MB: Your stories strike the reader as something bold and different. They are, in essence, fables. A woman who is pregnant for four years and wants to keep herself pregnant to deliver a baby in America. The President who slides down a brass pole to appear on the other side of the world. A mother and her two adult daughters having their identities blurred. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought you were an Eastern European. Why such a strikingly atypical approach? Do you have any connection to Eastern Europe?
JB: Many of my favorite writers are eastern European or Russian, and I’m sure their influence seeps into my work—probably even more than I realize. Kafka and Babel and Gogol and Bruno Schulz are particular favorites, and also Chekhov, Nabokov, Bulgakov, I. B. Singer. My ancestors came from that part of the world (what’s now Belarus), so perhaps there’s an element of seeking out my roots. But there’s also something in the style and atmosphere of these writers’ works (especially those first four) that appeals to me. I like the way fantasy and reality are intertwined; there’s no clear distinction between them.
MB: Who is your favorite non-American writer?
JB: There are so many, I don’t’ think I could pick just one. Babel, Bohumil Hrabal, Barbara Gowdy, Jose Saramago to name a few.
MB: While thinking outside the box is almost as old as the box itself, were you afraid to take risks when you started your writing career?
JB: No, because this is the only way I know how to write. I couldn’t write a straightforward, conventionally structured, realistic story if I tried. Trying to do something new and different, trying to find a new way to tell a familiar story—that’s how I approach writing and I can’t do it any other way. Even when I start a story in a fairly conventional manner, I usually find it heading off the rails very soon, seemingly through no decision of mine.
MB: I just finished a review of “Non-Required Reading 2006” for the American Book Review, and I loved your story “Nadia,” a fresh look at the now tired Russian bride plot. What prompted you to write this story? BTW, I was born and raised in the former Soviet Union.
JB: I think my original motivation was, as you said, to try to do something new and different with the mail-order bride idea. I also was interested in using a collective narrator, the “we” voice. And I wanted to explore a kind of perverted do-gooder mentality—people trying so hard to be charitable and ‘good’ that they forget to listen to the very people they claim to be helping.
MB: Authors rarely use collective narrator, though in everyday life it’s very common. We need to do this, we need to do that. Why such a discrepancy?
JB: I think it’s easy to use “we” in conversation, but it can get awkward to use it as a narrative voice. When we say “we” in conversation, it’s often a “royal we”—we really mean “I.” But when it’s used in a story, the meaning can be ambiguous and confusing. Is the “we” a group of people speaking and acting in unison, a chorus? Is it one person speaking for the group? In “Nadia” I wanted the narrative voice to at first seem like a group, a mob, thinking and speaking together, but then as the story continues one of the women, one voice, begins to detach herself from the group and speak as an “I.”
MB: Most authors bring a bit of themselves into a story, though of course they add a great degree of fantasy to it (fantasy as in “made up” and not “genre.”) Ideally, they are in several characters at once. Is this a case with you in “Nadia?”
JB: I never consciously intend to put myself in any of my stories, but I’m sure a lot of me seeps in anyway. The women who narrate “Nadia” embody all the qualities and behaviors I dislike most, in myself and in others: jealousy, passivity, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, misguided self-righteousness.
MB: I didn’t realize that “Miracle,” originally from the New Yorker and now reprinted in “Nice Big American Baby” was yours, too. I read it back in 2004. Isn’t that fantastic that 2004 is in the past now? I remember when 1984 was the future. Talking about fantastic, wasn’t Miracle the first time the New Yorker published a magic realism story by an American?
JB: I don’t think so. I’m sure there have been plenty of others. Don’t they publish a lot of Louise Erditch, for example? But then, it all depends on your definition of magic realism. I think the definition has grown broader and broader over the years, and now it seems people use it as a catch-all category for anything that’s not strictly realistic and also doesn’t fall into a specific genre like science fiction or fantasy. I’m always reluctant to label my own work as magic realism, simply because to my mind magic realism is the realm of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I feel presumptuous placing my work alongside his. But perhaps it is the best way to classify my work—no apt alternative comes to mind.
MB: If I can compare a writer to a painter, you use grotesque as one of your effective brushes. For example, in “Elephant and Boy,” a mosquito aims consciously at the Benevolent Foreign Lady but dies in vain unable to penetrate her armor. This brush comes hand-in-hand with your approach to a story as a fable. Gogol and Babel would approve. Wouldn’t you say that the grotesque and absurd has become more mainstream in America now, especially after Borat?
JB: I suspect the popularity of the Borat movie is probably one part of a larger trend, rather than the cause of it. Are grotesquerie and absurdity really becoming more mainstream now than they’ve been in the past? I don’t know. I think historically those things have always had their place in culture and entertainment, whether it be circuses or freak shows or Flannery O’Connor or “Waiting for Godot.”
MB: Why do so many of your characters remain unnamed? Does this line from “Elephant and Boy” give an explanation? “He is invisible. He has no name.”
JB: As for why many of my characters don’t have names, there are various reasons. Sometimes it’s because I want the character to seem universal, archetypal, like the characters in fairy tales—‘the prince’ or ‘the witch.’ Sometimes I want to leave the character a blank for the reader to fill in. Sometimes I want to preserve some mystery. Names can suggest so much—they can suggest the culture, class, age, location of a character—and sometimes I want to leave those things in the dark for a while and reveal them at my own pace. And sometimes I leave characters nameless because I just couldn’t think of a good name.
MB: What are your plans? A second novel, perhaps a sequel to "If I Told You Once"? Another short story collection?
JB: I’m working on a novel right now. It’s something new, definitely not a sequel to the first novel—I feel like I did everything I could do with those characters and those ideas the first time around, now it’s time for something totally different. And I’m sure I’ll return to short stories at some point. I really love the story form and feel that I’ve hardly exhausted the possibilities yet.
About the Interviewer
Mark Budman was born and raised in the former Soviet Union, but now resides in New York State. His fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry have appeared or are about to appear in Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, Iowa Review, McSweeney's, Turnrow, Connecticut Review, WW Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward , and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review, and the recipient of the Broome Country Art Council grant. He is also the interview editor for Web Del Sol and a book reviewer for The Bloomsbury Review and The American Book Review.