Q&A with Zhanna Slor: ‘At the End of the World, Turn Left’ and the Struggle with Identity

Christine Sneed

Zhanna Slor’s debut novel, At the End of the World, Turn Left (304 pages; Agora Books), is informed by a fine balance of comedy and drama. Set in Milwaukee in the late aughts, the novel’s two point-of-view characters, sisters Masha and Anna, alternately cast their ironic, sometimes bemused gazes on their family’s Russian Jewish immigrant circumstance, while also chafing strenuously at the limitations and the fear informing their parents’ and grandparents’ choices in America. Both sisters are progressive, adventurous, often funny young women who have no patience for their elders’ stern refusal to indulge their curiosity—especially Anna’s. 

When the novel opens, twenty-five-year-old Masha, the older sister, has been living in Israel for five years but flies home to southern Wisconsin after her father pleads with her to help him locate Anna who has been missing for several weeks. The story skillfully toggles between 2007 and early 2008, tracing Anna’s trajectory from relatively dutiful college student to rumored criminal robbing the houses of local wealthy people.  

Along with the mystery of Anna’s whereabouts and her possible illegal activity is another concerning Anna and Masha’s father and an alleged affair when the family was still in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, when this secret comes to light, it creates a serious rift between him and Anna and Masha’s mother, who is likewise missing from Milwaukee throughout much of the novel. The way in which Slor arrives at the answers to these two central mysteries is a true readerly pleasure to experience.  

I had the opportunity to correspond with Zhanna Slor via email and Google docs about At the End of the World, Turn Left.

ZYZZYVA: When the novel opens, right away we’re immersed in a mystery. Was this always how this novel began?  Did you know from the day you started writing that you wanted to write a literary page-turner?

ZHANNA SLOR: No, not at all. The original novel, which I started in 2016-2017, only had Anna’s storyline, and it was very different from this version; it was far more literary and navel-gazing than At the End of the World, Turn Left, because until then I was mainly writing essays. There was also a whole 1980s storyline involving Anna and Masha’s mother and her escape from the USSR, which I cut. An editor at Akashic Books reached out to me sometime around then to contribute a story to a collection called Milwaukee Noir, and that’s where the Masha storyline began. (Although it didn’t end up making it into the collection in the end, which is probably a good thing).

I had so much fun writing the Milwaukee Noir piece I wanted to keep going with it, and since I was already thinking of Anna and Riverwest [a neighborhood in Milwaukee], it was easy to make Masha fit into it. My first attempts with Masha’s storyline were not very good, though, so it took a long time to make the plot work. I am a huge fan of Gillian Flynn, but I am not a big mystery reader. It wasn’t until I was working with my current editor at Agora that I really turned it into a mystery. My editor was a huge, huge help in guiding me. Mysteries are harder to write than they look!

Z: At the End of the World, Turn Left is set in 2007 and 2008. What attracted you to that specific time period? (I loved all the details and the fact iPhones were just starting to proliferate.)

ZS: Actually, the existence of iPhones is a huge part of why I set it in 2007-2008. I remember the shift from when it was still insanely rude to look at your phone at a bar with your friends and when it became totally normal, and how appalling it was. I still really dislike it, even if it’s now socially acceptable. Riverwest specifically lives behind the times—most of the bars still don’t have TVs in them, and even the music they play is old or local—so they were slow to adapt to this technology. I don’t think I even knew what iPhones looked like until 2010 at the earliest, which was around the time I left Milwaukee. And then suddenly they were everywhere. It really felt like some kind of pandemic.

I think for me it would be a struggle to write a novel where characters all have smartphones, because for one thing, so many problems can be solved by reaching into your pocket, and for another, it would not be realistic to portray a conversation between two or more people without someone glancing at their phone every so often. This constant interruption seems unpleasant to write because it irks me so much in real life. I really think they’ve ruined culture in a lot of important ways, even if there are some benefits. A little boredom is good for the mind.

The other reason I chose 2007-2008 is that it was personally a turbulent time for me that I happen to remember well. I remember the energy of Riverwest, the music we were all listening to, the endless dramas of my and my roommates’ romantic lives. I had three roommates at any given time during college, and probably a little too much free time; still, there was rarely a dull moment. College is kind of a bubble against the rest of the world, and that bubble can really last forever if you don’t leave the town where you go to college or the people who you hang around with—I’ve noticed this moving back to Milwaukee ten years after I left, with former friends who haven’t had children or moved themselves.

It’s almost like stepping into a time portal or something. Unfortunately, my mother got sick a few months after I graduated college, so my bubble didn’t last even before my move to Chicago. The combination of that and graduating made 2008 feel like it was kind of the end of my childhood, in a way, which is a strange thing to say of a 21-year-old, but until then I was a tad naive in a lot of ways. My work ethic, at least, was very very limited compared to now.

Z: Like Masha and Anna, you emigrated with your family to the U.S. from Ukraine (then-Soviet Union) when you were a little girl.  I’m wondering if you share (or formerly shared) your main characters’ cognitive dissonance in regard to being raised in Milwaukee as artistic Russian Jewish girls who never felt they fully belonged in the U.S.

ZS: Oh definitely. Not so much anymore, but Anna is in some ways close to myself at 19, as far as her artistic leanings and difficulty finding a community. We grew up isolated from other Russians and Jews, and because all the Russian Jews I knew were related to me and I already knew we did not share the same interests, I did not really feel motivated to find any more when I moved back to Milwaukee for college. (But I also didn’t quite feel American, either.)

