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June 2, 2014

Book Notes - Kseniya Melnik "Snow in May"

Snow in May

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The nine stories in Kseniya Melnik's debut collection Snow in May beautifully depict life in the stark, remote Russian port town of Magadan.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:

"Melnik tackles tragic subject matter while dramatizing daily struggles, giving equal weight to both. With dry humor and detailed description, Melnik creates a historically enlightening time capsule of an unfamiliar world."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Kseniya Melnik's Book Notes music playlist for her short story collection, Snow in May:


Music is very important to my creative process. While writing Snow in May, l listened to everything from contemporary and retro Russian pop songs, film soundtracks ("The Man Who Cried," "La Mala Educacion"), Young Pioneer camp songs, Red Army marches, and Slavic folks songs, to American indie singer-song writers (Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith, Wilco, Regina Spektor), to a whole ocean of classical music. The soundtrack to my first book is the soundtrack to my twenties, really, and I couldn't possibly mention everything here. Some albums put me in the right mood for writing and thinking, others seemed to perfectly match the emotional disposition of my characters, and yet others simply reminded me of Russia. Below is the selection of a few of my main influences. 

"To ne veter vetky klonit…" This is the beautiful and sad Russian song that my characters sing in "Kruchina," which is the oldest story in the collection. I started writing it in late 2004/early 2005, so, in a way, the story and the song are the godmothers of my whole book. We've always loved this song in my family and often sang it in polyphony. I used to think of it as a folk song, but as I was doing some further research for the permissions page of my book, I learned that it was actually written by A. Varlamov (with lyrics by S. Stromilov). Varlamov might have picked up the melody from traveling through the villages and listening to the local peasants sing the songs they’ve sang for hundreds of years. I always thought of it as a woman’s song because I only knew the first two couplets—that is why I strongly identified it with the main character from "Kruchina"—but the words in the later couplets suggest a groom whose bride had died and he doesn’t want to live anymore without her. Although, I found versions where the genders are switched depending on the gender of the singer.

The Songs of Vadim Kozin. The last story in the collection, "Our Upstairs Neighbor," is inspired by the life of the Soviet tenor, Vadim Kozin. Born in St. Petersburg, he served two terms in the Gulag camps in Magadan's vicinity and lived the rest of his life in Magadan. My favorite songs are "When Youth Passes," "Autumn," "Last Time," as well as "I Live On Port Street," which is about Magadan.

Songs of Veronika Dolina. Dolina is a Soviet and Russian poet and singer-song writer who accompanies herself on the guitar. Her songs are very intimate, very personal; the lyrics often describe the inner lives of women, their concerns, heartaches, and dreams. Two of my favorites are "Megera," a song about migraine and "Emigracia," about emigration. Dolina's songs helped me get inside the heads of the women in my book, particularly Tanya in "Love, Italian Style" and Masha in "Kruchina," women who want to be loved and appreciated while they are alive, who want more beauty and poetry in their lives.

Songs of Oleg Mitiaev. Mitiaev is another Soviet and Russian bard singer-song writer who sings about the Soviet Union and Russia, immigration, memory, the beauty of everyday life, love and family, small sorrows and joys. For me, listening to these songs is like taking a time machine back to the 70s, 80s, 90s. Mitiaev is astonishing on a purely poetic level, too. Any writer would be jealous of the surprising, vivid imagery in his lyrics. I listened to a lot of Mitiaev while writing "Closed Fracture." My favorites are "Summer-This Little Life," "Song For the Eldest Daughter," and "Neighbor."

Here is a couplet from "Neighbor" in my translation:

Light will merge into the door crack,
Door will quietly click,
Elevator will obediently count up the floors…
By morning the snow will cover everything,
And it’s not even so bad
That at home the knives are unsharpened.

Russian pop songs of the '90s. There are certain pop songs from the 90s that perfectly encapsulate that decade for me and plunge me right back into my teenage self—full of angst, yearning, and dreams of bright, unknown future. My favorites are "Zheltye Tulpany" (Yellow Tulips) by Natasha Koroleva, "Milaya Moya" (My Darling) by Andrei Gubin, and  "Zimnyaya Vishnya" (Winter Cherry) by Angelica Varum. I listened to these songs while writing "Winter Medicine" and "Our Upstairs Neighbor."

Songs of Ivan Kupala. The band remixes traditional Russian folk songs with electronic music and an upbeat base line. Sometimes, when I got a bit down about the problems my characters were dealing with in the stories, I listened to Ivan Kupala to remind myself that it wasn't all gloom, political repressions, and long lines. A few beats of "Vroshe" and I wanted to leap up from my desk and jump around.

Classical Music. I listen to a lot of classical music when writing. It tunes the strings of my mind to the right contemplative tonality. While working on Snow in May, I found myself returning over and over to Arvo Pärt's album "Sanctuary," the choral works of Maurice Duruflé, especially "Lux Aeterna" and the Motets, Eric Satie's "Gymnopedies" and "Gnossiennes," and the orchestral pieces of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is my favorite Russian composer and I especially love Piano Concerto #1 In B Flat Minor, the Polonaise from "Eugene Onegin," and the entire Swan Lake ballet.

Cocteau Twins. Cocteau Twins is one of my favorite bands to listen to while writing. Their wild psychedelic melodies with French-ish lyrics tickle my imagination and introduce an element of playfulness and joke into my writing sessions. My favorites are "Cherry-coloured Funk," "Pitch The Baby," and "Fotzepolitic."

The Beatles. The Beatles are my religion, and I can always use a major dose of faith when writing.


Kseniya Melnik and Snow in May links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book ("Strawberry Lipstick")

Independent review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Yorker review
Omnivoracious post by the author
San Francisco Chronicle review

Granta interview with the author
People Who Write interview with the author
Raincoast Books interview with the author
TSP interview with the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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