#WritersRead - Gary Shteyngart

Article by mark

I first discovered Gary Shteyngart in 2007 with his second novel ABSURDISTAN. I don’t remember how I discovered the book, whether it was suggested to me by a friend, or perhaps a review I’d come across, or whether I’d noticed its spine among all the others along the shelf of S’s--the kind of pure chance indigenous to bookstores. In any event, ABSURDISTAN was a revelation, a novel full of manic energy and hysterical satire, so inventive and audacious I didn’t think it could be pulled off. But perhaps to prove me wrong, that’s exactly what Shteyngart did. He pulled it off. I immediately knew I’d found a fellow traveler (or guide) in the world of contemporary writing. Screamingly funny. Painfully self-deprecating. Worldly and literary. The humor, the voice! I’d just finished a three-year affair with Malamud and Roth and, of course, Bellow--those twentieth-century writers, either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants--and here came Shteyngart, this upstart (a mere two weeks older than me!) who seemingly burst from the gate armed with his own voice and all the other tools necessary to be a great novelist. Yes, I wanted to hate him, but I loved him too much.

Needless to say, I went back and read his other novels, THE RUSSIAN DEBUTANTE’S HANDBOOK and SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY, both of which awed me too. With the publication of his memoir LITTLE FAILURE earlier this year, readers could see the origins of Shteyngart’s voice--that his humor wasn’t something that came easily. In fact, it was something that came, like most types of wisdom, from suffering. In LITTLE FAILURE, Shteyngart illustrates the challenges of migrating from Russia at age seven (amidst the Cold War) and how asthma, overbearing parents and Hebrew school all colluded to make the novelist you read today.

I was honored to talk to Shteyngart before his visit on Thursday, Oct. 16 for this installment of #WritersRead.

Brazos Bookstore: In LITTLE FAILURE, you describe reading out loud the first novel you wrote in English, THE CHALENGE, to your elementary school class. The recognition you get (perhaps your first experience of good attention) is very moving, but equally important is your sudden realization that telling stories equates to love. You write that with this “comes the responsibility that will haunt me for the rest of my life. The responsibility of writing something every day.” Do you still feel that responsibility? Do you still write for love?

Gary Shteyngart: After my first novel was published--and I don't mean THE CHALENGE [sic]--I guess the writing-for-love abated a bit and I started to write as a career. It was a little sad, actually. Writing was a kind of salvation for me growing up, even as far as college and a little bit beyond, so when writing also became a means of paying the mortgage, I felt I had lost something. The near-holy nature of it was gone.

BB: Suffering often seems to be the fate of artists. LITTLE FAILURE is suffused with scenes of vivid suffering--asthma attacks, bullying, parental injustice. Do you feel the suffering was necessary to make you the writer that you are?

GS: Yeah, how many happy writers or artists do you know? There aren't tons of them out there. The feeling of being an outsider (at least initially) is essential in trying to understand the society in which the artist finds herself.

BB: Your novels often mix high and low culture. Is this a goal or just something that happens organically because of your interests?

GS: Oh, I'm all about low culture, believe me. I'm not even sure where Lincoln Center is located.

BB: The New Yorker recently published your (semi) retirement from blurbing books and I was wondering, having just had my first blurb appear in a book, if you’d be willing to have a BLURB-OFF when you visit Brazos in October? The rules are simple. Anonymous blurbs are read aloud and the players (you and I) must guess the author of the blurb. Some will be contemporary and others will be old and obscure (Sophocles ripping apart Socrates’ first horrible novella, for example). Just something to consider.

GS:I feel like my blurbing has gotten rusty. I used to blurb everything in sight. I blurbed a cheeseburger once.

BB: You have no idea whom we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

GS: How do you keep your hair so beautiful?

BB: Speaking of which, René Steinke (author of FRIENDSWOOD) wants to know: What's the craziest thing you've ever seen in Texas?

GS: I've spent about two months of my life in Texas and every single moment has been crazy.

Gary Shteyngart visits Brazos and signs his memoir LITTLE FAILURE on Thursday, Oct. 16. Reserve your ticket today!

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