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Katya Apekina On Mediums, Complicated Family Relationships, And The Weight Of Storytelling

by Brendan Dowling on March 13, 2024

On the surface, the circumstances of Zhenia’s are similar to a lot of young people in their twenties. Her marriage has sputtered out, she’s grown apart from her best friend from college, and she’s recently found out she’s pregnant.  What sets Zhenia apart from her peers, however, is the fact that the ghost of her great-grandmother, Irina, has recently contacted her through a medium, Paul. Zhenia soon finds herself on marathon phone calls with Paul as he channels Irina, who spills the secrets of her life as a young woman in pre-revolution Russia and the events that led her to commit an act for which her family has never forgiven her. With Mother Doll, Katya Apekina has crafted an enormously compassionate tale of family relationships, immigration, and war that has received raves from critics. In its starred review, Kirkus Reviews raved, “Like the Russian nesting dolls that inspired it, Mother Doll reveals layer after layer of poignant delight.” Apekina spoke to us about the book’s origins, delving into the complicated relationships of her characters, and the connection she discovered between channeling and the writing process.

You’ve written that while the book is not autobiographical, it’s deeply personal. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

When I came to the U.S., I came with my mom and my mother’s parents. Then my dad’s parents ended up moving to the U.S. as well, so I was surrounded by grandparents growing up. There’s sort of two things that happened. One was my grandmother on my dad’s side left me these memoirs. I had them for a really long time, but I didn’t start reading them until after she died—actually the night of her funeral is when I started reading them. I had a complicated relationship with her, because she was very conservative. In Russia, in order to leave at the time that we left, it was very difficult. My dad’s parents had sort of blocked him from being able to leave with us. [My dad’s mother] and I weren’t particularly close, but after she died, I started reading her memoirs. I had this feeling like I was in conversation with her after she was dead in a way that I hadn’t been able to when she was alive. It was a very strange sort of project I was doing, where I was translating her memoirs and I was annotating them. It felt like I was in conversation with her after she died, which, you know, my book is about somebody talking to the dead.

When my grandfather was dying, I was with him on his deathbed, and he was dictating his memoirs to me. It definitely felt like these older generations really wanted me to carry their stories. This book was really inspired by that. It was inspired by that feeling of receiving an elder’s story, but how there’s a certain weight that comes with that too. With my grandfather in his last days, it felt very heavy to be a receptacle for the story, to bear witness in this way. That really informed the book, the way that telling the story warps the people who are receiving it. For Paul, he’s deeply affected by being the medium. Physically, it takes a toll on him. That felt to me too like a very physically exhausting process of empathizing and fully listening to somebody’s story. It’s my ancestors, so that story is also just in me physically. It’s in my DNA.

That concept of the weight of hearing someone’s story is so interesting to hear you talk about. It makes me think of how at one point, Irina chastises Zhenia about how it’s not enough for Zhenia to listen to the story, but she also has to write it down.

As a writer, I feel like I only process things when I write them down. When my thoughts are just free floating in my head, they kind of loop around and repeat themselves. But when I get it down on paper, that’s when I can see what I’m thinking. I don’t know what I’m going write until I start writing it. It’s really in the process of putting it down that I understand anything.

What was the writing process for this book like? Did you have a strict outline or were there discoveries you made along the way?

I made them along the way. I outline constantly when I’m writing. As I’m writing, I outline, and then it transforms as I go. I don’t outline ahead of time, because things just evolve as I go. I can’t remember what writer it was who said that you only have to see what’s in front of your headlights to keep going, but I think that’s very wise. You have to have a sense of a destination. I knew the shape of the story, if that makes sense. I feel things very physically in my body when I’m writing. If something is right or wrong, if I’m going in the right direction or the wrong direction, it’s a very intuitive, physical feeling. But I knew the general shape, that this is a story of Zhenia’s transformation because of her understanding her ancestral baggage.

That’s fascinating about the physical sensation you get when you’re going in the right or wrong direction. Can you talk more about that?

It’s funny, because I took mediumship classes in order to write this. I feel like that kind of embodied feeling of writing is similar to the way I describe channeling. For me, writing often feels like channeling. It’s a physical sensation that’s kind of in my abdomen. It’s very woo-woo to describe it that way. (laughs) It’s not like I can immediately drop into that feeling, but when I am in that feeling, it’s like the flow state and I know I’m on the right track. It’s not like anything I write, I feel physically. In fact, I usually don’t. It takes a while to get to that place, because it has to go deeper and deeper. Once I’m there, I know that I can use my body as a guide, to figure out whether something I’m writing is going in the right direction or the wrong direction, or is true or not true.

Was there any direction that you went in telling the story that you realized you had to back off from because you were getting a message that it wasn’t the right path to go down?

