Author Maria Kostaki, a native of Moscow, has bebopped between Athens, Greece and New York City much of her life, and managed to collect an impressive writing resume along the way. She has worked as an editor and staff writer for Odyssey magazine in Athens and New York, and her nonfiction has appeared in Elle Décor and Insider Magazine.
Her debut novel, Pieces, follows Sasha as she is abandoned by her mother and shuffled between older relatives in Cold War-era Moscow.
Kostaki recently answered some of my questions about how she developed her love of writing, her journalism background, and the inspiration for Pieces.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Maria Kostaki: Never. I think I just always was, in some form. I remember from a very early age, it was the only way I could express myself. From elementary school onwards, I’d come home, go to my room, and write a story about my day in my diary.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
MK: I was born in Russia, so a huge library of a rich literary culture hung above my head as a child. Metaphorically speaking. In high school, I feel in love with Jane Eyre, in college with the postmodernists, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch fascinated me, the nonlinear, the unconventional. Then the magical realists, with Gabriel García Márquez on the throne, and, finally, Toni Morisson, my all-time hero.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
MK: Outline? What’s that? Music, yes, always. But classical. Lyrics interrupt my train of thought.
DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out?
MK: After finishing my BA in Literature, I got a job at a small English-language magazine in Greece. By the end of my two-year full-time stay there, I was torn between pursuing an MFA in nonfiction and a graduate degree in journalism. I applied to two universities, one for each, and let fate decide.
Having said that, the state of journalism in 2000, when I stepped into my first class at NYU, and the state of journalism today, are extremely different. We barely knew what online journalism was, there was one class that you could take as an elective. Our biggest dream was to get published in The New York Times, and back then, it was an attainable one. Today, everyone is a journalist. The thing that I treasure most from what I learnt while working as a journalist is to double check sources, assess their credibility, double check sources, assess their credibility. There’s so much information out there, so many opinions, misquotes, misinformation, it’s crazy. You have to know how to filter. The best example I’ve lived through is Greece during the past few weeks. People are bombarded with sensationalism here; it’s created a misinformed nation of panic.
DF: Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?
MK: I interviewed Nia Vardalos a few days before “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” hit the screens. She was hilarious, scared, self-conscious, real. I called up her father who lived in a town in Canada I’d never heard of, and I remember him saying about how he’ll wave to me from the bleachers of the Olympic Stadium in Greece in 2004. He also mentioned that he doesn’t use Windex as a cure for everything.
DF: How did the idea for Pieces originate?
MK: It originated from me. The book is about me. Anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes will be able to figure it out. But it’s not a memoir. There is lots of fiction, lots of exaggeration, lots of combining numbers of real people into a single character. It’s a story of a girl’s life that just happens to have a lot in common with her author.
DF: How much of yourself and your experiences in Russia and the United States. did you put into your novel?
MK: Oops, got ahead of myself there, above. Russia, a lot. The story about waiting in line for butter only to find it sold out, was very true. The United States, very little, almost nothing. My time in Russia was richer in material for fiction. In New York, we all have our glory stories.
DF: How did you go about developing your characters?
MK: I took people I knew and built on them. Most of them are a kind of caricature. I took their worst and best characteristics and turned them up ten notches. And then made some stuff up. I also chose real people who may have disappointed me at times in life and wrote them into who I’d wanted them to be, had them grow as I imagined they should have. It’s an amazing power, writing.
DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in Pieces?
MK: Abandonment. Loss. Grief. Resilience. Love. Friendship.
DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?
MK: To be completely honest, so far, I’ve managed to do one at a time. I’m currently trying to combine a form of writing with the marketing of my work. I’ve started a social media project on my Facebook page called #wegreeks. I use it as a creative outlet, yet at the same time, as it’s on my professional page, it gives me a way for thousands of people that read my posts each week, a glimpse into Pieces.
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
MK: Novel two.
DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
MK: Just write. Let go of fears, insecurities, what ifs. Even though they fuel the writing process, you must let go of them to actually write. Trust me, they don’t really go anywhere. No matter how much you let go, they’ll be back.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
MK: Soft cheese, ripe fruit, and the smell of mushroom soup gross me out.