While Maria Kuznetsova was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was working on a doorstopper of a novel.
“It was a big, fat comic novel. It was kind of creepy and had 10 points of view,” she said over coffee in Iowa City.
Meanwhile, she’d been working on and off on what she describes as a “side project.” She found herself with a series of vignettes, some dating back years and some composed in Iowa City. They featured a variety of protagonists. One day, walking home from her job at the University of Iowa Press, she had an epiphany while crossing the Iowa River.
“Nothing was gained in not having them be the same character,” she realized.
That character, Oksana, narrates her life in Kuznetsova’s debut novel, “Oksana, Behave!”
And what of the other project? There was interest in it. In fact, when different agents showed interest in different projects, Kuznetsova had a decision to make.
“I sat on my porch,” she remembered, “and read both. In the end, I went with my gut.”
She described “Oksana, Behave!” as a more “typical debut — sort of autobiographical, and sort of like short stories. I knew how to write this book.”
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The book is justifiably described as a novel, but Kuznetsova will tell you, sotto voce, that she thinks of it as a novel-in-stories — and that, too, is justified. Each chapter finds Oksana, who immigrated from Kiev to the United States as a child (just as Kuznetsova did), in a new locale, stirring up trouble for herself and others as she tries to find her own path. These chapters could largely stand alone, but they also deeply inform one another. Only the somewhat jarring fact that some of the chapters are shared in past tense while others are in present tense truly reveals their origins as separate vignettes.
“Oksana, Behave!” is an immigrant novel, to be sure, but Kuznetsova hasn’t created a striver intended to stand in for the hopes and dreams of those desperately pursuing the American dream.
“The best I can do is make this character look human,” she said. “I’m not trying to make her look good so that people will think that immigrants from Ukraine are good. That’s not my goal.”
Speaking of goals: “My life goal is to make someone laugh and cry in the same sentence.”
“Oksana, Behave!” is often quite humorous, but the novel is also filled with sadness and struggle. Kuznetsova strikes the balance masterfully, in large part because she is committed to ensuring the jokes in the narrative are never just jokes.
“The humor has to be doing the heavy lifting of the serious stuff, too,” she said.
One of her models for this approach is Kurt Vonnegut — “He’s the first person that I read every book he’s ever written,” she said — a writer (and, famously, an instructor at the Writers’ Workshop) deeply invested in delineating both the absurdity and tragedy of life.
Kuznetsova wasn’t accepted the first time she applied to the Writers’ Workshop, which she said she feels is all for the best.
“If I’d gotten in straight out of college, I might have wasted my time,” she said.
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She came to the Workshop with more focus, she explained, and found just what she needed in a novel writing workshop.
“It was such a warm supportive group. We were sharing hundreds of pages with each other, so it felt really intimate right away,” she said.
She and her family are set to leave Iowa City for her husband’s new job. She will continue to write and teach as well as serve as a fiction editor for The Bare Life Review, a journal devoted to the publication of immigrant and refugee writers.
Kuznetsova has several ideas for her own future writing projects, including her second novel, which she is currently working on, and might even consider returning to Oksana’s story at some point. I suspect readers would be delighted to keep up with Oksana — especially if she continues to misbehave.