Can't Live Long Without Writing
       By Natasha Grinberg

A Conversation with Gary Shteyngart

ShteyngartShteyngart was born in Leningrad, USSR, in 1972 and emigrated with his family to Queens, New York, at the age of seven. After spending time in Prague in the early 1990's, Shteyngart earned a degree in Politics at Oberlin College, where his senior thesis concerned the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan. After graduation, he worked a series of jobs as a writer for non-profit organizations in New York, including the real-life Emma Lazarus Immigrant Absorption Society. Shteyngart completed The Russian Debutante's Handbook last summer in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he was also researching his second novel. He lives in New York City. (photo by Slavik Dushenkov)


NG: It's been four years since your last book.  What have you been working on?

GS: My new novel Absurdistan is slated for publication in May 2006. I started it five or six days before 9/11, and, strangely enough, I set it close to the Middle East, in the former Soviet republics bordering with Iran and Caucuses region. I'd just got back from that part of the world and decided to write a book about oil and oil politics when suddenly the book had acquired uncanny timeliness. Still, I had to put it away after 9/11.

NG: Why?

GS: I think everybody put everything away then. All the writers I knew, especially those writing about internal things, families, relationships between fathers and sons, for example, said how are we going to write? What is a worthy subject these days? We were dwarfed by this gigantic drama that was unfolding.

NG: When did you start writing again?

GS: I can't live very long without writing. It's the only thing I'm good at. I took a month and went back to writing. But I worried at the time that in the novel I have a lot of violence and buildings being set on fire. And in the parts I'd already written, there were references to the World Trade Center. It had always fascinated me. It reminded me of some kind of a gigantic socialist building. It had this strange quality of some buildings you see maybe in Moscow. Gigantic. Incredibly impersonal.  

NG: Who is the main character of your new book?

GS: His name is Misha. Misha Veinberg. And he weighs 325 lb. First I had him at 400 lb. but I did a lot of research and talked to very large people and had to slim him. Otherwise, even at about 6'2", it would be very hard for him to walk, and I needed him to keep moving. I knew a couple of Russian guys just like Misha.

NG: Why did you want him to be fat?

GS: He is a son of a very rich businessman, Russian oligarch, and at the same time I wanted him to embody the American ethos of large people. I've been always fascinated by the idea that you can kind of eat your way through life. Misha consumes everything: women, politics, antidepressants, psychoanalysis.

NG: Have your work habits changed since your first book?

GS: Strangely enough, the freedom of living off my work made me worst in a way, because when I had day jobs, every moment I worked on the book I had a feeling that I was doing something sacred, fighting the establishment, kind of. But now, I'm part of the establishment. 

NG: What are your writing habits? 

GS: The last 150 days, I practically wrote every single day because of deadlines. But when I'm not under pressure, I work sporadically. About four days a week, four hours a day. 

I try to do two pages a day, editing or writing. Most of this book was written in Italy. I was really able to concentrate there. It is such a laid-back country. Nearly all my friends there did very little or no work. In NY, everyone works like an animal. It's so competitive; everyone talks about work, work, work. But when you go to a Roman party, everyone speaks of anything but work. Food, politics, sex. It allowed me to relax, think about the world around me, concentrating on sensual aspects, like great food. Especially since I was writing about a man who loves to eat.

NG: So did you gain weight?

GS: I did get some, but the beauty of Rome is that it is built on hills so you constantly walk up and down.  

NG: Did you have an outline?

GS: My fiction is not so much fiction of the interior as it is plot driven. It's almost an old-fashioned picaresque story. More Don Quixote than John Cheever. I always do a precise outline. Point by point. The Russian Debutante's Handbook had like a hundred plot points. My achievement with this book is that it is much tighter.

NG: What is your biggest challenge when writing a novel?

GS: I'm a satirist and I write, hopefully, in a humorous vein, so the challenge is to balance humor with the tragedy that takes place in the world. This novel is about the third-world countries and how politics affect them. It is also about a family. Though Jewish humor has a kind of tragic component built it, at some point the levity has to die down and you have to concentrate on quiet moments, moments of introspection and for me it is a challenge balancing the two.

Also, humorous writing is hit or miss with an audience. Drama has a more universal effect. People respond in a predictable way to death or failed romance. But when you do humor, you're uncertain if you succeed or not.

NG: Do you test your fiction on readers or other writers to gain that certainty?

GS: On a couple of other writers. Most importantly Akhil Sharma who wrote An Obidient Father. He is one of my two or three favorite writers. Because he's not a humorous writer, his opinion helps me balance things out—if he approves of the way the non-humorous elements of the book are put together, then I know I'm doing okay. Other people who read my drafts are my agent; Joe Weisberg, another good writer; my editor, Dan Menaker. Dan wrote an excellent book about psychoanalysis called The Treatment, which is now being made into a movie.  

NG: Do you show your writing to non-writers before publication?

GS: No. Eventually it will be read by a lot of non-writers, but if you're a surgeon, it helps to have a second opinion of a fellow surgeon, not the patient about to be operated on.

NG: Recently, there were many articles about nonfiction taking the lead. V. S. Naipaul, 2001 Nobel laureate in literature, even declared his disenchantment with the novel.  What is your opinion on this? 

GS: I still read a lot of fiction, more so than non-fiction. We live in an age of infotainment where in three hours an event is old news. You write a book about something timely and in ten years nobody cares. There was a slew of non-fiction books about 9/11, but how many of them are going to be read ten years? Maybe one or two will survive. But fiction has longevity.

