Tales from the fringes

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2011 

  • What: Alina Simone reading from her book "You Must Go and Win"

    Where: Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh

    When: 7:30 tonight

    Cost: free

    Info: quailridgebooks.com

Back when Alina Simone called the Triangle home, her public appearances were singing on nightclub stages (often in Russian). But she'll be wearing a different artistic hat when she returns tonight - author and raconteur. Simone will be at Quail Ridge Books to do a reading from her excellent new book, "You Must Go and Win" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She'll sing a song or two while she's at it, but the book is the main event.

A hilariously self-deprecating memoir, "You Must Go and Win" recounts Simone's misadventures on the fringes of the music industry in both America and her native Russia. Her writing voice is one of wide-eyed, deadpan innocence, with a keen eye for detail about things lost in translation between languages, cultures and lifestyles.

We caught up with Simone last week by phone from her current hometown, Brooklyn, as she pushed her 6-month-old daughter, Zooey, down the street in a stroller.

Q: So how are things going? How's motherhood?

It's great! My baby's moods range from extremely happy to ecstatic, and I have no idea how that happened. We're not like that; her father and I are both moody and sad all the time. So where'd this ridiculously happy baby come from? She's great, but we're confused.

Q: What part of the book will you read down here?

I haven't decided yet. Readings in New York, I usually do the section about Williamsburg and getting fleas in the apartment, which always goes over well up here because everyone has had the nightmare craigslist sublet experience. There are some other tried and tested parts that work well for laughs, like the audition with the sketchy producer. That seems pretty universal everywhere.

Q: Have the reviews been good?

The arts weekly in Orlando didn't like it, but most people who reviewed it did. I made it into Elle magazine, where they have people read things and vote. Of course, I was the last of three chosen for that. It was clear to me that Elle readers don't like tales of indie-rock mishaps as much as uplifting memoirs, so I wasn't shocked by that. But it was a wake-up call that maybe my book is less universal than I thought. "This is great, anyone can relate to it!" Maybe not so much among people looking for makeup kits. But I thought it was nice to get in there at all. I'm really happy with the attention it's gotten. There have been some nice shout-outs.

Q: Since your parents are in the book quite a bit, what do they think?

It made the Boston best-seller list and I honestly think it's because of them. They got every single one of their friends to buy it, and they have a lot of friends; they're very social in the Russian community. They did have a few quibbles about the book, but not many. Russians have a very dark sense of humor and tend to be very blunt and honest. A big part of the culture is saying unbelievably blunt and honest yet unattractive things to one another. There's no sweetness and light to my family, and it's not just them.

Q: What else are you working on?

Well, I wrote a pilot based on the book and hooked up with an agent from L.A. It was hard to think of how to reframe it as an ensemble piece because TV shows are about community and the book is a very individual journey. So I had to kind of jerry-rig it to fit, but that was a fun exercise. Female funny writers seem to be in short supply. When I talk to my agent, our entire conversations are about how she sees a big market for funny female writers, and would I move to L.A.? I can't do that, so we might be at an impasse.

I've also been working on a novel, which is really different. In the same way that people would never expect that the girl who does music as sad and depressing as mine would write a funny book, the novel is surprising. But in a different way. If you read my funny book, this is not what you'd think I'd do next. Beyond that, I don't yet have my great elevator speech about it. I have to think of that.

Q: How was the book's reception in Russia?

It's not been translated to Russian, but I continue to get press over there. I did an interview with the paper in Novosibirsk (Siberian hometown of Soviet-era punk icon "Yanka," whose songs Simone covered on a 2008 tribute album) for the 20-year anniversary of Yanka's death. They asked some weird questions, too, in such a way that the sentiment was, "Why would a fat, happy American in the land of plenty be mucking around with Soviet punk music?" There was this annoying underlying sentiment of Russian nationalism: "This is ours, you can't have it." I guess he was trying to ask politely, "How dare you?" I told him that even though I live in America, I'm still a dark, depressed little person and Yanka's music spoke to me on an emotional level. Which was shorthand for, "You don't know me."

Menconi: blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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