Writing Ambition: Irina Reyn on Portraying Unsatisfied Women
Irina Reyn is the author of the novels What Happened to Anna K. and The Imperial Wife. The first is a retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; the second links the lives of Tanya, a contemporary art dealer, and the Russian monarch Catherine the Great. She has been published in Tin House, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere, and teaches in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Irina Reyn came to Alphabet City to read from The Imperial Wife as part of the Aster(ix) Reading Series in October 2016. Following the reading, she spoke to Sampsonia Way about portraying discontented female protagonists, the importance of floundering in one’s twenties, and why it is so hard for literary fiction to show happiness.
The protagonists in both The Imperial Wife and What Happened to Anna K. are adept at reading people. How did you use the way in which they observe others to develop their characters?
I conceived the character of Anna K. through the prism of literature. Anna was so immersed in seeing the world through a fictional lens, in a certain way. She imagined that the narrative of fiction was the narrative of life, and she conjoined the two.
Tanya is a little bit different, in that she is very sensitive to how other people see her: in her role at the auction house, where she sells art or among her friends and family. What makes her really good at what she does is the fact that she is so porous and sensitive to the desires of others. She can be whatever the art buyer wants her to be, what her mother wants her to be. That’s what allows her to form these important relationships, whether with a client or a spouse. It’s not so much that Tanya is astute about others, though I think she thinks she is, it’s more about her ability to morph in a way that will allow the other person to trust her.
I read a review of What Happened to Anna K. that said her character was self-centered and egotistical. Do you think that has to do with the fact that she is not navigating her life through other peoples’ eyes?
I think Anna K. is a reader, and so she is very isolated and solitary in the way she is allowed to read the world according to her own interpretation. I think calling her selfish assumes a moral valiance which I don’t think is there, at least for me. I think as readers, we get to take over the text and interpret it any way we want. I think that is what she does: she sees the world only through her own eyes, she doesn’t really see how other people may have a different reading. She doesn’t see the truth. I don’t think that necessarily makes her self-centered. It just makes her myopic.
The other character you portray in The Imperial Wife is the monarch Catherine the Great. How does Catherine see herself–through other peoples’ eyes?
In my book she sees herself as fated for history. The reason I wrote it that way is that’s how she wrote it in her memoirs, but of course with the memoirs she had a great incentive to paint herself as part of history. I don’t necessarily think that’s how she actually saw herself as a young girl, but that was the narrative she cobbled onto herself later, for very good reasons: she understood her memoir would be read for posterity, and readers would ask, “Did she have a right to the throne?” She had a lot of reasons to describe herself as someone who was fated for greatness, and Empress was a role she was meant to play. Yet she was clearly an extraordinary person. I think she must have had this feeling like she was marked for something; she was not like those around her, she was special.
At your reading last night you said Tanya was more concerned with the way in which she was seen than Catherine the Great. Why is that?
Tanya was just an immigrant–she was nobody really. Catherine was a princess to begin with. At a young age she was married off to royalty and she knew she was going to be queen. From the beginning Catherine was playing on a much larger stage than someone like Tanya, who really scrabbled up on her own luck and perseverance. There was an unequal power dynamic.
By putting the contemporary and historical stories next to each other, I did want to highlight the fact that we haven’t come such a long way as far as women being able to take the power they deserve. We are still living in a culture in which everything has to be negotiated, justified, to family and partners and bosses. We are much more uncomfortable with this idea of women in power than we think.
In my epigraph to the book there is a quote from Catherine’s memoir, in which she says, to paraphrase, “My mind was always more male than female.” She really always had to justify her own rule, and possessing male characteristics was a convenient way to explain her unique fit for the role. It was the 18th century, so that makes a certain amount of sense, but it is exactly what we see going on now with Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign where she has had to take on all these different roles. There are times when it was more beneficial for her to play a more masculine role for people in order to make them comfortable with the idea of her as president.
