A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Creating a Whole New World

by on September 27, 2019

An Interview with Daniel Petrova author of the new book, “Her Daughter’s Mother” by Tzvetana Petrov, Adult Services Manager, New Lenox (IL) Public Library tpetrov@newlenoxlibrary.org.

Daniela Petrova grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia, Bulgaria. She came to the US in her early twenties and earned a BA in Philosophy from Columbia University and an MA in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. She is a recipient of an Artist Fellowship in Writing from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and Marie Claire. Her first novel, Her Daughter’s Mother, a gripping psychological thriller, tells the story of two women and the connection between them – a connection that stems from their obsession with each other, their search for family, and need for redemption. With her debut novel becoming one of the year’s most provocative and intriguing page turners,we asked Petrova to talk about her writing process as an immigrant author, and what reading and libraries mean to her. The interview took place via email.

PL: In one of your essays you have mentioned that libraries were instrumental to your experience as an immigrant. Tell us about that.

DP: I dropped out of university in Sofia in my third year to get married and move to the US. I was 22 and barely spoke any English. Except for my husband at the time, I didn’t know anyone in the country. This was in the 1990s and the cultural shock I experienced was crippling. The only place I felt at home in New York was at the local branch of the NYPL. I worked as a cleaning lady and, at night, I took ESL classes. I checked out of the library books that I’d already read in Bulgarian to help me learn English. Through a few lucky breaks, I began volunteering at the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later got my first job there. It was part-time, but it was the world to me. There, I learned how to use a computer, MS Word and Excel. I met wonderful people who were instrumental in advancing my future. My boss, Head of Cataloguing, who knew how desperate I was to continue my education, told me that if I worked at
Columbia University, I would be eligible to take two courses per semester for free. After I was accepted in the School of General Studies, I got a job at the Butler Library and worked full-time while taking classes part-time until I completed my BA. Looking back, libraries helped me get on my feet as an immigrant in the United States. They provided the resources and support I lacked. They opened up the door for me and welcomed me into this new brave world. They made my American Dream possible.

PL: What is the role that libraries played in helping you develop as an author?

DP: I started going to the library as a child in Communist Bulgaria. We couldn’t travel outside of the Communist Bloc and my family had no money to do even that. Books opened up the world to me. They introduced me to the beauty and power of the imaginary world. They became my escape and, later, introduced me to writing, which I found to be an even more powerful escape from reality. Books were instrumental in expanding my horizons.
The novels I found on the shelves in our tiny living room were mostly by Bulgarian authors or translations of international romance, crime and adventure, like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Christo and The Three Musketeers, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and my all-time favorite, Martin Eden, as well as most of Agatha Christie’s novels. In my neighborhood library, I found the works of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and
Shakespeare, which introduced me to a very different type of story.

PL: What were your interactions with libraries growing up in communist-era Bulgaria?

DP: I have clear memories of my neighborhood library, the shelves, the smell of books, the nice lady who worked there and always had just the right recommendation for me. The library was only a block from my school and I went there nearly every day on my way home. But in third grade, I started rhythmic gymnastics and had to move to a sports school that was an hour away from our apartment. My trips to the library became less frequent. As a teenager, I moved to yet another school and returned to my regular library visits.

PL: Did you speak English when you first came to the USA? The fact that English is not your first language didn’t prevent you from becoming a writer. Tell us about your experience with writing and how you’ve become a published author in a second language.

DP: As I mentioned, my English when I moved to the States was, at best, rudimentary. Learning a new language as an adult is hard and no matter how well you know it, it’s never the same as having learned it as a child. As an author, that’s definitely a disadvantage. I have to work that much harder to write an elegant sentence, a beautiful description, a poignant paragraph. I never stopped writing, even in those early years in America, when I could barely string words into grammatically correct sentences. Over the past two decades, while I worked a series of odd jobs, I always took creative writing
classes on the side. I started out publishing short pieces, an essay here, a short story there. But novels have always been my big love, and finally, at 40, I found the courage to write one.

PL: Does writing in a second language energize or exhaust you?

DP: I don’t think about it. After living in the US for nearly twenty-five years, it has become the language I express myself in—I speak, think, dream, read, and, naturally, write in English. But I’m a much slower writer than I would be if I’d grown up speaking English. There are subtleties in sentence structure or certain nuances in speech, such as jargon or dialects, that don’t come as easily to me. Often, I have to Google a phrase to confirm that
I’m using it correctly. Or I have to look up an idiom that I could only remember parts of. For example, I keep mixing up “To kill two birds with one stone” with the Bulgarian version, “To shoot two rabbits with one bullet,” and I end up saying, “To kill two birds with one bullet.”

PL: What was the inspiration for your debut novel “Her Daughter’s Mother” and the characters of Lana and Katya? How did your own experience shape the story?

DP: My ex-husband and I struggled with infertility for years, trying nearly everything to get pregnant, including a donor-egg cycle. And while it didn’t work out for us, I was deeply moved by the experience and thought that having a child with the help of a donor might create an interesting parental triangle—between the mother, the father of the baby and their donor—and this might be a good premise for a mystery. I wondered: What if a woman who is pregnant through a donor egg encounters her anonymous egg donor? And what if she starts stalking her and then the young woman vanishes without a trace and the pregnant woman finds herself a prime suspect in the investigation of her donor’s disappearance?

PL: Which character holds a special place in your heart? Lana or Katya? Why?

DP: I would say Katya. I was so surprised by her. I had some idea of what her character would be like at the beginning of the process but once I started writing her chapters, her voice came out so powerfully. She took over her own story. I just followed her, and she took me in many unexpected directions. While I had imagined a smart and beautiful
foreign student who was naïve and easy to take advantage of, she turned out to be quite confident, cocky almost—a woman you don’t want to mess with. She started out as a fun, easy-going girl but as the story unfolded, she revealed herself to be deeply damaged, needy and controlling. In essence, the innocent victim I had conceived of, turned out to be the villain in the story.

PL: Did publishing your first book change your process of writing? Did it change you as a person?
DP: It’s only been three months since the book’s publication and I’ve been so busy with events and interviews that I really haven’t had much time to write. But I definitely feel more confident in my writing. I’m also more aware of the reader than I was previously. Before, there was no guarantee that anyone would read the book, so I wrote for this fictitious reader who existed only in my imagination. It’s like the difference between preparing to give a speech in front of a mirror, and then actually standing in front of an
audience, looking people in the eye as you deliver your presentation.

PL: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
DP: I don’t think I have any. I don’t have a specific time or a routine. I write whenever I can. I’m not particularly organized but I really don’trecommend following my approach. It can take me hours sometimes to find a scene I wrote a month ago because I have no clue where I’ve saved it. I like to drink coffee or tea while writing and also munch on something, like chocolate or cookies, sometime nuts. Again, I don’t recommend it. It slows me down and it can get messy.

PL: Have you ever thought about telling your personal story in a memoir?
DP: I have thought about it but I don’t enjoy writing about myself. Writing personal essays is hard enough. What I enjoy about fiction is that I get to make up stories, to explore “what if” scenarios. That’s the fun of writing for me. Creating a whole new world with entirely new, imaginary people.