The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities for Canadians. With work-from-home and stay-at-home measures in place, it limited Canadians’ ability to connect with one another. At the same time, for many, it provided more downtime — for those with a love of reading, that meant more opportunities to dive into new books, poems, stories and adventures.
RBC and the Writers’ Trust of Canada seized the moment to connect writers and readers in a unique way. RBC Book Club celebrates and profiles Canadian writers while giving clients exclusive access to learn the writer’s journey, get behind-the-scenes insight into their process and even discover advice for those who aspire to write themselves.
Maria Reva, who won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2018, was a finalist for the 2020 Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her collection of linked short stories Good Citizens Need Not Fear. Set in Soviet-era Ukraine, the book connects the lives of the residents of a crumbling apartment block in the industrial town of Kirovka. The stories span the years leading up to and immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union and follow the good citizens as they devise ingenious ways to survive chaotic times.
In the first RBC Book Club event, Reva discusses her collection, her writing style, her journey and her upcoming work. Hosted by Hurriya Burney, Vice President Commercial Banking at RBC and moderated by critically acclaimed author Elisabeth de Mariaffi, the event proved to be a warm, engaging and insightful conversation between Elisabeth, Maria, RBC and the audience.
Here are some of the highlights of the discussion.
Q: In the opening story we meet Daniil, who is in line to report that his building has no heat, and he is told the building does not exist. There is a surreal absurdity to this situation, but it also may not be out of the realm of possibility. What was your inspiration?
Reva: Your instincts are right on the money. I was having a conversation with my parents about our old building in Ukraine. The first winter the heat didn’t turn on. When my dad went to the town hall, they looked up the address and they said: “There’s no address like that, the building isn’t there so we can’t do anything about the issue you’re having.” He had to go on a wild goose chase to prove the building existed.
This was the first time I heard the story and knew it was ripe for writing. It became the first story in the collection. After I wrote that story, I started wondering what the other tenants of the building were doing in this turbulent historical period. The experience of me writing this book was like walking through the building, turning on the lights one by one, floor by floor.
Q: When did you know you were writing a collection of linked short stories
Reva: I knew these stories were going to be set in the same building, so I knew there would be some kind of connection somewhere. At first, the characters kept to themselves in their suites, which was my experience living there. But because these living quarters are so cramped and walls so thin, you still know what’s going on with your neighbours, so your lives have to intersect. The connection of these neighbours mirrors the structure of the book – the stories start out separate, but they become more intertwined as you read.
Q: The character Zaya doesn’t begin in the apartment building at all. How did you come to write her stories?
Reva: While I was researching the state of orphanages in the Soviet Union — and what happened after the Soviet Union fell apart — I came across a human rights report. There was a little girl who was written about who had a cleft lip and because there was no one to advocate for corrective surgery, she couldn’t speak and had to grunt her way through life.
Once the girl was deemed disabled, she disappeared from the report. I thought that was so heartbreaking. I wanted to imagine an answer for myself for what happened to this little girl. That’s why Zaya appears then disappears throughout the book. She weaves between these stories because that was my experience of trying to follow this little girl. I wanted her to reappear.
Q: The Soviet era seems like a bygone time in the West. What made you want to write about that time and place?
Reva: I had such a happy childhood because my parents loved me – I felt so cushioned. But as I got older and started hearing what was actually going on, the more I heard about how difficult that time was, so I wanted to explore it further. Also, it was just such a crazy time in history – a swing from the tightly controlled system of communism to a total jungle of capitalism where people were left to fend for themselves.
Q: What are you working on next?
Reva: I wanted to try a different form, so accepted the challenge of writing a novel. I was actually working on two at the same time. One of them was a secret and one was the official novel I was supposed to be working on — the proposal I had sent to my publisher. But every time I worked on it I felt this horrible pressure. So, I started a little pet project that I didn’t tell anyone about, which allowed me to write in this anonymity where there was no pressure. I worked in secret for a long time until the deadline for my novel was looming and I had to fess up and tell them about the other secret project.
