Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Irina Kovalyova

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Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova is an Ivy League-educated scientist, a debut author and, we are very excited to say, our June 2015 writer-in-residence at Open Book!

Irina's collection of short stories, Specimen combines the fresh perspective of a writer beginning her career with the confidence and impact of a veteran author. It was scooped up by House of Anansi Press, and the stories contained in Specimen follow characters to North Korea, Minsk and Vancouver, with plenty of Irina's scientific background represented. “Mamochka", which delves into the politics of both family and race, was nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize.

Today we speak to Irina as part of the Lucky Seven interview, where we ask authors seven questions about their books, writing process and reading habits.

Irina tells us about two important questions that Specimen examines, how one story in the collection mimics its content in its form and two examples of great books that left her changed as a reader.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Specimen.

Irina Kovalyova:

Specimen is a collection of eight short stories and one novella. Each piece contains an element of science, since science is what I do for a living (I teach molecular biology at Simon Fraser University). Each story is different in its form and content: from a gothic, Poe-inspired tale of a death-bed mesmeric experiment to a thriller set in North Korea to a dystopian scientific manuscript, featuring children who have consumed artificial meat. But despite their differences, the stories, I think, (I hope!), explore the question of how we choose to define ourselves and the lengths we go to maintain that definition.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


It may be “What defines us as who we are”? Or, rather, “What defines us as who we think we are”? There is an important distinction between these two questions, I think, and I like to explore their confluence (and divergence) in my writing. Perhaps another central question in the collection is “How do we choose to define ourselves at the intersection of nature and nurture?”

For me, important questions definitely and always emerge from the writing process. Often, I start with a what if? idea that doesn’t seem to relate to science at all and then, as I am writing and developing the story, it loops back to science, especially biology, and inevitably to a broader question we ask of ourselves sometimes: What is my worth? In each story in the collection, I tried to get each character to ask this question and surprise us with their answer.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


Yes, absolutely, each and every story changed dramatically from when I first started writing it to the final version you see in the collection. Each evolved in a different way, because they are so different. For example, the novella “The Blood Keeper” took a very long time to complete: I wrote the first draft in 2010, re-wrote it several times in 2011, gave up on it all together in 2012, but then picked it up again last summer and re-worked it entirely. It’s a bit ironic too, because one of the characters in “The Blood Keeper” is an embalmer suspected of “returning” dead people to a state of living, and the story itself underwent at least a hundred different reincarnations! In any case, from start to finish, Specimen took almost 6 years, from when I wrote the first story “Mamochka” in the Fall of 2009.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I get up at 4 in the morning to write, regardless of how late I was up the night before (usually not very late). Typically, I’ll have a small breakfast and a cup of coffee (caffeine rules!) and get right down to it. Early mornings are the best time for writing for me, when my family is asleep and the world is waking up and I can sense all sorts of interesting possibilities in it. When I write in the early morning I feel like I’m helping to unfold one of those possibilities.
I also need to move! I go for a run at 6 or 7 in the morning, after having written a couple of hundred words. It really helps to mull over things I’ve just written by stepping away from the act of writing and having a little bit of mental space to think about how my characters are doing and where they might be going.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I read. I know better now than trying to force the writing process. Forcing it never works. So, when I get discouraged, I stop all writing and read as much and as widely as I can until things I read inspire me to return to writing.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


For me, a great book is something that sticks to my bones, which means that I end up carrying it inside me forever and at all times, always remembering it on some level, because it has changed me in some fundamental way. I tell my students sometimes that in order to learn something they need to change. No change, no learning. A great book is like that. You’ve learned something from reading it and you have also changed. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin are two among many other great books that have changed me.


What are you working on now?


I am working on a novel. It will have science in it. And it will be, I think, a thriller.
I am also training for a marathon.

Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

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