“I like stories that have no fear. They are not afraid to be misunderstood or to do things maybe not the way things have been done before.”
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do when you’re not reading for NER?
I was born in Samara, Russia—a city known for its chocolate factory, river pirates (back in the day), and its connection to space industry. We made the engine that was inside the spaceship that Yuri Gagarin flew. Since 2014 I’ve lived in Maine with my husband, writing and working odd jobs. Last year I received the Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University, so there was a lot of coast-to-coast moving during the pandemic. I plan to spend the next year in Northern California working on my first book.
What made you decide to be a reader for NER, and how long have you been on staff?
Some time after I finished my MFA, NER was looking to bring on a few new readers. A professor I worked with passed my name to Carolyn Kuebler. This was in 2014, I think. I’ve been reading submissions ever since.
Have you ever read a submission that later got selected for publication?
There were two, some years apart. The first one was “The Relief Pitcher’s Mother,” by Perri Klass (NER 38.1). It’s strange how things work. I knew nothing about baseball when I read it, but the story really spoke to me, it transcended this terrible ignorance on my part. The second story was published in 2019. It’s called “Sweat a Wormhole,” by Andrew Gretes, and it deals with a father who comes back to his family after death as a chicken. And everyone is playing this video game based on Thoreau’s Walden. I was crazy about this story. I wrote Carolyn a long note about it and I remember looking up the game to see if it was real. I’m glad it ended up in the magazine (NER 40.2).
What is your reading process like? What do you look for in a submission?
My reading process involves lots of hot beverages and a comfortable chair! I don’t really have a process, but generally speaking, I don’t look at the cover letter until I’ve read the story. If the author has a book or an impressive previous publication, or if they are unpublished—I don’t want that to influence me.
The more I read fiction, the more I begin to see that there are no rules. Over the years, the stories that blew me away have been structured and fragmented, witty urban and straight naturalistic, funny and nostalgic, with any number of characters and points of view, the shifty ones and the ones that stuck to the story at hand. I like stories that have no fear. They are not afraid to be misunderstood or to do things maybe not the way things have been done before. They are not afraid to bore you, because they know what they are working towards and will do anything to get there. In a good story, there is a sense of honesty and desperation. Honesty, because the author is telling the truth, maybe not the truth, but something vital they’ve discovered simply by being alive. And desperation to me means letting go of things that don’t serve the story. Desperation sounds like a very emotional state, but I think it’s a wonderful state in which to edit. When you are desperate to tell your story, you won’t waste time on things that don’t help it become what it needs to be.
Of the pieces you’ve read at NER—whether in the magazine or among the submissions—which was your favorite or most memorable to you personally?
There was a story by Lindsay Starck that NER published in 2020. It’s called “Baikal” and it’s about a marathon race on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal. I loved this image and later, when I got the chance to interview Lindsay, she shared a video with me of a female runner participating in the race. It was a real thing! It was beautiful and very otherworldly.
How has reading for NER influenced your own writing/creative pursuits?
It is very hard to remain part of a writing world, a community of writers. It’s competitive and has few rewards and many people simply can’t afford to live this kind of life too long. Eventually, you need something stable, a plan. One of the best things that NER did for me is that it allowed me to remain part of the writing world during the years when I didn’t know whether I’d ever write a complete short story. I’d come home after working in a student writing center or a museum gift shop and read a few submissions. It was nice to know I was still connected to the publishing process that way.
What do you read for pleasure? Is there something you’re reading at the moment that you would recommend?
My reading is a mix of classics and contemporaries, and your high school books, and rereads. Since I left my home country, I try to read in Russian every year because there aren’t many people around me who speak the language. So every year I read a few Russian novels, mostly nineteenth century. I love to recommend the same novel, which is Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. This book is incredible. It’s excruciatingly boring for the first 200 pages, but those who survive are rewarded—what follows is the finest, most psychologically nuanced love story in Russian literature. Oblomov is sometimes called the novel of laziness, inertia, and that is true. Goncharov suffered from procrastination and only wrote four books in his (rather long) life, one of them a travel journal. I think of him often when finishing a story seems like an insurmountable task.
One of the best collections I came across in the last year is Marshall Klimasewiski’s Tyrants. It moves swiftly between centuries and continents, and the author has this amazing capacity of going into the mind of any character, anyone at all—a young Korean mother who just lost a child, a Swedish explorer, a bored teenager from Connecticut, or Joseph Stalin.
Last year, when I kept moving, I kept lugging the same two books with me—Aleksandar Hemon’s Love and Obstacles and Andrea Lee’s Interesting Women. I’ve read both before, multiple times, but I always want them near.
NER‘s staff readers, all volunteers, play an essential role in our editorial process and in our mission to discover new voices in contemporary literature. A full list of staff readers is available on our masthead.