Sculpting Golems and Fog Machines Working Overtime

Incurable Graphomania Author Anna Krivolapova in conversation with Jesse Hilson

In a Goodreads review of Incurable Graphomania by Anna Krivolapova I compared her to Patricia Highsmith with an up-to-date pharmacology textbook and a $300 gift card to Sephora.” Let me explain point by point. One of the outstanding stories of the collection is the tale called Jersey Devil’s Breath” which puts you deep — too deep — into the uncomfortable space of a male pharmacist’s head as he schemes and manipulates to get near young women. Nothing wrong with a planner. That this is a little sketchy is a plunging understatement made clear when reading the story for yourself. Read the rest of the book to get a sense for the expert Tom Ripley-level psychological probing that Krivolapova does into her characters motives and secrets.

The pharmacology textbook: Krivolapova is the Locusta of the subsector of indie lit serviced by psyop sleaze” traffickers Apocalypse Confidential, who published the collection. Like the official poisoner of the court of Nero in Ancient Rome, Krivolapova’s knowledge of drugs and poisons is thorough, but as frighteningly modernized as any FSB assassin’s. In her world, the 21st century is a place full of insidious dangers. I have called her productions suspense fiction” but I am at pains to stress that, to discerning readers, her stories should not be constrained by clumsy genre tags. There’s a lot of true observance of life going on under the icy service of the fiendish plots.

And the beauty gift card? Maybe it’s another unhappy pigeonhole to say that Krivolapova writes very well the world of young women and the dominating ubiquity of maquillage — the concern about cosmetic appearances. But the young Russian women of a story like The Taco Bell at the Center of the Pentagon” and other stories of Krivolapova’s often move through a world where beauty is linked to viciousness in true Dostoevskian fashion. If not viciousness, something grave and deadly lurks in the mirrors, trappings and items of clothing in these worlds.

How Russian is it? I talked to Anna Krivolapova to find out.

[photo by Anna Krivolapova; graphics by Incurable Graphomania cover designer and BRUISER-in-chief Mark Wadley]

Do you have a psychology degree? Or have you been a psychotherapist or a social worker? Because your ability to get inside the psychologies of your characters is really eerie and makes me wonder what all do you know about the rest of us that gives you that viewpoint.

I have never pursued a degree in psychology or social work. What I possess is simply run-of-the-mill female intuition and an approachable face. A lot of mind-reading in the attempt to communicate with animals, children, and adults with Faraday cages around their souls and a trench coat full of defense mechanisms. I can also be very aloof, riddled with blind spots, (dog psychology is still an enigma to me, I am still quite afraid of them, have not deprogrammed from the packs of wild dogs that used to roam Moscow), but there’s that neurotic streak, scanning faces and deciphering the caulk between what people say and what they mean. To misquote Joan Didion, My only advantage is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate…” that people let their guards down around me.

That is so interesting. Didion’s advantage is a good weapon to have in your arsenal, or tool to have in your toolbox, if weapon metaphors are not the right ones. Have you entered into the territory of writer’s fear where you dread certain people reading your book because they may see themselves written down there?

Absolutely. Fiction writing is vampiric in nature. In general, I try to be subtle, and extend grace towards the people I draw inspiration from. Some Incurable characters are based on real villains, jesters, and tragics who might bristle if they recognized themselves. But I’m mostly only sensitive to the opinions of people I’m close to, and I tread lightly with them. I wonder if my friends look for themselves in my writing. It could be tempting.

Jersey Devil’s Breath” was inspired by a real Jersey boy, jowls and all. Multiple people have told me that story rustled their jimmies. They recognized themselves– they felt demons breathing on their necks and heard angels scribbling down their sins.

One reader told me:

I found the story unsettling in the way that finding a heap of gears in a dark forest is unsettling. It reminded me of problems I haven’t been able to solve, of the things people wind up doing that make themselves less than human, and how easy it is to let that happen. It reminded me of being crossfaded in the student union my freshman year of college, watching a guy walking around barred out, noticing his unnatural movements. When he ran right into me, I looked into his eyes and there was nothing there.

Maybe this means I really struck a chord, succeeding’ as a writer, but I’d be lying if I said I was immune to feeling a twinge of guilt, like I’d sculpted a golem, bringing more evil into the world. Am I merely writing what I see, or am I like that evil (Russian!) maid in Suspiria that tilts a mirror into the light, hex marks the spot…

Just earlier today I was thinking about Russian-ness as a signifier of mysterious evil in the minds of many Americans. Your collection of short stories, Incurable Graphomania, definitely goes into that zone and rings that bell. Or maybe I just heard it because I was raised on Cold War and post-Cold War media.

HBO, NPR, Disney, and everything in between have done a great job of branding Russians as this callous, intimidating other. Slavic men are either Bridge Troll Boris missing a couple teeth or Propaganda Poster Pyotr with a good jawline. Slavic women are either Snow Maiden Svetlana or Kolkhoz Katya. The fog machines are working overtime. Inside every kid raised on Red Dawn and Rambo III is a vicious Slavophile (Stallone had an Ashkenazi-Russian bubby, by the way). US & RF soak between oceans like two boiling crabs maintaining a fussy distance in the pot. Two wings of a Rorschach.

I didn’t intentionally try to play up the mythos of Eastern Europe. I just wrote about people I know. And I’m downplaying it but there’s blood in the ink. We are a bit cursed. A piece missing. Chronic iron deficiency, maybe. In Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, the title character asks, Is it true Russian women are customarily humiliated and unhappy?” And it’s true. I’ve known so many Russian women who work so hard for nothing in return. I hate to see an educated, funny, gorgeous, multi-talented woman next to her cargo shorts boyfriend who barely speaks one language and can’t fry an egg. It’s a spiritual, superstitious, melancholy culture; yet sanguine, full of extremes. Ice baths to saunas. Contradictions. A culture where orthodoxy and animism surreptitiously coexist. The long suffering Russian land…”

I’ve remarked elsewhere about how much some of your fiction reminds me of Patricia Highsmith, who wrote very penetrating and creepy psychological suspense tales. You do occasionally go into science fiction in the form of utopias with tricky, clever satirical concepts but you seem to be at home with the suspense form. This kind of relates to my first question about psychology. What is it about stories about really bad things happening that appeals to you? Is that how you see the world? Is that part and parcel of the Russian thing, too? Can’t you write about nice things?”

Will you laugh if I say that Heart of a Dog” and Refrigerator Death Index” are heartwarming tales? They’re practically wholesome. So chaste. I can put my palms together when need be…

I’ve never read Highsmith, and haven’t read much suspense or science fiction. But to answer your question, I just write what I observe. I aim for hyperrealism, even in the dystopias. Sometimes my dialogue is something I’ve eavesdropped– verbatim. And maybe I have a paranoid worldview, or am biased by experiences, the background noise of being sized up like prey. The cities are tense. I guess it all comes down to how memory works. Some things just stick in your mind. Nice doesn’t leave a mark.

I wonder what your scope is in terms of how long you work on a story, how long you feel like the thing needs to be. Word counts and so on. I think we were talking a while back and you said something along the lines of, you just write until it runs out of steam, it’s really unplanned and there’s not like a predetermined end to your stories. Am I getting that right? Do you have longer works where you’re prolonging that effect? And later I’ll ask a question that will possibly yield an answer that will drive everybody crazy.

I’ve written 6-7 page short stories in one sitting, but one 22-page story took me over 6 months. I’ve been slowly working on a novel over the past 10 years, but started and finished another in 3 months. If the story is promising, don’t rush it. Let it lay fallow for months at a time and come back to perfect it. Take breaks. If it doesn’t come naturally, it might be tripe. Don’t force endings, don’t over expose. And don’t resort to shock value if you’re bored with the piece.

Richard Brautigan recently visited me in a dream and taught me four ways to end a story: heaven, hell, purgatory, or a pub joke. Heaven is love requited, conflicts resolved, happy endings (Sysiphus rolls the boulder up the hill and meets a babe on the way). Hell is tragedy or horror (Sysiphus rolls the boulder up the hill, meets a babe on the way, and then crushes her with his boulder). Purgatory is ending a story with stagnation, repetition, or cycling the plot back to the beginning (you know this one). The pub joke is just humor or irony (the boulder is actually a mass of aircraft refuse” a la Joe Dirt). The last page of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is a perfect example of purgatory. Inherent Vice (2014) ends with the same formula– two ex-lovers in the back of a car, avoiding reality, trying to Weekend at Bernie’s a dead relationship. Lolita? Classic hell ending. You get the gist.

The more concise, the better. Especially now– attention spans are drying up. Reward systems are fried. We’re all afflicted. A great writer hits the perfect balance between suspense and gratification without losing too much momentum. I recently read an incredible novella called Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz. Stream-of-consciousness, Gogolesque walls of text, lacking indents and line breaks. Gogol and Harwicz are masters but I cannot torture my readers that way. I need airy prose with generous line breaks. Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays is the perfect novel in this regard. I have read it more than any other book, except for maybe A Scanner Darkly, which is the perfect dystopia: hyperrealistic, paranoid, funny, dreary, suburban, tragic. Those two books– I’ll finish them, and then flip back to the first page and start over. Obsessed.

The question with the answer that might make people nuts (no pressure, and this is bad interview form) is: How long do you work on your stories? Like how many drafts of editing would you go through to come up with, say, The Taco Bell at the Center of the Pentagon” or Jersey Devil’s Breath”? Both incredible stories. But please don’t tell me those just came off your pen fully formed right from the get go. That would be intolerable.

