Delighted to host Elena Mauli Shapiro, who first appeared here when her debut novel, 13 rue Thérèse came out. She’s back with a sophomore novel, In the Red, which Koren Zailckas calls “exotic, dangerous, deviant, delicious.” – Meg
Bank teller is one of those jobs where the body repeats the same motions all day, over time acquiring muscle memory for the work. Sometimes I could leave my body at work and send my mind elsewhere. I would often write snippets of poetry on pieces of blank receipt tape when there was a lull between customers. These small papers were all over my workstations, like white leaves fallen off the language tree.
The rhythm of the work made sentences pop into my head in voices that were sometimes not my own. One morning I heard in a slightly accented voice the words I am not a child of America. Until my lunch break, these words floated at the top of my consciousness like these insects that can skitter Jesus-like on top of water.
When time came for my half-hour lunch break I went to an empty room upstairs from the bank where there was nothing but a desk and a typewriter. I rolled a piece of paper into the typewriter and met my new protagonist.
She was Romanian and her name was Irina. A name that mirrored my own in structure and sound. Over the years I wrote many stories for this double of mine, always of tortured love, always with an undercurrent of menace. I carried Irina inside me for seventeen years until she was ripe to be a book. Finally the story came to fruition as the novel In the Red.
Irina, a Romanian orphan raised by Americans, has never felt at home in the good life given to her. When she meets Andrei, a dashing criminal from her unknown country of origin, she comes unglued from all the good things she has been given in an attempt to find out who she is. The draw of sex, power, and money certainly plays a part in her decision–which never really feels like a decision. It feels like being sucked down a tunnel with no light at the other end. In this tunnel, she meets other criminals, both compelling and terrifying, and a young Russian mail-order bride named Elena. Elena is a mystery who becomes her only friend. Irina’s story, underpinned by Romanian myth, asks what is a lone woman’s place in the world, and how is she supposed to find it?
In the Red is a novel about foreignness, morality, capitalism, the meaning of America. It is a novel about how trauma informs history, turns it into myth. It is a novel that asks how we tell ourselves who we are, and how we hold ourselves up against a world that never ceases to swallow us. It is a novel about how Irina was wrong when she first came to me that foggy morning all these years ago: we are all children of America. – Elena