YELENA AKHTIORSKAYA's debut novel, Panic in a Suitcase, follows a family of transplants from Odessa, Ukraine, to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and back again. Aside from her talent for detailing the hilarious commotion and maddening tics of close family, Akhtiorskaya depicts corporeal weirdness with startling acuity — Uncle Pasha’s dysthymic moodiness, young Frida’s anxious energy, bustling elbows and blushing skin on crowded beaches. I was surprised to find Akhitorskaya, who has published with N+1, Triple Canopy, and The New Republic, working as an image evaluator at Columbia University Medical Center. We chatted briefly via email about image analysis, unlikely dystopias, and the good fortune of STEM-related day jobs.
DIEGO BÁEZ: I wasn't expecting to find you at the Computational Image Analysis Lab. What kind of work goes on there?
YELENA AKHTIORSKAYA: It’s not easy to describe and I should be better at it after almost three years of attempting. I guess the simplest way to put it is that we work to figure out the best possible way to evaluate tumors. It’s something most people take for granted — they assume that the main issue with cancer is treating it, not measuring it. But doctors aren’t looking inside your body; they are looking at scanned images, sometimes of dubious quality, and then basically trying to color inside the lines. The current methods of determining whether tumors are shrinking or growing are draconian. This often leads to bad decisions, like sticking with a treatment that’s not really working or abandoning one that is, but subtly. The Lab is developing algorithms to make measuring tumor change more accurate and also trying to see if there are more sophisticated markers by which to measure tumors, not diameter, but for instance volume or necrosis fraction. The other lab members are Chinese computer wizards. I am not. I do various tasks from editing papers to billing, though I do get to segment some tumors.
Do you think tumor-scanning processes will one day be completely automated? Will it be possible for patients to stroll into a machine; it'll conduct the scan, analyze the images, and then print instructions for robo-surgeons?
Not really, but I’m a techno utopia/dystopia denier, perhaps in the same camp of blissful ignorance as global-warming deniers. All I see is things breaking and people working frantically to fix them so that they can break again.
I sometimes get carried away with futurist absurdities. It’s interesting that the author of a novel that deals in interpersonal interactions and shared spaces — the flat in seaside Brooklyn, the garden apartment in Odessa, public beaches in both locales — spends so much time inside strangers' anatomies. But maybe that's part of it? You capture characters' bodily quirks so well.
We are living in a futurist absurdity. The surprise is just how boring it is.
The images of the lungs and livers very quickly stop having absolutely anything to do with the human body. And most of the time I am segmenting phantom data, so there’s no human behind it. But really by far the greater component of my job falls under the doomsday title of Document Kontrol, and the best part of all this is how categorically it doesn’t overlap with the other thing I do. Thank you for noticing my knowledge of bodily quirks. I do think I could teach a class in this subject.
How did you get involved with image analysis? As you mention, the work is so different from writing.
What I didn’t mention is that my job has two parts. Half the time I work in the CIA lab and the other half I work in the Columbia University PET (positron emission tomography, or three-dimensional scanning) Center. I was hired by the doctor who currently presides over the PET kingdom. He is an exceptional person in a million respects. Most importantly for me, he gets the writer’s somewhat impossible predicament. He knew that I needed to pay the bills and occasionally get a check-up, he also knew that I’d be spending my nights writing and when I came into work I might be foggy and grumpy and sometimes purely out of my mind. It’s very lucky that I ended up here because I don’t have to pretend that this is my life. This supports it.
You mention the writer's "impossible predicament" of balancing writing life with drawing pay to keep the lights on. Do you keep a pretty strict schedule, segmenting limbs by day, writing late into the night? Or do you find yourself recording bits of stories or taking notes at the lab? Has the publication of Panic in a Suitcase disrupted this delicate balance?
I wish I had a strict schedule, but all is chaos. While I’m at work, I have about twenty documents open, many of them “secret,” in which I’m starting some stories and trying to end others, or just jotting down scraps of insane office talk. There’s a constant need to escape whatever I’m currently inside. On good days it seems I’ve set up a nice system where I’ll abandon in horror and disgust the main thing I’m working on to go onto something else and then something else until eventually landing back on that first thing and almost glad to see it again. On bad days, I’m talking to myself and accidentally sending amputated story limbs to my boss. So you’re right to call it a delicate balance. As for whether publication has disrupted it, not really. Sometimes a sneeze can disrupt it, other times World War III could break out and I’d continue doing my document dance late into the night.
I just finished "Esfir," a story of yours in Triple Canopy, which shares traits with your novel — folks from Odessa, articulated anatomy, an interesting aversion to quotation marks — but includes some great photos, as well. Did you collaborate with the photographer, Julia Sherman, to select them? Same question for the cover of Panic, which sports this great shot of a woman in an orange bathing cap.
That was all Julia Sherman’s doing. Helen Yentus, cover-designer extraordinaire, is responsible for finding the orange bathing-cap lady. Luckily, residents of Brighton Beach photograph fantastically, though sadly not for the reasons they think.
Do you see yourself living in New York and writing about its environs for the foreseeable future? What are you working on now? Will your next stories or novel depart from the familiarity and characters of Brighton Beach?
I could probably spend the rest of my life on the block between Brighton 2nd and Brighton 3rd streets. Writing about it, I mean. In life I want to get as far from that block as possible. I’ve made humble progress to the Upper West Side, but the goal is France, or the moon. Both of those questions are thorns in my side. Will I ever get my act together and get the hell out of this city? Will I ever tire of treading the same old ground? There’s that rigorous breakup math that says getting over a relationship takes half as long as the duration of the relationship itself, and there must be an equally scientific formula for how long it takes to exhaust a place’s writing potential with respect to years lived in that place, childhood years weighted extra, of course. Essentially, even if I pack my bags right now, I’m stuck with New York for the long haul. Maybe I can sneak in New Jersey.
What are you reading? Who do you love? Do you recommend anyone in particular?
At the moment I’m crawling through Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. It’s very slow going, but there are no words for how great it is. When I put it down, I’m surprised that my brain still fits in its skull and sometimes I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. It is pure genius, but I guess everybody already got the memo. Years ago, I read his much more approachable, though no less insane, The Confusions of Young Törless, and was blown away by that as well. Then there are the writers I return to probably too often, such as Leonard Michaels, Nabokov, Clarice Lispector, Saul Bellow. Oh, and I recently read an amazing little book no one seems to know about (but should!). It’s by Elaine Kraf — The Princess of 72nd Street.