If you’re feeling disconnected on the micro level, you often end up in a cul-de-sac. I wrote the book during the pandemic, and I feel like so much of the revision was more about balancing the two storylines. It was more about integrating the two stories so that they affected each other more. I was in this strange space because it was lockdown and I was working on it. I have a small kid too. That’s not necessarily the most conducive thing, to be working on a project when you’re locked up at home with a small child, but I feel like I was already in a strange, altered space when I was working on it. It came out more or less in the form that it is in. [Revision] had more to do with me moving some parts around to make it feel balanced. Especially with the Irina storyline, it required a lot of research. I was doing the research as I was writing it, but it felt more channeled, I would say, than the Zhenia storyline.

The process of writing just felt like it was coming out of me. It was during this time that I was also with my grandfather, and he was dying. It was very strange because I had been very close with him growing up. We lived like in the same house. Wanting to talk to the dead went from an abstract notion to a very real thing in my life, of wanting to be able to continue talking to him.

Zhenia is so funny and clever, but she can also be self-absorbed and even self-sabotaging. I wanted to ask about how you arrived at her as the focal point for this book.

She’s young, so I feel like a lot of her being a mess is kind of forgivable. (laughs) It’s about her discovering what it is she really wants. I mean, she’s not me. Maybe she’s some aspect of myself from when I was in my early twenties, but she’s not autobiographical in any way. She’s an interesting character to me because I feel like she’s frozen in some ways. I think it’s a result of these kinds of traumas that happened to her family, so this book is about her thawing and figuring out what it is she wants rather than doing what is expected of her. Yes, she’s a mess and she’s petty, but I think she’s also kind. I didn’t think of her as an antihero or something like that, but I do have a lot of empathy for her because she does make these decisions and then justifies them. (laughs) I think in my worst moments, I can relate to that process. I don’t think she sees herself as having agency or being able to really like affect those around her. She sees herself as blameless, because she doesn’t see how she can hurt other people.

It’s such a big expansive book, but it’s also only about 300 pages. We also get to dive into Paul’s relationship with his husband and Zhenia’s relationship with her co-worker Anton and his wife, Chloe.

With Paul, I feel like he was a character that really came alive as I was writing. Initially, he had felt like a minor character, but as I was revising, I kept adding more and more about his life because he was so interesting to me. His relationship with Sergio and what he had lived through in New York in the eighties, this connection to death, the trauma of witnessing so many people that you care about dying. I felt very connected to his storyline.

With Anton and Chloe, their relationship seemed complicated. They evolved from a short story I had written about them, about how she became pregnant. It was from Chloe’s point of view. They were already people who existed with their own backstory and full lives to me. In a way this whole book grew out of that relationship, which is funny because they are such a smaller part of the book than the main storyline.

Yet with those characters, we have some sense of what happened but you still give the reader space to fill in the blanks and create their own narrative. I was curious about how you decided what was enough information for the reader to know versus what would be too much information?

I didn’t want the narrative to get too bogged down with too much backstory for all the various characters. I wanted it to feel swift as it moved forward, but I wanted depth at the same time. It was really about including as little or as much as possible to keep things moving, but not bog the storyline down. It’s like you’re seeing that things are happening in your peripheral vision. You see a scene taking place, but you’re continuing to move forward. It’s like it’s enough information for you to get a sense [of what’s going on] without turning your head and walking in a different direction, if that makes sense.

One of the most intriguing parts of the novel are the scenes where Paul is channeling Irina to Zhenia on the telephone. Those scenes cover so much emotional territory and are beautifully balanced among the three characters. Can you talk about the pacing of those scenes in terms of the back and forth that happens among the three people?

Zhenia is listening, but she’s also resentful of Irina. She loves her grandmother so much, and she knows that Irina abandoned her. I think there’s a curiosity in wanting to understand her grandmother better by understanding her grandmother’s mother. But there’s also a hostility that she feels, because she feels protective of her grandmother. She doesn’t want to get too close to the story, or Irina, or to feel too much empathy. There’s this distance and this tension between them of Irina wanting to pour herself out to Zhenia and Zhenia not fully wanting that. And then Paul is facilitating all of it. Zhenia’s not a fully willing listener. She has her own life and this is an imposition, you know?

To say the least, with everything that’s going on in her world.

She has her own problems, for sure. I can relate to that feeling of resistance if somebody’s just unloading on you. You don’t want to necessarily absorb everything that’s been given to you.

Irina’s not the kind of person who’s going to check in first and say, “Is now a good time?”

Irina does not give a shit. (laughs) She’s just there to tell her story. You were also asking about Irina in New York and her backstory. When I was thinking about this, I was thinking about this idea that we think of ourselves as these unified selves, but there are so many parts to ourselves. This [spiritual form] is just a part of Irina. This is the part of Irina that did these things and then another part of her continued on in New York and had this other life. She has access to her biographical details, she knows what the other parts of her did, but this is a very specific aspect of her.

