Katya Apekina, MOTHER DOLL

Katya Apekina, MOTHER DOLL

Zibby is joined by award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and translator Katya Apekina to discuss MOTHER DOLL, a spellbinding, hallucinatory, and very funny novel about four generations of mothers and daughters and the inherited trauma cast by Russian history. Katya describes her novel’s protagonist, Zhenia, a young woman navigating pregnancy and a complex relationship in LA, and the strange phone call she receives from a medium channeling her dead great-grandmother, a Russian revolutionary. She delves into themes of ancestral trauma, grief, relationships, abortion, and creative process, touching on her own experiences and inspirations. Finally, she shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katya. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss Mother Doll: A Novel.

Katya Apekina: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Listeners, Katya is in LA right now, and it is five in the morning. She is still doing this podcast. For everybody out there, even in your cars or wherever you are, just stop and applaud that Katya got up so early for this. Go follow her on Instagram. Read her book. Do all the things because this is true dedication.

Katya: Thank you so much. It's really exciting to be here.

Zibby: Mother Doll, please tell listeners what your book is about.

Katya: My book is about this woman, Zhenia, who is in her early twenties living in Los Angeles. She's pregnant. She's in a relationship she sort of sleepwalked into. Then she gets this strange phone call from a medium who's channeling her dead great-grandmother who had been a Russian revolutionary and who had abandoned her grandmother in Russia. Well, in the Soviet Union by then. She is in this purgatory place. She's hoping that by confessing all these things that had happened, she will be able to sort of become dissolved. She lives in this cloud of ancestral grief. Zhenia is kind of reluctant to receive all of the story. At the same time, in the process of hearing about this story or this ancestral trauma and really understanding it, she's able to change her life and become more of a realized adult.

Zibby: Amazing. Your voice in the book is so great. It's funny. It's dark humor, but relatable. The way you write about sex is so funny. The times where it just inevitably starts happening in your story, all these things, you're like, and then...

Katya: These characters are messy, so there's a lot of things happening.

Zibby: It's amazing. Her relationship with Ben, who -- at the beginning, she's in this relationship that you also describe in such a funny way. Their lives sort of evolved in parallel as they moved to LA and tried to make it. Then a few years later, okay, fine, they just got married.

Katya: It's not the most romantic, exciting relationship. They're very young too. It's not that it was, necessarily, a bad relationship, but it was a very young relationship.

Zibby: You start early on with abortion, which can be a hot-button issue. You do talk about it and how it feels at different points in life even though it's still the same cells, which I found very interesting. How you feel about it at different points can be really different. Can you just speak to that?

Katya: She is pregnant by accident. Her husband had had a vasectomy, so they weren't planning on it. She’d had an abortion in high school. It had not been this traumatic event, nor had it been something she’d really thought about much, which I thought was important to portray because I feel like often, abortion is shown as this event that's supposed to be so traumatic, that people just think about constantly. That wasn't her relationship to it at the time or later. Then when she's pregnant this time, she just feels like that's not an option for her, even though it definitely is going to blow up her life because her husband does not want a child. She says it's messed up to force a person to have a child that doesn't want one. At the same time, she just doesn't see at this point in her life that it's an option at all. She is already thinking about this cluster of cells as a baby. That shift in the way she's thinking about it just makes her willing to blow up her life. Also, she's a person who's constantly on the verge of wanting to blow up her life, so I think it works out, ultimately.

Zibby: There are so many things I want to get to. The relationship she has with her grandmother, who, by the point when the book starts, is sort of nonresponsive -- they're so close that she wants to tell all her news to her anyway because maybe she can hear. Then you get a lot of flashbacks to her relationship with her grandmother and how that is so meaningful to her. Then of course, her whole matrilineal lineage is involved in the story as we go back and learn much more. That special bond between the two of them and how it leaves out her mom, in a way, because of what they have, tell me a little more about that and your own relationship, maybe, with your grandmother. I know you mentioned in the book a lot of this -- you did a ton of research in all the history and your own family history and all of that. Tell me about that special relationship.