At Worthington’s, the fictional auction house where Tanya works, you portrayed a rotating cast of characters to whom she sells art, material you gathered in part from your friend who worked at Sotheby’s. Could you say more about the research process for portraying those scenes?
The stories were the combination of a few details a friend gave me and the things that you can get anywhere if you do the research. There are tons of articles about over-the-top oligarch parties. The book is all fictional, but it was useful to acquire the details about how the auction world works, the language that would be convincing–like having a “star lot”—how an auction is conducted, etc.
I did get an appraisal for the Order of Saint Catherine, a fictional artifact that plays an important role in my book. An expert on Imperial relics at Sotheby’s was really helpful with helping me come up with a fictional provenance how a piece like that would get out of the country. She told me how imperial relics were looted by the Bolsheviks when they needed to fund their new government. They had to sell off, very cheaply sometimes, these valuable Russian artifacts. That was fascinating.
Something I saw in both What Happened to Anna K. and The Imperial Wife were the portrayals of intimacy, romantic intimacy, and the dissolution of that intimacy. Is intimacy a challenging relationship to portray?
I think intimacy in some ways is harder to write than the dissolution of a relationship. I think that is true of a lot of writers, I’d bet, because it is easier to write conflict or tensions than it is to write happiness. I think that was an early critique of a draft of What Happened to Anna K. I remember my mentor reading the book and saying, “Shouldn’t Anna and her lover have more good times before the first tensions?” In the book they had just gotten together and it was supposed to be this wonderful moment for them, but a page later they were already fighting over who was going to order takeout or whatever. My mentor told me, “You really need to give them a bit more of a honeymoon period.”
It shows that I have a really hard time writing happy, intimate moments. Conflict is easier to write. Conflict is what we do, and so that provides more meat. With happiness, there’s not much conflict. You are also straddling this sentimental place that you don’t want to go to, so you are balanced along this sense of conveying contentment.
I think contentment is a very hard thing to convey in fiction, without crossing the line into melodrama–unless you are going for melodrama, of course. If you don’t want to do that, it’s hard. Happiness is hard. There’s a reason why there is no happiness in literary fiction.
Why is happiness so hard to portray?
I think it can be done well. I’m not sure that I always do it well. I try, but it’s hard because there is a goal with each scene. If your goal in this scene is contentment or happiness, often those sentiments have to do with some kind of compatibility or sense of alignment. How do you depict alignment, technically? That’s a challenge.
You could use some of the easy tricks, the short cuts, which are usually pointing out similarities. You could have one character say to another, “I like sunsets, too!” or “You brought me the plate before I even asked for it?” How do you authentically convey a sense of alignment? That’s a difficult technical task. There’s a silence in intimacy. A quiet in intimacy. That’s a hard thing to depict. Some writers do it really, really well. Jhumpa Lahiri comes to mind. These are writers who really feel comfortable staying in a moment without drawing too much attention to what that moment means; painting a moment of peace without having to point attention to what’s happening.
What are some of your obsessions as a writer, or obsessions when it comes to portraying people, specifically?
I am obsessed with portraying ambitious women, women who are constantly thinking that they need to be more or deserve more, but they don’t know how to get it. They are usually women who see their lives across a large canvas, but they are usually constrained by personality or background from being able to live that out. I think that is the source of most of the tension in my female protagonists. These women are the opposite of content, which is why I have such a hard time writing contentment.
Unlike Catherine the Great, my contemporary protagonists don’t really have what it takes to realize that dream and they are also not happy with ordinary life.
With Tanya the reader really gets a sense of all of these overlapping identities tethering her: her identity as a Jewish person, a Russian immigrant, and American, a wife.
By comparison we have Nadia, her nemesis, who does whatever she wants, and Tanya envies that. Nadia has money, she’s got privilege, and Tanya didn’t have those things. I think those are what bind you, this lack of freedom. You have to either have circumstantial freedom or temperamental freedom, at least one or the other. Sometimes both would help. If you don’t have either, that’s hard.
