Two Dollar Radio is accustomed to receiving critical acclaim for its releases. But one October 2021 hardcover release, I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart, has been receiving so much attention from major consumer media outlets—on top of glowing reviews—that the indie publisher had to move an initial 10,000-copy paperback print run up by six months. It did so to ensure that its distributor, PGW, would not run out of copies while demand is high and sales continue on their upward trend. I Will Die in a Foreign Land has sold, to date, 5,000 hardcover copies; PGW is shipping paperback copies to bookstores in time for a May 10 street date.
Pickhart’s debut novel is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and was longlisted for the Virginia Commonwealth University’ Cabell First Novelist Award. It is the story of four characters whose lives overlap when they are caught up in the Ukrainian Euromaidan protests, in the winter of 2013-2014, against then president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych’s allegiance to Russia. More than 100 civilians died after thousands took to the streets, Yanukovych fled to Moscow, and Russia annexed Crimea, which led to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014—and eventually culminated in the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 of this year, four months after this book’s release.
Even before the current war erupted, I Will Die in a Foreign Land garnered attention, with indie booksellers successfully nominating it as an Indie Next pick last fall and industry publications raving about it, Publishers Weekly included. In our starred review, PW described the book as a “bighearted novel [that] generously portrays the unforgettable set of characters through their determination to face oppression. It’s a stunner.” More recently, National Public Radio and Book Riot both included it in their lists of suggested books to read to understand the current situation in Ukraine, and it was featured on the CBS Sunday Morning program, when Ron Charles of the Washington Post praised it, noting: “Nothing has given me such a profound impression of what Ukrainians have endured as this intensely moving novel.”
What makes the breakout success of I Will Die in a Foreign Land even more compelling is its backstory: it was an unagented and unsolicited manuscript written by a writer who is not of Ukrainian ancestry that fell into the right hands at 2DR by happenstance. Pickhart told PW that, in 2016, while she was taking a fiction writing class taught by Matt Bell during her first semester enrolled in Arizona State University’s M.F.A. program, she initially planned to write a novel about a baseball player. Explaining that she is often inspired by documentaries, “because reality is stranger than fiction," she was inspired to change course on the novel after watching a Netflix documentary, Winter on Fire, about the Euromaidan protests.
“I was really moved by it,” Pickhart recalled. “It was the same thing then that we’re seeing now on a larger scale. And we’re seeing now on a larger scale just how tenacious the Ukrainian people are.”
Explaining that she did not know when she would ever have another such opportunity to “really dig into the story,” Pickhart started researching Ukraine’s history and culture in preparation. Her research included a three-week trip to Ukraine after eight weeks of intensive language study, all financed with fellowships.
“It was very cool to see everything, to actually be walking the streets of Kyiv and to visit St. Michael’s [a monastery that provided sanctuary to Maidan protesters],” she said. “It made the book more real for me.”
After taking Bell’s advice to his students to “follow your instincts, even the weird and crazy,” Pickhart wrote a nonlinear story about four people whose lives are changed during that winter in Kyiv. The book includes interludes between its chapters, weaving topical newspaper articles, folk tales, and songs in with Pickhart's own text. After querying “about 40 agents” and receiving no bites from any of them, Pickhart was ready to give up until a friend suggested that she reach out to 2DR, “because they publish a lot of edgy stuff.” She admits to being “shocked” to receive a positive response from the Columbus, Ohio–based indie press, and vividly recalls her first conversation about the book with publisher Eric Obenauf. “His ideas for the book were awesome,” she said. “I knew right away it was a good fit.”
Pickhart feels both proud and “super humbled” that her debut novel is receiving so much attention from all quarters and is selling well. But, she admits to feeling ambivalence too, as she realizes that she is benefiting from a country’s continuing trauma. “Who would have known it would escalate the year this book was being published?” she asked. “The people at Two Dollar Radio and I—we all have some complicated feelings about it."