Interview: Marina Raydun, From the Soviet Union to Brooklyn

Marina was born in the former Soviet Union and moved to the United States at the age of 11. Having grown up in Brooklyn, she considers the United States of America to be her true home.

Always one to tell tales, she began writing short stories and essays when she was a teenager. Though she did not study creative writing in college (and actually went on to graduate from law school), she’s been writing for pleasure ever since high school. In the following short interview she’s asked about her process of writing. 

 

How did you get started writing, and what is your process like?” [ie: pen and paper, loads of notes, tons of research first, by the seat of your pants…]

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I started writing in high school. Of course, back then, my stories were thinly veiled fantasies about my crushes, but hey—inspiration is inspiration. I started writing more seriously in 2006, when I began outlining what would eventually become One Year in Berlin (a novella). It was inspired by my very own nightmares. Since about the age of 19, I regularly dreamed of being in Auschwitz. The recurring nightmare routinely culminated with a shot to the head (mine). Eventually, growing convinced that I simply must write down this story to try to rid myself of these awful dreams, I travelled to Auschwitz. The story took on a few different forms along the way, and what exists out there in the world today is the 2012 version. It’s oddly personal and truly did help me: I haven’t had the dream since.

My process… It honestly varies project to project. The basics remain the same: I always must have the first chapter drafted before I can go back and outline. I need to handwrite those first few pages to try to feel out my idea, my concept, my characters, my voice. Once that is done, I try to put some kind of a rough outline together. I am not a very good outliner, I must admit. In fact, this new idea with which I am currently wrestling inside my head has the privilege of being the first thoroughly outlined work (kind of, sort of, maybe). So yes, my process varies from project to project. My two-part series, Effortless, had fairly detailed outlines, whereas my novella Foreign Bride was all momentum, so to speak. Good Morning, Bellingham, my new novel coming out this fall, has been in the making since 2015 and had a few outlines since its inception, whereas Joe After Maya had one solid timeline. I try to do as much research as I can ahead of time, sure, but I won’t lie—sometimes when you get the itch to just sit down and start writing, you’re almost afraid to piss off the muse by not complying, so the research, at times, gets done as I go.

 

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Anything you would like the reader to know about you, or your book(s) that isn’t often asked?

I am never asked Who is your target/ideal reader?  As a writer, you’re constantly told to stick to the confines of your genre, write with your ideal reader in mind, to never betray her expectations. We’re told to think of an “avatar.” However, no one ever asks me in an interview who that mythical reader is for me, what that avatar looks like (spoiler alert: it’s not blue!) For me, it’s someone for whom characters are everything—a genuine fan of literary fiction in the sense that they are invested in a story that’s driven primarily by characters rather than strictly the plot. I imagine it’s someone who likes a good indie film—you know, the one that’s a little quirky, delightfully odd, with honest, real characters who aren’t sanitized in the effort to increase their appeal. I want to write stories I want to read myself, not simply follow strict genre guidelines for fear of upsetting some convention.

You may follow Marina in Facebook: Facebook.com/AuthorMarinaRaydun


EXCERPT from EFFORTLESS by Marina Raydun

Chapter One: What Say You?

Plucking stray hairs out of your chin is a humiliating exercise, even when you are engaged in

the activity in the privacy of a windowless room, with no one there to witness your shame. I suppose

“emasculating” would not be the most appropriate adjective to describe the procedure, but the

process, as well as the mere reminder of the need for it in the first place, leaves you feeling

embarrassed and hollow. And, if that weren’t enough, you are also fully aware that you’re only

wasting your time—all along you know that you will be right back where you started within a matter

of days.

 

That’s what I was doing (namely cursing the heavens I could not see from where I was for

the three hairs that insisted on poking through my sensitive skin week after week, despite my

disciplined plucking) when Veronika knocked on my office door that spring afternoon. “Office,” of

course, is too mighty a term for the closet I shared with two fellow history teachers, our desks

forming an awkward letter “T” in the claustrophobic space that was painted a pale shade of pink,

but it was my space, nevertheless. I rarely kept my door open, so if you wanted to interrupt me while

grading papers, poking at a salad, or at my half-baked attempts at cheating in Words with Friends,

you had to knock. I’d been told years ago by somewhat of a mentor, that young teachers would

always have to try doubly as hard as the older ones to maintain any status of authority with the

students—it began with not wearing jeans to work and always keeping your door closed. I was not

copied on the memo regarding the cutoff age for the said self-imposed policy.

