Sitting in a Ravenna coffee shop, novelist Julia Sidorova is making sweeping gestures across a table, like a seamstress extending a measuring tape across a long swath of fabric. She’s explaining what she does during her day job as a biomedical scientist at the UW School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology, where her particular niche involves stretching out strands of human DNA and observing replicated patterns. “It’s a rat’s nest when it comes out,” she says. “I unravel it—pick it apart, find a string, stretch it out and pin it to a surface. Some of my work involves highlighting it in fluorescent color.”
Drawing an analogy between her research and writing is irresistible. Unpacking a bundle of ideas in search of a story is the work of all literature, but in constructing her arresting new debut novel, The Age of Ice, Sidorova actually stretched out a timeline of major events in Russian history and added vivid color—in the form of fictional protagonist Prince Alexander Velitzyn, an 18th-century nobleman who happens to have ice woven into his genes.
Sidorova, originally from Moscow, fell upon the idea for her novel after reading an article in The New Yorker about a real occurrence in Russian history. In 1740, during one of the coldest winters on record, Empress Anna Ioannovna became obsessed with the concept of an ice palace in St. Petersburg. In addition to ordering its construction, the empress forced two of her jesters to marry and spend a conjugal night locked inside the palace, naked, on a bed made of ice. (The two survived the night, but barely.) Sidorova was captivated by the story of the ice palace, wondering, “Was it a torture chamber or a scientific experiment?”
Taking this strange truth as her fictional starting point, Sidorova wrote the book from the point of view of one of the twins she imagined were conceived on that frigid night. I was born of cold copulation, white-fleshed and waxy like a crust of fat on beef broth left outside in winter, the story begins. As it progresses (for nearly 400 pages), we see Velitzyn brush against important Russian events (like a ship narrowly skirting an iceberg, perhaps), from the Battle of Austerlitz to the Bolshevik Revolution to the present-day melting of the Arctic ice sheet. If that seems like a long life, it is: In addition to being part ice, Velitzyn is immortal.
Influenced by writers Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, Sidorova incorporates science fiction and magical realism into her historical tales. “Just writing about reality is somehow insufficient,” she says. “I need that extra dimension.” She compares this approach to the way birds can see in ultraviolet, beyond the color spectrum visible to humans. “I like to imagine that bird’s-eye view.” In the case of The Age of Ice, she says she kept thinking about that “connubial ice slab,” and how the ice might have “meddled with conception.” A connoisseur of genes, she envisioned how Velitzyn’s abnormalities might play out—he radiates cold when in aroused emotional states and he is also impervious to cold. When certain conditions are met, he can enter a phase transition, “glaciating” from human into ice.
“Science is always embedded in my stories,” Sidorova says, “because it’s my world outlook.” Indeed, the scientific perspective is present in all her work, including short stories such as “Galileo Day” (an alternate history in which 17th-century cathedrals boast telescopes and monks practice science), and in the new novel she’s already at work on, which surrounds Kabbalah, numbers and genetics. She remembers being a 7-year-old girl in Moscow and announcing to her parents that she would be a biologist (a dream that later shifted to a zoologist, and then a geneticist). But the whole time Sidorova was formulating scientific plans, she was also reading voraciously throughout her youth—books about animals, science fiction, poetry and Russian classics (including Dostoyevsky, which she recalls “reading deep into the night, brooding about devils”) and fantastical literature. During a rebellious phase, she recalls, “I went off the biology rails and told my parents I was going to be a writer.” When they “freaked out,” she decided to stick with biology.
She landed in Seattle in 1990 (“I was part of the ‘brain drain’ from Russia,” Sidorova says, referring to the mass exodus of scientists that occurred as the Soviet Union began to collapse) to do graduate student work at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Her specialty was cellular division, which she has continued to investigate since becoming a research assistant professor at UW in 2007. She studies DNA replication, carcinogenesis and aging. Noting that most cells duplicate themselves every 24 hours, she says, “It’s kind of a lesson in resilience and hope.”
Also resilient is her desire to keep writing, which she does for two hours every morning before work and “as much as possible” on weekends. She deems this schedule “very inefficient,” but most would consider it a Herculean effort—especially when paired with a career that requires such painstaking attention to detail. “I’m not interested in simplicity,” Sidorova says. “I’m a complexity seeker.” She’s talking about her research again. But maybe her writing, too.