Q: How is your process different for writing novels and short stories?
Reva: I’m still figuring that out. With my original novel, I was so worried that I didn’t have enough material that I went through a five-week period of almost vomiting material — I wrote an entire draft in five weeks. It felt nice at the time but when I read back the material was so raw, I didn’t know what to do with it. The prospect of trying to edit it was daunting. So, for the second novel, I began working episodically — I don’t let myself get too far ahead before having a palatable section to edit. I am working in chunks now, which is like working on a story.
Q: Has writing always been a passion and a calling?
Reva: I always journaled as a kid and when my sister moved away from home we would write long emails to each other and I really enjoyed doing that. I didn’t think I had enough imagination to take the leap into fiction — but at one point in my life I worked in a village in France teaching English at the high school. There wasn’t a lot to do in terms of city life but there was a great library and I had a lot of time to read and to write — I found fiction was a lot of fun.
In my last year of undergrad at UBC, I took a creative writing course and loved it. Two of the three assignments we had to do ended up getting published (after years of rejection, redrafting and reworking). This gave me the confidence to keep going. I began applying for MFA programs because I wanted that time to focus on my writing. These programs offer funding as well. I did my MFA at the University of Texas and had three years of my life funded, which was incredible.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Reva: If you’re trying to figure out money — because that’s going to be the biggest obstacle — think about whether you want to pull from the same creative well in your day job. For example, if you’re writing marketing copy as your day job, I see that as the same well as creative writing. For some people that may energize them, but for others that may sap their energy so it would be best to do a job completely separate from writing. I did construction work. While I was physically exhausted at the end of the day, I was mentally clear. It’s important to figure out how to align the blocks of your life.
Q: What would you tell those who are struggling for funding?
Reva: The lovely thing about writing is that you don’t need a lot of resources to get started. You have your laptop or a piece of paper and your own head. The harder thing to find, of course, is time. But the threshold of entry is quite low. My note of encouragement for people is to find a community of writers to comment on your work — sharing work is a good way to get started.
Q: What sort of impact does an organization like the Writers’ Trust have on emerging writers?
Reva: It has a huge impact. I was fortunate enough to have won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award as I was coming out of the MFA program. It was a $10,000 prize and it made me feel so much more confident about the future.
I was also a recipient of one of the Writers’ Trust emergency grants at the beginning of the pandemic. It was such a turbulent time, and I was worried that publishing contracts were going to get cancelled. Author tours were being cancelled. It’s incredible to have that resource in the Writers’ Trust.
Q: You’ve won a number of awards throughout your career. What is the impact of prizes and awards on your confidence and production as a writer?
Reva: They are certainly confidence building and it’s nice to have the external validation because you spend so long working in the dark by yourself — so it’s nice to know that others like your work. But it has to be a balancing act because after a certain number of awards it almost feels like you can’t match the quality in your next project. That’s why I go to Goodreads. If I feel my ego is getting too high and interfering with my writing, I go to the one-star filter on Goodreads and read all the awful things people write about me and I’m a newborn — I can write anything I want because it doesn’t matter anyway.
There is what writer Elizabeth McCracken calls a “kinetic energy” between two states of being as an artist. One state is: ‘I’m a genius, I can write anything I want,’ — which is an important state to be in when starting new projects. The other state is: ‘I’m a fraud, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ When you move between these states it creates this interesting energy that feeds your writing. It’s all about balance and calibration.
The Writers’ Trust of Canada is a nonprofit organization that champions Canadian writers at every stage of their career, providing funding, recognition, space and time to create transformative work. In 2020, the Writers’ Trust distributed $970,000 to Canadian writers, including close to $400,000 of emergency funding to Canadian writers who were in crisis as a result of the pandemic. Since 2006, the RBC Foundation has sponsored the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, which celebrates authors of fiction and poetry, providing much-needed support and recognition at the start of a new writer’s career.
Good Citizens Need Not Fear can be purchased in paperback, digital and audio formats.
This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.