“Ms. Levit, you have to come with us! They need one more chaperone,” Veronika begged

the second I opened the door and ushered her in.

 

Routinely lectured by the same friendly advisor on ways to protect myself against various

allegations of impropriety, I always kept my door open when a student actually visited me. This time,

however, I let it fly closed behind Veronika. I knew what trip she spoke of and had heard the

rumors of the last minute change in the chaperone lineup that morning. Timing was perfect. My

interest was piqued.

 

“Mr. Sola is going now, so all we need is one more cool, young teacher to join. This can

actually turn out to be the best school trip ever! Come on, won’t you miss us when we graduate in a

couple of months? Don’t let that middle-aged perv Abbott bring another octogenarian,” she

continued, undeterred by my silence. “Oh, oh, and you won’t even have to pay, I don’t think! Just

promise you’ll consider it—Paris, London, and some of your favorite students….”

My heart jolted at the sound of his relatively generic name: Jamie Sola. Nothing else about

the man seemed generic—not his broad smile, not his delicate, long, ash-black hair, not his

worryingly thin frame, not his intense brown eyes, not his full, buttery lips. He was too dark, too

exotic to befit such a throwaway name.

 

Of course, if I’m already being chin-hair-honest here, I have to admit that I knew I would

wind up saying yes the second I heard his name listed as one of the chaperones. One utterance of it,

and the rest was only a matter of superficial hesitation I felt compelled to display. No matter the

impracticality of it, no matter my real life, I knew I was already onboard.

If you were to ask George, I would imagine he’d probably say that I wanted to go solely to

escape—to escape him, to escape myself, to escape my aforementioned “real life.” And, maybe even

Jamie would agree, if you could ask him now. But no, I think it was simpler than that—more primal

and much more juvenile. It was really just about a cute boy. I would’ve still left George, of course,

but the actual transatlantic adventure would’ve never happened but for this Jamie Sola. On the other

hand, I must say, it’s pretty hard to parcel it all out now, to be precise; I’m not sure if hindsight is

indeed as 20/20 as it is often advertised to be.

 

“What makes Mr. Abbott a perv?” I asked with a chuckle aimed at disguising the blush I felt

taking over my cheeks. At the very least, I was hoping it’d distract from it.

“I don’t know, I guess he was born that way,” Veronika shrugged, rather summarily, as if it

were settled business, not up for debate. There was something in her voice that sounded resigned to

the fact. It was convincing enough of a gesture for me to laugh again.

“Are you in his French class?”

“No, Ms. Levit! I take Spanish. Paz is, though, so I get all my latest intel from her,” she

reported, proudly.

“I’ll think about it, Veronika, I promise you. Thank you for thinking about me, for letting

me know,” I placated the girl with a smile, hoping she couldn’t hear my heart’s disjointed rhythm.

“So, who’s Mr. Sola, again?” I wasn’t sure which one of us I was trying to fool, really, but I felt

obliged to try.

“Oh, he’s this great new teacher—guitar and vocals. Well, he’s been here since the fall, but

that still makes him “new,” right? Anyway, he’s kind of cute! I think you two would get along,” she

stated, her wide grin of crooked teeth beaming up at me. “I really hope you go. It’d be fun with you

there! Go talk to Abbott about it so he can fill you in on everything.”

Good ol’ Veronika: her chin-length brown hair always just a little greasy, her nose always

peeling skin at its bridge. She was right—I would miss her next year.

 

I had made one false assumption going into teaching against the wishes of every single

member of my family—I’d presumed that all my students would be just like I was at their age, which

is to say that I pretty much expected them all to be needy, insecure perfectionists. Instead, in a

school full of students constantly reminded of their bottomless talents, I was often stuck with kids

whose parents encouraged the belief that a part of a cadaver on Law & Order was more important

than a midterm paper on the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rarely did these children ever show up on time,

often immediately requesting permission to step outside for some allegedly much-needed coffee, as

if my first period classes were merely inconvenient layover stops on their way somewhere better.

