Can't Live Long Without Writing
By Natasha Grinberg
A Conversation with Gary Shteyngart
Shteyngart 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.
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
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
NG: Are you afraid that the fiction you are reading would bleed into
GS: I always read fiction when
I write but I try to vary it. For this book, I read Graham
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
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
About the Interviewer
Natasha 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
Web del Sol/Algonkian Workshops
2020 Pennsylvania Ave., NW