Author Gary Shteyngart, 41, was known as Igor until age seven, but he began his career as a writer at age five when his grandmother bribed him with a piece of cheese for every page he produced. His first work: an original story book about Lenin and a magical goose who lead a socialist revolution in Finland.
The Jewish-American-Russian writer’s new memoir is called, “Little Failure.” In spite of the harsh title, the successful author has penned a winning account of his and his parents’ immigration to New York from Leningrad in 1979, and of the life they have led thereafter.
The memoir, derived from a nickname Shteyngart’s mother lovingly (or maybe not) gave him, does an excellent job of unpacking the emotional baggage that has accompanied the author’s family across the world and through the years. Readers may be familiar with themes of the Soviet immigrant experience from Shteyngart’s award-winning satirical novels, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” “Absurdistan,” and “Super Sad True Love Story.”
However, his memoir, which could have alternatively been titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Asthmatic,” kicks things up a notch and is being touted as his best work to date.
Shteyngart spoke to The Times of Israel from his home in Manhattan, sharing what it’s like to be a SAP (Soviet Ashkenazi Pessimist), about learning to be a good parent, and how to rope Hollywood stars like James Franco, Rashida Jones and fellow authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Sloane Crosley, into making promotional videos for his books.
Why did you decide to write a memoir, when your fiction is largely autobiographical?
I thought I had a lot of things I wanted to express in a different way than it appeared in fiction. I also wanted to clear the deck a little bit of the same material that I had been writing about so long. It’s so much in my mind, this whole Soviet Russian Jewish thing, so I wanted to move on to something different.
“Little Failure” is about your journey from being Igor to becoming Gary. How much Igor is still left in you?
Sadly, it’s all been whittled away. Gary doesn’t feel like the right kind of name, either. It’s a weird name. I don’t know how they came up with it. No, I do… I think Gary Cooper was very influential… I’ve got to think of a new name.
So, although you no longer feel like a Russian, you also don’t really feel like an American?
I feel like a New Yorker. Maybe I should have a real New York name, like Izzy. People should just call me Izzy Shteyngart.
You recount in your memoir how you have been writing from a young age, but you don’t really go in to detail about the process by which you became a professional writer. You joke about how you can’t do anything else other than write.
‘Maybe it’s helpful to think of me as a Hasid who is always reading and dreaming in a kind of Torah-like trance’
It’s absolutely true. I really can’t do anything else. There’s stuff I would have loved to do, like architecture and urban planning, but they require both a mathematical and an analytical mindset, which I don’t have. The Stuyvesant [High School] chapters I think prove that. I was just a horrible student when it came to math and science.
Law would have made sense, because lawyers work with language, but the year I worked as a paralegal was a complete disaster. I just couldn’t function as that either. Maybe it’s helpful to think of me as a Hasid who is always reading and dreaming in a kind of Torah-like trance. That’s what literature has been for me.
You call yourself a SAP – a Soviet Ashkenazi Pessimist. Is there any way to separate out your Russian-ness from your Jewish-ness, especially when it comes to the defining traits of anxiety and guilt?
In America so many Jews are of Russian, Ukrainian or Belorussian extraction, maybe three generations down the line. That’s why you get so much of this Seinfeld-ian kind of humor. It’s a very distressed kind of humor from the edge of the grave. I’m just closer to the source of it than many American Jews whose families have been here for a while.
You are known for your satire, but at its core, “Little Failure” is a serious book. Did you consciously try to balance the serious and humorous elements as you were writing?
Not really. You write what you have to write. It sort of forms itself in your mind… I wrote whatever came to me. The funny things were funny as they were happening, or some aspect of it is funny. When things aren’t funny at all, they’re not funny at all.
Hebrew school [Solomon Schechter School of Queens, where the author attended elementary and middle school] was very tough, but it was pretty hysterical as well. The methods of teaching, the rabbis droning on about Chumash and children not truly getting it… there was a comic element to it, and I hope that came through, as well.
Stuff that was more personal, like with family, then some of that is held back, because some of that isn’t funny at all.
Was it hard to revisit earlier parts of your life?
