Saturday, February 2, 2019

Castle of Concrete by Katia Raina

 Today, I get to celebrate my friend Katia Raina's new YA book Castle of Concrete!  

There's more about the book below but first, I want to tell you about Katia.  A decade ago, we met for the first time outside at a local restaurant, chatted about writing and life, and by the end of the night I had a new friend. Katia wrote about that day on her blog.

Katia is one of the most interesting and thoughtful people I know.  And she's fearless.  When she lived here in New Jersey, we'd meet at a local diner where she'd share her adventures. Katia grew up in the Soviet Union during its collapse and that's where her new book takes place. During one of our writing sessions, she talked about writing a book based on those experiences.  I'm so happy this book is going to be out in the world. I can't wait to read it!

Here's the description of her new book from her publisher:

 Set in the final year of Soviet Russia’s collapse, this stunning debut novel tells the story of Sonya, a timid Jewish girl reuniting with her once-dissident mother and falling in love with a mysterious muddy-eyed boy who may be an anti-Semite. All the while, Sonya’s mama is falling in love also—with shiny America, a land where differences seem to be celebrated.  

  Unfortunately this interview was virtual since she's move out of state. But I'm thrilled to be able to ask Katia these questions and to learn more about her book: 

How did your experiences as a teen growing up in the Soviet Union during that time influence your story?

I was a bit younger than Sonya during the events taking place in Castle of Concrete, but many experiences growing up in those turbulent times inspired the book and in many ways made it what it is. The big, life-defining moments like first romance, starting a new school and reuniting with my mother after a long separation, hearing anti-Semitic slurs casually tossed around by strangers -- and worse -- friends.  But it wasn't just the big things. It was playing the piano to deal with feelings, and hanging out on construction sites. It was rides in crowded buses and visiting a McDonald's for the first time. It was standing up to a teacher. (There is a moment in Castle of Concrete, where Sonya uses a quote from a great Russian author to try and defend her dignity against a teacher, while expressing a very Russian sentiment that beauty is important, physical beauty included. Specifically, when the teacher quotes Tolstoy at her as saying "Modesty beautifies," Sonya fires back with a line from Chekhov: "Everything in a person must be beautiful." Well, this bit was based on a real exchange between an adolescent me and my sarcastic teacher. Of course now I am a teacher, myself, and I make it a point to never make a young person feel small because of their occasionally questionable clothing choices. :)

Having given you all these examples, it's important that I make very clear that this book is fiction. Sonya has a lot in common with the young me, but we are not the same person and the same things didn't happen to us. Castle of Concrete is woven in equal part of memory, research and imagination.

You started this story years ago (I remember us talking about it in the diner).  Can you talk about how this book came to be?

I started this book when my baby daughter was just born. Now, in the year it's being published she is 15, going on 16, just like Sonya. Now that's a scary thought!

I have always loved writing, especially short stories and poetry. As a young mother, I decided to quit a demanding journalist job to raise my then-toddler son and suddenly found myself with time and inner space for creativity. So I signed up for a correspondence course at the Institute of Children's Literature -- because I am that person who works well with creative guidance -- and started experimenting with goofy short stories for little kids and picture books. At the end of the course, working with author Kristi Holl, I decided to start a novel. That's when the ideas for Castle of Concrete came flooding in.

This book didn't come from a single lightbulb moment. It was more a collection of memories and many little ideas that came together into a big one in a process so magical I am having a hard time describing it or locating its origins. I took strong feelings lingering from adolescence, including the urge for romance, the need for connection and the fear of rejection and combined it with big questions, like why do people hate others so much? Why do people need an "other?" That's how the idea for Castle of Concrete was born.
What was your writing process for this book?

I poured my ideas into an outline and started. Kristi at the Institute of Children's Literature loved the first chapter and encouraged me to keep at it. The first draft writing took me about three months. It was so much fun and so easy. Little did I know that the revision process for this story would stretch over years and years. I spent many days, mornings and evenings, luxuriating in the setting and consumed by the characters, as I was getting to know them better and better with each pass. Of course there were many dark moments as well. There would be times when I'd say to this book, "Okay, story. Whatever you have to share, share it now, or be done with it. Because I can't do this forever, you know. This is a heads-up: ready or not, I am moving on." And I did move on, over and over, on to other manuscripts, other revisions. I enrolled in Vermont College of Fine Arts, I explored other ideas.

The traditional advice is: start a story, finish it, move on. It's good advice, and I tried so, so hard to follow it. Yet, gently but persistently, Castle of Concrete, would always find a way to rope me back in. I re-read, I tinkered. I reconsidered. I got feedback from writer friends and a few publishing industry professionals who loved Castle in its earliest, most imperfect incarnations and whose passionate guidance absolutely helped shape the book it would become. I took the feedback and revised, then revised again. Hopefully this give you an idea. :) That was the process, just scratching for the truth and seeing it come slowly forward. Until I could feel like yes, this was the story I had been trying to tell. This was the song I had been trying to sing.

That has been my process!

Thank you so much for answering these questions, my friend. You can learn more about Katia and her new book by visiting her blog

Congratulations Katia! 


K.R. said...

Thank you, dearest Nan, for hosting me on your blog! It feels like coming full circle. I will never forget our days (or more like nights) at the diner. Love you!

nan marino said...

It absolutely does feel like we've come full circle. So happy for you, Katia.