Katya: She immigrated to the US from Russia with her grandmother and her mother. She did not know her dad at all. Her grandmother was this nurturing, loving presence. She sort of took over that maternal role. There wasn't really space for her mother to be in their relationship. Her grandmother was a really warm and wonderful grandmother, but as a mother, she had gone through a lot of trauma, and she was not a loving mother to , to Zhenia's mom. Then she was able to be that person for her granddaughter in a way that she hadn't been able to be that for her mom. It's interesting because when Zhenia has her kid, her mom really wants to step into that role of grandmother too. In Russia, it was really common for people to have kids really young and for grandparents to be there and raise their kids. When I came to the US, I came with my mom and her parents. My dad came later. I had a very close relationship with my grandmother and my grandfather. After my dad came, his parents came over. My paternal grandmother and I were pretty close. After she died, she left me these memoirs that she’d written about her own traumatic history. Her family had been killed during World War II. She basically escaped on foot. She was coming from Poland. She basically walked and then was on a train through Russia. She had nobody. It was really just such a horrific story.

She left me these memoirs, which was such a gift. I started translating them so that my daughter would one day be able to read them. It was so interesting because in the process of translating them, I felt like I was having a conversation with her. In some ways, that conversation was actually a lot more honest than the kind of conversation I could've had with her when she was alive, partly because I had been much younger. There's just some cultural barriers. I felt like I couldn't argue with her, necessarily, in real life. I found myself on the page arguing with her. Then it was also really interesting that even though she was not a writer, there were so many details or the kinds of things she would notice in her memoir that are exactly the kinds of things that I notice and write about and that I think are funny. They're details where things that are pretty innocuous suddenly feel full of danger in this way for me or things that just feel so weird and off kilter that are disorienting for me. I never really put it together until reading her memoirs, where that was coming from. This sense of being hypervigilant that had made its way into my life, of course, it comes from this ancestral trauma that was passed down to me from my relative who had been through a lot. Even just living in the Soviet Union in a totalitarian country is very stressful and creates a lot of issues for people that their grandchildren can then work out through novels and therapy.

Zibby: Interesting. Now it kind of makes sense that you had Zhenia literally receiving these transcripts through this medium, Paul, which is such an interesting way that you decided to do that. You could've done this in so many ways, just from the writing standpoint, to try to communicate a grandmother's story and the impact through history. You chose to do it through this funny medium. She's like, why am I even on the phone with him? To the point where at some point, her grandmother is literally inside her, which was such a moving part of the book, by the way, when she's really going into the worst parts of what happened to her from the inside. You said she feels all -- what did you say? Ashy. It felt so burnt, almost, what was happening. Oh, my gosh. You had these moving scenes where we're in the trauma. Then you have these funny scenes of motherhood with her friend Chloe. You also have this great chorus where you're like, what is going on here? You realize these are dead people talking to each other. Where did this come from? How did you decide on the structure and all of that?

Katya: There's a lot of different textures in the book. With the mediumship, I actually took mediumship classes during the pandemic and before. That definitely inspired me. I find the process of writing often feels like you're channeling something, which seems very similar to mediumship.

Zibby: Wait, you can become a medium? Can you develop those skills? I thought you were born with that ability or not.

Katya: I don't know. There are definitely classes that can kind of teach you how to tune into those skills that probably most people have. What I was experiencing through the classes was not -- I wasn't contacting the dead. It was more like a deep meditation or a guided meditation. A lot of the spaces that I was in when I was doing that ended up being represented in the book in the afterlife. The way I describe the afterlife is sort of the weird spaces I was in when I was doing these guided mediumship meditations. I have been visited, actually, weirdly, by both my grandfathers. Those are the people who have visited me in my dreams. Those felt like contacts with the dead, but that wasn't through me seeking them out. It just happened where I felt their presence in my dreams. It felt like a visit. It felt different than just a regular dream about them. To be honest, I don't know how much I even believe in mediumship. It was really fun to explore it. During the writing of this book, my grandfather, who I was very close with, passed away. When I was doing these mediumship classes, I felt more like I was just really trying to contact him because I missed him.

I felt that desperation that made it seem like, oh, I could totally see how I would just be gullible and want it so badly that I would believe anything that anyone told me. Usually, mediums are telling you, this person wants the best for you. They forgive you. You can move on. It's not like there's something really sinister about that, but it did feel like I'm just sort of willing to believe anything because I miss someone and want to make contact. It didn't feel great to be in that space. When I was doing it before, the mediumship stuff felt more abstract and exciting. When it became really concrete in this way, it just felt too sad, maybe. That's where the mediumship stuff came in. I thought it was really fun to have this external person involved in the retelling of this family history because it's an outsider perspective. It's fun to get that. Then also, it's funny because he doesn't speak Russian at first. He's just speaking in tongues, basically, that then Zhenia has to translate to understand the story. It makes this story sort of like a nesting doll, like the title, of these stories within stories within stories. Then you up the or confusions that then get transmuted from each generation. You need to translate it. It's being channeled through another person. There's just all these layers to the story being received, if that makes sense.

