Alina Adams’ resume is as surprising as it is remarkable.
A New York Times bestselling author, TV producer, self-proclaimed “soap opera insider” and figure skating researcher, she was born Alina Genrikhovna Sivorinovskaya in the Ukrainian city of Odessa 50 years ago.
Adams’ latest accomplishment is the publication of “The Nesting Dolls: A Russian Jewish Family Saga” (HarperCollins), a novel based loosely on her own family’s history.
Adams will discuss the book on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m. at a virtual event sponsored by the Jewish Matryoshka Project of the Center for Jewish Education and the Baltimore-Odessa Partnership of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
Adams, who is riding out the pandemic in her parents’ home in Brighton Beach, N.Y., lives in New York with her husband, Scott, and their three children. She recently spoke with Jmore via Zoom about her new book, the immigration experience and her life story.
How did you come to write “The Nesting Dolls”?
I was speaking to my agent three years ago and she said, ‘You know, Russia is really hot right now.’ I had been trying to pitch a Russian book for over 20 years. Always the feedback was that Russia doesn’t sell. People aren’t interested. And absolutely the USSR doesn’t sell. The only thing that might sell is sort of the Russian royalty, ‘Anna Karenina’ type of thing. And that’s not what I wanted to do.
Then suddenly, three years ago, Russia was hot! What a surprise.
So “The Nesting Dolls” takes place in three sections —1930s USSR, 1970s USSR and 2019 in Brighton Beach. The first section is actually from a manuscript I tried to shop around in the 1990s. The second is basically my parents’ era. So my parents would literally get these obscure emails at all times of the day saying, ‘if you were doing this or that, where would you be?’ All these details that I needed to write the book, I could get from them.
You could do academic research, but the best stories came from people. For instance, my mother told me that when she was young in the 1970s, you couldn’t get makeup unless you knew a sailor or someone who went overseas and brought back a haul. So they had this one kind of mascara — the only one they could get — but it was so thick that you had to spit in it to use it. So you’d go into a women’s bathroom and you’d see all these women in there, spitting into their mascara.
It’s stories like these that really bring a book to life.
Why did your family come to the United States?
Anti-Semitism was the main reason. My father wasn’t allowed to go to medical school because of a Jewish quota. There were insults from people in the street.
Add to that living in communal apartments, standing in line for hours for food, knowing that their children’s opportunities were limited because they were Jews, not to mention fear of what even worse might come next.
What was it like when you arrived?
My parents and I came to San Francisco when I was 7. When I came, I spoke no English. I went to a small Jewish day school and I was one of only two Russian-speaking kids in the school. I always felt like an outsider but that wasn’t a bad thing, especially for a writer.
My parents put me in the school because they wanted me to know about being Jewish. They knew they’d been deprived of that. So I was running the seders, and teaching about the holidays and prayers. They say that in Europe the parents raise the children, but in America the children raise the parents.
How is it that you’ve taken so many different paths in your career?
I’ve lived many lives! The thing with soap operas is I just watched a lot of them growing up. They’re a great way to learn English because they just keep repeating the same things over and over again, and you see something [happen] and then people talk about it.
[After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in broadcast communications], I went to L.A. and worked as a writer for an E! Entertainment Television show called ‘Pure Soap.’ Then I moved to New York because in 1994, the O.J. [Simpson] trial happened and that preempted soap operas. So ABC created a show called ‘SoapLine’ that would catch soap opera viewers up on the shows they had missed.
After the trial ended, I stayed on and produced a soap segment on the daytime show, “Mike and Maddie.”
You also covered ice skating for ABC Sports?
In another life, my brother was a competitive ice skater and I was his chaperone, so I had this background in ice skating. So I moved over to ABC Sports because they had a figure skating department at the time.
Then, I worked the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, for TNT [Turner Network Television]. I continued to cover ice skating, but by then I had gotten married and had my oldest son. There was one time when I had to cover four shows in four cities. Everyone else was flying from city to city but because my son was 18 months old at the time, I would come home for like half a day and then fly out the next day.
My son expressed his displeasure with my lifestyle by basically ignoring me completely and pretending I didn’t exist. So I said, ‘OK, the skating life is not working out. I need to do something steadier.’ So at that point, I moved over to Proctor & Gamble Productions, which produces “Another World” and “Guiding Light,” and I worked for them.
But I was still doing some freelance skating stuff.
How did you get into writing?
I had written some romance novels for Avon and Dell. An editor I worked with in romance novels was talking to a colleague who said she needed to find a writer for a book about the skater Sarah Hughes. This editor remembered that I had a skating background. So she connected us and I wrote this nonfiction book about Sara Hughes, who at the time was an up-and-coming American athlete.
But then, she — very considerately for me — won the 2002 Olympics. So the book went into a second printing and did all that. Then the editor said, ‘We should do a skating murder mystery series.’ So I did five books, and then because I had the connection with book writing when ‘As the World Turns’ had its 25th anniversary, I said, ‘Let’s do a tie-in book, but not a nonfiction book like a lot of those being written [but] one that will actually be part of the story.’
The first book, ‘Oakdale Confidential,’ was written by a character on the show and me. And I would like to say at this point that imaginary people do very little work! I did all the work!
But just to show you how popular soap operas were, the book was no. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks!
The Jewish Matryoshka Project provides opportunities for Russian-speaking Jews in Baltimore to form connections. For information visit their Facebook page.
To register for the book talk with Alina Adams, click here.