|photo: Romain Raina
Katia Raina is a former journalist who emigrated from Russia at the age of 15. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives with her family near Washington, D.C., where she teaches middle-school English. Her debut YA novel, Castle of Concrete (New Europe Books, June 11, 2019), is set in Soviet Russia in its final year, 1991--a time of political upheaval, demonstrations and divisive prejudice against Jews.
On your nightstand now:
All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan, about an Israeli Jew in New York City falling in love with an Arab artist from Palestine. When I discovered that the Israeli Ministry of Education banned this book from being taught in high schools, I had to learn more. [Ed. Note: The book was removed from the curriculum, but can be taught in advanced literature classes.]
Favorite book when you were a child:
Fairytales! The Brothers Grimm, I was never scared of all the terrible darkness. Hans Christian Andersen: yes to the household objects with feelings; welcome, misunderstood outsiders; bring on the anguish, so sweetly and romantically rendered! Russian fairytales: how satisfying to watch the clever and wise heroines outsmart ancient monsters!
Your top five authors:
Ray Bradbury for imagination. J.K. Rowling for how deeply she made me care about Harry. Ibi Zoboi, I still can't stop gushing about American Street, a tale so dark, a character so sympathetic, the setting so rich, the truth so deep. A.S. King, she really knows how to shake up a story. Benjamin Alire Sáenz for his vulnerable tales of friendship and romance.
Book you've faked reading:
Les Misérables. In Russia I grew up on little Cosette's story: she was the perfect Cinderella figure for the Soviet youth. But her story was an excerpt from Victor Hugo's chateau of a tome. Recently, I attempted to conquer the whole thing, all 1,400 unabridged pages. I've gotten through maybe 800. The challenge was making it past the telling parts: chapters upon chapters of description, philosophy, history. When it was an actual story moving on the page, of course, I was riveted. Hugo, I am so sorry! I know you are a genius! Should I try it again?
Book you're an evangelist for:
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert isn't just perfect for any writer or artist, it's a guide for life.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Across the Universe by Beth Revis. The stars blinking at me on the cover across the purple sky. The upside-down boy and girl silhouettes, the tension of the almost-kiss. It introduced me to the book that had everything I love: a weird world, a giant ship hurtling past the stars, a romance all tangled up in lies, secrets and mysteries.
Book you hid from your parents:
Children's books and fairytales! I shoved these under the pillow when my grandma came into my bedroom, because otherwise she'd chide me for reading baby books. My beloved babushka would laugh now if she were alive, seeing how I still read books too young for my age!
Book that changed your life:
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I blame this book for making me start my writing career with a tortured young adult romance. I blame this book for making me so boy-crazy that I had to find the love of my life as young as possible, and marry him. I blame this book for infecting me with a love for grand gesture and adventure!
Favorite line from a book:
"The Universe buries strange jewels in all of us, and then stands back to see if we can find them." --from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Five books you'll never part with:
I don't think of books as objects. More magical than that, they live inside my mind and belong inside my soul. Here are my five that will always be a part of me:
1 & 2. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini: challenging, gorgeous, inspiring!
3. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
4. A Step from Heaven by An Na. This story of a young Korean immigrant trying to find herself in America is filled with poetry, pain, grace and truth.
5: Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Being half-Russian, half-Jew, I cannot resist the idea of a self-deprecating, nerdy Indigenous teen trying to "make it" in an all-white school.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Black magic in Stalin's 1930s, crazy comedy involving Satan and his goons and heart-wrenching love... I fell hard for it all at 13 years old. The last time I re-read it, I made a shocking and unfortunate discovery. The anti-Semitic characterization and tone--how could I have missed it before? It took me a while to get over the betrayal, to decide that the book was going to remain a masterpiece in my eyes, ugly spots of hate notwithstanding. But I do kind of wish I could read it again, in original Russian, with that innocent and excited 13-year-old's heart.
Which character you relate to most:
In The Three Musketeers, it isn't the sweet and swoony Constance that comes to mind, but D'Artagnan himself. Brash, adventurous, a bit crude and insecure, he hides it well underneath all that bravado. A loyal friend and fiercely devoted lover, he is an outsider who has a lot to learn and a lot to prove. That's me. Changing locales, careers, writing genres, I hop from one adventure to another, always with something new to prove and to learn.
Books that made you want to become a writer:
The Stories of Ray Bradbury by Ray Bradbury, followed by his The Martian Chronicles. It didn't get me writing immediately. But it got me dreaming. And from there, writing is only a block away.