied them at the MFA program at NYU. In learning to read like writers and "artistically steal, " we dissected to the last sentence and word the stories and novels of Michael Chabon, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vladimir Nabokov, Zadie Smith, Anton Chekhov, John Updike, Tobias Wolff, Hemingway. But everything I've ever read must have influenced me in some way, especially those writers I'd become obsessed with for periods of time: Mikhail Bulgakov, Kelly Link, W. G. Sebald, J.D. Salinger, Andrei Makine.

NM: In "A Dose of Winter Medicine " you mentioned many different interests before you settled on a career in writing. Other than your obvious talent in writing, what made it the final choice?

KM: Thank you for the compliment! When I was young, in high school and in college, I was interested in different careers, like medicine, law, and film-making. But soon after college, when I became sure that writing fiction was what I wanted to pour most of my psychic energy and responsibility into, the main trick became finding a job that would allow for that. Some people can sustain two careers. For example, the writer Chris Adrian, who is very prolific, is also a pediatric oncologist. I really admire that, but I don't think I could handle it. 

I liked being a legal assistant because I didn't have to take any work home. And, of course, many writers teach college, which has more a flexible schedule than teaching high school. With that, you and your students are stewing in the same soup of literature and writing. You don't have to bring your brain over from a whole other place before starting work on your own material. 

NM: "Babi Yar Triangle " makes reference to you being "suspended between worlds. " How do you feel your experiences have impacted your writing?

KM: Immigration probably had the most significant impact on my writing. Sometimes you can see things more clearly from a distance. Distance also creates a kind of yearning that is like fuel for my writing. When I'm in America, I like writing about Russia. Now that I've left New York and Alaska and live in Texas, I am beginning to feel the yearning to write about those places, too, to travel there in my mind. 

NM: Your writing comes across as very honest and heartfelt. Other than name changes do you ever censor yourself in retelling the past? How close do you like to stick to exact details in setting the scene?

KM: I've only written one piece of narrative nonfiction so far: "A Dose of Winter Medicine. " For that piece, I wanted to get as many exact details as I could—often, a more nuanced aspect of tragedy and/or comedy hides precisely in those details. 

As for censoring, as I write, I keep in mind whose story it is that I'm telling. I don't censor myself, but I might not write every single thing another person had said. There is no such thing as 100% truthful account, even in journalism and other nonfiction; it is always filtered through someone's consciousness. 

When writing fiction—if it's a realist piece—I do research and try to portray historical circumstances, living conditions, and details of daily life as accurately as possible. I believe that such quotidian details have a great bearing on the characters' desires and their chances of fulfilling them. I don't censor my fictional characters, as long as what they think, say, and do is aligned with their nature. I try not express my opinions through them.

Nick Martinez is heading into his senior year at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where he majors in Creative Writing.  This semester, he is interning at The New York Press and Verisimilitude Films.