Monday, June 5, 2023

TBR: American Ending by Mary Kay Zuravleff

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.



Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


American Ending is a poignant reminder that everything that is happening in America has already happened. This immersive novel weaves Russian fairy tales and fables into a family saga set in the coal mines of Appalachia in the early 1900s. The challenges facing immigrants—and the fragility of citizenship—are just as unsettling and surprising today as they were 100 years ago.


Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And which character gave you the most trouble, and why?


The main character, Yelena, gave me the most trouble. I’d never written a historical novel, and it was hard to stay inside her head and the era that constrained her.


Viktor Gomelekoff, Yelena’s love interest, was the most fun, because I based him closely on my beloved maternal grandfather. Sickly his whole life (because of his years as a coal miner), he outlasted my other grandparents and his sense of humor and tolerance stood out in his community. You could tell him anything, and people did.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


Early on, the publisher of my first three books rejected this one, then my agent withdrew, saying my book “didn’t match the one in her head.” Fortunately, nearly every writer I know was struggling with her agent and/or publisher—I didn’t want that for them, but it made my situation feel less personal. The agent I found asked for a rewrite, and she didn’t want to show it to big publishers, which still puzzles me. But she found Blair, a woman-owned independent publisher in North Carolina, and Robin Muira, the editor there, had some smart ideas about making the book less episodic and more dramatic. That meant another rewrite without any promises. Still, I know good editing when I hear it, and I dove back in with great results—Robin bought the book! My experience with Blair has been so validating—they picked the title and came up with a stunning, dramatic cover of a dancing wolf, which gives the flavor of Russian fairy tales along with the danger and gritty humor in the book.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


This was my first historical novel and the first time I reached into my family for stories. I wrestled with the constrictions of history, writing critically about the Old Believer Russian Orthodox religion (my cousin is currently the priest of that church), and portraying “my” people in good and bad lights. When I bemoaned about this to a group of writers who included Sarah Boxer, she said, “It seems like the struggle is the substance.” That became my mantra for this novel!


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I planned to write about four generations of women in the same family—and I wrote many pages about subsequent generations—but Yelena’s story was the richest broth. She kept demanding my attention.


How did you find the title of your book?


I had many titles, mainly Yelena for the main character and narrator, and Buried Sunshine, another name for coal. As soon as Blair bought the book, they said a committee was working on a different title, which makes a novelist nervous, but I gasped when I read the email announcing their title: American Ending is better than any title I thought of. In the opening pages, Yelena’s mother asks the children before their bedtime story, “Russian ending or American ending?,” and that refrain haunts Yelena’s life. In their Appalachian town, boys go into the dangerous coal mines at ten, and girls are married off at fourteen, giving birth to more babies than they can feed. The tension of the novel is between what Yelena imagines for herself and what America delivers.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


If I may quote Alice McDermott on my book “Oh, and the food. Gorgeous!” There’s blintzes, skansa (like a cheese Danish), kielbasa sausage, loaves and loaves of bread—from sweet paska to coffee-infused black bread—kapusta (cabbage) soup, and everything pickled, especially cucumbers and beets. Paska is like a sweet challah, which they top with a braid of dough to represent the Trinity. Here’s my grandmother’s recipe for paska, published in the Erie, Pennsylvania, paper in the 1950s!




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Read an excerpt from this book, “Russian Ending or American Ending?”:,is%20at%20their%20apartment%20watching%20their%20two%20children.




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.