But Veronika was different (and not only because her immigrant parents had gifted her the

burden of having people misspell her name for the rest of her life by insisting on spelling it with a

“K”). Were she not, by all accounts, incredible on the guitar, I guess she’d be labeled a nerd—always

asking for extra credit, as if her steady As needed improvement, her hand always up, always

prepared, her baggy, Disney character sweatshirts straight out of the early ‘90s and paired,

surprisingly appropriately, with shiny Doc Martens (unfortunately all worn without a trace of irony).

There was this familiar neediness about her, that ache to appear effortless, be unconditionally loved

or, at least, accepted, tolerated. I recognized it. More than that—I related.

 

I suppose, I could always say that I wanted to go on this trip on Veronika’s account, but that

would be a lie—she was merely icing on the cake. I knew full well that, had she not confirmed what

I’d heard and mentioned Jamie Sola, I would’ve immediately said no and that would be that. I

would’ve finished plucking those hairs out of my soft chin, eaten my yogurt at my squeaky,

scratched up desk (whilst scrolling aimlessly through Pinterest), and gone on to teach my next

class—anything to take my mind off of my impending homelessness. But that’s not what happened.

 

The way history stands now, as soon as Veronika was out of my sight, I was on my way to

the Foreign Languages department to see the abovementioned “octogenarian pervert,” who also

happened to be my quasi-mentor (as well as the school’s most popular French teacher). Of course,

the girl disappeared into the stairwell across from my doorway only after flashing at me a draft of the

paper she’d written for my government participation class, and not a second earlier. I smiled to

myself as I jogged down the stairs, thinking about that class. Government participation—a class full

of the same recycled civics they’d been taught annually since elementary school and still were not

likely to take with them into adulthood. I hardly ever saw the point any more than most of my

students, but Veronika was excited. This made me feel momentarily guilty for ushering this brilliant

child out of my office the way I did, anxious to safeguard myself that last chaperone spot next to

Jamie Sola, but I shrugged it off; I’d see Veronika in two periods anyway.

 

“Sweet Levit, what can I do you for?” Abbott exclaimed when I poked my head in,

impatient as a schoolgirl myself. His office lacked a window, just like mine; unlike me, however, he

didn’t have to share his with any other teachers. Behind him, I could see Sophie—our most petite

cellist, who always seemed to dissolve into her instrument, become one with it at recitals, her

untamed hair swaying in its continuous attempt to frame her delicate features just so. She was

gathering her belongings at Abbott’s desk. “Okay, Sophie, you got it? Now, I don’t want you to

worry about anything, because that extra credit project you’re working on will make up for the

midterm, my darling,” Abbott briefly turned to coo in the girl’s direction as she shuffled past me and

out the door. Her tiny face was expressionless. That midterm grade probably left much to be

desired, I thought to myself.

 

“So I hear you’re short a chaperone for that infamous Europe trip of yours. True or false?” I

leaned against the edge of Abbott’s wooden desk to ask this, hoping that it would read as if I were

just so nonchalant about the whole thing. My office keys dug into the skin of my right fist as I

waited for a reply.

“Yes! Oh God, yes!” Abbott cried. “It’s less than a week away and I just lost two of those!

Sophie over there, she’s supposed to be going, but the damn thing may never happen now. Check

this out—one’s appendix bursts and the other just finds out that her passport application was lost in

the mail. I told her that she can just go to the passport agency downtown, but she’s too afraid to

take the chance. Jamie, God bless him, stepped up as soon as he heard, but I still need one more—

and preferably female, to keep it even. Goodness, this is just serendipitous! You know, I was just

telling Jamie, earlier, that I was going to ask you to join!” he eagerly rattled off. For a man in his very

late forties, he was in good shape. He was handsome even. He was, I suppose, on a slightly shorter

side of average, and he most certainly lacked an adult’s appreciation for personal space, but he was

unquestionably not unattractive.

“Jamie who?” I had to play coy for fear of appearing pityingly obvious. It’s not so cute to be

baselessly infatuated with a virtual stranger at the tender age of twenty-eight, whether you’re engaged

or not. Frankly, it’s borderline committable.

