The cover of Mary Kay Zuravleff's book "American Ending."
The cover of Mary Kay Zuravleff's book "American Ending."

Down the road in Washington, DC, there is a group of writers reading and supporting each other much the way we do in the Baltimore Writers Club. (Which is no less powerful for being imaginary — we have had correspondence from people wondering how they can join it.) And by supporting, I mainly mean throwing each other book parties. I met Mary Kay Zuravleff at a party for her third novel, “Man Alive!,” in which a man struck by lightning finds that all he wants to do in life is barbecue. Zuravleff is definitely not the kind of writer who returns to the same material over and over — before that, she’d written novels about the trials of a museum director and about the possibility of life after death. 

With “American Ending,” she has again broken new ground, this time with historical fiction set in Pennsylvania coal country in the early twentieth century. Her narrator, Yelena Federoff, is pulled out of school to take care of babies and help keep house before she gets to sixth grade, and by the age of twenty has faced the 1908 mining disaster, problematic immigration laws, the Spanish flu epidemic, the reactionary culture of the Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox church, and plenty of “Foolish Questions,” a long-running newspaper feature authored by Rube Goldberg with sarcastic answers to stupid questions. 

As the Kirkus reviewer wrote, “In Yelena’s voice, sprinkled with Russian words and early 20th century idioms, a whole world comes steaming to life: the horrors of the mine, the closeness of the ethnic neighborhoods surrounding it, the babble of the schoolhouse, the smells of the kitchen, and so much more. When Yelena’s little brother invents a cage with an air tank attached, so that the canaries can do their jobs in the mine without having to die for it, it seems a metaphor for the love that kept these immigrant families going through the hardest of hardscrabble times.” It’s uncanny how often I find that the anonymous, mysterious Kirkus reviewer and I think the exact same thoughts in the exact same words.

In advance of her visits to Baltimore bookstores to discuss “American Ending,” Mary Kay was kind enough to answer some questions for the Baltimore Fishbowl.

Baltimore Fishbowl: What’s an American ending? 

Mary Kay Zuravleff: Not tragic; forward-looking. For Yelena, it’s having a choice/voice in your own life—and also some joy. As she says, “Americans with their carnivals and crusted fruit pies, their mail-order catalogues and money-back guarantees. Americans not expecting the worst.” 

BFB: And a Russian ending?

MKZ: The early example in the book is the wolf who promised the bride a ride to her wedding if she climbed on his back, and instead, he ate her. “Russian ending, everyone suffer,” Ma said. Yelena is constantly mulling over her family’s lot and asking “Russian ending or American ending?” Mostly, she applies it with irony in so many situations, how someone got a Russian ending in America, or the mismatch between her version of an American ending and America’s version.   

What’s amazing to me is how the phrase can be said sincerely or ruefully. The day my publisher chose that title, which I love, I had dinner with a group of writers and booksellers, who riffed on it the rest of the night. They’d tell a story about someone—in New Zealand, in Atlanta—and when they got to the punchline, whether the person had triumphed or crashed, they’d say, “American ending,” and we’d all nod our heads! 

BFB: The sense of time and place in the book is so vivid that it seems you may be a time traveler. Can you talk about how you achieved that?

MKZ: I’d heard stories my whole life about Marianna and West Virginia, where my relatives mined coal, and I did a crazy amount of research. But a good friend gave me the best advice, which was, “People in historical novels don’t know they’re in historical novels.” I recited that to myself daily, as I tried to inhabit rather than explain the time and place of the book.

BFB: Your narrator, Yelena Federoff, also seems very real. Is she modeled on any living person? How did you develop her voice?

MKZ: Yelena is a mashup of my mother’s mother, my mother, me, and my imagination. My father’s family is from the exact same religion and Russian community as my mother’s, but that side of the family kept their old country ways. My mother’s mother was incredibly gutsy and clever, not to mention generous. She managed to adhere to the church’s strict rules while also starting businesses, organizing people, and raising money for charities—despite her fourth-grade education. 

BFB: In an appendix you include the text of immigration laws that play a role in Yelena’s story. Can you talk a little about that?  Though Yelena is born in the U.S., and proud of it, her story reminded me of the currect situation with Dreamers and DACA, and immigrants in general. 

MKZ: Our immigration laws are an embarrassment of exclusion, racism, and sexism. I was writing this novel during the Trump era and more than once typed 2019 rather than 1919! During COVID, I also taught an online citizenship course and witnessed first-hand what my students had been through, how they were treated, and the bureaucratic hassles they’d faced. I kept encouraging them, we need you to become citizens and vote!

BFB: I was a Russian History major back in the day, and when I came upon the Old Believers in your book it was the first time I’d seen mention of them since college. What’s the relevance of this Russian Orthodox sect to your story?

MKZ: Because both sides of my family are Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox church—my first cousin is currently the priest of the Erie church—I’d say it’s critical. The church is basically why my parents married each other, and its rules, foods, and traditions were a big part of my childhood. This despite the fact that I grew up mostly in Oklahoma, far from the church! 

In the novel, I was managing a three-ring circus of family, history, and religion, each of which aims to keep Yelena, the first American born in the family, from having a say in her own life. Also, there is a rich vein of Russian-immigrant Jewish literature for readers, but I could not find any novels devoted to the Old Believers in America. Granted, there were only five or six of these churches in America as I was growing up, but I wanted to get their story on the bookshelf!

BFB: Have you lived in Baltimore?

MKZ: I went to Hopkins, hon, and studied writing with John (“all my friends—and graduate students call me “Jack”) Barth! This was during the era when writing workshops shredded you with criticism—many in our program never wrote again. Thank goodness that teaching writing has gone from survival-of-the-fittest toward nurturing and actually teaching. I learned a tremendous amount mostly because we wrote so much in one year.

Baltimore Events for American Ending
Thursday, June 22, 2023, 6 pm
The Ivy Bookshop, in conversation with Marion Winik
6080 Falls Rd 

Tuesday, July 11, 2023, 7 pm
Greedy Reads Bookshop, reading with Jane Delury
320 W 29th St

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...