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Gary Shteyngart: In America, no one wants to read

Gary Shteyngart on immigrant novels and the importance of good food and fluffy pillows

Gary Shteyngart at National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Gary Shteyngart at National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Gary Shteyngart is a best-selling novelist, a proverbial funny man and a relentless book blurber. He has jumped off a moving train in Mumbai, canoodled with James Franco for a book trailer and been banned in Russia for his hilarious and outspoken critique of the current regime. Shteyngart’s life has been one of reinvention and he says as much in his 2014 memoir, Little Failure: “After all, this is America, and you can swap out the parts of yourself that don’t work. You can rebuild yourself piece by piece."Born as Igor Semyonovich Shteyngart in Leningrad in the erstwhile USSR, he moved to the US when he was seven years old. Growing up was a process of unlearning his thick Russian accent and leaving behind his family’s bland meat and potatoes. He channelled all the frustrations, aspirations and absurdities of his experience as a Russian-Jewish immigrant, adding generous doses of self-deprecating humour to come up with a winning formula. His first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), chronicling the life of the mild-mannered Russian émigré Vladimir Girshkin, was a success. This was followed by the wickedly funny Absurdistan in 2006 and Super Sad True Love Story in 2010, a dystopian look at immigrant love when everything is falling apart. His most recent book is his 2014 memoir, Little Failure, a bittersweet, self-mocking and tender look at his life as an immigrant.Lounge caught up with the writer on the sidelines of the Tata Literature Live! LitFest in Mumbai last month, where he held forth on his love for mutton, the perils of being funny, and jumping off a Mumbai local. Edited excerpts from the interview:

The title of your memoir, ‘Little Failure’, is unusual, to say the least.

It was my mom’s nickname for me as I was growing up. You know, in Russia they give nice nicknames to their kids in the hope that they will do better. She lovingly called me failurchka, or “little failure". I went to a high school where most of the kids were Chinese, Indian, Korean or Russian and all our parents were like that. And my mum came up with the name when I told her that I wasn’t going to law school and wanted to be a writer. Most immigrants come to America to make money, so being a writer wasn’t all that great a choice.

So what happens after you write a book? And tell us about your star-studded book trailers, especially the one where you and James Franco are in matching pink robes and even share a kiss.

You know, I finish a book and it has killed me, and then I have to travel and beg people to read my book. I have to show up in the middle of America—you know, there is a country in between New York and LA and it’s absolutely frightening.

Book trailers are an annoying part of the American literary firmament and all of us have to do it. I have done one with Paul Giamatti where we try to go to a women’s reading club and pick up the ladies. Then there are two with James Franco, who took a couple of classes with me in Columbia. In the trailer for Little Failure, we play a gay married couple and all I can say about that one is that he has very soft lips and is a great kisser. In the trailer for Super Sad, he tries to teach me how to read. So, in America, no one wants to read and you have to have a movie to introduce the book and get them to think that “there’s a funny guy in there, maybe I could read this shit".

Unfortunately, there is no escaping this. I have friends who choose not to be a part of this and while they are true to themselves, they sell 10 copies. Or maybe they have trust funds.

The immigrant experience in America is an omnipresent trope across literature, cinema, music and television. What keeps this genre alive and fresh?

You know, Americans are interested in reinvention and immigrants by designation are those who reinvent themselves. Americans also hate to read books written by people in other countries as it’s too much work to figure out what the significance of specific things is. Reading books by immigrants, you get a little taste of another culture but without too much investment. The stories of the native-born are very boring. How many times can you write about someone’s parents getting divorced in a well-to-do suburb? Our parents beat the shit out of us. Now that’s funny and interesting. So while writing about this experience, you can’t do too much of the exotic stuff. The good writers take the stance that the country we came from is terrible and America is terrible, so it’s an all-encompassing depression.

So what are your impressions of Mumbai?

I was here in 2013, when I spent two weeks hanging out with Suketu Mehta in the city and wrote a piece on it for Travel + Leisure. Here in Mumbai, the public transport is crazy. I love taking the train and I even tried jumping off it like they do here, and, oh, I was in such pain, but it was also fun. I love Bombay. This is like what New York used to be before it became a city for the 1%. It was alive, everyone was running around, there were all kinds of people and it was exciting.

Recently, you were part of an interesting campaign by Xerox which was all about the modern workplace. So what is your current office like?

My office is my bed, as I write in bed. And I spend a large part of my day in a bathrobe. I don’t see what the point of a real office is as it’s much easier to write from one’s bed. All I need is my laptop and good pillows with a high thread count.

You had written somewhere that, growing up as a Russian child in the US, you had a complex relationship with food. How has that changed?

Well, we didn’t have garlic or other spices. Russian cuisine is just awful. It’s like a piece of meat which is not very good and a piece of potato. How can you live eating that? The food I would take to school was terrible. It was cream cheese and a disgusting piece of bread. If you grow up with boring food, a part of you dies, which is why I am envious of people from good-cuisine countries. Good food is something that bonds the family together and it’s usually the mom who makes something delicious and you love her because of that. Let’s say I learnt to love my mother despite her cooking skills. When I was a teenager, I first discovered Spanish cuisine and all its beautiful garlicky sauces. And this was followed by my discovery of Chinese, Korean and Indian cuisines and I became quite a foodie.

Do you have a favourite playlist while writing?

Yes, I do, but it’s mostly music without words, like Kraftwerk. I love them. (Sings) “We are the robots."

Tell me about the books that inspired you to become a writer.

I used to love reading the Russian translations of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn. These dated back to the (Joseph) Stalin era and their forwards were all about how awful America was and that was absolutely great. And there was this other book called The Wonderful Adventures Of Nils, about this little boy who meets this goose and flies off. So when I was 5, I wrote a book for my Communist grandma called “Lenin And His Magical Goose". It was about how Lenin gets on this goose and they invade Finland and create a socialist revolution, and she paid me a slice of cheese for every page that I wrote.

What is it like being a writer nowadays?

Being a writer nowadays is like a lifestyle. So you live in Williamsburg (a trendy neighbourhood in Brooklyn, NYC) and wear certain kinds of jeans and the writing is the most annoying part of the stuff you do but, really, you’re just this hip person. For about four months, my book Absurdistan was really hip and called an accessory book that people bought without reading, and they would carry it around to look good. That was great and we sold so many books because of that. I was so happy and even built a pool after that.

What is your relationship with the world of social media?

Well, today I got half a million Twitter followers so that’s really cool, but I think half of them are bots with names like KremlinLover2000 or something. I am trying to get non-bot followers as well. I adapt to all this social media but I wish I didn’t have to spend all this time on it because I don’t know how much it helps with sales. But these are desperate times.

It is a hard life for funny people in today’s world of censorship. How does one circumvent the brickbats?

As a satirist, how do you make fun of something that is already satirical to begin with? The last book I wrote is immediately less satirical because it’s set during the 2016 US election. How do you make fun of that? It’s a national tragedy. You know, one has to keep doing this because while it would be nice to be an accountant, I don’t know how to do anything else. On social media, I try not to offend for the sake of offending. It’s like we know more about what the limits of racism and sexism are and it’s too hard to go there even if it’s all for laughs.

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