Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Irina Kovalyova

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Irina Kovalyova has a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in Microbiology from Queen’s University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. She has previously interned for NASA and worked for two years as a forensic analyst in New York City. She was born in Russia and currently lives in Vancouver.

You can contact Irina throughout the month of Jue at

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Irina Kovalyova

Irina Kovalyova is an Ivy League-educated scientist, a debut author and, we are very excited to say, our June 2015 writer-in-residence at Open Book! Irina's collection of short stories, Specimen combines the fresh perspective of a writer beginning her career with the confidence and impact of a veteran author. It was scooped up by House of Anansi Press, and the stories contained in Specimen follow characters to North Korea, Minsk and Vancouver, with plenty of Irina's scientific background represented. “Mamochka", which delves into the politics of both family and race, was nominated for the 2012 Journey Prize.


By Irina Kovalyova

From House of Anansi:

The stories in Specimen are a unique exploration of science and the human heart; the place where physical reality collides with our spiritual and emotional lives.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts

keep going

This is my last post as the writer-in-residence for this website. It’s been a lot of fun. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

What remains to be said? Only that I hope you will keep writing. And running. Making sausages, surfing, buttering butter, creating monsters, or hearing cells when they whisper to you. All you have to do is listen.

Whatever you get up to, keep going. And I will see YOU at the finish line.

With your arms raised in the air, not in defeat but in triumph.

Lollipops (take 2)

Keep going, the poster read. Your legs will forgive you…eventually.

On Sunday, I ran my first half-marathon. It might not seem like a big deal, but there were hills and it was hot. So hot in fact that the announcer mediating the start of the race reminded everyone that June 28th was NOT the day to try to set personal records.

He went on, “We are proud to host an event that has grown five percent since last year. In other running events around the world, runners drop out of races. But not in this beautiful city! No sir! In this city, runners keep running because running is cool. I speak metaphorically, of course, because today is pretty hot!”

The crowd of runners at the starting line laughed nervously.

can we hear a cell?

When asked recently about influences on my writing, I expounded on literary things. But the exercise also led me to think about questions I come across in my day job as a scientist.

A former professor once told me that all philosophical questions were ultimately biochemical ones. I don’t know if he was right, but lately I’ve been coming across some pretty incredible things.

stuff happens

The other day I picked my almost-7-year-old daughter from school. I asked her, with my usual level of enthusiasm, “How was your day?” “Good,” she said, with her usual lack thereof. “What did you do?” “Stuff.” “What kind of stuff?” I prompted her, undeterred. (Was it too much to ask?) “You know,” she said, “stuff.”

Since that afternoon, I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff and decided to blog about it. “Gosh, mom,” my daughter said. “You’re running out of ideas.”

why i read obituaries

To get out of a dry writing spell several years ago, I had to take drastic measures. To take drastic measures meant calling my writer friend. In Ontario.

She was shocked but not surprised when I called her and said she'd been wondering how long it would take me to get in touch. (Ten years ago, we'd gone to graduate school together but hadn't spoken since). She would have done it first, she assured me, if she didn't have five kids.

She listened to my laments in silence, and then told me to read obituaries. Every day. Because every day (in between nursing, cooking, cleaning, washing, bathing, clothing, dropping off and picking her kids from school), that was what she did. She read obits.

“Why?” I asked her. The obituaries had always struck me as rather sad.

bravery through bestsellers

In a recent cultural comment in The New Yorker, South African-born social anthropologist and writer Ceridwen Dovey investigates whether reading can make us happier. She describes a session with a bibliotherapist who gives her reading prescriptions to help her cope with a fear of grief. Over the years that follow, Dovey reads the prescribed fiction and feels a sense of transcendence. “Reading fiction,” she writes, “makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.”

On buttery butter, compress to impress, less is more, etc.

To indicate her displeasure with overwritten sentences, my grandmother used the phrase "buttery butter." What she meant by it was this: if you write "butter" it’s clear already what you’re talking about. There’s no need to explain. Everyone knows what butter is. Everyone knows butter is buttery.

As a general rule, my grandmother despised adjectives and adverbs. I, on the other hand, buttered up my nouns liberally, laying that butter on thick. Yet, as the time passed and I started to write stories, I began to pay more attention to my grandmother's words. I began to simplify my writing. I began to omit buttery words.

Twere easier for God to make entirely new men…

Exactly 199 years ago today, during a stormy night at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, Mary Shelley had a waking dream that gave birth to Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. How do we know? Astronomers. They back-calculated the moon cycles to determine the precise timing of her dream: between 2 and 3 a.m. on the morning of June 16, 1816.

why i am in love with margaret atwood

I wanted to do something different, so midway through last term, I wrote a proposal for Mutants and Monsters, a new science fiction course.

Since I teach biochemistry for a living and have been reading science fiction voraciously since I was six, it seemed only natural to splice the two subjects together, like genes.

The course, I imagined, would be offered to non-science majors and designated as “breadth." Students who take it would not only learn about real life science but also read bioscience-inspired literary works.

I incubated this idea for a long time, considering which texts to put on the syllabus.

Canadians in The New Yorker

If you missed the piece in the National Post last Saturday by Nadine Fladd on how Canadians changed The New Yorker, you should check it out.

Coinciding with release of The New Yorker’s celebrated summer fiction issue, the article chronicles how Morley Callaghan, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Rivka Galchen (who won the 2014 Danuta Gleed Literary Award announced last week), David Bezmosgis, and Sheila Heti have expanded the magazine’s boundaries over the past 90 years.

on the benefits of not writing (surfing)

It isn’t (usually) wise to blame other people for things that happen to you, but I blame Dr. Kary Banks Mullis for everything.

Dr. Mullis is a Novel Prize-winning biochemist who devised paradigm-shifting improvements to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), for which he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Canadian Dr. Michael Smith.


Last summer, I made chilled noodle soup.

Why? I was writing a short story that took place in North Korea, and I was stuck. The plot, for some reason, had twisted into a Gordian knot (if you know what I’m talking about, than you know how Alexander the Great dealt with it).

It was clear to me that in order to become unstuck I would have to take decisive action. I would have to either: 1) completely restructure my story or 2) give my characters something to eat.

The Sisyphean task of of restructuring something I’d been writing for almost two years petrified me. I was, therefore, left with food.

on making sausages

June is the month of graduation. On campus, SFU students seem happier, despite impending midterms. Relatives in high heels are carrying peonies. All parking lots are full.

As I pass by the Convocation Mall this morning, the weeping of bagpipes is suddenly cut off. The crowd hushes. Someone is going to make a speech.

And maybe because I’ve been reading Harry Potter to my daughter (we’re on book 5), I start thinking about the commencement speech J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard on June 5, 2008.

A terrific speech. J.K. Rowling knows how to make a rhetorical impact, and she does it right from the start.

and then they were upon her...

If you’ve never heard of Shirley Jackson or read her sensational short story "The Lottery," you should stop doing whatever you’re doing and read it at once.


Last Saturday, on a beautiful, cloudy morning in Vancouver, I went for a run on the Seawall. It was no ordinary run, mind you, but day 20 of my 16-week marathon-training schedule. I was to run 14 miles: the longest distance I’ve run in my life.

What possessed me to train for a marathon? Who can tell? But perhaps the fact that my debut collection of short stories (Specimen) will be released on June 6 had something to do with it.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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