It’s very hard. You wake up every morning and you say you’re going to be that age, whatever that age is. What’s my day like? Who are my friends? Who are my enemies? Are my parents fighting? What are all these different things that are happening? Sure, that was hard. It made me feel like I was onto something… When something is hard to write, even if it is just a satire, you have a feeling that it could be worthwhile. Something that is very easy and just pours out of you without any kind of friction is probably not that great.
Have you ever been reticent about shedding light on the Soviet Jewish immigrant experience?
It’s a journey between two superpowers. It’s a very 20th century story. Every story is of course unique, but there’s something very grandiose about this story. It hadn’t had a memoiristic treatment yet from my generation, and I wanted to provide that…
With my first book, there was a lot of reticence on my part to sort of air the dirty laundry and show what a community is like and what members of a family are like. But by the time I got to my memoir, it felt like I had been working on this for some time.
You are now the father of a young son. What lessons about parenthood have you learned from your experience growing up with your parents?
People in the USSR weren’t able to grow emotionally in the way their Western counterparts did. The state had a stake in that. It was important for the state to keep people at a very low emotional level.
‘I always joke that in Russia you got married at 21, had a kid at 23, had your divorce at 25, and you were a full-blown alcoholic by 27’
I always joke that in Russia you got married at 21, had a kid at 23, had your divorce at 25, and you were a full-blown alcoholic by 27. That’s maybe exaggerating things, but it was true of so many people. It was a horrible system and it created individuals who weren’t able to cope as husbands and wives, as parents, and as children in any kind of sense. You also see the influence of Hitler and Stalin and the disintegration of good families.
But the good stuff is there was a lot of humor and there was a lot of storytelling. My father told me the “Planet of the Yids” stories, which I write about in my book. They were a huge part of my life. They really taught me how to use humor, how to use satire. It was very important stuff for me. That’s the positive stuff. I love reading to my kid. I think I’ll always try to read to him and talk to him and get his imagination running.
The bad stuff… we know about. Deriding one’s child in any way is not helpful. You don’t get the results you want and you just engender a difficult relationship. There are ways to encourage a child to be a good student and other things without doing things that in America would be construed as being hurtful.
It’s clear from your memoir that for many years you were mad at your parents. Are you still angry?
They did the best they could because this is what they knew. There’s no feeling of resentment on my part at this point. I am sorry that they grew up in the society that they did. I was very angry in my 20s and 30s. I was angry with them. I wanted it to be different. I wanted them to embrace what I was doing as a writer, and in all parts of my life. We didn’t have the same political stance. I wanted them to respect that I am different from them, but that isn’t allowed in the society they grew up in. They saw me as an extension of themselves.
The book is dedicated to you parents and to your shrink. Have they read it, and if so, what do they think?
My parents are waiting for the Russian version to come out. We haven’t sold the Russian rights yet.
I know my shrink is reading it. I think he’s halfway through it. It’s fun to talk to him about it and compare… So much of it is stuff that we’ve talked about in analysis. I guess it’s interesting for him to see how it’s been shaped.
Are you still in analysis?
Sure. It’s only been 12 years. After 20 years it may be time to stop.
You have popularized the book trailer genre. Why do you think it’s important to make book trailers?
The bottom line is that people don’t want to read that many books, especially younger people. It’s statistically shown that there’s a huge decline in readership, so you have got to make a movie before you can sell a book. The trailers aren’t really about the book that much. They’re just a way to get the reader to think, “Oh, maybe this guy has got an entertaining way of telling stories.” But you’ve got to do them. The first trailer I did for “Super Sad [True Love Story]” helped with this genre. Now other writers are angry with me. They tell me, “Dammit! Now I have to do one too. It’s the last thing I want to do.”
Have you been following the Sochi Olympics?
No. This is my 41st year of not giving a damn about the Olympics, especially the Winter Olympics. I just don’t care. I’m obviously not a sporty fellow, and I never quite understood the draw. But it’s a good excuse for Russia to steal up to $50 billion. The Vancouver Olympics cost $8 billion, and these cost $50 billion, so I hope some nice people made off with the $42 billion and they start a literary journal. I’m kidding. They won’t.