On the Trickle-Down Effects of Trauma: An Interview with Katya Apekina – Michigan Quarterly Review
A photo of Katya Apekina set against a light brown background.

On the Trickle-Down Effects of Trauma: An Interview with Katya Apekina

Katya Apekina made her debut in 2018 with her stunning novel The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish—in which teenaged sisters Edie and Mae are sent to New York to live with their estranged father after their mother’s suicide attempt. With her follow-up, Apekina once again probes complicated family dynamics, this time using pregnancy as a vehicle to interrogate how trauma reverberates through generations. 

In Mother Doll (2024), the Russian revolution ripples through four generations of mothers. The novel is structured in part as a conversation between the spirit of Irina, a former Russian revolutionary, and her great-granddaughter, Zhenia—a failed actress who is pregnant with a child her husband doesn’t want. Irina contacts Zhenia through Paul, a medium who normally handles conversations with dead pets. After abandoning her daughter Vera at an orphanage, she is seeking absolution from Zhenia, the family member she deems most open to this type of request. 

Mother Doll masterfully alternates between present day Los Angeles and Petrograd in the years surrounding the events of 1917. The novel is infused with an off-beat sense of humor that establishes Apekina as one of the most original novelists working today, seamlessly fusing an old sensibility with a modern one. Petrograd is rendered in fine detail, with a large cast of characters, in contrast to Zhenia’s Los Angeles, in which she deals with the aftermath of being left by her husband and carries on an affair with a man whose wife is also pregnant. I spoke with her just ahead of the release of her second novel. 

Kim Samek (KS): Mother Doll intricately weaves two disparate stories together—Irina, who is stuck in purgatory, and her great-granddaughter, Zhenia. Did you start out with both characters, or did one come to you first?

Katya Apekina (KA): I think Irina came to me first. I started writing one of her sections as a short story, without the conceit of her being dead and a ghost being channeled. Then I started writing the afterlife sections with Paul finding people’s pets and stumbling on her by accident. I wish I could remember how Zhenia came to me, but it’s a distant blur now. 

KS: You mentioned that the book was inspired by your family history, though the characters are not based on real people. Was there a specific jumping off point in your family history, or specific stories that inspired you? 

KA: There are definitely details in there from stories my maternal grandmother has told me, small weird details. I don’t even know if she got them from family stories or from books. She was a big reader. Images like people lying around in bed and spitting up onto the ceiling. The vibe definitely. But the characters aren’t based on my family. It’s more that both my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather have left me with their memoirs. They lived in the Soviet Union in a different time period and had very different stories, but the process of hearing and receiving their stories, the way it made me feel—this is autobiographical and a seed for the book.

​​KS: I found it interesting that you centered the story on Zhenia rather than Vera, the daughter Irina left behind. The story is in many ways about Vera, but she has no agency. She’s on her deathbed. She doesn’t get to hear the apology from the mother. And Zhenia prefers to speak to her about her problems rather than talk to her own mother, but Vera can’t participate there either. She is essentially a doll. Can you speak to that?

KA: That’s so true. She is like a doll! And people can project whatever they want to some extent. The thing that I was interested in was the trickle-down effects of trauma. The way it keeps reverberating in the generations afterwards that aren’t even close to its source. My friend was telling me about how her friend’s mom grew up with Holocaust survivors, and how they had never talked about what happened to them. She did not know their stories, the idea being that it’s too painful and they just wanted to move on, but it was this invisible terrible thing, and the daughter was raised in the negative space of it, and then passed that on to her daughter. This sense of disconnection and anxiety that comes from feeling something deeply but not understanding where those feelings are coming from, their original source.

 KS: The title Mother Doll is incredibly evocative. Throughout the novel, many of the women are described as dolls. Irina plays a doll game with her schoolteacher. Vera is no longer conscious. Zhenia doesn’t seem to have much agency… She doesn’t know herself or what she wants. Can you speak more about the choice to characterize the women as dolls?

