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  • Writer's pictureChristine Sneed

Interview with Debut Novelist Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

From the publisher’s description of The Orchard:

Coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, best friends Anya and Milka try to envision a free and joyful future for themselves. They spend their summers at Anya’s dacha just outside of Moscow, lazing in the apple orchard, listening to Queen songs, and fantasizing about trips abroad and the lives of American teenagers. Meanwhile, Anya’s parents talk about World War II, the Blockade, and the hardships they have endured. By the time Anya and Milka are fifteen, the Soviet Empire is on the verge of collapse. They pair up with classmates Trifonov and Lopatin, and the four friends share secrets and desires, argue about history and politics, and discuss forbidden books. But the world is changing, and the fleeting time they have together is cut short by a sudden tragedy. Years later, Anya returns to Russia from America, where she has chosen a different kind of life, far from her family and childhood friends. When she meets Lopatin again, he is a smug businessman who wants to buy her parents’ dacha and cut down the apple orchard. Haunted by the ghosts of her youth, Anya comes to the stark realization that memory does not fade or disappear; rather, it moves us across time, connecting our past to our future, joys to sorrows. Inspired by Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s The Orchard powerfully captures the lives of four Soviet teenagers who are about to lose their country and one another, and who struggle to survive, to save their friendship, to recover all that has been lost.

1. The Orchard has a first-person narrator, Anya, who is a teenager when the novel begins. Will you comment on the challenges and pleasures of writing in the first person? Was The Orchard ever in third person (or second person)?

The Orchard grew out of my short story, “Champions of the World,” which I’d written as a graduate student at Hollins University. The story was always in the first person, which allowed me to achieve a certain degree of intimacy. Anya has a very distinct, somewhat lonely, somewhat lyrical voice, and when I was writing the novel, I followed that voice. It seemed deliciously compelling, and I couldn’t resist it. Nor could I risk changing it. So much of the novel relies on that voice, which is at once a confession and a plea, a prayer and an absolution. The challenge of writing in the first person is that at some point, you fuse with the protagonist and her story, and it becomes impossible to separate your own voice from that of the protagonist, truth from fiction. You end up unearthing your own secrets and seeking ways to justify your own sins. For a fictional character, it strips away authenticity.

2. Like Anya and Milka, you were a teenager in Russia during the 1980s and eventually moved to the U.S. Are there other aspects of The Orchard inspired by events you personally experienced?

Yes. I talk about it at large in my author’s note at the end of the book. The character of Milka is inspired by my childhood friend, who disappeared from my life when I was a teenager. I’ve never been able to find out the truth. Instead, I made up a story to commemorate our friendship. Also, The Orchard, is set at the backdrop of perestroika, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, all of which I witnessed. Oddly, the conversations between Anya’s parents, neighbors, and friends are similar to those Russian people have today, especially since the war in Ukraine. The same fears, the same uncertainty, the same division of opinions—all of it is very much present in my home country.

3. Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard serves as a touchstone for this novel. Please comment on this - was its influence there from the beginning, i.e. when you committed the first words of The Orchard to the page?

The Orchard is indeed my humble homage to Chekhov’s play. The idea came to me one summer, when I visited Russia and watched The Cherry Orchard at Moscow Art Theater, where the play had first been staged a century ago. The similarities between Chekhov’s play and my story were disconcerting. Just like Chekhov’s characters, mine, too, seemed to have been trapped in the country’s historic past, the never-ending poverty, class struggle, and the abuse of power. And many arguments and conversations Chekhov’s characters held on-stage sounded heartbreakingly familiar, reminiscent of those my friends and I had in 1987, right after we graduated. When I left the theater that evening, I knew that I wanted to write a novel about four young people coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, and also to explore a personal tragedy instigated by a collective nightmare, the political chaos and utter lawlessness my generation had endured and that continues to haunt Russians today.

A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry was raised by a mother who believed that unless you read every day, you did not deserve dinner. Kristina graduated from Moscow State Linguistic University and worked as a school teacher and an interpreter before moving to the United States. She received an M.A. in English from Radford University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University. Kristina’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Zoetrope: All-Story, Joyland, Electric Literature, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Epiphany, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Flyway, Slice, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been nominated for 9 Pushcart Prizes and was a finalist for multiple awards, including the 2016 Dundee International Book Prize, the 2019 Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and the 2020 Indiana Review Fiction Prize. Kristina is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Kristina’s debut collection of stories, What Isn't Remembered, won the 2020 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and was long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize.

The Orchard is her first novel.

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