We talked to Irina Kovalyova, author and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University, about her latest collection of stories, Specimen. The stories in Specimen are all held together using elements of science, drawing from Irina’s extensive work experience—she was once a Forensic DNA Analyst and NASA Intern—and educational background—she has an MA in Chemistry and PhD in Microbiology and Immunology. Here’s what she had to say about her story ideas, writing processes, and inspirations:
1. You’re currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University, and have previously studied and worked in fields relating to biology, including an internship with NASA in the summer of 2001. Where, amongst all the time you spent (and currently spend) in biology, did your desire to begin writing stem from?
I began to write when I was seven. According to my mother, I had to miss a week of school in second grade due to strep throat, and under the influence of Russian science fiction novels, decided to write my own. I asked my father to get me three thick, expensive notebooks, only found in stationery stores. He suggested I start with one, but I needed three because in my mind I envisioned Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3. To my father’s credit, he did not ask me any further questions, and went to the store after work to buy me three notebooks. Thereafter, I wasted no time composing and illustrating 25 implausible pages of “The Adventures of Professor Bortollo,” but failed to produce the intended project in full length due to convalescence and the subsequent return to school.
So, I’ve always wanted to write stories. But in seventh grade, I fell in love with chemistry after our teacher burned a spoonful of phosphorus in a fume hood. It was amazing to watch one substance transform into another right in front of my eyes! So much drama! I wanted to study chemistry immediately and did so for a long time. When I came to the U.S., I discovered biochemistry—the chemistry of living things—and from there took interest in microbiology, molecular biology, and so on. But I never stopped wanting to write stories. It’s only now, because of my training in science, my stories contain plausible and (hopefully) interesting science.
2. Where did the idea to write a collection of short stories all held together and sprinkled with elements of science come from?
A writer friend of mine tells me that people often ask him about where he gets his ideas. His response is always the same, “I read.” If I had to answer this question, I would add to his answer “newspapers” and “a lot.” Many stories in newspapers are not only stranger than fiction but are also a treasure trove of ideas for writing it. The best part is that the things I read about in newspapers have actually happened to real people, like you and me. I try to read as widely and as much as possible, despite a busy schedule, at least 50 pages a day.
In my case, I’m less of a folklorist and more of a rebel. I like to explore weird questions, say unexpected things, and break the rules.
The ideas for the stories in Specimen came from my own experience in life and in biochemistry, and from my teaching. The stories didn’t seem particularly connected as I was writing them, but when I began to think about putting them into a collection, all of them had a common thematic center and intersected at the question of our identity. Or, as I’d like to think of it, making an illegal U-turn at the intersection of nature and nurture.
3. The stories in Specimen vary from personality altering botox injections (“Side Effects”), to being trapped in an underground parking lot after an earthquake (“The Big One”). Where does your inspiration come from when writing a short story?
Inspiration is such a wide word! (Can a word be wide?) I mean only that it contains a lot. I am inspired by all sorts of events in the course of a single day—experiments in the lab with my students, conversations with friends, philosophical questions my six-year-old daughter asks— it’s hard to keep track of different influences that surface in my writing. I imagine that inspiration is a little bit like a vast neural network, with all linkages interconnected, even though individual neurons might be firing at different times.
My mother told me the other day that to be a writer, it is desirable to rely on folklore, to improvise, and to be a little rebellious. In my case, I’m less of a folklorist and more of a rebel. I like to explore weird questions, say unexpected things, and break the rules.
4. You’ve lived in several cities growing up—Moscow, New York, Providence, Vancouver, and more. Does your experience living in all these cities influence the way your write, or the settings in which your stories take place?
I’ve been very fortunate to live in many places: all of them have enriched me in some way. New York City was a terrific place to live when I was younger: I have so many impressions of it that I’m still digesting it all, it seems. My experience working as a DNA Analyst in the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office made its subconscious way into “The Blood Keeper” (the novella in Specimen), in which one of the characters is an embalmer. My tiny apartment on the Upper East Side was five blocks away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I used to go there on Friday nights (the Museum remained open until 9 o’clock in the evening in those days). Well, let me tell you something: at night, when there aren’t a lot of people around those old oil paintings move! Sculptures too! It’s surreal. And I saw a bas-relief there that inspired a story in Specimen called “The Ecstasy of Edgar Alabaster.”