I think one of the many beautiful aspects of the book is how Zhenia’s grandmother, Vera, is able to have the relationship with Zhenia that Vera maybe wasn’t able to have with her own daughter. I feel like all the mother-daughter relationships in the book are extremely complicated, but there’s something so pure with the relationship between Vera and Zhenia. How did you approach the grandparent-grandchild relationship versus the mother-daughter relationships?

I feel like [with Vera and Zhenia] it was sort of an opportunity to do over. I think for some grandparents, just being a parent is so taxing and difficult and their life is just really hard. They don’t necessarily have the emotional capacity, especially when they’re having children young, to also be an emotionally present parent. In Russia especially, it was very common for people to have kids in their early twenties, or even late teens, and for the kids to be raised by their grandparents and for there to be that really close relationship. It’s not autobiographical for me. I have a very close relationship with my mother, and I am a mother myself. I just could imagine really enjoying being a grandmother. (laughs) You don’t have to do all the discipline and your responsibility is to just give love as a grandparent.

This is an L.A. book too, and you make such good use of the city with memorable scenes at the Magic Castle and Echo Park Lake. What made you want to have L.A. the setting for the Zhenia part of the storyline?

Zhenia immigrated as a child to Boston, went to college in New York, and then moved to Los Angeles, and that actually is my story too. L.A. is such a weird place. People are very open to woo-woo stuff and also there’s a lot of striving here. It’s a very strange energy, because people come here with big dreams. It’s never entirely clear if they’re delusional or not, because it just seems like sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s so much about luck and other things that you can’t predict. I think it’s a fascinating place and it’s also very far from where Zhenia comes from. I love it out here, but I feel such a deep sadness being far away from my family and raising a child far away from her grandparents. I think that feeling is definitely in the book.

I always think about how I came to the U.S. as a small kid and then I just kept moving. I lived in New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, and now I’ve been in L.A. for the longest I’ve been anywhere in my adult life. But I was thinking about it like if the initial immigration was a trauma, then I just keep repeating it, but trying to own it somehow, if that makes sense. I love moving, and I know that that’s not a common feeling. (laughs) There’s just nothing I love more than a fresh start and the possibility of somehow becoming a different person in a new space. I think there’s something of that in [the book] too. Her mother’s so sad to be far away from her when she’s about to have a grandchild, because I think the mother is hoping to have the same kind of relationship with her grandchild that Zhenia had with her grandmother.

I wanted to ask about the research process. It seems you would have had to have done a lot of research to get the details of everyone’s life during the revolution, but I’m also intrigued by this mediumship class that you took.

For the mediumship class, I took a couple with a couple different teachers. There’s this place that I don’t know if it still exists, but it was a meditation studio, and they have this psychic meditation class. Some of the guided meditation journeys definitely informed the afterlife and the way I describe it looking [in the book]. Then there was a mediumship class that I was taking online because it was during COVID. It feels a lot a guided meditation where you’re visualizing things. It is kind of a physical sensation in the body that’s similar to a feeling that I sometimes get when I’m writing, so it was very interesting. It was very useful.

I think when writing is going well, it doesn’t feel like it’s coming from my own brain. It feels like I’m just receiving information that I’m writing down. I think a lot of writers describe it that way. There’s no “I” really, you’re in a flow state. It’s like an egoless state or something, you’re just in it. That’s kind of what mediumship or meditation also feel like.

As for researching for Irina, I did a lot of researching for many years. The things that were most helpful were these oral histories, as well as literature that was written at the time that this is taking place, around the time of the revolution. But I did also read several books that were helpful, in terms of just putting that time period into context. Not novels, but you know, nonfiction.

I found the Irina sections so moving. Was it difficult not to overlay your contemporary perspective onto what was happening in Irina’s world? It feels like it would be very challenging to just let Irina speak her point of view without editorializing.

I think that’s why it was particularly helpful to read memoirs that were written soon after the events. I also read memoirs that were written by elderly people looking back, and also books that were written around that time and set around that time. But I think when I would just go into Irina, I really tried to see things through her. I mean, I couldn’t do it perfectly, but I think it really helps to do very deep research and look at photographs, so that I could really picture her physical surroundings as much as possible. I don’t think people and their psychology has changed that much in 100 years. I tried to just get as much of the physical surroundings as possible through my research so that I could feel like I was embodying her, rather than I’m looking at her with my own values, ideas, knowledge, and technology and stuff like that.

Finally, what role has the public library played in your life?

An enormous role. Just from childhood, there’s this library in Brookline, Massachusetts. That was such a highlight of my life every week to go there. My dad would let me take out anything I wanted; my mom was kind of a literary snob. I liked going there with my dad more, because I loved reading just like the pulpiest books. (laughs) Doing research for this book required going to the L.A. Public Library. I just went so deep and they had so much material that I needed. I like going to the library to work as well. It’s nice to be in public spaces while I’m working. Sometimes it’s nice to be at home, but I like going to libraries a lot to do my work. And then also the L.A. Public Library has a great reading series too, so I feel like I’ve seen so many of my favorite writers come through the main branch.

This interview has been edited and condensed.