Melnik’s debut, Snow in May, is a collection of nine stories spanning the second half of the 20th century, centered on the small Siberian town of Magadan, Russia, where the author grew up, and the people connected to it.
What inspired the book?
Nothing excites my literary imagination more than location—the physical place with its attendant political situation, historical consequences, weather, music, color scheme, levels of bird squawking, and speed of wind. Geography shapes characters. I was also inspired by the stories I heard from my family and their friends, and incidents from my life, all as points of departure into fiction.
The town of Magadan functions as a main character in the stories. How did you recreate it? How much did your family play a part in its recreation?
Magadan is such a unique place, a city of contrasts. The natural beauty around the city is breathtaking and I had a happy childhood there, but for an older generation, the name stirs up dark history of the gulag. In fact, I wasn’t really aware of the tragic beginnings of Magadan until I moved to America, grew older, and started writing about it. This slice of history wasn’t taught at schools at the time. I wanted to portray my hometown in all its complexity, including the years of relative prosperity. I had the benefit of checking my research from books and the Internet against the memories of family members who had lived in Magadan during different decades. I especially pestered my father and grandfather for details, from what kind of meat was available in stores in the ’50s to when young people found out about the Beatles. Often, these quotidian details play a bigger role in the characters’ reality and their conception of themselves than the big political and historical movements.
Is there anything you learned during the course of your research that surprised you?
Many members of the Soviet elite repressed by Stalin and his henchmen—renowned doctors, geologists, architects, engineers, actors, writers, musicians—ended up in Magadan. At one point, Magadan, this tiny place at the end of the world, consumed as many books as Moscow and staged theater productions on par with those in Leningrad. Magadan prided itself on being such a cultured and bookish town and for having excellent schools that prepared students for the best universities in the country.
What makes a great story?
A great story is more than the sum of its parts: plot, characters, etc. It is emotionally moving. Through some alchemic conflation of literary craft and the reader’s communion with the writer’s psyche, a great story expresses what mere words seemingly cannot express. True art doesn’t confirm what we already know; it doesn’t manufacture emotion. There is some agreement on which stories and novels are considered great, but ultimately reading is very personal—a little like a love affair. A story that moves you might leave me cold, even if I’m able to appreciate it. After I read a great story that is my emotional and intellectual match (timing can also be crucial), I am left speechless, melted into a puddle of awe and despair. These are the stories I remember for years.