On the other hand, the best non-fiction books read like novels. I write non-fiction, too. I just did a piece that's going to be out in Travel and Leisure's September issue about Azerbaijan. Travel writing is a window into the way people live, and after 9/11 Americans are thirsting for knowledge about the world.  Books like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini serve as a bridge between America and other cultures. Too bad, fiction in translation is not published as often in the US as in other countries. 

NG: You seem to prefer the form of a novel. Why?

GS: Because I'm long-winded and have a lot to say. What is weird is that as American attention span decreases in this age of blogs and the information bombardment, you'd think that a short form would enjoy a Renaissance. That really hasn't happened. People still prefer a novel.

Today's readers use their long commute to listen to or read a novel. Maybe New York is such a literate city because people spend hours on a subway and everyone's got a book.

NG: What do you think of the short stories in magazines? 

GS: I am stunned that The Atlantic no longer publishes short fiction. Instead, it produces a yearly fiction publication. A kind of ghettoized short-story issue.

I'll be honest with you, I haven't read good short fiction in a while. Stuff in magazines? Somehow it's become mannered, having a typical pattern to it. There's not much room for surprise. But still several writers are publishing very good work. George Saunders, for example. A great writer. In his stories, you never know what is going to happen.

The New Yorker used to print The New Yorker stories—mannered, suburban, upper-middle-class stories. Thank God, they don't do it anymore. For some time now, they go in a new direction, trying to be open to different voices.

NG: How do you take reviews and do they affect your writing?

GS: Reviews in media for the first book were so overwhelmingly positive that I felt lucky. I focused not on esoteric things one reviewer out of fifty said but on the pattern of what most reviewers said. About my first novel, even some of the best reviews said, "Great book. Little pruning wouldn't hurt."

So in Absurdistan, I worked on making every chapter contribute to the overall motion of the narrative. Some say, plot is an embarrassment and doesn't really behoove a good writer.  I disagree. I think plot could be a great source of momentum.

NG: What attracts you in fiction and propels you to keep reading?  

GS: Voice. If it is engaging and compelling, I can read anything. I hate sports but I've read fiction about baseball when the voice was compelling enough. Sam Lipsyte has such a voice. I can follow him anywhere. He writes about American high schools, which I really couldn't care less about, but he makes me interested.

Lately, there has been an emphasis on self-expression and everyone feels an urge to communicate their childhood to the world at large, so at times I think that I'm reading something written by rote. That always repels me.

NG: What part of you growing up Russian, Jewish, American had the most influence on your writing?

GS: It's all there as well as a lot of ambivalence to all these things. On the one hand, I was taught that Russian culture was the best culture in the world; on the other hand, Russia was a terrible place. My parents talked about the anti-Semitism they faced there. I go back to Russia almost every year and do feel anti-Semitism first hand.

I was taught always to be proud to be Jewish, but some of the worst experiences in my life were the eight years I spent at Hebrew school. As a result, I'm not religious at all. I'm proud to be a secular Jew.

America. I love New York. I love the coastal parts of this country, yet when I go into the interior, I don't know what is going on there. I'm just shocked that we share a country and a flag with people who are so different from us.  And I don't mean in a positive way different.

So all these three identities, I'm happy to have but at the same time, I'm not a flag waver in any way. There is one thing I'm very proud of—it's being a New Yorker. After 9/11 there was a ground swelling of that kind of feeling. There was a reason why they attacked us. Because we are the most multicultural in a good way—we are the future of civilization, secular civilization, and that's why people who are intolerant chose to hit this place.

NG: When you create characters, do you use prototypes? Have you ever invented a character?

GS: I don't invent characters. I find interesting people wherever I go and am shocked by what comes out of people's mouths when they open up to me.  Sometimes, I put more than one person together.

The Russian Debutante's Handbook was highly autobiographical, a young man's first novel. Like all young men I was focused on myself, inwardly. I could write a dialogue of Russian parents, I can put together an American girlfriend, but it was hard for me to focus beyond that. As I got older and the narcissism of the early 20s died away, I became a better listener, interested in what other people have to say.

Traveling to the former Soviet Union was wonderful. People really speak up there. They were drawn to me because I can speak Russian and understand what's going on but, at the same time, I'm clearly not from that part of the world. In Azerbaijan people would buy expensive dress shoes, but not sneakers, so I dressed strategically in expensive sneakers so they knew I was not local. .

NG: If you were teaching literature, what would be your most important message?

GS: I'd want my students to built parallels between their lives and what they are reading. The concerns of the 17th century Lithuanian literature are the same as concerns of the 21st century American literature—interior life. Fiction allows the fourth dimension to exist and this is what it really is all about. 

 Otherwise, you might just go see a movie or a painting.

NG: Are you afraid that the fiction you are reading would bleed into your writing?

GS: I always read fiction when I write but I try to vary it. For this book, I read Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh. I always go back to the Russian classics, of course. Also for this book, for some reason, Dovlatov really helped. His short stories are almost like blogs. They are hilarious. There is such quickness to them. Just brilliant. Like popcorn shrimp I'd swallow. Sometimes, I long for the mechanics of fiction, craftsmanship, so I'll pick up some Nabokov. If I want to read great dialog, I'd go to Philip Roth.

NG: If you were not a writer, who would you be?

GS: An urban planner. I love cities more than anything and am fascinated with the way they are put together. But it's a little too late for me now, so I'll stick with writing.

 About the Interviewer

Natasha-GrinbergNatasha Grinberg immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1980. Her advice column and essays have appeared in Russian-American newspapers. She writes fiction in English, most recently a novel about two Russian families on their odyssey to America, an excerpt of which was published by In Posse.


Editor: Mark Budman




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