At the same time, my yearning for Ukraine never really went away. I finally got to go back a few years ago, and am so glad I did! I wrote this essay about how finally seeing the place made me ready to have kids, which was kind of an unexpected outcome. Not surprisingly, though, I did not really feel “at home” there in any way; I could barely communicate because they only speak Ukrainian now. Only elderly people still know Russian, at least in Chernovtsy, which is less of a modern city, being so far from Kiev and Odessa. No memories came back to me, no feeling of wholeness; it was a tad dizzying trying to figure out whatever I’d hoped to experience by going there.

The only thing that happened is that I felt privileged to live in America; my husband and I were pretty broke by Chicago standards, but in Ukraine, we could eat these elaborate meals for like three dollars. The country is not doing well. It was hard to ignore the widespread poverty; there are all these old people begging for money and selling fruit in the street. We met my old neighbor, who grew up in the apartment next to ours, and it was clear right away that she had a much harder life than me.

However, she was really close to her family and community, which are the things I felt we had lost by emigrating; so either way, there are costs. It was sort of like seeing how my life might have ended up if we stayed neighbors; I didn’t remember her at all, but I liked her a lot and could tell we would have been close friends. But I could also tell I would have had to have very different kinds of jobs there, and I really don’t know if I would have still wanted to be a writer, without having this struggle with identity and culture to mull over (and the time to mull it over), which I think in some ways made me want to pursue being an author in the first place.

Z: You include such vibrant details about Milwaukee, which I suspect many readers will consider as much a character in the novel as Masha and Anna are. Riverwest, a bohemian, crime-plagued neighborhood, figures especially prominently. How much research did you do? 

ZS: I am so glad Riverwest resonates so strongly! I did zero research. I’ve been wanting to write about Riverwest since I first discovered it. It’s such a wonderfully strange place. Like Anna, I really felt like I found my people when I moved there in college. I did not like the east side, where most students live. I was an art major originally before switching to English, and like her, I ate lunch in the art room throughout high school. Which is only to say that I did not really fit in with my peers at the time, nor did I fit in with my family.

Pretty much all of my relatives are doctors and lawyers and engineers; they like nice cars and sports and shopping. Which is fine, of course, but it’s just not something I relate to. The east side felt like more of that. But Riverwest is full of artist types, and everyone there liked reading as much as I did, and maybe they partied a little too much, but I also had so many great conversations just walking down the block to get coffee that I never wanted to leave, even after I got mugged. I only left because I got accepted to graduate school in Chicago.

I’m glad I left, though; it’s a fun place, but it’s a little too fun. You can’t get that much work done if you’re out at the bars every night. I didn’t really start taking writing seriously until I was in grad school, and even then, it took a while to really get focused on the hard work of writing a novel. You don’t really understand the scope of it until you’re writing all day every day. As much I like the place, this would not have been possible to do in Riverwest.

Z: One of the elements that’s so striking in this book is how Masha and Anna’s parents keep discouraging both their daughters from going to Ukraine, even for a visit. Mom and Dad don’t want to look back due to the conditions that forced them to leave their homeland, but their daughters are irresistibly drawn to the past. Do you see these contrary desires as the novel’s central conflict? 

ZS: It’s definitely a central conflict, because it has so much to do with their identities, and discovering your identity is really important in your early twenties. I wish the parents would have just taken them back once or twice, because I think both girls would have understood what I understood when I finally made it to Ukraine—that home is a more complicated experience than “the place you were born.” Or maybe visiting it more would have helped them feel more Ukrainian.

Either way, keeping the girls from their hometown did far more harm than good. Not only did it make them further removed from their Ukrainian identities, it pushed them away from their family as well, because they had to find a community that would accept them and make them feel loved, and once you find that it’s harder to return to a place where people are more likely to think you’re weird. Anna and Masha found those communities in different places—one in Israel, one in Riverwest—but what these places have in common is the absence of their family.

I definitely had a similar experience in my twenties, although I never really found such solid ground. There’s still no place that feels like “home,” exactly. The closest I can get is home-ish. I can only speak to the artistic Russian immigrant experience though, because that’s what I went through. My sister, who is a doctor, grew up in the same house, but she did not seem to have any of the same issues.

Z: This is your first published novel. Is it also the first novel you’ve written?

ZS: No, not at all. I kind of lost track of how many I wrote because this book has mutated so many times; I wrote four to five entire books about the same characters with totally different plots. I even had a book deal three years ago right around the time Masha got involved, and now I am glad that fell through.

After grad school, I also wrote a novel about a touring musician whose wife disappears and he has to take his child on the road with him. But it was very bad. I also have a supernatural YA novel that I wrote in 2015 and can’t sell for the life of me so I keep editing it every so often and sending it to agents again. The main character, Lena, works for her uncle at his tombstone company in Buffalo, where she helps him engrave portraits into tombstones, and the portraits start talking to her. Eventually one of the portraits tells her that her father isn’t dead, as she has always been told, which sends her on an adventure to find out the truth of their family history. I had the same job during college, so I’ve been wanting to use that for years.

Z: What are you working on now?

ZS: Besides the YA book, which I am taking some space from, I recently started two different projects. One is a nonfiction book exploring the lack of mothers in Disney princess stories, which spawned from an article I wrote for The Forward.

It’s kind of a reflection on motherhood in general, using the lack of mothers as a lens, as well as an exploration on all the deeper themes of these stories, which are almost always based on old fairy tales. This also inspired my second project, which is a modern retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale. In my version, it’s 2045 and Aurora is the heir to a multi-million-dollar tech company and lives in an off-the-grid commune hidden in the mountains of West Virginia. Instead of three fairy godmothers, she is being raised there by a cool lesbian couple and their teenage daughter. The country has also split into two, the coasts and the midlands. 

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