KA: My agent actually came up with the title! I had a terrible title and was trying to come up with something better, and he suggested it, and it felt perfect. I liked how on top of the doll stuff, it also evoked the nesting dolls, matrioshkas, with one nestled in the next. I was thinking what an apt title for a book on generational trauma! But as for women dolls—yes, I think they are all looking for agency in their own lives. Irina thinks she finds it through her revolutionary activity, but then her life is crushed by what she herself helped build. And Zhenia is very aimless. She is in her twenties and not connected to what it is she wants—but as the book goes on, she gets more agency, and she makes a life for herself that might not look very good from the outside, but which is at least moving her towards her own desires. I did early on in the process see a sort of portal made from nesting squares and think, oh I want my book to feel like that structure, which is basically the same idea. I often feel the shape of a book physically. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a pretty embodied process.

 KS: I find the doll theme particularly interesting in the context of Irina’s story. Irina and her cousin Hanna were very young when they became involved with the revolutionaries. They play a pivotal role in the bombing of a general. There’s a description about how at times it felt like there were no consequences for their actions.

KA: I think the desire to burn everything down is a very relatable one. There were reasons she was discontent. She was sixteen and didn’t have a developed ideology, necessarily, but she could see that what was happening around her was deeply unjust. I think for many people that was their story. I read a lot of oral histories, journals and accounts of women revolutionaries from this time period. Some had a very clearly thought-out ideology, like the character Olga, but many were just fed up. Others saw an opportunity. It was sort of a punk rock ethos for Irina, and she wanted to be in the world, to be important.

​​KS: Motherhood is a central theme of the story—as a vehicle to pass on intergenerational trauma, but also as a shared experience. It makes sense that Irina visits Zhenia once she becomes pregnant and is connected to this lineage of complicated women. She becomes a nesting doll with a baby inside of her. Why was it important to you to write about the experience of motherhood, and what aspect of it intrigued you the most?

KA: Well, as a mother, mothering takes up a lot of my time, energy and attention. Even if it’s just about the sense of guilt I have for it not taking up more of my time, energy and attention. It’s something that’s a big part of my life and becoming a parent is what brought me to a lot of these questions in the book. What have I inherited? What am I passing on? What actually belongs to me versus what was I given? What do I want to pass on to my daughter who feels very separate from me—not an extension of myself at all?

KS: I felt the guilt creeping into the pages. Not just Irina’s guilt at leaving behind her daughter—but also sometimes in Zhenia’s early experiences as a mother.

KA: Interesting! Irina is basically a ghostly embodiment of shame. I don’t think of Zhenia as a mother feeling a lot of guilt, or you know, not as much guilt as I think she maybe should feel in the complicated arrangement she’s in. She seems to be living fairly freely, doing what she wants, how she wants it. But I’m sure some of the mom guilt just creeps in there inadvertently. I think society wants moms to be martyrs, and even if you reject that, it’s hard not to feel guilty. 

KS: Let’s get into the process a bit more. You said you had read a lot of oral histories and journals. Was it challenging to delve into this deeply into historical fiction? Did the research come first, or did you weave it in once you had the larger story framework in place?

KA: The research came first. I was researching this book long before I knew the characters or the story. I started when I was in Mexico City, and I visited Trotsky’s house. This isn’t in the book, but it was a starting point. I knew I wanted to write about the Russian Revolution, but I didn’t know what the story would be. It began to emerge slowly, with the scene of the dinner party and Rasputin, and grew from there. It wasn’t my first time writing historical fiction. I had done a lot of archival research with my first book, but that ended up becoming mostly backstory for one of the characters.

KS: That’s so interesting that the dinner party was the first scene. And you ended up using some of Trotsky’s speech later as well?

KA: Yes. Though, actually, I’m just realizing that before any of the research, there was a short story I wrote that was about Chloe and her relationship with Anton. It was the backstory for her, so I guess not really a part of the book exactly, but an early seed.

KS: I’m in awe of writers who can absorb that much information and blend it into a story, and you do it particularly well. I usually feel constrained by the facts and the research. I don’t feel a freedom to find my own voice when I’m dealing with history. How do you do it? Do you need distance between the research and the writing?