 

As a teenager, ever self-aware and full of self-loathing, I’d hated this helpless feeling—this

vertigo, this arrhythmia. My sole wish growing up had been that these crushes would eventually

cease to manifest themselves. I’d always hoped that, with age, I’d miraculously acquire some

shatterproof sense of self-control.

 

For a while there, I was sure that I’d been cured, never again to suffer at my own behest, my

own weakness. Never again would I lay my eyes on a new boy and have to feel the symptoms so

strongly associated with an acute stomach virus, I believed.

 

And then, at least as I like to insist on telling myself, Jamie Sola happened.

It was an unwelcome surprise to feel what I’d felt when I saw him waiting for the bus one

day a few months ago, just around the corner from the school—his guitar case in hand, his hair wet

in the pouring, straight-out-of-Hollywood rain, backpack on his back, his already slightly tattered

umbrella breaking further, his leather jacket at least a size too large and all shiny with moisture…. To

feel those familiar tinges around my heart was pure letdown. I had somehow failed myself. Maybe

George, too, though really we’d been over for too long a time by then, regardless of Jamie’s

hypnotizing eyes. The comfortable warmth I’d felt in my lower stomach wasn’t worth it, but it

seemed inevitable that I should feel it all.

 

Waiting for my own bus to take me (and my bicycle) in the opposite direction of wherever it

was that he was going that day, I’d stood mesmerized. Nothing mattered but his deep-set brown

eyes shining bright even in the gray light of that winter afternoon, and his night-black, precisely

layered hair sticking to his gaunt face. I did not feel the rain as it filled my shoes, nor did I see

countless people hurrying to and fro between us, their umbrellas bending and breaking with the

elements. I did not mind the wind tearing my own umbrella apart, either. I’d even managed to forget

that there was still a ring on the ring finger of my left hand—the one with three tiny diamonds on it:

one for the past, one for the present, and one for the future. Even now, it’s difficult not to roll my

eyes at the memory of the proposal that left me with that joke of a promise.

 

Paralyzed. I’d stood utterly paralyzed until a bus sped by, bypassing my stop on account of

too many lucky passengers already aboard, covering me in dirty puddle water. I did not come to until

I realized that my bike had fallen to the ground, my grip having failed it. I needed that shower, I

suppose. By the time I’d looked up from behind my soaking wet hair, my red umbrella now at my

feet, he was gone.

 

In that moment, I was certain that my own eternal need for distraction was the culprit—

faced with a major decision, there I was, crushing on a pretty stranger. I suppose George wouldn’t

be completely out of line to want to explain my choosing to go to Europe by blaming it on my need

to escape, but then again, he blamed just about anything on my apparent inability to be happy. Or

was it my unwillingness to be happy—my utter lack of know-how to stay present, in the moment? If

only I’d slow down enough to breathe, to give thanks, then maybe—

“Jamie Sola, the guitar and vocals coach. He’s relatively new here—just started last semester.

He’s a young guy, maybe around your age. He’s, let’s say, of ambiguous ethnicity. I suppose, he’s

vaguely Mediterranean looking. Not too hard on the eyes, if you know what I mean,” Abbott

remarked with a grin and a wink.

 

“Oh yeah, I remember him, I think,” I replied with a nod, wishing I wasn’t feeling so damn

nauseous. “I think we may have met at one of those meetings back in September,” I lied.

It was true that I saw him at one of those administrative gatherings, but we hardly met then.

I remembered that meeting clearly. Still do. I was sitting with the History Department, up in the

mezzanine, far from Jamie Sola, who sat with the exponentially more popular Performing Arts in the

front section of what they call “center orchestra”—downstairs. We were all stuffed inside our stateof-

the-art auditorium, but where you sat made a difference; Abbott, for example, was somewhere in

orchestra left.

 

Jamie was introduced as a newcomer, and when he was asked to stand up and wave, I’d just

happened to look up from my iPhone screen, from my tighter than usual Words with Friends game

with Javier (or as my friend Jessica calls him, my plan C), and registered my heart jolt. That time, I

had blamed it on my annual anxiety, given that every September I felt more nervous than any of my

talented students had ever allowed themselves to appear. It wasn’t until I was in that office, talking

to Abbott, that I finally became convinced otherwise. At once, I knew that all of this was somehow

connected, predestined. Yes, I silently nodded to myself, from the very first time I laid eyes on him,

it was a pull—a cosmic, invisible, undeniable, unreasonable, disorienting, irrational pull. Bring on the

vertigo. Bring on that arrhythmia. The way a strand of his thin hair was loosely braided to keep out

of his face that day was enough for me to turn over my engagement ring even back then, in that

auditorium, forcing the round stones into the flesh of my palm with surprising nimbleness. I

should’ve known then and there that that was the beginning. Perspective is key, as I often remind

my students when we discuss historiography: history, of course, is always written by victors.

