THE WRITING LIFE ... Olga GRUSHIN
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE
ERIC FORBES caught up with OLGA GRUSHIN recently over email to talk about her life as a writer and her novels, The Dream Life of Sukhanov and The Line
OLGA GRUSHIN is the author of the novels, The Dream Life of Sukhanov (Penguin, 2006), and The Line (A Marian Wood Book/G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2010; published as The Concert Ticket in the U.K.), as well as short stories, literary criticism, essays, and other works. Born in Moscow in 1971, the daughter of a prominent Soviet sociologist, Boris Grushin, she spent her early childhood in Prague. After returning to Moscow, she studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at Moscow State University. In 1989, she was given a full scholarship to study at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and became the first Russian citizen to enroll in and complete a four-year American college program, graduating summa cum laude in 1993.
She was awarded the 2007 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta magazine. She was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times/Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, Partisan Review, The Massachusetts Review, Confrontation and Art Times, while her nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Granta, Vogue and The Daily Mail, among other places.
Grushin lives near Washington, D.C., with her husband and children.
Interview by ERIC FORBES
Photographs by TAMARA BECKWITH and PHILIPPE MATSAS
You were born in Moscow, Russia. What was it like growing up in Russia? And what was it like the first time you landed on American soil?
I was born in Moscow, but I spent a large part of my childhood in Prague. My father, Boris Grushin, was a sociologist who pioneered public opinion research in the Soviet Union and who, as a result, often got into trouble with the powers that be. In the mid-1970s, when I was four years old, he proposed a revolutionary sociological approach and witnessed a full-scale attack mounted against him in the press. Branded as “anti-Marxist,” he lost his job and became virtually blacklisted, until an influential friend offered him a position at a magazine in Prague. We lived there for five years. Prague was magical, and I had a fairy-tale childhood. When we returned to Moscow in 1981, everything seemed grim and oppressive, the winters went on and on, and I had great trouble adjusting; yet soon enough perestroika began, and Moscow became a thrilling place to live, especially for a teenager who dreamed of being a writer.
I came to America in 1989, and it so happened that I was the first Soviet citizen to enroll in a four-year program at an American university. When I arrived, I was met with a lot of media attention, so for the first few weeks I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights. Just off the plane, I was asked about dating American boys, and on campus, I was followed around by a TV crew who filmed staged excursions to shops, staged trips to the bank, and staged meals featuring gigantic, towering hamburgers that I didn’t know how to eat. Once the media interest faded, though, I happily threw myself into American life. I wanted to learn about everything, experience everything, cram as many things as possible into my days—American football games, modern dance lessons, horseback riding, soap operas, fraternity parties, church services, book clubs—everything seemed so terribly exotic, so new, so bright.
What made you a writer, and when did you realise you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I grew up in a family of journalists and writers, and it is almost as if I never had a choice in the matter. I started writing my first short stories when I was four or five, and I haven’t stopped since.
When you decided that you wanted to be a writer, did you imagine what a writer’s life would be like? What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer? Are there any aspects of it that you do not enjoy?
In my early youth I devoured biographies of Russian poets and writers, whose lives were full of adventure, drama and historical upheavals, with prison spells, wars, grand passions and a duel or two along the way. At fifteen, I imagined that any proper writer’s life should proceed along similar lines. Was I ever in for an awakening! What do I enjoy most about my life? Quiet and solitude. What do I enjoy least? Quiet and solitude.
Could you describe your writing process? What part of the process do you enjoy most as a writer?
I usually start my day by going over the pages I wrote the day before, editing the old text until it spills over into writing new text. Ordinarily I write for a stretch of four or five hours; when I feel my sentences becoming forced, I stop. Whether I’m working on a novel or a short story, I tend to know where I’m headed: I make outlines and take extensive notes beforehand, and I like to be quite organised and conscious about my character development and scene settings. But on my best writing days, I often have a sense of going deeper and deeper into some place that has nothing to do with outlines and preconceived plots—and my favourite moments are much like dreaming, when the writing seems to flow on its own accord and scenes change in mid-sentence and my characters say things I didn’t know they would say and do things I didn’t know they would do. Afterwards, these always seem to be the best parts of the book.
In what way or ways is writing in English different from writing in your mother tongue?
The languages are so different that my style in English is inevitably different from my style in Russian, just as my thinking is different in each language: each comes with its own intellectual and emotional vocabulary, or so it seems. To me, Russian is the more emotional and lyrical of the two, and English, while somewhat drier, has a richer vocabulary and, therefore, the capacity for profound nuance and precision. At this point in my life, English is my “official” writing language, while Russian is my private language, reserved for my diary and letters to my family. But I do try to imbue the English of my fiction with a Russian sensibility: since my first two novels are set in Russia, I have attempted to retain Russian cadences in my sentences and to use Russian turns of phrase.
Was it difficult getting your first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, published? Did you experience much difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
I approached the business of publishing in a very methodical fashion, and I was very lucky along the way. I started by purchasing a slim little book, How to Break into Print—the best $10 I’ve ever spent in my life: among other things, it taught me to double-space my manuscripts. Armed with that knowledge, I wrote and published a handful of short stories. I knew absolutely no one in the business, but I thought that a few credits in literary magazines might eventually help me find an agent. Once my novel was written, I combed through the “Acknowledgment” pages of the books I liked best, drew up a list of agents, and sent out query letters. Warren Frazier (who represents Mark Danielewski, author of The House of Leaves) responded to my query within a day; I sent him the manuscript via email; he called me the next morning. We were very lucky with finding the publisher, too: Marian Wood of Putnam loved the book and bought it within a week or two of receiving the manuscript. Overall, the experience convinced me that one can indeed publish a novel without having an MFA degree, going to writers’ conferences, or having a best friend who is married to an agent—which I find very encouraging.
Could you tell me a bit about The Dream Life of Sukhanov? What was the seed of the novel? How did you go about creating a protagonist like Anatoly Pavlovich Sukhanov?
The Dream Life of Sukhanov is the story of a brilliant artist in Soviet Russia who chooses to give up his dangerous art and settles for a life of material comfort and moral ambiguity, until decades later, in 1985, his betrayed gift starts to haunt him and his perfectly arranged, successful life starts to fall apart. Central to the book are the themes of our dreams and our choices, the role of art and the role of family in shaping our lives. Sukhanov was not based on anyone I knew, but in many ways he was formed by my experiences of growing up in Russia, listening to my parents and their friends—people of Sukhanov’s generation, many of them artists, philosophers and writers, all of whom had to struggle with their own difficult choices. Some, like my father and the artist Ernest Neizvestny (a close family friend), followed their beliefs and suffered the consequences. (Ernest Neizvestny, one of the artists exhibited at the infamous Manège show in 1962, stood up to Khrushchev in a celebrated confrontation; he was eventually forced to emigrate to the U.S.) Others bargained with the authorities and enjoyed certain rewards, but always at a price. The questions of artistic courage and betrayal, daily comfort and immortality were very real concerns from my earliest years, and Sukhanov was the result of my thinking about these questions for a long time. For a while I debated between making him an artist or a writer, but an artist seemed a more interesting choice—for one thing, I wanted to imagine someone more remote from myself; for another, I liked the challenge of writing a very visual novel: everything in the book is seen through Sukhanov’s eyes, that is, through the eyes of an artist of genius who has ignored his talent for years yet who cannot help but perceive reality as an artist would, in vivid colours, with striking images, even with scattered, hidden references to actual masterpieces throughout. And the surrealism motif, which passes through the book, ties in perfectly with my exploration of madness that is brought on by the denial of one’s true nature.
How much research did you do for The Dream Life of Sukhanov? What about your new novel, The Line?
The Dream Life of Sukhanov spans some fifty years of Soviet history, from 1929 (the year of Sukhanov’s birth, which he shares with my father) to 1985, when the novel takes place. It is not strictly speaking a historical novel, but it does touch on quite a few momentous events, from Stalin’s repressions and the Great Patriotic War to Khrushchev’s Thaw and the beginning of perestroika, and there is a famous historical episode at the heart of the book—the Manège incident of 1962, when Khrushchev visited an art show in Moscow and lashed out against a group of abstract and expressionist artists exhibited there, telling them that their art was good only for covering urinals and threatening them with Siberia. I did not have to do much research, since most of the material was already familiar to me—I had lived through the early years of perestroika, studied art and art history, and grown up listening to my parents’ stories—but I did read memoirs of unofficial Russian artists of the times and various accounts of the Manège exhibition, to get the overall feeling right. I wanted to avoid cluttering the book with historical details, however: I tried to lend it a more universal feel, so that people not at all familiar with Soviet history might find the story appealing as well, and with a hope that it might retain its resonance years from now. Among other things, it is not accidental that the name “Gorbachev” does not appear in the book.