Or you can have too much temperamental freedom inhibiting circumstantial freedom from happening! In another interview about What Happened to Anna K., you said that this little voice came in your head that was asking, “Are you crazy, who do you think you are–Tolstoy?” You said it was a little Russian Jewish voice, but I wondered if it was also an inner critical voice all women writers possess.
Probably. I think I was already anticipating criticism, even then. It’s amazing I was able to push through, knowing that I was going to some criticism for it, or that it was not going to be something that I would be allowed to do, both because of the greatness of the original artist and his looming in the popular imagination. Of course, all the criticism I got for the book had to do with that. “It’s not as good as Tolstoy!” And I was like, “Okay, not the point, but thanks.”
The first time I read Anna Karenina I thought it was pretty audacious of Tolstoy to portray a woman’s inner thoughts.
I don’t think he was so worried about that. He was probably not asking himself, “Am I getting the female experience right?”
He was setting out to portray a despicable woman but inadvertently softened to her.
He meant to show her as an example of what happens when a woman goes astray, but then it turned out he was too much of an artist to do that.
I think there is a lot of inhibition starting out. The editor inside us really wants to censor ourselves. That’s one of the bigger things women writers have to overcome. There is a lot of censorship before you go out to get censored by others.
What I learned from writing that first book was that there is no amount of external censorship equal to yours. There really isn’t. Readers are so much more generous than you are to yourself. I went through a lot of pain imagining all of these things that were going to happen to be able to get to the point of being able to shepherd the novels to their final stages. In reality, readers are incredibly generous and trusting with you once the book is in their hands. What you do to yourself is so much worse.
Given all of this inner criticism, what does your editing process look like?
I think the biggest problem for me, and it’s what I would recommend for everyone, is to try and get things on the page as soon as possible, no matter what it looks like. Anne Lamott was right about that shitty first draft. You have to get that draft on the page, and then you can do whatever you want. The hard part is to be able to draw it out, to say that it’s okay, it belongs there, it’s good enough. To be able to be okay with good enough, rather than coming back to it and saying, “Ugh, this is not worth it, who is possibly going to want to read this?” That’s the challenge, getting it out there first. The editing after that is coming to terms with what you have done.
When you are constructing a scene, or getting the scene on a page, is your process more technical or intuitive?
I think it is intuitive with an understanding that it needs to perform some function. I know every scene needs to do something to move a story along. Sometimes they don’t work. I don’t have any preconceived plan about where it’s going. But I know this scene needs to move the story along to keep my own interest, and then that scene needs to move this along and ask another question, which has usually come up as I am writing the scene. It’s intuitive but with a real attention to shape and plot.
When you enter the project you think you know what it is about, but by the end it is about something different that you could not have anticipated. You have to give yourself the room to explore that and be surprised. I don’t write scenes with an end in mind. You might go in with a certain goal, but it ends up somewhere else and it’s better. It makes things harder, and slower. It would be much easier to have an outline but I don’t know if I can write like that because I can’t possibly know in advance what I want to say or accomplish.
You’ve said you started “seriously” writing at 30. What do you mean by not serious writing?
By serious writing, I think of being a daily practitioner, where the work is ongoing every single day. I did write a few things in my twenties but I didn’t have a daily practice. I just sort of imitated other things I had read. The first essay I published was because somebody asked me to do it. I didn’t work for it. I just did it, under deadline, for somebody else, and I didn’t have any sense of what I was doing. I had very little understanding of craft.
Why did you decide to go to grad school?
I ran out of things I could do. I had avoided an MFA for so long. I had many jobs, in television news, book publishing, magazine publishing, at nonprofits, in advertising. I really wanted to give a “real” job a try first. I was not someone who thought, “I’m just going to be an artist.”
It took trying different career options and failing at them, to finally say, “Alright, so this writing thing, now it’s time to figure this out.”
I was 29 when I went for my MFA. When I came to Bennington, I was so prepared and focused on honing my craft with the help of the faculty.If I had gone in my early twenties it would have been completely wasted on me. I wouldn’t have seen it as a vocation. I had ten years of trying different types of work and traveling and reading and taking classes and doing all the social stuff and getting those distractions out of my system. I had jobs that merely allowed me to live in the city and pay my rent. For a few years that’s all I did. There was no sense of focus. My friends who knew what they wanted earlier, I really envied that. There are some people who are extremely focused and publish their first books at 25. I was just not one of those people. I really needed to have that post-college experience of fucking around.
Floundering and having fun, putting self-discovery first, not having to study, working to afford living in a fun place, and dabbling in writing on the side. By 29, I was ready to sit down and say, “I am ready to start treating writing as my vocation.” With that kind of single-mindedness, I got on the track of being able to write as a career.
When you started grad school you had the goal of writing a book, but did you know it would be What Happened to Anna K.?
No. But when I first got to Pitt I did a Master’s in Russian literature and took a whole semester of Anna Karenina, reading the book and also the criticism around it. That allowed me to take what I needed and say, “I’m not interested in writing a paper about this, I’m not interested in theory, what I am interested in is how I can take this book and make my own life out of it.” That was extremely useful, to do not only to spend the twenties living, but also being able to study something that would become useful later even though I didn’t know it at the time. The book gave my untethered experiences a form to my formless ideas about life.
When you say the literature you gathered from that Russian literature class gave form to your formless identity, is that still part of your creative process now?
I learned in that class how to take a text and meld it with my life to create art out of it. I have done that in different ways. Sometimes the text is not literature but life stories. With The Imperial Wife, it’s two different life stories. One is the memoirs of Catherine the Great, which is a text, obviously. And then there is the text of my friend’s job, the basic dynamics of what she does for a living, melded with my own personal experience.
You have also said that you started writing at 30 because you said writing was for the anointed. How did you let go of that concept?
When I went to college I only took one writing class because my university did not have a creative writing major. I loved my professor, and years later, when I ran into him at the AWP conference, he had no idea who I was. I didn’t stick out at all. There was absolutely nothing about me that was unique or preordained a writing career. I may have been the only person in that class who published a book, but there was no way he could have known that while I was in his class. One of the things he did was to tell everyone in the class to come and see him in his office hours if we wanted to find out if we could be writers. Of course we all went. It turned out he told me and everyone else that we could all be writers. It was true because so much of writing is perseverance.
Did you go through the process of submitting to literary journals?
During my MFA I wasn’t really interested in short stories at all, only in novels. One semester I got to work with Amy Hempel, and had a chance to learn from the master of the short story. She really did teach me so much about what a short story is, and I did wind up submitting all of those stories and going through the whole process. I published all of the stories I wrote in her class, which is crazy. It was because of her.
I also worked at literary magazines as a reader and I saw the other side of it. Understanding the process made me less likely to submit but also gave me a lot of sympathy for what literary magazines have to go through and how small the odds are to get published in them. You understand that there is little space and how overwhelmed they are and how much the right fit at the right time matters. There is so much not personal about the decision to accept or reject something. Nobody has read your work three times and found it wanting. It puts the box of rejections in the right perspective.
I really enjoyed hearing you read last night. What tips do you have for writers who are giving a reading?
Practice helps a lot. That was the fourth time I read that particular section, and I read other sections a few times too. You get better and better. Sometimes not everyone has that benefit. When you are reading once, here and there, you don’t often have that flexed muscle of an audience. With each performance I get better with the pacing, and I understand how the pacing needs to work. Slow is always better. Slow allows the audience to have an imagistic feel for your words. Pick a smaller section than you would imagine. When you have less to read you do better with it because you make it count. That’s why I only pick short sections. The biggest mistake in a reading is taking a longer section and feeling you have to get through it. Narrow your focus as opposed to feeling like you have to cover large swathes. I don’t think the audience cares that they are not getting more of your book. They know they can buy it. I think they are perfectly happy with a contained chunk, if it is read well.