 

“Seriously, sweet Levit, think about it,” Abbott continued to urge. “I was afraid to even ask

you at first, because I know you’re always so preoccupied with your George, but, lo and behold, here

you are of your own free will! My dream companion! It’s all in the kids’ rates, so you don’t even have

to pay for anything…well, actually, we’d need you to pay some fees to change the ticket, but the

rest—the hotels, the transfers, et cetera—that’s all taken care of! There’s even a musical in it for you!

All you have to do is pack,” he grinned. He was directly in front of me now, his gray hair at my eye

level, the smell of coffee and his trademark peppermint gum emanating out of his mouth, creeping

up my nostrils. “We all have a meeting tomorrow, so come join us then. It’ll be in auditorium A—

where Jamie teaches his guitar sections. It’s after school, so no excuses! Just say the word and I call

the travel agent— Wait, you have a passport, right?”

“I do, I do, don’t worry. So, who else is going—you, Jamie and, let’s say, I go. Who else?” I

asked, trying to suppress the nervous giggles bubbling in my chest.

“My girlfriend, Stephanie. She is also fluent in French, so that was easy to sell to the

administration. She teaches at a community college, upstate. I figured this would be a great way for

us to get some one-on-one time. You know, no ex, no kids,” Abbott winked, continuing to chew his

gum with his molars.

I did a double-take.

“I thought you were gay!”

Abbott dramatically smacked his tongue and put his warm hand friendlily on my shoulder,

gently cupping it.

“Is it my pixie Scottish accent, my dear? How is it that we’ve known each other since you

were but a wee student teacher and yet you are so ignorant about my life?”

 

He said this with enough of a sigh for it to almost pass for genuine disappointment, but

surrounded with student actors day in and day out, I knew better than to believe it—there was no

commitment there. Good question, though, Abbott—why did I ever think that?

I never had reason to believe he was gay or straight, to be fair. And, I honestly never even

wondered. Was I really ignorant enough to presume this based on the cut of his suits, his wellmaintained

fingernails, and a prissy accent? Though how prissy is Scottish accent anyway? I could

defer to George again—perhaps I’m just not a very good friend—or person.

I removed Abbott’s hand from my shoulder and held it a few long seconds before releasing

his fingers from my own. Gay, straight, he was good people, I knew.

 

“So you’re bringing your girlfriend?” I changed the subject without clarifying whose kids he

meant they would enjoy not seeing around for over a week; there were never any pictures on his

desk, so surely he meant Stephanie’s.

“And why not—pourquoi pas?” he laughed.

“How romantic will it be with a group of twenty-something high school students?” I made

myself scoff, masking any hint of genuine inquiry, already having decided to go and see for myself.

Suddenly, this trip seemed of paramount importance.

“Well, it’s only fifteen students. And most of them are graduating in two months, so they’ll

hardly need us, really. That’s what I’m saying, my darling—this is practically a free vacation! You are

but a spring chicken, so you have to enjoy yourself! You have your whole life to spend with that

hippy-dippy-trippy Georgie-boy fiancé of yours, but this is a free trip to Paris—”

“And London!”

“Precisely! So what say you, sweet Levit?”

“I say, why not Scotland?” I laughed to buy time.

Abbott sneered with faux contempt as he took a step back and shoved his hands in the back

pockets of his slim jeans. I guess he could afford to wear those around here.

“My heart, these kids don’t know where Edinburgh is, let alone Inverness. I blame the

History department, if we’re being perfectly frank!” I could hear that he aimed to inject just enough

humor into his tone to safeguard the remark’s official status as a joke, despite the biting words

strung together so precisely. I was too dizzy to care one way or the other. “And quit stalling, Levit.

What say you?”

 

Copyright © Marina Raydun, 2015

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