After the success of her literary memoir about her gypsy background, Oksana Marafioti is trying something different: urban fantasy
Silent and alone, she sits at a table in Makers & Finders, a coffee bar Downtown, surrounded by chatty hipsters ordering avocado-draped lunch plates. She studies the menu, checks the time on her phone. I’m only a minute or two late, but weaving through the restaurant, I’m reminded of how intimidating she can seem, of her quiet intensity. With Oksana Marafioti, you never know what she’ll end up explaining to you. It might be the mechanics of kickboxing (at which she excels). It could be the intricacies inherent in performing Bach (whose music she learned as a trained pianist). Or perhaps she’ll discuss introducing the work of James Joyce to undergrads at UNLV (where she teaches writing, and where I also teach). In other words, spending time with Oksana isn’t at all like interviewing a regular author. It’s more like listening to a secret agent who has done everything, and who you really hope doesn’t have a folder marked KILL with your name on it.
At the same time, though, she is certainly feminine, nurturing. She does yoga and cooks a mean Armenian barbecue. She is raising two sons, one a weightlifter enrolled at the university, the other an elementary-schooler and an autodidact with musical instruments and multiple languages. And she writes urban-fantasy novels — Wild Rose Press published her first, Donatti’s Lunatics, last month — under the pen name Ana Mara. The latter is the most surprising fact I’ve learned. After all, five years ago, she made a splash with her acclaimed memoir American Gypsy, which chronicles her family’s struggle to escape the crumbling U.S.S.R. and then acclimate to living in, of all places, Hollywood. She almost ended up reading palms like her paranormal-obsessed parents — which perhaps explains her mystical aura. Instead, she earned a film degree and an MFA in creative writing.
She insists the transition from highbrow memoirist with literary powerhouse Farrar, Straus and Giroux to indie-published urban-fantasy writer was painless. Even if she’s observed that her latest effort hasn’t exactly lit a fire under New York book critics.
“I haven’t noticed a difference in treatment, but obviously literary authors are received as being more accomplished, let’s be honest,” she says, as her coconut-turmeric latte arrives. “Speculative-fiction writers aren’t given the credit they deserve. They work not just full-time, but overtime. They work regardless of careers and responsibilities, and don’t make as many excuses.”
She speaks from her own experience. When the atmosphere wasn’t conducive, she used to find it difficult to write. She used to need her “muse” to be present. But she quickly learned, as she prepared Donatti’s Lunatics for publication, that commercial writers don’t have such luxuries. And so the trajectory of Oksana’s career has suddenly grown more interesting as she now unveils a story about a newbie U.S. special agent, Olivia Stone, working for an obscure federal agency called the International Bureau for Paranormal Activity. She is tasked with monitoring a group of badass ghost-hunters led by the enigmatic and darkly handsome James Donatti. As you have likely guessed, Olivia and James can’t quite figure out if they hate each other, given their sexual tension. And along the way they fight demons in places as far away as medieval churches in Hungary and as close as the UNLV campus.
Within the first 20 pages, you recognize familiar elements and conceits. It’s X-Files spliced with Tomb Raider with a dash of Fifty Shades of Grey for flavor, and you’re left with no choice but to hold tight to the figurative railings for a fun neck-lashing.
“My friends and peers have known I’ve always wanted to dive into genre; it wasn’t a surprise to anyone close to me,” she says. “I feel like as a writer you can be a chameleon and get away with doing different things. You don’t have to be bound to one specific category. It stagnates your creativity, your imagination, if you only consider yourself a literary writer and not, say, a spec-fic writer. Life is about experimentation. We’re not meant to be one thing only; we change.”
Spoken like a true teacher of Ovid. Indeed, there is abundant evidence of Oksana’s transformation into thriller writer Ana Mara in the digital pages of Donatti’s Lunatics. The novel doesn’t read like a literary author stooping to pen a commercial narrative. It reads like a writer having a total blast crafting a piece of entertainment. Did Oksana — Ana Mara, I mean — catch herself striking out pretentious sentences?
“Not too often, but there were moments when I’d get lost in a paragraph of (the main character’s) inner reflection that had nothing to do with the story, so I sometimes had to pull back on the flowery prose. What I mostly remember during the process was having fun, telling myself to chill and to not worry about sounding smart with every single sentence.”
In her teens, she read tons of urban fantasy, a subgenre that pits supernatural good against demonic evil; the backdrops are concrete-and-steel cityscapes. She’d often read these books clutching her family’s heirloom crucifix.
“I think the reason I got into it is because my father was a professional ghost-hunter and exorcist for many years,” she says, explaining how her parents often secured money as Roma gypsies who eventually immigrated to the U.S. “I grew up in a house where I’d wake up and my dad would say to me, ‘Get dressed. There’s a demon-possessed house we need to exorcise.’”