Kingston, Ontario, was a wonderful place to explore while I was in graduate school. The Limestone City is beautifully quaint: I always felt that there was something very ‘ghostly’ about it — so many old houses with all of the stories inside them. I loved Providence, Rhode Island, for the same reason: when I lived there I felt enmeshed in the history of New England. Providence is also the birthplace of H. P. Lovecraft, the early master of American horror fiction, whom I read as a child in Russia and whose dark tales of esoteric knowledge terrified me to pieces. I summoned the courage one day to visit his gravestone in Swan Point Cemetery. His gravestone is very simple: a plain slab of gray stone with his name and the dates of birth and death chiseled out, underneath which are the capitalized words “I AM PROVIDENCE.”
But after all, I’m very happy to be living in Canada and in Vancouver. Canada is my home. I can’t see myself living anywhere else. All stories in Specimen are a reflection of my newfound land.
5. What is your process like when it comes to sitting down and actually writing a short story? Are there any must-haves (e.g. a hot cup of coffee, or music in the background) that help you write?
I don’t write anything in one sitting. I know that works for some people, and I applaud them, but it has never worked for me. Writing, for me, is definitely a process; usually, a long one. Each of my stories undergoes multiple reiterations. I take frequent breaks to mull things over, and often leave a story untouched for weeks after several drafts. I find I always need that distance to see things that don’t work or could work better. The final draft doesn’t look very much like the first at all. The seed of the original idea always makes it to the final version in one form or another, but by then its DNA would have mutated a lot.
As for must-haves, I wake up at 4 in the morning to write, so getting up early is one of them. Another two are a balanced breakfast and vigorous exercise.
6. Included amongst the short stores in Specimen is the novella “The Blood Keeper.” Does this mean we can expect to see a full novel from you in the future that draws upon the same underlying scientific approach as found in Specimen?
I hope so. I’m writing a novel right now, and so far it’s been pretty scientific.
I am inspired by all sorts of events in the course of a single day—experiments in the lab with my students, conversations with friends, philosophical questions my six-year-old daughter asks— it’s hard to keep track of different influences that surface in my writing.
7. Which authors or stories would you say have had the most influence on your own writing?
When I lived in Russia, I read a lot of Russian classic authors (Pushkin, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy): we had to do it in school. But I also read science fiction writers of the early twentieth century, especially Mikhail Bulgakov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Alexander Belyaev. I also adored Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Wilkie Collins. I always loved Poe. After moving to North America, I began to read in English, and discovered Margaret Atwood, Michael Crichton, and Kurt Vonnegut. All of these phenomenal authors have undoubtedly influenced my writing.
8. What are you reading right now?
I’m re-reading The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. Last year, the Faculty of Science at Simon Fraser University asked for proposals for new breadth courses for non-science majors. Immediately, I thought of pitching a Molecular Biology course in Science Fiction. I developed it last Fall and I’m happy to say that the University approved it and I will be teaching SCI190 Mutants and Monsters this September. Instead of a final exam, students will write a fictional short story containing plausible and (hopefully) interesting science. I’m pretty excited about exposing English Literature majors to the drama of biochemistry!
The stories in Specimen are a unique exploration of science and the human heart; the place where physical reality collides with our spiritual and emotional lives.
In “The Blood Keeper,” a young academic travels to North Korea to work on her dissertation and embarks on a dangerous affair. In “Mamochka,” which was nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize, an archivist at the Institute for Physics in Minsk, must come to terms with her daughter’s marriage to a Chinese man in Vancouver. In “Peptide P,” scientists study a disease that seems to affect children after they eat hotdogs. In “Side Effects,” a woman’s personality is altered, and not necessarily for the better, by botox injections. In “The Big One,” a woman and her daughter find themselves trapped in the rubble of an underground parking garage after an earthquake.
Stylistically varied and with settings that range from North Korea and Minsk to Vancouver and Gdansk, Kovalyova is daring and confident new voice in Canadian fiction.