Ellen Litman’s debut novel Mannequin Girl (Norton 2014) follows her memorable story collection The Last Chicken in America, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. Her turn to the novel brings us the protagonist Kat, a young Jewish girl growing up in the Soviet Union whose life changes course after a diagnosis of scoliosis sends her to a new school/sanitarium. This is a coming age story that unravels layer after layer, from the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, to the discovery of a creative self, to the bonds and battles built between young girls removed from their families, all while bringing to life the 1980s in Soviet Russia. While the character of Kat and the world she lives in are compelling, it is Litman’s wit and fine-tuned language, all as sharp as that found in her story collection, that makes this a top read for 2014. You can read an excerpt from the novel in Issue 21 of Memorious.
Litman’s stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2007, Best of Tin House, American Odysseys: Writing by New Americans, Dossier, Triquarterly, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her awards include first prize in the Atlantic Monthly 2003 Fiction Contest, the 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, fiction fellowships at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. She is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut. She generously answered a few questions about Mannequin Girl for us.
Q: Kirkus Review referred to Kat, the protagonist of Mannequin Girl, as “a vulnerable and crankily appealing heroine.” How did the character of Kat emerge for you? Where did her story begin?
A: When I started working on Mannequin Girl, it was very autobiographical. Like Kat, I was diagnosed with scoliosis as a child (though I was even younger at the time); like her I spent my childhood and early adolescence at a “special” school for children with scoliosis (though the real school was much nicer than the fictional one); and like her I was a teacher’s daughter (my mother taught Math). In fifth grade I became enthralled with our local drama club and with the two wonderful literature teachers who ran it. This was my starting point, and at first, I was cleaving pretty close to the actual facts of my childhood. But pretty quickly I grew bored with this fictional version of myself. And then I thought: What would happen if Kat grew up in a different sort of family? Once the bohemian Anechka and Misha became Kat’s parents, she began to come into her own and develop her own interesting traits, like, for example, her crankiness and her desperate need to be exceptional.
Q: How much of Mannequin Girl draws on your own experience growing up in the Soviet Union? What was it like to revisit your childhood home on the page?
A: I wanted to write about growing up (and coming of age) in the Soviet Union. It was such a different world from the one I inhabit now, and the longer I live in the United States the more strange and far-away it seems. I didn’t want my vision of it to become a collection of anecdotes. I wanted it to feel real and vivid and complex, even to a reader who’d never been to Russia. So it’s inevitable that much of what went into Mannequin Girl came from my own experiences: places, events, poems, music, jokes. I also did some “research” for this novel, and that was possibly the most fun part of the process. I would re-watch movies I saw when I was Kat’s age; go through old magazines we used to have in our apartment; listen to the music from the seventies and eighties; re-read articles, stories, and books.
Q: You write in English, which is your second language, and you didn’t move to the United States until you were college age. What does your movement between two languages bring to your writing?
A: Although I write in English, I still read a lot of Russian literature (both classic and contemporary), and I dabble in translations. I think — though I can’t be sure — that reading in Russian makes my writing richer, or at the very least it makes the process of writing more exciting. It’s as if the two languages bumping against each other in my head create a spark, and suddenly the possibilities of language seem endless.
Q: What were some of the first novels you first fell in love with?
A: I read War and Peace for the first time when I was twelve. I was at home with chicken pox, heartbroken because I was supposed to be in a play and now the play would have to go on without me, and the great novel managed to sooth me. At the time I mostly skipped “war” and read the parts about “peace” (i.e., love). Of course, I read it again at the later age, probably 4 or 5 times in total, and I’ve come to appreciate the “war” bits, or rather the way this novel is as much about history and time as it is about people and human nature.
Another beloved childhood favorite was The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein, a coming of age novel about a young girl growing up in pre-Revolutionary Russia. (I wrote about it here. )
Q: What’s in your reading queue now? Are there fellow debut novelists you think our readers should be looking out for?
A: There’s always so much that I barely know where to begin. All the big novels and collections that I’ve been hearing so much about but not getting around to. All the Russian classics I need to re-read for the Russian Short Story class I’ll be teaching in the fall. My plan is to start the summer with some contemporary Russian authors. There’s a collection of short stories by Anna Matveeva that I am reading now, a couple of new books by Anna Starobinetz, a novel by Vladimir Sorokin.
This year continues to be particularly good for my fellow Russian-American authors. I am looking forward to reading Lara Vapnyar’s most recent novel, The Scent of Pine, and I can’t wait for Lena Finkel’s Magic Barrel, a new graphic novel by Anya Ulinich that will be out at the end of July.
Q: Can you tell us about what you plan on working on next?
A: I’ve missed writing short stories, so that’s one of the things I’ll be doing this summer. I have two projects in mind, both of them story-based. And I am hoping to translate a couple of short stories by contemporary Russian writers.
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