In 2012, Daniela Petrova received an Artist Fellowship in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction. This month, she’s publishing her debut novel, Her Daughter’s Mother. The novel, which has already been featured in Publisher’s Weekly and O: the Oprah Magazine, explores the complicated connection between a woman and her IVF egg donor.
We asked the author about the process of writing the novel, her journey as an immigrant author, the impact of her Mass Cultural Council award, and other aspects of her trajectory as a literary artist.
Where did Her Daughter’s Mother begin for you? And were there any “surprise twists” during the writing – the story or process taking a turn you didn’t expect?
The premise of this book was born out of my own unsuccessful attempt to get pregnant using a donor egg cycle. I poured my energy into completing the first draft only to realize 90-thousand-words later that the story wasn’t working. I was stuck, incapable of figuring out how to fix it and, eventually, had to put it down and focus on getting back on my feet following my divorce. Four years ago, I picked up the novel again but this time instead of using a third person narrator, I decided to tell the story from the point of view of the three main characters – the woman who is pregnant with the baby, the egg donor whose genes the baby will inherit and the father. It was a gamechanger. The characters took over and moved the story in a direction I hadn’t expected.
You grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria. How has the immigrant experience impacted your work as a writer?
I grew up in a poor, working class family during Communism. Although I’d been writing since I was a child it was not a feasible career for someone with my background. When I moved to America at the age of 22, barely speaking any English, my dream of becoming a writer felt that much more unattainable. I worked as a nanny and a cleaning lady, holding on to the hope that one day I would be able to enroll in college and finish my education. I took a couple of ESL classes at the YMCA but, mostly, I learned the language from conversations with people, TV shows and books. I would visit the public library and checkout novels I had previously read in Bulgarian. As the years went by and I completed my BA and then MA degree, I kept writing, but it was a luxury, something I did in my free time. Over the years, I tried different jobs and careers, but none stuck. My heart was set on writing.
It took me 24 years after moving to the US to publish my first book, but these were years rich in experiences that have only helped inform my writing. As an adult immigrant, I had to learn everything from scratch – the language, the customs, the jokes, the food. I had to make new friends, build new connections. I sampled numerous jobs – cleaning people’s apartments and taking care of their children, working in libraries and law firms, consulting at the UN and the World Bank, treating patients with eating disorders as a mental health counselor and working for a private detective. I even tried my hand writing travel – and other – pieces for magazines and online publications. But fiction was my love and finally I found the courage to embrace it.
Do you remember where you were (as in, what actual place) when you learned of your 2012 Artist Fellowship? Where were you in your career?
I was in Truro, MA where my husband-at-the-time and I had a house in the woods. I remember rushing out and screaming, jumping up and down with joy. The Artist Fellowship gave me the confidence boost I needed. Previously, I had been feeling quite discouraged, afraid that I would never master the intricacies of the language enough to be able to tell stories in English. The recognition by the Mass Cultural Council was instrumental in helping me work harder to finish the novel I was working on at the time. Because of the fellowship, I gave myself the permission to start dreaming again. In the end, that novel didn’t go anywhere, but I learned so much from it and used that knowledge in my next book, which became my debut novel.
As mentioned, you received a Mass Cultural Council fellowship. But beyond that grant, what forms of support have been most important to you, as a writer?
The instruction and support of other writers have been instrumental to me throughout the long journey. Starting with my first creative writing teacher back in 2001, Leslie Sharpe, who believed in me and encouraged me to keep writing. In addition to the Mass Cultural Council fellowship, I received a scholarship to the Tin House Summer Workshop where I worked with Anthony Doerr. I learned a lot at the Iowa Writers Workshop taught by Curtis Sittenfeld who, years later, recommended my agent, Lisa Grubka. Just last year, as I struggled to edit my manuscript after two rounds of revisions with my agent, I took an online class with Catapult, taught by Taylor Larsen. Her Daughter’s Mother might not have been published if it weren’t for her guidance. The friends I’ve made in many of these classes and workshops also have been invaluable to me – providing feedback and encouragement – and many of them have become close friends. Plus, many writers I’ve never met but whose books I adore and have read and reread numerous times have helped me learn the craft and have shaped my vision as a writer.
What writers are you reading right now that you think other people should be too?
I just started My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I’m enthralled by the storytelling and the lyrical prose. It’s a book you have to read, savoring each sentence.
If you could deliver one message to yourself as a younger artist, what would it be?
Take as many classes and workshops as you can. Go to readings, conferences and writing events. Build it into your life, even if writing is not yet your career. It’s your passion. There is no shame in pursuing what you love even if it seems quite far-fetched.
Daniela Petrova (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’12) grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia, Bulgaria. She came to the US in her early twenties and earned a BA in Philosophy from Columbia University and an MA in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and Marie Claire.
Images: cover art for HER DAUGHTER’S MOTHER (Putnam 2019) and author Daniela Petrova; Representative Sarah K. Peake (left) with Daniela Petrova (right) at a 2013 celebration of Mass Cultural Council awardees, photo by Pierce Harman.