Maria Kuznetsova, author of Oksana, Behave! and Something Unbelievable, is the new fiction editor for Southern Humanities Review. In this interview with managing editor Caitlin Rae Taylor, Kuznetsova discusses her novels, what she looks for in good fiction, and the stories she’s excited to share in issue 53.4.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: First, I want to wholeheartedly welcome you to the Southern Humanities Review masthead. Can you tell our readers, particularly those interested in fiction, a little about yourself, your work, and your perspective as a fiction writer?
Maria Kuznetsova: Thank you for having me! I’m thrilled to be on board. Let’s see—I was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved all over the United States when I was a child, so a lot of my perspective as a fiction writer comes from both feeling like a bit of a fish out of water as an immigrant, but also from moving around from place to place (from Florida to Ohio to New Jersey to North Carolina to California to Iowa to Alabama, to be exact), and having to adapt, and learning to read people quickly to understand how best to communicate with them. Some of my work is more autobiographical, like my novel Oksana, Behave! and is about the experience of coming of age all over the country, and also leans heavily on humor to highlight the pain of grief, longing, and nostalgia.
CRT: What about the work that SHR has published in the past speaks to you as a fiction writer?
MK: In Vol 52.4, Alex Pickett’s story, “At the Twin Pines Motel” was so dark, funny, and confidently written—this story about an unlikely connection between two people at a dingy motel had a play-like urgency to it that grabbed me instantly. In the same issue, Dounia Choukri’s “What We Have Been” was a lyrical, meditative story that began as a realist story and then made me rethink everything by the end in a way that felt earned, and not like a cheap surprise.
CRT: You are also the fiction editor for the Bare Life Review. How did you get involved in the journal and what are some of your favorite stories the journal has published over the past few years?
MK: I got involved with the journal because a few friends of mine from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop had the idea of creating a journal that solely focused on immigrant and refugee voices—the idea came together about four years ago, and felt very important at the time, and more than ever now. We’ve published so many incredible stories over the years, but I will recommend two: “Bazaar Bazorg” by Mehdi M. Kashani and “Fukuoka Airport”by Naomi J. Williams.
CRT: What kind of fiction will you be looking to publish for Southern Humanities Review?
MK: There are exceptions, but if a story can’t make me laugh at least once in its opening scene—or at least once overall—then I will have a hard time believing in it. I think we need a laugh, no matter how dark the material is—or particularly when it’s very dark. I’m also looking for work that is innovative, both in its style and subject matter, though I do like good old domestic realism, if it makes me see a familiar situation in a new light.
CRT: What elements make for a solid story in your opinion? What’s your editorial approach when you read submissions?
MK: When I read submissions, in addition to wanting to laugh at least once by the end of the first scene, by the end of the first page, I want to have a sense of forward momentum, to start asking myself a question as I turn the next page. Even if the story is formally innovative or starts in an untraditional way, I still want to feel like the writer is pulling me forward. And the ending has to make me feel something without tying a neat bow on the story, like I want to keep reading past the last line.
CRT: You have a new novel coming out in 2021. Can you tell us a little about Something Unbelievable and what you’re hoping readers take from it? How is working on this project different from when you wrote Oksana, Behave!?
MK: Sure! My second novel, Something Unbelievable, is told from the alternating perspectives of a grandmother and granddaughter—the granddaughter is a struggling actress in NYC who is putting on a play based on her grandmother’s WWII experiences in Soviet Russia. If anything, I’d want people to take away something about inheritance, and how our family’s past may inform our present in unexpected ways. At the same time, I hope to communicate that everyone is allowed to have their own set of struggles, even if our contemporary problems may not feel as meaningful compared to what our descendants have gone through, especially if you come from the Soviet Union like I have. Oksana, Behave! was largely an autobiographical novel inspired by my close relationship with my grandmother. In this first novel, Oksana is fascinated by her grandmother’s war history (obsessing over how she once at a dog, for example) but never gets the whole story. In Something Unbelievable, the grandmother character, though a different person, gets to hold her own a bit more.
CRT: What’s your advice for emerging writers who are intimidated by the literary magazine world?
MK: Be brave and patient. I submitted to literary journals for a long time before getting any kind of positive response. And I still frequently find rejections from literary journals in my inbox! My advice is to have faith that, if you put in the work, someone will eventually find something to love about it. At the same time, you should know that the literary world is highly subjective and that your work may still have merit even if you haven’t found the right home for it.
CRT: What are you reading right now? How are these books/stories/essays/poems changing or informing your own prose?
MK: The finished Pardon My Heart, a poetry collection by the contemporary poet Marcus Jackson, a few months ago and have been thinking about it ever since. He writes these gorgeous autobiographical poems that really pull you in, no matter what he’s describing: love, grief, or a night out with friends. And Ordinary Hazards by Anna Bruno is a stunning debut novel—it moves back and forth through time in such bold, thrilling ways, while the present story takes place over one night in a bar while feeling like a complete page turner. And I just finished Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, a book that pulls no punches about the challenges of motherhood and which is wickedly hilarious and devastating in the process.
CRT: You just finished selecting the fiction for SHR’s next issue. Can you tell us what you’re particularly excited for our readers to discover in these stories?
MK: Oh, everything! We’ve got four fantastic pieces that tackle the topic of motherhood and gender in fresh and exciting ways, both in terms of their content and their style. We’ve got “Mountain, Mother,” by Torrey Crim, a gorgeous and devastating story about a woman who is lost in the woods while thinking of her recently departed mother. We’ve got “Madwoman” by Megan Kakimoto, which is about a single mother who thinks nothing she does will ever be enough for her young son, whom she tries to discipline through the myth of the Madwoman, a woman who lives in the sea and can hurt him for misbehaving. And we’ve got two genre-bending stories; “Only Human” by Nicole Baute, which is about a family that makes a clone of their dead daughter in an increasingly apocalyptic world, and “The Hive” by Gloria Huang, an alternate bee-like reality where the narrator believes that her all-woman home is run by queens, until she finds out the dark truth.
MARIA KUZNETSOVA was born in Kiev, Ukraine and moved to the United States as a child. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Oksana, Behave! was published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in 2019 and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Pick as well as a best spring read according to Oprah Magazine, InStyle, Pop Sugar, and the Wall Street Journal. Her fiction and non-fiction appears or is forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, the Southern Review, Guernica, the Threepenny Review, Crazyhorse, Slate Magazine, and elsewhere.