In 2009, Sana Krasikov’s short-story collection, One More Year, earned her a spot on numerous awards lists. Eight years later, her debut novel, The Patriots (starred review, LJ 12/16), has proven to be well worth the wait. An ambitious, multigenerational saga, the story begins in the 1930s with Florence Fein, a young Jewish American who emigrates to the Soviet Union to join the socialist cause. The narrative then propels forward to the present, as Florence’s son and grandson navigate the stormy waters of Russian-American relations. All the while, the family must reconcile their feelings for one another with their own personal ideologies. Below, Krasikov shares insights into her inspiration for the book, the current political climate, and her penchant for index cards.
LJ: According to your bio, your early life was spent in the Soviet Union, and you have lived in Moscow. Were there particular experiences in your background that inspired you?
SK: My Soviet immigrant experience was necessary to write this book, but what drew me to Florence’s story was that her life’s journey seemed such an inversion of my own. I immigrated in 1987 with my family, happy to accept America’s freedoms. Florence fled America as a young woman in the 1930s to find her home in Stalin’s USSR. That choice was incomprehensible to me when I started writing the book.
A big part of writing this novel was my quest to understand that decision, which then becomes the goal of Florence’s son, Julian.
The Patriots moves back and forth in time, following one family over generations. What techniques did you use to map out the structure and keep track of the narrative route you wished to follow?
I’m a big believer in colored index cards and scotch tape. I used various colors for the different story lines, so I could play with the best places to interweave the two main plots. There were a lot of trips to Staples. As I stitched scenes and transitions together, my wall would become plastered with these cards. My family and I also moved around while I wrote this book, including a big move to Nairobi, Kenya, so I took photographs of these [card] mosaics to have a record.
Your central character, Florence, often acts in ways that seem wrongheaded and self-serving. Did you deliberately set out to create something of an anti-hero, and were you concerned about her ability to earn the reader’s empathy?
Florence is a survivor. She survives the most murderous period of the Soviet Union, while the more moral, more perceptive people around her don’t. I didn’t set out to create a nonheroic character, but I set out to create a true character, one who loves her son fiercely but whose flaws make her difficult for her son to truly love. Much of Julian’s story is his struggle to come to terms with his mother’s choices, in a conversation that takes place through generations and across continents.
Given the tenor of current discussions of U.S.-Russia relations, the title of your novel seems a bit provocative. What perspective do you feel this book adds to the present conversation?
All of the main characters in the novel have their loyalties tested. Those tests of loyalty would be far easier to overcome if the United States and Russia were simply enemies, but the relationship between those two countries is much more collusive and complex.
For example, in the 1930s, even as American politicians were warning about the “Red Menace,” those same politicians were smoothing the path for trade relations with the Bolsheviks. Of course, countries always make compromises, but they can be life-threatening for ordinary people caught in between.
Are there particular authors or teachers who have significantly influenced your writing?
I was deeply influenced by Frank Conroy, one of my teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I admired his commitment to precision in fiction. He treated fiction as a reflection of life, rather than coming to it from an abstract critical-theory framework. I think he recognized a certain contrariness in my nature and encouraged me to embrace it. He said I didn’t have to be “a good girl” in the writing.
Also Marilynne Robinson, who understood that literature was the one form of art that concerns itself with moral questions and that makes visible people’s tendency to justify their own actions.