KA: I did quite a bit of research, general and specific, before I felt comfortable even beginning to write the historical stuff, but then, once it got going, it really flowed. It took a while to be able to visualize what the world was like back then, to really be able to imagine it fully and richly. I looked at a lot of photographs, read a lot of books from the time period, about the time period, journals, memoirs, all of it. I visited some of the places. I wanted to be able to imagine what things felt and smelled like, and the other stuff that isn’t found in history books. When it began to form though, and I started writing, I made a point to write and research simultaneously, because otherwise I could have just kept researching forever.

KS: What books were most helpful? And what places did you visit?

KA: I visited Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novgorod. A lot of palaces, museums, monasteries. I read a lot of diaries and memoirs, including one by a beloved children’s book author I loved as a kid, Kornei Chukovsky. Also the diaries of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. She inspired the character of Irina quite a bit. She left one of her daughters in an orphanage, where she died. And I also read some oral histories of revolutionaries, particularly of women, and non-Bolsheviks: In the Shadow of Revolution: Life Stories of Russian Women from 1917 to the Second World War. And there’s a witty and breezy lady columnist, who was beloved across the political spectrum, Teffi (in the NYRB). I also returned to the Russian and Soviet classics: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Bulgakob, Nabokov, and Bely. 

KS: I love that your voice is funny and so fresh—what you do is so original, framing Irina’s story with Zhenia’s off-beat humor, rooting the sensibility in the present. Then, there are the vignettes with Paul where we dip a bit more into his life as a medium. Was it a challenge to layer Irina’s expansive story about the Revolution into Zhenia’s arc? How did you approach it, and when did it feel like the two stories clicked together structurally?

KA: Yes! I think balancing the two storylines was the biggest challenge in the book. There is some gestation that happens, as Zhenia listens to Irina’s story, and then a transformation. But figuring out the rhythm of the two storylines—weaving them so that they affect one another, but also continue forward, took some work. Especially because Irina is so determined to tell her story, she has a rigidity around it. She’s not very interested in dialogue; there’s an obsessive need, and she is selfish and self-absorbed. For Zhenia hearing and understanding the seed of the ancestral trauma that she grew up with—it ends up being what allows her to go from this sort of frozen state that she’s in at the beginning, to figuring out what it is she wants and going for it.

KS: I’m of course also a huge fan of your first novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish. There are a few parallels—complicated family dynamics, parents who leave their children. Your debut focuses around Dennis, a father who has left and is now thrust back into a parent role after his children’s mother attempts suicide. In Mother Doll, it’s the mother who abandons her child. 

KA: Working through some abandonment issues, I guess!

KS: Did you find it easier to write a novel the second time around? What were some of the lessons you had learned?

KA: I think writing a novel requires a lot of faith—that it will all add up to something in the end, that it will cohere into a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts. I think that knowing I was able to do it once allowed me to not spend too much energy questioning whether it would work out or not and just kept me moving forward. At some point in the process for me, a project develops its own engine and then you just have to show up, and just follow it. But there is a lot of groping in the dark, before I get to that point. I’m an impatient person, and it requires lots of patience, and lots of space, exploring in various directions until you find the one that feels intuitively correct or exciting. I had a writing group that I shared early drafts with—people from my MFA (shout out to Emily Robbins, Shannon Robinson and Lia Silver) who read a billion versions of this, as I was trying to figure out what it was exactly and how to put it all together. I had a lot more readers for my first book, I think. I started it right out of an MFA program, so I was used to a workshop model. 

KS: What are you working on now? Have you started the next novel? 

KA: I have started something but it’s still very early. I usually start with a feeling and some general areas and maybe a shape. I have been making some notes, but I haven’t actually started writing the book yet.

KS: I look forward to reading it. 

Kim Samek is a half-Thai Emmy-nominated comedy writer and television executive producer. She studied creative writing at Stanford University. Her short fiction appears or is forthcoming in CatapultGuernicaEcotoneSouthern Humanities ReviewGulf CoastElectric Literatureswamp pinkNorth American Review, and The Threepenny Review.

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