Earlier this year, Ukrainian-born American writer and filmmaker Kristina Birk released her debut novel Out Of Oblivion: How I Left OB-LOM. She agreed to answer a few of our questions about her new book, the current state of the world, her creative process, and more. Check it out!
1. First off, what’s up with the bear on roller skates?
It’s a pretty historic reference: the Soviet State Circus was known for training bears to balance on balls, ice or roller skate, and even drive vehicles. I was so impressed and disturbed by that phenomenon growing up that I just HAD to include several bear characters roller skating around my fictional totalitarian universe.
2. Censorship seems to be a glaring theme in this tale. What are your thoughts about what is happening in America right now with online censorship?
It’s almost common knowledge now that the internet is rather privatized.
Companies with very deep pockets are all in attendance of this great auction running the global market. Russia is no stranger to censorship in all of its shapes and forms, especially when we talk about the Soviet era. Capitalism breeding a certain level of corruption while maintaining an air of stability in the U.S. is not altogether different from the Soviet system operating under dictatorship with all of its own setbacks that come in a huge bouquet of horrifying surprises.
The word United in the U.S. may as well not have a home in the States as of right now—its people have been radically split, due to a number of lingering injustices inflamed with fuels of misinformation, and skewed reasoning, subsequently inspiring some to adopt, and/or develop a form of extremist philosophy. Sadly, the very representatives residing from their elected seats are not immune to misinformation. In fact, it seems as though conspiracy runs rampant within the actual walls of the government, those along with the many corporate lobbyists bidding to control this precious information flow. As our leaders line up to pawn off the good nature of the American people, it’s become more evident that censorship is playing a key role in this very real reality of a country amidst its self-destruction.
3. What inspired you to write Out Of Oblivion?
Everything I experienced growing up in the post-Soviet environment (namely the edgy 90s in Moscow—Perestroika), my public school where the contrast between the soviet teachers we had and us, the new generation, was just atrocious, multiple autobiographies of brilliant Russian writers getting deported or arrested for their attempts to write freely, Zamiatin’s letter to Stalin in which he is practically begging to get deported due to the constant fear of repercussion and not having the right to say anything he intended to say in his literature. Here is a snippet from Zamiatin’s letter:
“But even under the most difficult conditions there, I shall not be condemned to silence; I shall be able to write and to publish, even, if need be, in a language other than Russian. If circumstances should make it impossible (temporarily, I hope) for me to be a Russian writer, perhaps I shall be able, like the Pole Joseph Conrad, to become for a time an English writer.”
Source: Evgeny Zamyatin: Letter to Stalin. A Soviet Heretic: Essays Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
I’d say this very letter was what broke the camel’s back. Additionally, I was heavily influenced by my mom and dad’s stories about how they used to hand copy and spread all kinds of illicit western literature in sketchy basements or at speakeasy-style gatherings, along with my Ukrainian relatives telling me about how the state police used to burn their hand-copied spiritual literature. In all honesty, as a Russian, I’ve always had tons of anxiety investigating Russia’s very depressing history.
4. How has your experience been so far promoting your debut novel during the pandemic? What are you doing to get the word out there?
I built a pretty massive online school a few years back that’s been continuously growing. I’ve been blessed with a wonderfully loyal audience of followers who have shown a lot of interest in my book. A lot of my students have also helped me to cross-promote. Additionally, I recently hired a small marketing team, so they can help me work some ad magic on Facebook and IG. I am currently planning to throw a few socially distant book signings and presentations in the next few months in LA and NYC. A few magazines are interested in publishing some articles about my manuscript. There will be a lot more I’d like to accomplish, including book-to-film adaptation pitches, making a book trailer, and more.
5. Did you self-publish or seek out a publisher? Why?
After getting a number of rejections from traditional publishers, my indie filmmaker heart pushed me to hire a few talented folks to help me with the design and overall packaging and resort to getting it all done more or less the DIY way. Also, the book is essentially about spreading illicit literature in a self-handed manner. The more I thought about the subject matter, the more it hit me that it would be a contradiction to delegate this very manuscript to someone other than myself.
6. I heard you speak multiple languages. That’s impressive! What are they? How has the experience of communicating across many cultures shaped you?
Thank you so much! Yes, I speak fluent Russian, English, and French. My Chinese, Ukrainian, and Polish are not as fluent, though I can communicate in those too. I’ve always been mesmerized at how much one can change the moment he or she switches to speaking a different language. It’s like you put on an extra layer of brand-new skin that makes you feel, act and think a bit differently. Multilingualism sure does expand people’s horizons and allows them to see the world and other cultures from a much broader, multidimensional perspective. There is one major downside that comes with it though: watching the news in all of the languages I comprehend has become a thousand times more painful with age. It’s like I really started to see how different everyone’s perspective of the same matter always is. I’ve been abstaining from watching the news for many years now actually.
7. Tell us a little bit about the land of Ob-Lom.
It’s largely a magical realist depiction of a completely controlled realm where writing anything of free nature is punishable. Ob-Lom is an imaginative child’s vision of something unfathomably mechanical, monotonous, cruel, and eerie.
I picked a few of the most notable oddities from my childhood and the stories I collected from my family’s “closet” and turned them into a bizarre landscape/puzzle: a forever frozen land with no sunlight whatsoever, angry stray dogs sitting on every street corner (I got attacked by at least three stray dogs back in Moscow, which somehow seemed perfectly normal), bent flickering street lamps that resemble wonky aluminum utensils (like the ones I had back in elementary school), long lines to the distribution center with the most ridiculous selection of edibles and sedatives, multiple marching lanes, scrawny wolves transporting people to odd square buildings, giant all-hearing ears that can be tamed only by means of proficient classical music humming, stapled mouths, bleached faces, militant ballet training for girls and supremely vigorous army training for men, oriental rugs as the only fun colorful item people are allowed to admire and stare at. Ironically, all of the above is not that far-fetched from what it used to be like.
8. Is there a single message you hope to convey through Out Of Oblivion? If so, what is it?
Freedom of speech and unconstrained literary thought can change the future of our descendants; words are our birthright and should be handled with care. I must quote Zamyatin once again:
“But if I am not a criminal, I beg to be permitted to go abroad with my wife temporarily, for at least one year, with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas in literature without cringing before little men, as soon as there is at least a partial change in the prevailing view concerning the role of the literary artist. And I am confident that this time is near, for the creation of the material base will inevitably be followed by the need to build the superstructure, an art and a literature truly worthy of the revolution.”
9. Did you write this story with a certain readership in mind?
Certainly! I’d say my readers are—various admirers of dystopian literature, people who find inspiration in visual storytelling, creative nonconformists, young and middle-aged Eastern European immigrants, Russophiles, female readers, and writers who are into the redemptive power of storytelling.
10. Does fiction writing support or interfere with your filmmaking and vice versa?
They are absolutely wonderful for each other. I think writing fiction majorly makes me a better playwright and a screenplay creator. Not sure writing scripts helps my fiction writing much, though it certainly contributes something positive to my ability to sharpen the plot structure.
11. What is your process for writing a novel?
It’s pure chaos. If I were to describe it as a scene in a movie, it’d be something like this:
Int. Dusk. A semi-lit warehouse.
A significantly disheveled woman (30) with unkempt curly hair dressed in Cookie Monster-patterned pajamas is staring at the ceiling with a wide-eyed absent-minded expression. Her desk cluttered with multiple sheets of paper (some is crumbled, some is filled with manic cursive and some is untouched), melted candles, aspirin, Ashwagandha supplements, at least a dozen of half-empty mismatched coffee mugs, wine bottles, Kambucha cans, socks, fruit, clumps of red hair, random miniature tchotchkes, old editions of The New Yorker and Vice magazines, fluorescent post-its and all kinds of fiction novels in Russian and English can be seen. The table is stained with multiple droplets of pomegranate juice making it look like someone had just spurted out tons of aorta blood all over the place. Strange otherworldly music with no lyrics can be heard in the background.
12. Do you think you’ll make a book trailer for Out Of Oblivion?
I definitely will! Already drafting some ideas. My novel is so very visual that it would be a waste not to make a trailer for its promo purposes.
13. Who are your main literary or artistic influences?
Literature wise I am influenced by:
Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, Evgeniy Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Kurt Vonnegut, Anthony Burgess.
My favorite poets are Vladimir Mayakovsky and Anne Sexton.
Andrey Zvyagintsev, Andrei Tarkovsky, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Stanley Kubrick, John Cassavetes, Michel Gondry, David Lynch, and Charlie Kaufman.
Additionally, I was largely influenced by the avant-garde Russian theater movement when I was still in my teens (Praktika was my favorite playhouse in Moscow), Moscow Art Theater where I studied the Stanislavsky acting method for a couple of years, Pina Bausch’s choreography, the Japanese dance-theater Butoh, all kinds of emerging indie bands with odd lyrics from all over the world (I even had my own for a few years), and some of my college professors who used to be ex-pats and spoke foreign languages as fluently as their mother tongue.
14. Do you have any books or film projects currently in the works?
Yes! I am currently in the process of finalizing the first draft of my magical realist erotica project. It’s a collection of sex-related essays and fictional stories that take place in a variety of post-Soviet countries. Some of them are a touch autobiographical, some are based on other people’s stories. All in all, they are all very odd, uncomfortable, and extremely provocative. Before embarking on this new literary journey, I had interviewed a lot of interesting folks about their most scandalous erotic encounters from back home. It’s really amazing how differently sex is viewed in different parts of the world and how something that may seem completely familiar to a regular Russian person can be viewed as an art-house horror story to someone from the US.
I’ve also been filming my post-apocalyptic fantasy feature “My Opia” for a couple of years now. In short, it’s very trippy and retro-futuristic. I am most excited about how it ends! The ending alone keeps me wanting to continue working on it. Hoping to be done with it soon. I have had a blast playing the alien lead in it too.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out 21 Short Films Based on Short Stories.
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