Monday, February 17, 2014

Allow me to introduce -- Anna Kashina

She is a mother of two, a cellular biologist, a fantasy novelist, a friend of twenty plus years without whom I would not have read The Lord of the Rings when I did, and not seen Star Wars when I did; a girl, unchanged by time, at whom I marvel to this day because she is a marvelous person —and because she is still a mystery to me.
The credit for starting this friendship goes to a lab course of immunology. Students had to pair up to do the experiments of the course, so she and I formed a team. We performed classical hands-ons, like letting an antigen and an antibody diffuse towards each other through a slab of jelly, and observing formation of arc-shaped zones where the two met and, if they were a match, formed a precipitate. We too proved a good match.
We studied for our finals together and walked our dogs together. We pierced our ears together. We each landed in our first serious relationship at about the same time, and went through the requisite ups and downs. We both were taking swings at writing fiction, first in our native language, Russian, and later, in English. We went to each other’s weddings. More than once. 
And yet we are so different — ah, let me count the ways. I can’t imagine why she’d prefer instant coffee to espresso. I had picked up martial arts when she’d picked up ballroom dancing (and went on to become a far better dancer than I — a martial artist). Many-many years ago, before Peter Jackson’s movies, we almost had a fight about the physical appearance of hobbits. And did I mention? She writes fantasy. I don’t, I’m pretty sure. But let me tell you: many years from now, we joke, we may just end up moving in together as two old blue-hairs. We’ll probably fight about hobbits, among other things. It would be fun.
Today, in anticipation of the release of the first book of Anna’s new Majat Code trilogy, Blades of the Old Empire (Angry Robot Books, Feb 25, 2014), and as media outlets talk about the book, allow me the liberty to talk about the author.

Anna came to the States from Russia as a postdoctoral fellow, in 1994, and spent three years at the University of California, Davis. Then she moved to Caltech where she worked for another three years. Her fellowship at UC Davis was a success, yielding a publication in a top biomedical journal, Nature; but work at Caltech, while going reasonably well, was overshadowed by a brewing conflict with the head of the lab, a strong-willed and opinionated professor. By that time Anna had written her first fantasy novel in English. One day, on an airplane, she sat next to a guy who said he was starting an independent press. Anna pitched the novel. After some months of hard work, the book came out in print.
A fairy tale beginning? You bet. Then our starry-eyed first-time novelist gave an interview to Caltech’s newsletter, and her boss, the above-mentioned strong-willed professor happened to read it. Coincidentally, the conflict went up a notch: writing fantasy novels did not fit with the notion of the complete and utter dedication to science that was supposed to be practiced in the lab. The time spent writing about made-up girls in magic places should have been spent thinking about science — after hours, weekends, no matter.

Anna spent perfectly miserable months in an increasingly adversarial environment, while trying to bring her research project to completion so that the results could be published. It was a matter of professional pride, but it was harder and harder to keep a clear line of sight. She used to be an absolute neatnik as far as her lab bench and records were concerned, but now, even being neat and orderly somehow seemed to imply her inferiority as a researcher. That’s when she started learning ballroom dancing — it was a pastime popular with a gang of Caltech’s graduate students, with whom she hung out. She danced almost every night; it helped her cope. Years later she would go on to compete at the Gold level, at the time, life in science was falling apart, and to add insult to injury, her marriage was falling apart too.
In 2000 she finally gave up, quit her job, divorced, moved to Florida. She had convinced herself she had no future and no aptitude whatsoever in science. She was depressed. Her last employer was not about to write her a letter of recommendation — which meant finding her next job in biomedical research would be that much harder. She tried to find work as a science writer or a free-lance editor — to no avail. She moved in with her future husband. She wrote three novels, including a sequel to her first book, but her original publisher went out of business, the trail got cold, and nobody showed interest in the sequel or the new work. Everything just seemed to be closing in around her. So she danced. And wrote about the goddess of dance.

One day two years later she opened an issue of Science, another top-notch biomedical journal, and saw her name credited in a paper published by the professor she’d used to work for. Her work had not been useless, or dead-end after all, quite the opposite, it broke open a whole new field. Friends started to tell her to get back into research. A former colleague and friend found money for a temporary position at the University of Connecticut. She went. She remembers feeling a sense of endless gratitude — to the gods of simple laboratory techniques, I suppose — for letting things work again in her hands. She’d been convinced she’d mess everything up. She could not believe she still was an able experimentalist. But once she regained her confidence, there was no stopping her.
With the credit on a Science paper, employment, and a kick-start to her research, she could now apply for faculty jobs. She sent out about a hundred applications and got one invitation for an interview. The one and only chance, she was not going to let it slip away. Faculty candidates are expected to give an hour-long talk about their work — the key part of the interview. Anna rehearsed that talk every day, for about a month.
She nailed the interview and got the job. Within five years she established herself as an accomplished cellular biologist at the University of Pennsylvania. A fairy tale ending? Not yet. All the while, she’s been stubbornly writing and rewriting and revising and trying to publish her novels. Casting into the wild seas of the publishing industry brought more than a share of near misses, close calls, false starts, dashed hopes. I suspect that anyone who’s ever been serious about getting in the door has a similar story to tell (I know I have); some stories are worse than others. In Anna’s case, a certain agent, whose name these days is highlighted on Writers Beware as someone who engages in creative bookkeeping when it comes to writers’ earnings and plays fast and loose with foreign language rights, once contacted her, offering to sell her novels in German translation. The books had been sold, translated, printed. The upshot was actually not as bad as it could have been and some earnings made it back across the Atlantic. But in the end, there was no track record, no engagement here at home.
In 2009 Anna, now an associate professor with an impressive track record and forty research papers to her name, was hastily finishing the last draft of what is now Book One of the Majat Code. She wanted to get it done before the birth of her first child, not because she had an agent’s or a publisher’s deadline — she’d given up on submitting — but because finishing that book was important to her. Then, after her daughter was born, the new mom saw that Angry Robot Books, a prominent UK publisher, announced an open submission period. She sent the manuscript in. It sold.

Now there’s a fairy tale ending. Or is it beginning? These days Anna is busy with two kids, family, lab, and books two and three for the Majat Code trilogy. How she manages to do all that is a complete mystery to me. It is possible that she knows a great secret of productivity, but if you ask her, she’d just shrug. One thing she’d say about it is that it has nothing to do with the word “balance”. It’s more like binge-writing — when the day’s science-work is done —sneaked in when kids are in daycare, or asleep, or looking the other way. It has a lot to do with feeling scatterbrained, overwhelmed, stretched thin. So why do it? Why stretch thin, why double up uncertainties and frustrations inherent both in science and in writing? Does she know the answer? Do I? Because not doing either feels like a loss? There is no miracle in any of it, she’d say, just a whole lot of pushing against a wall and a couple of strikes of luck.
 Which may be all one can hope for.   

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