Release Interview: CASTLE OF CONCRETE – Katia Raina ’15

Tell us about your book. 

CASTLE OF CONCRETE is a young adult novel published with a small literary press, Massachusetts-based New Europe/Young Europe Books, which focuses on promoting and amplifying voices from the former Soviet bloc. My story — which is heavily influenced by memories of growing up in the 90s falling-apart communist Russia — features a Jewish teen reuniting with her brave dissident mother in 1990’s Moscow, and falling in love with a young man who may be anti-Semitic. One review described my story as an allegory, and it’s exactly what it is. Castle of Concrete looks at teen years as a struggle for one’s soul; it looks at the process of nations and people trying to figure themselves out as they grow. Most importantly to me, this book looks at where racial, nationalistic and religious hate comes from and asks a question: what is the cure? I will be honest: the book does not answer the question. It is trying to start — no — continue the important conversation. Whatever we do, I hope we keep talking about it, until we find some good answers!

Where did the inspiration for writing this book come from? 

As I mentioned, the inspiration for this book came from a hodgepodge of experiences of growing up in Soviet Russia and figuring myself out. On the other hand, though, yes, there was one particular incident that always comes to mind when people ask me this question.

I was about 13 years old, I think, and I was in love with a boy. We had a strange up-and-down relationship, but the day of that particular memory was a wonderful, fairytale-type day. The boy was giving me a ride on a bicycle. The weather was glorious. I sat on the handlebars; he had his arms around me. I was afraid to breathe, for fear of shattering this perfect happiness. A stranger somehow (I don’t remember how) accidentally splashed us with mud. My knight in shining armor cursed him out with an anti-Semitic slur.

I did not dare confront him, or ask him if he knew I was actually a Jew. In fact, I never found out if the boy was a true, passionate Russian nationalist and anti-Semite, or if he just did not care. The incident became my secret and my shame for many years, until the writing of Castle allowed me to explore those unanswered questions.  In this story, I explored fear, shame and pride, and what it means to be Jewish. With the help of this story, I was at last able to set myself free.

Were there any unexpected hiccups along the way? 

Ha! It took me three little months to write the first draft. Readers and mentors highly encouraged me along the way, telling me I definitely had something special. It all felt so easy. I signed with my first agent pretty quickly. There was lots of interest. I thought it was going to be a breeze from there. The revision and submission process took 15 years. Fifteen years worth of writing and publishing hiccups. I knew this story was important, but it took time, a few victories, and a whole string of defeats, to get as close to Castle’s core, as close to its truth as possible.

Tell us a little bit about your background before VCFA, and how you came to decide to enter our program. 

I applied to VCFA in the midst of my winding revision process for Castle, excited to explore other possibilities for my writing. You don’t necessarily need a program to become a writer; we all know that. But I also know that I am the type of person who learns best with mentorship. I needed a direction, a structure, a challenge. VCFA was an idea and a dream for many years, before I took what felt like a wild risk at that time, and went for it. At that point, I’d left behind a budding career as a newspaper journalist and stayed home raising two lovely babies, and I still had unpaid journalism school loans to worry about. But the dream pulled on me so hard, it got to the point where fighting didn’t seem to be worth it. I came into VCFA determined to learn what it took to write a book and become a full-time author. It was ironic, really, because after two years of immersing myself so intensely in the art and magic and craft of writing, I came away ready not for full-time authoring, but for a solid new day job that would allow me to support myself financially while I continued exploring what I was capable of as a writer. Being in the program helped me realize that what I thought was going to be the answer to everything, the discovery of a secret formula that would turn me into an author, turned out to be but a launching pad, a beginning. And that was a wonderful thing! Having left the program, I pursued my other dream: becoming a high school teacher. I had to take a quick break from writing at some point, because learning to teach is seriously intense business. But eventually, I came back to writing stronger, more disciplined and more confident.

What year did you graduate from WCYA and what was your class name? 

I graduated in January 2015 with the Darling Assassins. Yes, we slash those darlings and eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

 I don’t know if we were the tightest class, but we were definitely one of the coolest though, making a splash — or should I say, “slash?” and having the best time. We shared inspired readings, wild dances, tears in the wine pit. Today, I try to stay with as many of my fierce writing sibs as possible, and it makes my heart so happy to see us signing with super agents, announcing deals and getting our books into the hands of readers. And we are just getting started.

What about VCFA affected your career and where you are now? 

VCFA was an absolute life-changer for me. I learned basic things about writing I had no idea I hadn’t even known before! I picked up a whole new vocabulary, and found a magical writing community. Everything was absolutely vital: the lectures, the faculty readings, the workshops, the packets, the tears in the wine pit. Unexpectedly, something that had the most profound effect on me was student and poetry readings. At first, those brought out my insecurities in the biggest way — I got into this whole toxic compare and contrast business in which we artists so often find ourselves; I had thought what was my voice compared to all this genius, all this luster? It took me longer than the two years of being in the program to really discover and accept the power of my own voice, and the truth of my own stories. This might sound arrogant, but for this perfectionist and constant comparer, it was necessary.

What would you say to potential students or current students who are hoping to further their writing careers? 

We alumnx constantly tell current VCFA students how lucky they are. “Oh, enjoy every precious moment,” we say to them wistfully. The truth is, we are all extremely lucky, even now. VCFA is not a two-year program. Just like our writing journeys, it’s lifelong.

What indie bookstore do you want WCYA to support in the purchase of your book? 

Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN. I have just moved here recently, and because the physical store has been closed due to COVID, I’ve not been able to introduce myself and my little book yet. But they are within walking distance of my new home, which had been a dream. And I can’t wait to get to know them better once the pandemic is over. Please support them to allow them to hang in there, in the meantime! 🙂

We are heeding the Brown Bookshelf’s call to action and raising up Black authors. In the vein of “if you like my book, you may also like this book,” what is the name of a book by a Black author that you recommend or are interested in supporting? 

If you decide to pick up Castle of Concrete, you are likely interested in reading about other cultures and hearing unusual voices. One of my favorite Black author titles that comes to mind is Pet by a Nigerian writer, Akwaeke Emezi. Pet is way cooler than my book (and this isn’t me unfairly compare-and-contrasting, this is just the truth, and I am totally comfortable with it!). If you have not yet read it, you’ve got to. The reason I think it’s so cool is because it has magic: dark, lovely and completely surprising. But it also explores mother-daughter and other human relationships just like my story does. It delves into the weirdness of a loved child becoming a teen and so having to grow wings of her own. It also explores courage, which is a crucial topic for me as well. It explores friendship, as a way to defeat hate. Just like my protagonist Sonya, Pet’s heroine Jam sometimes sounds and comes off very childlike, and I love that! It used to be a taboo in YA, to have characters that sound so young. Young, and growing wiser as the pages are turning. I love seeing how the industry is opening up to allow more weirdness in. More difference. That can only be wonderful.

CASTLE OF CONCRETE is published by New Europe Books, June 11, 2019.

When she was a child, Katia Raina played at construction sites and believed in magic mirrors. She emigrated from Russia at the age of almost sixteen. A former journalist and now a high school English teacher at an alternative school in Nashville, TN, she has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Nashville with her family.

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