Welcome to day #11 of the 30 Day “One Question” Series. If you want to learn more about the series, be sure to check out the first interview.
Ksenia is a woman who has an amazing way with words. Whether she’s making me laugh on Twitter or offering up thought-provoking topics about the writing life on her blog, her words connect with you viscerally, immediately eliciting an emotional reaction.
No where is this more evident than in the draft excerpts she’s shared of her forthcoming novel, Siren Suicides. In the manner of master storytellers like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, Ksenia deftly sets a scene that not only draws you in to the world of her teenage protagonist but creates a strong emotional connection to her.
On multiple occasions (see here and here) Ksenia has mentioned that the essence of the Siren Suicides story comes from her personal experience as a teenager who contemplated suicide. Knowing that, I was prepared to read a somewhat “moralistic” story… something designed to “teach” the lesson to young adults that suicide is “bad.” The excerpt I read, however, was delightfully devoid of any type of moral judgment.
Instead I found a strong story that grabbed me by the throat, one that was fueled by the writer’s own painful experience but not bound by it.
As soon as I finished reading the excerpt, I knew exactly what I wanted to ask Ksenia:
How do you fuel your story with your own experience while remaining detached enough to create a story that is universal in nature and, based on your experience, what tips would you share with others creatives about working with such deeply personal material?
I don’t detach myself, I go straight into my pain and dwell there long enough to be able to separate the pain from the story.
Pain is where the story is, and pain is what needs to be hacked away from the story, to let it take shape.
It wasn’t easy for me and I tried fighting it, but the story of Siren Suicides kept poking me since 2008, trying to get out, timidly at first, appearing here and there in my dreams and thoughts, and then finally flat out demanding to be written. I resisted it until the last possible moment. I told myself, I can’t write. I didn’t study writing, so I don’t know how to write. I can’t write, because English is not my first language and it will be awful. I shouldn’t write, I need to hold a job like all normal people do and forget about this idea. And on, and on, and on… This thinking alone was exhausting, so one day I gave in and jotted down a few sentences, not knowing yet where they will lead me. Those sentences were:
I felt nothing. All was quiet, not a single human life. It was empty, at last. I threw my mouth open and uttered a powerful scream, full of victory and triumph, agony and sadness.
Finally, I found my voice.
I expanded a little on this idea, jotted down around 7,000 words, and shelved the story.
In 2009 I came back to it again, feeling an almost physical pressure from inside my skull, and attempted to write some more. I changed the beginning and managed to bang out about 20,000 words in the course of several months when a peculiar feeling seized me. It felt as if everything I wrote so far wasn’t fiction, but my own personal story, my own reality from the past. At this time I actually traveled back to Russia to uncover some of my personal history and gather facts. Confused and disoriented, I came back and proceeded to have series of massive panic attacks. I persevered through them, continuing writing, feeling in my gut that somehow all of this is connected. And then, one day, when I got to about 30,000 words, I remembered.
I remembered what happened to me and realized that my writing was indeed therapy for me and it was my body’s way of telling me and of attempting to get rid of the pain I’ve been carrying for so many years. In short, I remembered that there is a reason I can’t recall most of my childhood. I was sexually abused by my father and my grandfather. Those were separate instances, and I barely recalled my grandfather who was not my blood grandfather, but a second husband to my grandmother. The story about my father, however, kicked me off my feet. For the next 2 months I wanted to kill myself and then decided to go public about this, to help other women, especially after uncovering unsightly statistics about every 3 woman in US being sexually abused by the age of 18, 85% of abusers being relatives. After I have opened up publicly about my history, my family denounced me (they are all back in Russia). My father is actually a published writer, who in some way instilled love to stories in me, when he was in between his violent fits.
Back on the topic, how did I detach myself?
Well, it took me 2 years of therapy to recover. In this process, I have gone through a divorce and a life change. I decided to be happy, no matter what and to do what I wanted to do, no matter what. And in 2012 I came back to my story, at the urging of my boyfriend who is my fan number one, and at the urging of close friends who followed my progress over the years.
I was scared.
Writing Siren Suicides meant diving back into my pain, which gets me back to your question about detachment. I didn’t detach, not at first. I dove back into my pain, but instead of mixing in facts from my own life, I described how I felt and tried to let the story take its own shape, tried to develop characters in their own merit.
And I did it.
By working through multiple drafts. Each draft was more its own story and less my own. I’m working on Draft 5 right now (should be completed in April of this year), and every day I have anxiety and sometimes crying fits before I start writing because every emotion I feel is real. Yet this story is not my story anymore, it’s Ailen’s story. It’s a story about a teenage girl, Ailen Bright, who lost her mother to suicide by drowning, hates her controlling father and decides to escape reality in the same way. On her 16th birthday she attempts to drown herself, but instead of dying turns into a siren and discovers that her father is a siren hunter. She also discovers that she wants to eat the soul of her best friend Hunter Crossby, because it sounds irresistibly delicious. To figure all of this out, she dives into an adventure akin to Alice in Wonderland, except it’s all things water, rain, songs, and magic that’s both sinister and dreamy.
In a way, I hope, I answered your question. I don’t detach from my story, and yet I do at the same time. I would paraphrase it like this. I don’t detach emotionally from my story, but I detach from it in every other way.
I only have one tip for creatives:
Forget about creating.
And then write down what you feel, or paint what you feel, or dance what you feel. Whatever your medium is, there is only one way to connect with your audience, through emotion.
Once you start refining your artwork, you will distance yourself enough from it, layer by layer, to see the art. Yet the feeling will stay the same.
That’s all there is to it.
Ksenia Anske was born in Moscow, Russia, and came to US in 1998 not knowing English, having studied architecture and not dreaming that one day she’d be writing. SIREN SUICIDES, an urban fantasy set in Seattle, is her 1st novel. She lives in Seattle with her boyfriend and their combined 4 kids in a house on top of the hill that they like to call The Loony Bin. When she’s not writing, you can find Ksenia on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Youtube.
Do yourself a favor and read the excerpt of Siren Suicides… mostly cause I want the pleasure of bragging I introduced you to Ksenia when she becomes a bestseller! :) As usual, I wanna hear what you’re thinking, so leave a comment!