As for my new novel, The Line (published as The Concert Ticket in the U.K.), it was inspired by a real historical event. In 1962, the celebrated Russian composer, Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, was invited to visit Russia after nearly half a century of exile to perform his music at a Leningrad concert hall. When people learned about it, they lined up for tickets, and the line lasted for an entire year, evolving over time into a unique and complex social system, with people working together and taking turns standing in line. The story of the year-long waiting in line struck me as incredibly powerful, but it took me only a day or two of research to realise that I would not be using the actual historical event at all, as it developed in ways different from the direction in which I wanted to go with my book. I did, however, listen to a lot of Stravinsky’s music and read accounts of the Ballets Russes, a Russian ballet company that was a sensation in Paris in the years before the Revolution, which inspired another development in my novel. That said, The Line required no research per se, and is very far from being a historical novel: it takes place in the unnamed capital of an unnamed country (though it’s much like Moscow), and its temporal setting is an amalgamation: I borrow liberally from three different time periods of Soviet history, namely, the repression of Stalin’s 1930s, the hopefulness of Khrushchev’s Thaw (late 1950s to early 1960s) and the stagnation of Brezhnev’s 1970s. I imagined the book not so much as a story set in Soviet Russia but rather as a Russian dreamscape of sorts—a meditation on hope, time and history.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
While living in Moscow, I read many classics in translation: A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, whom I loved most of all. There were some Russian and Polish writers too; Yuri Olesha and Ian Bzhekhva come to mind. After we moved to Prague, I discovered a local library overflowing with books I had never heard about in Russia. I brought piles of them home, devoured them greedily, and went back for more every week. I was too young to pay attention to the titles and the authors, and as a result those years left me with tantalising memories of many wonderful stories—about a merry ghost living in an ancient castle, about a family of foxes in the springtime woods, about a girl riding a giant balloon over winter-bound towns—stories which I have been trying to trace ever since, in vain. Only once did I succeed in finding one of these “lost books,” as I have come to think of them. Shortly after arriving in America, I mentioned to my college roommate that as a seven- or eight-year-old I had chanced upon an obscure children’s story I really liked but by now had largely forgotten; I remembered only a little girl discovering a land of snow beyond a wardrobe full of fur coats—and something about a lion. Needless to say, this book was not lost for long. I’m still looking for the others, and, to this day, I love reading children’s books.
Later, when I was ten or eleven, I began to pay attention to the writers’ names. I read everything I could find on my parents’ bookshelves in Moscow: Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Alexander Dumas, James Fennimore Cooper, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and so on—the usual teenage fare. I moved on to the Russian classics at thirteen or fourteen, devouring everything written by Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov—all the Russian giants; and a year or two later I discovered the Russian poets, especially the poets of the Silver Age—Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Nikolai Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam. It was the Russian writers and poets who ultimately shaped my idea of what great literature is capable of achieving, but there were other early favourites as well—Proust, Flaubert, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Dante and Kafka, to name just a few.
What are some of your favourite American classics?
Can I cheat and say Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire? Also, Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky. And Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is often exasperating yet absolutely enormous.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? Could you suggest a novel that you think haven’t got as much attention as it should?
I tend to read mostly writers who have been dead for a while, but here are a few names that come to mind: José Saramago, James Salter, John Banville, Steven Millhauser, Milorad Pavić (he died in November 2009, but I’ll include him anyway) and the brilliant John Crowley, especially his Little, Big, which is easily the best book by a living author I’ve read in the past five years and which deserves to be known far better than it is.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
I don’t think I could name a single short story or even a collection. I love everything by Chekhov. More recently, I have been struck by John Crowley’s “Snow”—a perfect, and very chilling, story about memory and love.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
I think they are entirely different genres, and very different skills are involved in writing them. Of course, the more one writes in general, the more experienced one becomes, and any kind of writing helps develop one’s sense of language. I myself always knew that I wanted to write novels, but I did start with short stories, to figure out the writing routines that worked best for me and to experiment with various styles before plunging into a full-length novel. But to my mind, it’s a little like saying that running sprints is good practice for running a marathon. I think they make use of different muscles, though both will undoubtedly teach you how to use your legs.
Reproduced from The Malaysian Insider of May 15, 2010