Zibby: Yeah, wow. What is your takeaway on the effects of family history, family trauma, knowing what came before you? What do we do with that knowledge? Now you understand more about why you see things a certain way. Now what? We all have our family histories circling around us, what we know, what we can imagine, the pain, all the stuff that is left unsaid that we will never know. What do we do with all of that?

Katya: That's such a good question. In the book, there's a very cathartic release. I don't want to give any spoilers. There's something that really happens where Zhenia is able to transmute all of that and heal it. I think that just knowing where a lot of these traumas come from and being aware of them and accepting them allows us to heal them and to move forward and to not be acting unconsciously and not realizing how we're reacting to things. It was so interesting with my grandmother's memoirs. She had actually given them to me before she died, but I only started reading them after she died. I just kept thinking, why? I'm so curious. I was so curious about her story, but there was something in me that was like, I can't do it. I can't do it. Then the night of her funeral, I started reading them. It was such a gift to have them because you always regret not knowing more about your family. Then I realized I think that I had felt like if I read her story, it would be my problem, sort of, to take on. I would have to carry it. When I read it, it was like, oh, I've been carrying this. I just didn't know what it was that I was carrying. When I was able to understand what it was that I was carrying, I was really able to understand myself in a much deeper way. I don't know that I was able to transform or become a completely different person overnight through reading her book, but I did find it really helpful.

Zibby: I just love this notion of writing as mediumship as well. I love all your attention in the book to souls because I think about souls so much. I don't have the same habits of crossing myself so they don't escape. There's a lot of discussion of souls. I always think about that, especially with characters in all these books. This sounds so stupid, but I'm like, who are all these characters? I live in a room of books. Do they come out? Do they know each other? I want to introduce some of them to each other. That's always been one of my dreams. Oh, my gosh, that character would really get along with that character. Where do these characters come from? How do we just invent people? Do they exist in some plane and they're just coming in? Why do characters just do things when we write? That's why everyone's like, get in the chair. It's like putting your fingers on an Ouija board, really, the keyboard.

Katya: Absolutely. There's a very strange feeling that's hard to describe when you get into the zone and you're just hearing your characters talking and you're transcribing it. It's not something that happens automatically. You do need to get in the chair and show up and show up and show up. Then it starts happening. Then it stops happening. Then it starts happening. It's not a continuous process.

Zibby: I'm like, where are they? Voices, come back.

Katya: Come back. Exactly. With this book, it was so helpful -- I did a ton of research for the historical stuff that was set during the revolution. Because I was reading so many memoirs and oral histories and novels that were set during that time, that were written during that time, I was just really fully immersed in the research. Because of that, I was really able to tap into that channeling type of energy very easily. All of the sections just would come out of me. It was really fun to be able to do that. I think research can be hard in a novel because a lot of times -- I don't write, normally, a ton of historical fiction. It's intimidating to write about something that you've never witnessed, a place you've never been to. I've been to some of these places, but I haven't been there during the revolution. Writing about that stuff feels intimidating and like I don't have the authority. I'm not an expert on this. I'm just going to keep doing research forever and ever and ever. That is what I did for several years before I even started writing the book. Once I started writing, it was really nice to have that research as a soupy sort of place to be in while I was able to figure out who my characters were and tell the story.

Zibby: How did you get your start as a writer?

Katya: I feel like people are always like, since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I think I hated writing as a kid. I had wanted to be a photographer. Even in college, I started off -- I went to Columbia. I was doing visual. I thought I was going to be doing photography. Then I just took a writing class in college as an undergrad because my friend -- shout-out to Matt who lived next door to me freshman year -- encouraged me to do it. I was like, oh, this is kind of like photography in the sense that I can create these scenes, but I don't need any equipment. I don't need other people. I can just do it. I don't need to be in a darkroom full of stinky chemicals. I can just sit at my computer and create the stuff in my head. That just seemed easier, but then it wasn't really easier once I got into it. That's where I started. Then I did an MFA several years out of college at Wash U in St. Louis. That was such an amazing experience. It was such a nurturing program. It was really a small program. It was a two-year program with five fiction writers each year. There was ten of us in the workshop.

