November has been an exciting month for Write or Die Tribe, with so much great content on our blog and within our newsletter. One of my favorite interviews so far has been with with Katya Apekina, author of The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish. I had been hearing so many amazing reviews on this novel which I can attest that they are all true because I read this book in about three days.
The beautifully dark novel tells the story of two sisters, Edie and Mae in the wake of their mother's suicide attempt. They are then forced to live with their estranged father, former civil rights activist and author, in New York while he is in the middle of a creative slump. The teenage girls try to make sense of these changes as well as themselves in this Southern gothic-like novel with many twists and turns you were not expecting. This novel is powerful, heart breaking and as most of claimed, unforgettable.
This book explores teenage female rage, I think, honestly. Edie is constantly blurting out her feelings and erupting in anger throughout the book, while Mae seems to hold her anger in, until she can’t anymore. Can you talk about the role anger plays in the life of a teenage girl? Do you think all young girls are angry in a sense?
What a great question. I think about female rage a lot, maybe because as a teenager I had sublimated mine, and only came into contact with it as an adult. Teen girls have a lot to be angry about, and they’re taught that they need to please people and can’t express that anger. I don’t think I was aware of myself as being at all angry and if you had asked me I would have definitely denied it. I was so eager to please—my parents (which I resented) and men (which I didn’t know to resent). All of my calculations were around satisfying other people. The idea of having my own desire, other than the desire to be liked, was pretty foreign to me. It does a strange thing to a person when they think of themselves as the object, rather than the subject of a sentence.
This story reminded me a lot of my own upbringing with a sister close to my age, in the sense that I focused on one parent and my sister, the other parent. We have very different perspectives of our own childhood even though we were raised so close together.
At first, it seems like Mae might be the strongest of the sisters, stoic and confident in her choices, while Edie is all emotions. But of course, Mae has her own battles to fight as we see.
Did you grow up with a sister close to you? Do you think the bonds of sisterhood or siblings is stronger than the bond between parent and child?
I didn’t! I always wanted a twin sister or, short of that, a sister very close to me in age. I have a brother, but he is 14 years younger than me, so we grew up separately. And it did feel like we grew up in different families, but that’s because in a lot of ways we did. A lot had changed in those 14 years—my parents had me in Russia and him in the US. My childhood was a lot more bohemian, his a lot more helicoptery. I think if we were the same age though it would probably still feel different, because we’re different. I don’t know what bonds are stronger. I feel close with my brother and my parents. I imagine having a sister my age to go through everything together with would have been amazing, but it could have just as easily been terrible. I can imagine if I had a sister close to me in age, I would have defined myself in opposition to her, putting more emphasis on the ways in which I was different in order to differentiate myself from her.
Why do you think coming of age stories are so popular and so well loved? Why did you decide to write in the perspective of teenage girls?
I think if you asked me to close my eyes and picture myself I’d see myself as I was at 15. I guess it’s the age when a lot of things happened in my life. It’s also the time when I probably spent the most time in a mirror looking at myself, trying to see myself as other people must see me.
Coming of age stories are so powerful because it’s the moment when a person begins to hatch. The time when they separate what they think and how they see the world as individuals from how they were taught to. This begins in adolescence but it’s a process that continues for a long, long time.
The construction of the book is really unique. While we stay with Edie and Mae the whole time, we get little excerpts of other people’s perspectives, which help move the plot along. Did you plan this shift in perspective from the beginning or was it something that came as you were writing?
I planned that multi-perspective structure from the beginning. I pictured the book like a disco ball or kaleidoscope or something—structurally I wanted to be inside multiple people’s experiences and see how their actions refracted and how their decisions had consequences that they didn’t even consider or know about. I wanted to see how one person’s truth could co-exist and contradict another person’s truth.
What did your writing process look like while writing this book? How long did it take you? Do you have a writing ritual that you stick to?
The book took forever. I started in 2012 and it came out in 2018. I would say I spent five of those years actively writing. About 1 or 2 years into the process I started over. That was hard, after I had already invested so much in it, to feel like I had written myself into a corner and I needed a new start. It took a leap of faith to start over, and also to continue. Actually, the whole thing felt like a huge leap of faith, and I was never sure if by the end it would all cohere or collapse.
The only ritual is that I try to write every day when I am actively in a project, as much as I can. In between drafts I can go stretches without writing, or work on something unrelated to give myself some space from it, to clear my head so I can come back. I also am always reading a lot, and I’m careful about the kinds of things I am reading when I’m actively drafting.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What propelled you into this field?
I actually started off in the visual arts with photography. My photographs were very narrative-based though, they were these mysterious scenes or moments I created. I took a few writing courses in college and really liked them. Writing required less equipment, and I didn’t need to enlist other people or spend hours and hours in a smelly darkroom (which honestly I kind of miss). As a kid I was very dreamy and imaginative, but that quality could have found a home in any of the arts. I am not a natural storyteller at all—but that sort of plot part is something I learned to do along the way.
What are you currently reading?
I am in the middle of The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits.
If you could speak to your younger self, what is some advice or tips about writing you would give?
I don’t know that I would give myself any advice! I must have figured it out somehow to get here. I think general advice would be to freak out less, and trust the process. When you are in a groove with writing you know it, and it is the best feeling ever, and if you just keep showing up and being there, eventually it will come back. You have to be patient. But telling an impatient person that they have to be patient is maybe not very helpful!
Thank you so much, Katya!
You can purchase The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish here!
Katya Apekina's short stories have appeared in various literary magazines. Born in Moscow, she currently lives in Los Angeles.