The Little Book That Could

26 Feb 2015 | 04:12

A good book is discovered by a big publisher

By Aspen Matis

Emily Rubin, 55, is a youthful-looking former dancer whose debut novel, Stalina, was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. We spoke with Rubin in her colorful East Village apartment about teaching fiction writing to cancer patients, buying her apartment from the city of New York (for only $250!), the origin of the name Stalina and storytelling in laundromats.

Tell us about Stalina's journey to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; I know the book followed an exciting path to publication. Yes! Stalina was a pick in the Amazon Debut Novel Award contest in 2010. It was published through that in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. It did quite well-sold 3,000 copies-and was picked up by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [HMH]. Now the initial print run is bigger-I'm not exactly sure how big. I believe in the book. It has an audience that's pretty broad. HMH is giving an unknown author a chance to have some legs. I am thrilled; HMH has taken the edge off thinking I was crazy to think I'd ever get published. There's a writer's life for me to pursue.

Tell us, without giving too much away, about Stalina's story. An older Russian immigrant comes to the States after the fall of the Soviet Union, takes a job at a short-stay motel and convinces the owner to let her transform the rooms into fantasy settings-rooms that encourage their visitors to exit the everyday and enter a playful fantasy world. The motel becomes popular and the rooms become portals to Stalina's childhood in Russia.

Stalina is such a loaded name. Why did you choose it for your protagonist? One of the community classes I taught was in Brighton Beach. All of my students were older Russian immigrants. When I asked them to tell the stories of their names, I found many had come from poets or soldiers or scientists or even scientific discoveries. One woman was Stalina. She explained that she was named for Stalin. Although it was a brutal name to carry and her classmates suggested she change it, she felt changing it would bury her country's history. She would not change it.

As you wrote Stalina, were you also teaching? I worked in television broadcasting for almost 20 years-something that has afforded me my writing life. I've also taught writing workshops in New York City public schools, community centers, community colleges. Now I'm teaching a workshop at Beth Israel Hospital for cancer patients. I had breast cancer in 2008. Now I'm all clear! I wanted to give people who were going through treatment the opportunity to write about things not cancer-related as a break. People have complex lives. They're not just cancer.

Where do you like to write in the city? I'm kind of a homebound writer. When I'm outside in the neighborhood, I observe. I like to be sequestered away when I'm writing. I love people watching and eavesdropping in Manhattan.

Your apartment is so lovely. We totally renovated the apartment from rubble. This building was a homestead-collectively the tenants fixed up the building. Everyone renovated their own apartments. We purchased the building from the city for $10,000. We purchased our apartment for $250. Each apartment cost $250.

Tell me about the reading series you produce in laundromats. "Dirty Laundry Loads of Prose" is a reading series that takes place in laundromats. Two writers and sometimes a musician will, over the course of an hour, read and perform their work. I produce it. The last one had several writers, and I asked them to write short pieces about a stain and present them. We called it "Remains of the Stain." Chocolate, lipstick, blood. Interesting work.

To read more about Rubin, visit Top Photo Credit: Stalina. Photo Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt