Katya Apekina’s ‘Mother Doll’ Is an L.A. Novel Where the Dead Get to Speak

Apekina leans into the absurd sides of reality—a magicians-only club, pet psychics, Rasputin—as her protagonist navigates an unexpected pregnancy, a disintegrating relationship, and an aging grandmother.

Katya Apekina’s ‘Mother Doll’ Is an L.A. Novel Where the Dead Get to Speak

Katya Apekina and I are standing on 13th Street in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, outside of the convention center where we’ve both come to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. The wind is blowing so hard, it stings our faces, and we’re surrounded—inside and outside of the brutalist-looking compound of the convention center—by thousands of other writers. To get away from the crowd, we walk to a restaurant with enormous windows, where we sit and talk about psychics, success, our ancestors, and a situation involving false eyelashes. “I came home from a photoshoot wearing this huge pair of false eyelashes, which I’ve never worn before, and my daughter was immediately like, what is wrong with your face?” Apekina’s fiction often articulates a similar camaraderie between parents and children—the tender insults that happen between people who love each other. An Apekina novel also always features a redistribution of power; young women asserting themselves over the misogynistic kingdom of their lives. Both in her first novel, The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish (a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and her new novel, Mother Doll, daughters reach back into their parents’ and grandparents’ history to see what they might discover, to ask a question we all ask at some point: What made me this way? 

Mother Doll is the story of a first-generation immigrant, Zhenia, who finds herself suddenly dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, a disintegrating relationship, and an aging grandmother. But Zhenia tries to avoid these problems, and instead focuses on a surprise fourth thing: a phone call from a stranger who claims to bring a message from the other side. The novel reads like a long, haunted episode of Finding Your Roots, where the dead get to speak. I came away from this novel thinking about my own grandmothers, and wondering how the lives they lived before I was born made my life what it is. 

I asked Katya about a moment in Mother Doll, where Zhenia, an aspiring actress, casually lies to a random stranger, saying, “I’m a geneticist. The only thing that can save us from replicating the bodies, thoughts, and patterns of our ancestors is a mutation, an act of grace. We can wait for nature to do this, or we can make it happen ourselves.” I want to know if Katya believes this:

Your book had me thinking about how helpless I’ve sometimes felt as a parent, especially when my son was little. So much of who we are as parents is determined by the way we were parented. Do you think about how your ancestors have affected you, and your own daughter? 

I think about my grandparents living through the war, living in the Soviet Union under a totalitarian government, if the traumas they went through altered their DNA, it surely affected the way they parented my parents who then parented me. And there’s a culture in my family of moving forward as a way of survival. But things don’t just disappear, it’s all still there, even if you don’t know what the source of it is. I think about it a lot with my daughter. So much of what children absorb isn’t what you’re teaching them, but what they see in you. 

Since your book is so focused on ancestry, I’m curious about your literary ancestors. What books made your book possible?

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov about how the devil and his entourage descend on the Soviet Union and frolic, but it’s also the story of a writer in a mental hospital and his burned manuscript about Pontius Pilate. I read it so many times growing up. There’s magic and chaos and multiple storylines. In the sixth grade, I got my friends to put on a play of it. We made costumes out of trash bags. As for contemporary writers writing about parenthood, I love Rachel Cusk. 

Rasputin is in the book, which is very brave and very Russian. What made you decide to do that? 

He was a party boy! He got around! He partied with a lot of people! I did get a note from someone early on that was like, “Are you sure you wanna include real historical figures?” I do think there’s a risk of it coming off as corny, but it cracked me up. And I wanted to capture that feeling, like when I lived in New York in my late teens and early 20s and I’d be at a party and there’d be someone famous there, and how exciting and, also usually humiliating, that felt. 

Speaking of Rasputin, I was wondering how, in this particular cultural moment, the specter of Vladimir Putin weighs on the minds of former Soviets and Russian expatriates. Is that something you think about?

I’ve only been back to Russia once since leaving there as a kid. I wanted to bring my daughter, but then the war started in Ukraine. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back. It’s even more scary since Navalny was killed. Maybe years from now it’ll be different. I was almost four when I came to Boston with my mom and her parents. They’d applied to leave the Soviet Union before I was even conceived. They were waiting for years to leave. My grandfather needed heart surgery. He was dying. My grandparents were marine biologists and had refused to join the Communist Party so they were fired from their jobs. My mom was a student in art school. She supported them by painting rocks and selling them. They were stuck in uncertainty for years, unsure if they’d ever be allowed to leave the country—you had to be given special permission to leave. My mom and grandma went on a hunger strike, and Senator John Kerry and Senator Ted Kennedy were on a subcommittee that helped get us out. My dad’s parents had been Communists and wouldn’t let him leave. It was one of the many hurdles to leaving, you needed written permission from your parents since you were the one who was supposed to take care of them in old age. He eventually came to the U.S., but the uncertainty that my parents lived with! 

Paul, one of the characters in your book, is a sad gay psychic who usually channels dead pets and there’s a beautiful moment where he’s channeling a cloud of dead, translucent Pomeranians all named Coco. Have you ever met a pet psychic? 

While I was writing I listened to a lot of psychic podcasts, and there was a pet psychic who, honestly, seemed really dumb. I mean, animals don’t talk. It is just a little bit silly when they’re passing on messages from a dog, like, “He’s happy and he loves you!” But, on the other hand, my only really psychic astral projection experience was with my dog, moments before he died!

Do you believe that people can talk to the dead?

Yeah, I do. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve been visited in dreams by the dead. My grandfather died during the writing of this book. We had been very close. I was taking mediumship classes while working on the book, as research. And when he died, the next day, or maybe even the same day, I felt such desperation to talk to him. My desire was so strong. The classes felt fake and gross because even though it didn’t feel at all real, I was willing to believe anything. I was complaining later how he never visited me, how I never felt his presence after he died. But that night I had a dream and in the dream his voice was in my ear so close, and he said my name and I immediately woke up because it was terrifying. I was like, oh, I’m not ready for that. 

In your book you write about the Magic Castle, an exclusive private club for magicians in the Hollywood Hills; the most unusual private club in the world, they say. Have you actually been there?

I have been there. You need to know someone who’s a member to get in. I knew a teacher whose student was a member, and I went with her. Magicians are circulating everywhere inside. It’s a little microcosm of magicians. My main character wonders how the magicians do it, but more importantly, she wonders why they even bother. That’s how I feel too. When you look at how it’s made, and how much work went into creating that momentary sense of wonder, it just seems like, “Why?” It’s a strange way of connecting with other people, because you’re doing it by manipulating them. They probably have a different motivation than what I’m ascribing. They might just be thinking that they’re bringing people joy.

Including the Magic Castle helps to make your book an L.A. story. You explore the way that the city can disfigure people as they strive for success; it makes your main character, Zhenia, manipulative and jealous and resentful. Does that mirror your L.A. experience? You’ve been there a long time.

Well, I guess L.A. is like a place where people from all over come and success isn’t always a slow-building thing. There’s a perception from the outside that it can happen overnight, that people suddenly have everything they’ve ever wanted. I think that creates this slot machine type of feeling, that success can happen at any moment. My main character feels like she doesn’t have any agency and therefore can’t hurt other people. She thinks, “Who, little me? I’m nothing.” She thinks she can do whatever with impunity to people more successful than her. She came to L.A. to be an actress, but it wasn’t even really her dream, it was just something she glommed onto. She didn’t really know what her dream was. 

As for her experiences mirroring my own… I don’t know if being in L.A. has made me manipulative, jealous, and resentful. I think I was just born this way. 

Why do you hate fedoras? I can tell from your book that you do. 

I think there’s something a little bit heartbreaking when you see one.

They’re the saddest of hats. 

Zhenia is definitely not a fan of them, and she is not one to mince words or be polite. When some people read my book who are not used to immigrant bluntness, they’re like, “Why are these characters so mean?” 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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