An Interview with Mary Kay Zuravleff

  • By Therese Droste
  • July 25, 2023

The novelist talks family history, Old Believers, and Russian cabbage rolls.

An Interview with Mary Kay Zuravleff

“Where I was born isn’t how I was raised. Though I hailed from Marianna, Pennsylvania, I was brought up hearing that wolves talk and Old Believers rise from the dead. That a good woman can make soup from a stone, and a good man’s snot is black with coal dust.”

From the opening pages of American Ending, Mary Kay Zuravleff’s new novel, narrator Yelena Federoff draws the reader into her vivid and gritty world as the first American-born daughter of a Russian coal miner and his wife. The story unfolds from 1900 through the early 1920s and recounts the Federoffs’ hardscrabble life — one in which boys leave grade school for the mines, and girls get married off in their early teens to crank out babies they can barely afford to feed. The Russian Orthodox Church may dictate its followers’ lives, but Yelena longs for something different: an American ending.

What led you to write a book about Russian-immigrant coal miners?

One of the reasons I wrote the book was that I saw the 1920 census that listed my grandmother, who married a Russian, as an “alien.” That’s a strong word. Who gets to be an American citizen is one of the points of the book. I knew my grandmothers, Mary and Kay, both of whom I am named after. They were Old Believer Russian Orthodox from Suwalki, the same town the Russians in the book came from. My entire life, I heard their family stories. So, I took those stories from my grandparents and moved them around in time.

How long did you work on the book?

After one of my children looked at some prayer books my great-grandfather had painted by hand, they said that I’d been “doing this my entire life.” It’s the notion of choosing your topics versus your topics choosing you. But as to the various drafts of the book, it was more like eight years that I worked on the book.

The Old Believer Church dictates Yelena’s family’s life. When you grew up, what was your experience with the church?

It was a real mash-up. There wasn’t an Old Believer church in Oklahoma where I grew up, so my mom would take us to any Christian church — even though it’s a sin to go into other churches.

Yelena is such a layered character. She lives in a restrictive setting, yet her thoughts know few boundaries. What were some of the challenges of writing her character?

In my earlier drafts of the book, I would think about how things weren’t fair to women, and how Yelena’s hands were tied. So, the challenge for me was to not put a 21st-century spin on Yelena as I was writing. As a writer, you live in your own times, so you recognize unfairness. For example, why doesn’t Yelena rebel? She’s just doing what’s expected of her. Her goal is to live a life within these unbelievable constraints. She asks a lot of questions, and she is only 9 years old. She is so young.

Who did you base Yelena on?

She’s my mother, my mom’s mom, and me. My mom’s mom was modern and canny. She marched to the foreman (at the Marianna, Pennsylvania, coal mines) and demanded my grandfather be paid in cash rather than scrip.

What have you heard from readers?

I’ve had very meaningful responses from readers. Yelena lives in a cruel time, yet she is not cruel. Her heart’s not damaged by what she has been through. I believe that is what people respond to.

How did you go about researching your book?

I had to inhabit Yelena’s world enough to convince the reader. As I wrote, I would get a bit tied down thinking about what someone would be wearing when they came through the door. What would be for dinner? Was there a dirt floor in the house? Every detail was foreign to me. While I had to find out the details to continue to write, I didn’t necessarily have to explain them to the reader. For travel, I visited Russia. My husband and I also went to Marianna. We found the old family house, the graveyard, and the church. No one worships at the church anymore. The mine, which is closed, basically built the city.

Food is its own character in the book. Let’s talk about the food.

I grew up on that food: cabbage soup, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage rolls, paska every year. We actually had blintzes for breakfast yesterday. My husband and I have the same recipe for blintzes, but he calls his crepes.

The book’s cover features a red wolf. What is its significance?

It signifies wolves at the door. Hunger. The danger of predators. The Russian fairytales that Yelena reads — the same ones that I grew up on. Wolves are everywhere in the book.

What is your writing routine?

When I’m working on something, I try to be at my desk at 9:30 in the morning. If I fiddle around and it’s 10:00 or 10:30, it feels like my morning is lost. I will write a page a day when I am really working. But I am quite slow, as I spend the day getting rid of as much as I generate. But I figure that if I have one page a day, that’s a draft in a year. I also have accountability partners to check in and egg me on, to ask how much I got done in a day. It’s so easy to talk yourself out of writing.

[Editor’s note: Read the Independent’s review of American Ending here.]

Therese Droste is a Washington, DC-based writer and member of the Independent’s board of directors. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Prevention, Health, Washingtonian, and numerous other publications.

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