In a few cases, I was intolerable. I won’t say which, but a few of these were finished in one sitting and then given very minor edits because the entire story came to me in a dream. The others were heavily edited; countless drafts, entire paragraphs and subplots slashed without mercy. Taco Bell” and Jersey” in particular have seen so many changes. Early drafts are almost unrecognizable, and in the end, every single word was chosen very carefully. One word or sentence that feels off can have a whoopie cushion effect and derail the entire experience for the reader. (I must note the whoopie cushion analogy is not mine. That credit goes to a world-class editor, and the best living American poet, Tom Will, who helped whip these stories into shape).

The reason I ask about the editing and revision, besides the obvious one, is to remark on the varied compositional styles among the fifteen stories. The Great Wave Off Kawasaki,” about a Russian immigrant girl’s relationship with her disturbed adopted brother and is full of tight cutting lines that build on each other, whereas the next story Swimming Lessons in a Dead Nepenthe” is more impressionistic and fragmentary and elliptical, towards something like poetry. You write poetry as well as prose, I know. This is crazy to say, because it’s me gassing you up which I hate doing, but this collection would be a good teaching manual for writing really sharp fiction. At times it put me in mind of Gwen Hilton’s Sent to the Silkworm House in terms of the spaces between the sentences” which measure the peculiar and unique leaps between thoughts of the writer, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious and precious. You have really cool leaps from lilypad to lilypad. Makes me want to ask the Russian for frog. Lyagushka?

Yes, that’s correct. Kva.

What a compliment. I am much more confident with my prose, poetry has to come from somewhere purely automatic and organic. If reading back over some of my weaker prose just makes me cringe a little, reading poems I’m not proud of makes me want to flay my skin off. And I need to read Gwen’s book– such an enchanting title and cover. Reminds me of the Human League song Being Boiled”: little people like your offspring/ boiled alive for one God’s stocking/ Buddha’s watching, Buddha’s waiting.”

Swimming Lessons in a Dead Nepenthe” is one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written and the least reader-conscious. I love stream of consciousness pieces, deciphering the tire marks, the escapism, where the thinker swerved from a painful thought, diving into a lush ravine of the imagination. Stream of consciousness is a very subtle way to develop a character. I hate obtuse exposition. It’s fiction, not a chainsaw safety manual. You don’t need to spell everything out.

That’s well-put. Tire marks, swerving, conceiving of it all as something spatial or to do with transportation, motion. I think stream of consciousness should make a comeback or be updated somehow. Can I ask what plans you have after this book comes out? Are you working on more material, something longer perhaps?

I’m finishing up two novels. The shorter of the two is a fatalistic, Pynchonian, West Coast novella inspired by the emergence of Halley’s Comet cults in the late 80’s. The second novel is a rug I’ve been slowly weaving for a decade. It centers around a Russian girl who appears in two Incurable stories, Heart of a Dog” and The Taco Bell in the Center of the Pentagon.” The novel spans from Russia in the nineties to a dystopian 2030’s USA. Russian orphans, refugee diasporas, troubled teen camps, Mormons, communes, contractors, DC snipers. There’s lots of local lore, like the Magruder Curse: two students from the graduating class of Magruder High School die every year (of Magrudergrind fame. DMV grindcore extraordinaires). In the meantime, I’m always working on new short stories and poems.

Those two projects sound amazing, and I hope that when people get a load of Incurable Graphomania, they get some inkling of where a novel by the same writer could go, and get excited. The publisher is Apocalypse Confidential; anything you want to say about those guys, how you came to work with them? It seems like a singular venue for new, crazed, smart writing.

Apocalypse Confidential hits a sweet spot of variety, novelty, and quality. They’ve put out some really great work the past few years and I’d love to curate a best of” list sometime. My first short story to see the light of day, Taco Bell,” was published on their website in December of 22. As soon as I heard they were pivoting to books, I wanted to entrust Incurable Graphomania to them. I knew that my book would come out eye-catching and well formatted in Will Waltz’s hands — The Book Of by Frank Peak and Pale Townie by Tom Will are gorgeous. I wanted attentive feedback and got eagle eye edits. I maintained creative freedom and was never censored for content. I can’t wait to see what else Apocalypse Confidential puts out.

I know that the title comes from a line in one of the early stories but could you explain it more?

It comes from a wry Russian expression: Графомания не лечится”, Graphomania cannot be cured” (Graphomania being the uncontrollable urge to write.) As much as they love literature, Russians hate writers, journalists, and the like. Writing is a superfluous indulgence. A classic inversion of hate the player, love the game. The type of thing you say whenever another celebrity memoir comes out. I am definitely a bit of a self-hating writer. Someone made me aware of a LitHub article that referred to me as a poet…that really made me squirm.

Incurable Graphomania is out September 21 from Apocalypse Confidential Books

Anna Krivolapova

Twitter: @AnaKrivolapova

Jesse Hilson

Twitter: @platelet60

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