Gypsy communities are generally attuned to the supernatural realm, she says, which partially explains why they’re often deemed grifters by biased Westerners. As an adolescent, her identity was bound up in conversations about the paranormal, the immortal, the undead. Early on, she developed a healthy interest in all things metaphysical, in invisible demons that moved furniture and mauled humans. What made Donatti’s Lunatics a pleasurable effort was being able to look back on the harrowing events she and her father endured in spectral locations in Russia and Hollywood, then re-creating many of those moments in the realm of fiction.
“I wanted to show my character, Olivia, as she moves away from skepticism and toward acceptance, because that’s exactly what I experienced,” she says.
Olivia is certainly cut from the Lara Croft mold — fierce, independent, whip-smart, beautiful. But Ana Mara isn’t afraid to put her protagonist in peril and have men, and other women, come to her rescue every now and then.
“That was intentional,” she admits. “The urban-fantasy books I read that featured strong female protagonists always portrayed the lead women as indestructible. I wanted to instead offer a character who, in the beginning, is faced with something unfathomable. I wanted to show what it really involves. When my father trained me to be a paranormal investigator, I asked questions and suffered fears, especially when the unimaginable arrived at our door. You need to be strong, but sometimes you’re not ready. Sometimes you come up short and fail. That’s what I was after.”
Making a choice between joining a world you know little about or staying woefully static is a recurring theme in her work. There’s a recurring lesson, too: When you think you know everything about reality, your knowledge will be contradicted.
There are less lofty kinds of knowledge in Donatti’s Lunatics, too. For example, the fight scenes are spectacularly brutal and will impress the most jaded dude who grew up reading Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian pulp adventures or anything in the Gold Eagle line of men’s action-adventure novels. Ana Mara, it turns out, has a flair for knuckle-dragging violence and gunplay.
“All of my uncles and cousins are heavily involved in martial arts,” she says. “I saw street fights in my own backyard from an early age. So the realness of the physical combat was important, and my background in film helps with the staging.” She went over the action scenes with UFC fighters and trainers, many of them women, to confirm that she was rendering violence authentically.
“I’d figured women fighters were softer, but they go even harder and dirtier than the men,” she says. “They’re unapologetic, even vicious, about their power. I wanted to give Olivia that particular strength from the start. Violence is an extension of her character.”
The love angle was trickier. She’s never had much taste for romance novels, so when her publisher asked her to add sex scenes she instead worked at developing the relationship arc between Olivia and James. Ultimately, the publisher put out Ana Mara’s debut novel on its Black Rose imprint since it “wasn’t romantic enough” and “bordered on horror.”
American Gypsy is concerned with identity, with racism, with diaspora, with social-justice issues. Those issues are muted, even missing, from Donatti’s Lunatics.
“It was liberating to not have to talk about myself identifying with specific cultures or groups,” she says. “Writing the book gave me freedom to concentrate on human issues and situations, regardless of how many demons the characters are fighting.”
Does she have a group of urban-fantasy authors — online or in Las Vegas — from whom she draws support?
“Readers are more important than other writers,” she stresses. “Readers are focused on story and characters; they look at the emotional aspects. They’ll tell you how a scene feels, which helps you connect with readers. Writer-friends come back and say, ‘There needs to be dramatic tension.’ But a reader will ask you point-blank: ‘Why did she say this to him?’ Human connections are important to a reader.”
One reader and longtime compadre of Oksana’s is Alissa Nutting, a former UNLV professor, now a creative writing prof at Grinnell College in Iowa and the infamous author of edgy literary novels Tampa and Made for Love. Nutting says she’s eager to see her Las Vegas friend triumph with her new genre-writing alias.
“A very successful nonfiction book like Marafioti’s can be difficult for the writer’s fiction — that ‘self-as-protagonist’ has really been edified in readers’ minds,” says Nutting by email. “Pseudonyms are such a great way to escape those expectations and have the freedom to do something wildly new.”
It’s also new to see UNLV as a cool, mysterious setting. Oksana is a professor, too, and her campus comes out looking quite good in her novel.
“UNLV was one of the few universities to have a paranormal department, in the ’90s, which is why UNLV appears in the book,” she says. “I wanted to place the book somewhere new, somewhere that had, at one time, a (Consciousness Studies) department.
“Everything I’ve ever written has a paranormal element,” she continues. “A friend asked me: ‘Why do you go dark?’ I thought about it, and I think you can safely judge a person by his worst deeds. How often has a crystal character suddenly been revealed as a criminal? ‘He was a great neighbor,’ they often say. I like to explore the darkness in my characters. You can really know someone by his bad deeds. Supernatural stories reflect that better than any other genre.”