Russian Emigree Conjures Up a Kansas Epic

Published: July 17, 1994
By Carol Strickland

SEVEN years ago, when Paullina Simons announced that she was pregnant, her mother, a Russian emigree living in Queens, was devastated, Ms. Simons recalled.

” ‘That’s it,’ ” Ms. Simons recalled her mother’s telling her. ” ‘You’ll never have a career. It’s either one or the other.’ ”

Ms. Simons thought otherwise. “I wanted to kind of have both,” she said.

And she does. Ms. Simons’s first novel, “Tully” (St. Martin’s Press), was published in May to significant press attention and with a $150,000 promotion budget. Recently remarried, Ms. Simons, 30, of Forest Hills, is expecting a second child in September.

Now at work on her second novel, Ms. Simons not only has a family and career, but has also nearly reached the goal of “having it all.”

“There is a good God up there,” Ms. Simons said. “I’ve had a lot of stars shining down on me. I’m hoping that God doesn’t pull out the trapdoor, because the light is on and I don’t want it to be off.”

Within six weeks of sending it to a literary agent, Joy Harris, Ms. Simons sold the book for an advance in excess of $100,000.

“It was a very large advance for a first novel,” said Robert B. Wyatt, president of a new imprint at St. Martin’s, a Wyatt Book. ” ‘Tully’ is an extremely adventurous book. It has that big, long fever pitch of a 19th-century sensation novel.”

With an initial printing of 55,000 copies, “Tully” is a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection and a Time-Warner audio book. Foreign rights have been sold in nine countries.

The 594-page book covers 12 years in the life of a Kansas woman called Tully, beginning with her senior year in a Topeka high school, until she is 30. Packed with life crises, the book flashes back to Tully’s loveless childhood, described as an “unhealed wound.”

Tully suffered such abuse that disastrous describes her family more accurately than dysfunctional. Raped by an “uncle” at 12, Tully was routinely mauled by her mother, who broke the girl’s nose, cracked her ribs, chipped her teeth and narrowly failed to suffocate her.

No wonder that Tully slits her wrists as a hobby, searching for peace in all the wrong places. Or that she became the high school queen of dirty dancing, “the girl most likely to.”

“Tully’s life was as hard as anybody’s,” Ms. Simons said. “But it’s no harder than Katie Beers’s life when she was doing laundry for her mom when she was 4 years old. ‘Tully’ is a universal story. It could have happened on Long Island.”

Although her heroine endured a life of brutality, “I didn’t want her to be a victim,” Ms. Simons said. “I wanted the book ‘Tully’ and the woman Tully to have the meaning that you don’t have to be ruined by your life. I wanted her to be very strong and say finally, ‘That’s enough,’ and to change.”

Among reviewers, “Tully” has aroused polarized responses. “What surprises me is the extremes,” Mr. Wyatt, an editor for 30 years, said. “It’s either, ‘I hate it’ or ‘I love it.’I've never seen anything like it.” What Some of the Reviews Said

The Denver Post compared “Tully” to a tragedy by Sophocles. USA Today said the “momentum builds to tornado force,” and Publishers Weekly described it as engrossing.

Donna Seaman in Booklist summed up the reviews: “Paced as sluggishly as a TV soap, it will be hailed as a provocative entertainment and condemned as a particularly viscous form of quicksand. Either way ‘Tully’ is a wallow, and sometimes, doggone it, that’s just what the doctor orders.”

“You hope people aren’t going to hate the book,” Ms. Simons said. “You’ve put yourself and your dirty laundry out to hang in 600 pages. It’s your entire being. I have to feel for whatever I write about. A book has to be something very real inside me. I’m reeling every time we get a review.”

Ms. Simons, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, sees herself as a product of the American dream. Her father, a lawyer, was imprisoned for political activities in the Soviet Union.

When Ms. Simons was 10 the family fled to Queens and later lived in Ronkonkoma. She attended the State University at Stony Brook for three years and Essex University in England, where she met her first husband.

Ms. Simons is a graduate of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. After years as a financial writer, she was laid off when CNBC bought the Financial News Network in 1990.

The author used her severance pay to help pay for two years of writing the novel. In the writing, Tully became more than a character on paper. “You can’t leave it,” she said. “It’s always in your head,”

On a trip to Kansas before the book was issued, Ms. Simons pointed out to her husband, Kevin Ryan, an editor at Pocket Books, sites where the fictional Tully lived and worked.

“Mom, Tully is not real,” her 6 1/2-year-old daughter, Natasha, said.

“Yeah, that’s what you think,” Mr. Ryan responded.

“I thought ‘Tully’ would be a 200-page mass-market paperback, and then my Russian soul overwhelmed me,” Ms. Simons said.

Staying up until 4 or 5 A.M. to write 4,000 words a day when she became “obsessed,” the writer produced an 848-page manuscript that was 4 inches high and weighed 8 pounds.

“You can’t write a book longer than ‘War and Peace,’ ” her mother said. “What are you thinking?”

Long-windedness comes naturally to the author. As a child, Ms. Simons talked nonstop, chatting to herself at night until she fell asleep in midword.

“I always considered myself an outsider wanting to be more American,” Ms. Simons, a naturalized citizen, said. “It helped me to see American culture in a more objective way and also in a more subjective way. I love America more than most people who take it for granted. My perspective is not the ‘in’ or ‘cool’ perspective. I’m the staunchest defender of the American way of life.” Definition of Consequences

In her novel, however, Ms. Simons does not advocate unbridled individualism. “When you live a life of freedom, you don’t care for the consequences,” she said. “The consequences are often other people. Human beings and philosophies don’t always mix.

“You can have a philosophy of freedom. But when you exercise that philosophy people get wrecked. Freedom by necessity entails limitations and responsibility as a society and as individuals.”

Ms. Simons is nearly half finished drafting her second novel. She conceded to feeling trepidation, knowing that readers will have high expectations.

“You sit in front of your computer and you want inspiration to come,” she said. “You’re afraid the muse flew away and is not coming back. You have to continue to have faith in yourself.”

As advice to aspiring authors, Ms. Simons counsels: “There are so many distractions and ways to get discouraged. The hardest thing to do is to keep going. It’s easy to lie down or to blame someone else when life throws us around.”

As the pages — and her doubts — pile up, she said she follows the example of “my Tully, who, almost blindly, gritted her teeth and went on.”

Source: The New York Times Books