116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Maria Kuznetsova’s second novel, “Something Unbelievable,” is a story about storytelling. Larissa, an old woman living by the sea in Ukraine, tells her granddaughter, Natasha, the tale of her family’s plight during World War II while providing the reader with more details than she shares. Natasha, in turn, has her own story to tell the reader and also adapts her grandmother’s story for the stage. The shape and purpose of the stories we tell each other and ourselves is at the heart of the novel.
Kuznetsova, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who teaches creative writing at Auburn University, gives each of her narrators a strong, idiosyncratic voice. She also is beautifully dexterous in her handling of the layered plot and the interwoven stories the women tell. “Something Unbelievable” is, like Kuznetsova’s debut “Oksana, Behave!” is both funny and moving — often simultaneously.
I spoke with Kuznetsova, whose current project is a follow-up to “Oksana, Behave!” by phone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Q: Let’s get this question out of the way: What’s it like to release a novel in a pandemic?
A: Weird. But good, I guess. I’m so used to everything that way that it feels kind of natural. The fun thing about it — I’ve had two of them so far — it has felt a little bit like my wedding and the book is the groom, I guess. It’s people converging from all different parts of my to be together to support this thing I’m doing. My parents and grad school friends and my students and my California friends and some Iowa friends. So that’s been really fun and it’s allowed more people to see me than just the people who live in the city where I go. Obviously, I’d rather do it in person, but I’ve been trying to make the most of it.
Q: Tell me about the origin of this book. I could imagine a world in which both of our narrators have their own book rather than sharing this one, so I’m interested in whether you always saw it as a sort of double story or if you ended up combining different ideas.
A: It definitely started with Larissa’s story, which was based on my grandma’s story. I wrote the first few chapters of it back in Oakland before I started at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and my computer got stolen. I lost so much stuff on that computer and I was so discouraged — and I learned I should back up my stuff — and, I don’t know, for whatever reason, I just let it get lost forever.
And then when I went to Iowa, I took a long story class from Ethan Canin (author most recently of “A Doubter’s Almanac”). We had to write a long story and it had to take place over 50 years. And I thought, “OK, I want to put this war story in here but it’s only three years,” and so then I added a frame, not really thinking it would be a full story with another character. The granddaughter was just going to be there to receive the story. But as I kept going, I saw that the two stories really worked better together. So later on, I went back and gave Natasha her full perspective, letting the story breathe that way and giving it more meaning because there is someone sort of meditating on the point of it all.
Q: The grandmother has, arguably, three listeners: she’s got Natasha, she’s got Stas - a man who is crashing at Natasha’s home, which leads to both disruption and creation - and she’s got us. The book seems to have a lot to say about art and artifice — how we make our lives into stories and what we leave in and what we leave out and the role of art in our lives and all of those lofty things. I’m interested in how you think each of your narrator’s thinks about those things.
A: As I was drafting the book, I had this idea that the grandmother would pass down some wisdom to Natasha. It was really a story of, “I had a love triangle and I chose the wrong guy. Don’t choose wrong.” I think that’s what I wanted it to be; to have this lesson about following your heart and doing the unexpected.
As I kept going I saw that was way too simple. She’s not just telling the story to give her that advice. It’s more like, “This is my life. This is how it ended up. Isn’t that interesting?”
The story is more about the push and pull of life itself than about any kind of meaning or any kind of advice that Natasha can get from it … It’s more about just telling the story without having some grand message or point, which I am increasingly dubious exists at all. Maybe I’ve gotten really nihilistic in the last year of COVID. The ending was one of the last things I wrote, and Natasha, one last time, asks for advice, and she just gets a throwing up of the hands about what any of it meant.
Q: I really appreciate that sense of “this story doesn’t have a moral,” and yet the book has a certain clockwork to it, right? The stories parallel each other. The revelations come at just the right moment. When you are writing a story grounded in “isn’t it interesting how life turns out?” and you’re sort of seeding it with markers and milestones, how do those two things work together?
A: It’s a good question. They’re in conflict. This book, unlike my first - which is much more a coming-of-age episodic story that I didn’t really think about plotting in this way - this one was really hard to plot. I had to decide when I would switch points of view, how many times I would switch, which things would I reveal when, which things would be part of the frame, which parts would be Natasha’s flashbacks to her own mother, which parts would be Larissa’s flashbacks of the war. All these different plot and structure questions.
On the one hand it has this fated feeling … I think that’s me throwing up my hands. As an author you want things to make structural sense and the plot carries readers along, but like I tell my students, the plot is there so you can get all your deep or beautiful ideas out there. Maybe having the structured plot allowed me to have readers interested enough for me to then say, “Oh, maybe none of it matters.”
Q: That’s really interesting because it mirrors what we do in our own lives. It makes me want to jump back to the narrators. We read first person fiction all of the time and we just accept that, for whatever reason, the narrator is telling us this story. But in this particular story, because Larissa is telling her story to her granddaughter and occasionally turning toward us to say, “See what I did there?” I’m interested in her relationship to the reader.
A: It was tricky. I had these two narrators. They’re talking to the reader and they both have a lot of secrets they’ve kept from each other … I wanted to consider the fun of that — to have some more intimate person receiving the real truth and then hearing the story’s truth and then seeing a play based on it and just deciding for themselves where the truth lies. In terms of plotting, it was definitely a challenge to think, like, when is this going to be revealed to the reader? When will the two characters talk about it? Will they ever talk about it? And is this thing being revealed to the reader even true?
Q: So when they’re talking to the reader you would consider Larissa, and perhaps Natasha by extension, to be reliable narrators. Or more reliable than when they are talking to each other.
A: Yes. But I don’t know that I sat down and thought about it at the time. It just became clear to me in their little frame, when they’re talking to each other, before they turn to the past. That’s where I felt the tension the most. Natasha is trying to tell her grandma everything’s fine. And her grandma is telling Natasha one version of the story that omits the most important part.
Q: Is there anything about the book that you want folks to know?
A: When I talk about the book — the generations and handing stuff down — it makes the book sound very serious. I just want to highlight that I hope it’s a funny book and that the voice of the grandmother, especially, is comedic even in the very dark times — or especially in the dark times.