I still to this day am in a workshop with people from that program. We share our work. It was just so nice. It was a funded program, so everybody was not having to worry about working at the same time as being in school. That was really nice. They did a really good job picking people who, aside from being really talented writers, were also just very kind people who were really good editors for each other. That was a really nice experience. Then I didn't start writing my novel until, actually, after I had graduated from that program. That was such a different type of writing than writing short stories where it's this ongoing thing. Sometimes showing that to other people before it's ready is a little bit tricky. You have to find people who basically will read it and be like, keep going, but not really give you too much feedback because it can feel a little deflating if it's too early in the process. Luckily, from the program, there were a few people who, we've served that function for each other. We read each other's very, very early drafts that aren't really ready for primetime.

Zibby: That's really good advice to anybody who is an early reader for anyone else. Go easy. I just made the mistake of reading -- I wrote a thousand words of my next novel. I read it to my son, who is the greatest reader, even though he's nine. I started reading it. He was like, "Mom, you need a strong lead." I was like, "You know what? You're right." I kept reading the first page. He's like, "Why are you telling us all of this now?" I was like, "You're right. I should save all this for later." Then I was so discouraged. I couldn't get back into it. I was like, it's all a waste. That was all a waste of time, that whole afternoon that I spent. Of course, it's never really a waste because you can't get where you're going unless you write the first part, but still.

Katya: Of course. I'm sure all that information, even if it doesn't end up being at the beginning, will be in there in some way.

Zibby: Somewhere. I always have a "save for later" doc so I don't feel bad. Do you do that, keep what you cut over here somewhere?

Katya: I don't even know what I do. I was, for a while, using this program. I think it's called Scrivener. You can keep a lot of different information in an organized fashion. You can be like, this is where I'm going to have my descriptions of X, or whatever. It's labeled. It was very convenient, but I haven't used that in a while.

Zibby: That would probably be better. I always have four different docs, like characters, because I can never remember who -- I'm like, what was her name? Are you working on a new book now?

Katya: I'm in very, very early stages. Definitely, too early to really even be able to talk coherently about it. I usually start with some research. I have that research. I don't even know exactly what it's going to be. Usually, I can just kind of feel it physically. Am I going in the right direction? Does this seem exciting? When I was working on it, which was several months ago, I was starting to get somewhere. It is hard. It's like a snowball or something. You need to get to a certain point before it feels like it won't just disappear from your head completely if you step away from it. I'm definitely not at that point yet. I will be sure, when I am, not to read it to your children.

Zibby: Don't read it to my son. No. He'll get better. I have to train him. I'll play him this part of the thing and explain why.

Katya: My daughter is ten. She's also very honest, which I appreciate.

Zibby: It's good to get the brutal feedback.

Katya: I'm from a critical Russian family, so I grew up on a lot of brutal feedback.

Zibby: I'm from a Jewish family. Nobody holds back at all, especially my grandmother, who this book really connected me to. Both my grandmothers, honestly. What advice do you have to aspiring authors?

Katya: I guess to keep going I feel is the best advice, really. There's a lot of rejection that happens when you're writing or when you're trying to publish stuff. You just can't take it too personally. If you know that all the writers that you love were rejected many, many, many times and that it's not a reflection of quality, necessarily, at all, I think that can be really encouraging. I do feel like I have a lot of friends from college, from grad school, who are really, really talented writers, but they stopped writing. I think that a lot of it is about persistence. You definitely improve through just doing it over and over and over again. That's probably the best advice, and I guess use Scrivener if you need to organize your .

Zibby: I've heard authors talk about it before, Scrivener, but I didn't realize that it had that capability. Maybe I'll figure out how to use it. This cover, which is so cool, and the title, just two seconds on that. Was this always the title? Did you have input on the cover? Did you always see it as sort of a Russian doll thing?

Katya: The title originally was something -- I don't even remember, but it was much worse. My agent came up with the title. When he said it, I was like, yes, that's it. It's perfect because the story is like a nesting doll of the generations of women. It's all about mothers. I like that it wasn't Russian Doll or Nesting Doll. I liked that it was Mother Doll. It was a little different take on that. Also, you think of baby dolls. There's something about that. We were going through potential titles. That one was just great. The only input I had on the cover was I was like, what if we added a word collage element to the tears? It looks really good. It's so funny when your book gets a face. Suddenly, you're just like, that's my book. Literally, my book has a face on it.

Zibby: It's so original. The voice is so great. It's so creative. It's just really awesome. Very cool. Very cool book. Congratulations. Really enjoyed it.

Katya: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you again for joining so early in the morning. I am so sorry. So, so sorry.

Katya: Thank you. This was great. I loved talking to you about it.

Zibby: Thanks.

Katya: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Katya Apekina, MOTHER DOLL

MOTHER DOLL by Katya Apekina

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens