Immersion School

How far would you go for family?

Forgery?  Bribery?

[It’s not a trick question.]

In the hands of Boris Fishman and Lev Golinkin, How far would you go for family? gets a kaleidoscopic, deeply compassionate, and often very, very funny set of answers. It was the narrative voice that brought us into both stories and charmed us, but it was the absurd humor underscoring A Replacement Life and A Backpack, a Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka that made them standouts.

We’re big, big fans of black humor in the Discover reading room; humor gives us space to breathe, to stay in a story that might otherwise too painful to soldier through, no matter how emotionally true or beautifully written. (Try giving a book recommendation through a veil of blubbery tears and see how far you get.)

So we’re terrifically pleased to present Boris and Lev riffing on the importance of absurdity, what it means (or doesn’t) to be Russian Jew Generation 1.5, and capturing truth (a.k.a. writing fiction vs. memoir) in this hilarious and wide-ranging conversation for the B&N Review. — Miwa Messer

Boris Fishman: Lev, tell me what you make of this imagined scenario — or, more to the point, answer its crowning question. It’s 1985. The Soviet Union is crumbling. Two hacks on the Politburo Central Committee are talking. One, call him Boris, says: “Look — this thing is going down the toilet. There’s no way we are taking over the Americans now.” And the other one, call him Lev, says: “I’ve got an idea. You know this guy Gorbachev? Little guy, got a birthmark the shape of Korea on his forehead. No? It doesn’t matter. He’s a reformer, this guy. But instead of putting him in prison, we put him in charge. No, just listen. He’s going to start letting Jews out again. You know the Jews — they can’t stop talking. That’s the whole problem — loose tongues. In any case, what we’ve put them through? They’ll get over to America, and the parents are going to be shell-shocked. I mean, they’re useless to us. But the kids? The kids’ll start talking. Big time. They’re going to write books! ‘They were so bad to us, the goyim. We were so confused when we got here — are we Americans or Russians?’ And so forth. And the Americans — the Americans are going to lap it up. We’re going to own their bookstores, their newspapers, their radio. We’re going to win in the end!” And Boris says: “Are you so sure, Lev? Why do you think the Americans are going to want to read about them?”

Lev Golinkin: Trojan Jews?  Now we’re talking!  The capitalist pigs are so mesmerized by the “Evil Empire” all you have to do is throw in some jaw-wrenching Russian words, slap a hammer and sickle or some nice Soviet red on anything and it’ll sell.  That’s the beauty of keeping a tight lid on information coming out of the Soviet Union; it creates a mystique to the point where these Jews can babble about everyday things like parades and informants and still get the Capitalists’ attention!  I mean, listen, to you and me, it’s just good ol’ 1984…but to Americans it’ll be Nineteen Eighty-Four!  They’ll lap it up!  (I hope you enjoyed the Orwellian joke, Comrade.)

But the best part is the absurdity.  I promise you, Comrade, every novel, graphic novel, song, ditty, and sad little diary entry these Jews will produce will contain absurdity out the ass.  Take this:  I just sentenced a workshop foreman to 10 years in the labor camps.  The guy overheard one of his workmen making an anti-Soviet joke and failed to report it.  This sap is dragged in and starts claiming he’s clinically deaf in one ear – even brought the paperwork.  So I say, “Comrade, you still have one good ear to answer for.”  And instead of giving him the standard 20 years in the camp, I give him 10.

Now these Americans will think it’s horrifying.  But it’s also hilarious.  Absurdly side-splitting hilarious.  It’s so delightfully logical!  And that’s what we are.  We are a blood-soaked carnival that happens to be a real country that’s destroying real lives.  They’re going to love it, Boris.  They will love and we will get paid!

BF: Touché! But in earnest — why do you think there’s such an appetite for books by ex-Soviets in America today? By this point, it’s making me feel bashful — four “Russian-Jewish” books were among the 100 Notable Books of 2014 that the New York Times selected the other day; The Jewish Week just put out a Fall Literary Preview devoted to “The Next Wave of Russian-Jewish Literature,” only the latest such pronouncement. And why do I feel bashful?! I’m not hearing a lot of “Ru-Jew”-fatigue, after all. It’s an odd feeling, isn’t it, considering I wrote a whole novel about the Soviet-Jewish experience that I ostensibly want people to read. I’m wondering if there isn’t something — self-loathing is too strong a word, but maybe self-conscious — about it for me. I mention all this to you because one of the most striking and original things about your book, I thought, was the way it animates the incredible sense of inadequacy and inferiority with which Jews from the USSR were saddled. I see it most often in our parents’ generation — the assumption is people like you and me escaped the worst of it. But your book is a visceral alert that not so. I found that part very affecting. How do you feel about all of this? What does it feel like to be out there representing this story?

LG: I would say the current Ukraine vs. Russia geopolitical situation certainly has a lot to do with 2014 books being noticed and getting the press.  For a long time, it felt as if Russia was no longer relevant.  Now we have Putin putting together USSR 2.0 and the end of the Cold War is starting to feel more like a long hiatus.  Last few years saw an upswing in Middle East and Persian memoirs/travelogues, because that’s what was in the news.  I think this may be a similar situation.

However, the Russia/Ukraine crisis is a little over a year old, and in my case, the work on the book began long before that.  (I’m sure you started earlier than a year ago as well).  So while the Ukraine conflict may explain the interest, it doesn’t explain what drove publishers to commit to buying these books.  I think part of it is perspective.  For a long time, USSR was old news.  But 20-25 years pass by and it graduates from “old news” into an “era.”  Know what I mean?  A new generation grows up for whom the Soviet Union was a vague childhood menace, at best.  They didn’t live with daily news reports of it and I think that’s why it carries a mystique.

I also think 2014 is a Sov-Jew year because we, the 1.5 generation, had to grow up.  You don’t see memoirs or novels being written by the older immigrants.  All of us, including [Gary] Shteyngart, came here when we were young.  I think we needed time to marinate in that cross space between Soviet and American cultures, to get to the point where we could convey the Soviet Union and its aftermath to a Western audience.

As far as representing the Soviet Jews and the impact the USSR had on them, I’m right with you — feels weird.  I’ve been extremely careful to avoid portraying myself as a sole representative of Soviet Jews.  I’m talking about pain, and people experience pain and isolation in various ways – the absolute last thing I wanted to do was misrepresent and appropriate the pain of others.

Boris, You, like me, were writing for an American audience…and even though Brooklyn is in the U.S., the Russian culture has taken root there quite nicely.  How did you decide how much flavor to add to the story?  I’ve seen memoirs with almost no foreign words, I’ve seen memoirs that require a dictionary.  It’s a fine line between immersing the American reader into this world without actually drowning him or her.  You’re wonderful when it comes to explaining Soviet culture and customs (first thing I read by you was your Christmas Tree vs. New Year’s Tree essay in the New York Times) and I love the balance you struck.  What was that process like for you?

BF: This was on my mind line to line. But of course, this functions differently in fiction and non-fiction. You not only must, but can explain — you’re writing non-fiction. I’m writing fiction, so I have to bury it — that is, find excuses for the characters to organically explain what a zemlyanka is, or what have you. It was a moment of great liberation for me when I read David Bezmozgis, in his novel The Free World, pause a conversation between two characters, step out of the narrative, and explain to readers what something they said meant. He took just a sentence to do it, and then went right back into the story. It was the perfect calibration, and has subsequently saved me from a lot of inorganic contortion to get expository information out.

You know, nonfiction, and specifically memoir — but I mean memoir of the highest artistic caliber, memoir that is as fine as the finest novel — was my first passion. I fell in love with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, and Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, and Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, and Patrimony by Philip Roth (which is the only book I’ve ever read in a day, and prefer to all of Roth’s fiction for the simple reason he feels tenderest in it) well before I fell in love with the fiction writers I adore. Whom did you read in preparation for — and during — your own writing? And how did that preparation go? When did you become aware you wanted to commit your story to words, and how did things proceed from there to Draft 1? Tell me in terms of time but also creative gestation — that is, what parts of the narrative fell into place first. The best memoirs are as shaped as novels are; why did you decide on the structure you have, meaning the story takes place predominantly during immigration, with occasional flash-forwards to the trips you took back to Europe to find the people who helped you, as opposed to Part 1 being Immigration, and Part 2 being The Return, or some such?

LG: It’s funny because it took me a while to figure out that I could step out and explain in the narrative.  I remember going insane because I wanted to tell two stories, but Story 1 took place two weeks after Story 2.  I couldn’t figure out how to transition it and finally my editor said, “Why don’t you just introduce Story 2 by telling there reader ‘two weeks before…’.  Problem solved!”  That thought never crossed my mind.

I stayed away from Soviet memoirs and immigrant memoirs in general during writing, because I didn’t want to be influenced, even subconsciously….which resulted in me having a giant reading list by the time I was done.  Instead I read high fantasy — Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss, George Martin, Scott Lynch — stories that have little to do with memoirs.

The parts that fell in place first were the emotional scenes, many of them from Ukraine and emigration.  I remembered them vividly, even though I was a child.  Ironically, I think that happened because I spent so much of my adult life trying NOT to think of them – in the process, I wound up wedging them firmly in my mind.

You’re right — the narrative is two interwoven journeys.  I was adamant about not having it be chronological.  The last thing I wanted was to have a linear story where Bad Things Happen in Part I, there’s Struggle for the Better in Part II, and a delightful I’ve Reached the Mountaintop in Part III that culminates with a lesson learned, or a massive orgy, or whatever it is that happens in these types of stories.  That’s bullshit, and that’s not what happened, and I think it would be a disservice to present it that way.  There are many things that America cures simply by virtue of landing on its shores; but there are many problems that are in your head that come right across the ocean with you and pass through customs, and continue to fester, even in America.  The book is a struggle, just like the process of reclaiming my identity was a struggle, and I wanted to end on a hopeful but realistic note.

It’s funny you mentioned memoirs as being your first love, because the thing that kept playing through my head as I read A Replacement Life was how much of this is a memoir?  I mean, listen, you didn’t write about being a Chinese immigrant in the UK; you wrote about a being a 1.5 generation ex-Soviet Jewish immigrant in America — which is what you and I are — and you nailed so many aspects of that experience, I kept thinking, “Holy crap he got it!” at every page.

That being said, I felt almost anxious when placing myself in your shoes, because I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to create a character who has so many similarities with my own life experience.  Where do you decide to take the character in a different direction than your actual life?  I’m not talking about running fraudulent claims, of course (even though your novel was perfectly timed with actual Brooklyn Russian Jews being caught for the exact thing you wrote about!), but just implementing little things that happened in your life into the narrative.  Was it tempting to look back at girls, or relationships with family, and have Slava do what you didn’t do or, conversely, have him repeat a good decision that you made in your life?  Was it liberating to have a character with similarities to your background, but play God, for lack of a better word?  Or was it harrowing, because Slava is close to you, and me, and the other Soviet Jews who came over here as children?

BF: Your question taps into a rich issue. (And believe it or not, I wrote the first draft of my novel before all those Brooklyn Russians were exposed for doing exactly what I’d described. It had been going on since the 1990s, but I had no idea — I started writing in 2009, and the news became public in 2010.) Just the other day, someone who’s a fan of the book wrote again to say: “I was so excited to see your article in the Jewish Week. Thank you for sharing something of your real life and family. I often think of stories as puzzles and the more one knows about the author, the easier it becomes to fit the pieces together.”

For readers like this one — and I’ve had many such interactions; at a literary festival, one reader actually said, “If you tell me what really happened, I’ll buy the book” — it seems that the nonfiction of it is a lot more exciting than the fiction, as if the latter is a magic trick, which is fine and all, but they’d much prefer to know how the trick works. The fiction is a price to pay to get at the nonfiction. I work differently. I prefer the magic trick.

Either way, I think there’s a lot of misconception out there about the way in which autobiography feeds fiction (or not). I think there’s this idea that autobiographical starting points make it easier on the author: You’ve got your material in hand. But pre-cooked material is a liability: As we all know, real life and drama work by different laws. But if you’re working off things that happened to you, you’re — essentially by definition — guaranteed to lack that cold, impersonal, objective eye that helps an author figure out what to leave out and what to keep. I did a guest post about this on the literary blog Book Club Girl once, where I wrote: “If it happened to you, you’re just about the worst person in the world to decide what of it will be newsworthy to others; what requires clarification and where it feels superfluous; finally, how to tell the story. As an insider, you are disproportionately moved by things that really won’t be very moving to others; inadequately touched by those that will.” If you’re going to be a reliable guide, you have to make the people you disagree with persuasive, and render the people you agree with as flawed. It’s an extra challenge.

One of the great pleasures I had in writing this novel was in inviting the reader to assume it was highly autobiographical because of all the superficial crossovers, especially the ones highlighted in the marketing. But actually apart from the broad cultural diagnoses and the identity questions with which Slava struggles, so much in this novel is invented, especially the stuff that feels like it HAD TO BE! taken from real life. (For instance, the Soviet saying “get yourself noticed, get yourself problems,” I think, must feel “factual.” But I invented it.) And so explicating the “real-life” avatars feels both misguided and cheapening of that effort. It answers factual questions but it closes out the mystery. It alerts readers “what to be impressed by” and what to dismiss as transcription, but even the stuff inspired by real life has been so manipulated! The beauty of the thing is in the story, not in the “dates and addresses,” so to speak — I mean that’s the novel’s very point.

Partly for these reasons, I wanted to do something very different in my second novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo. It deals with Russian immigrants again, but the Russian aspects of their identities are the wallpaper of the novel rather than its news, if that makes sense. The more relevant thing is that they are immigrants, foreigners. And immigrants of a distinctly contemporary American breed, that is, shut-ins among people just like themselves. In other words, they don’t understand a lick about what America’s really like. The couple in question can’t get pregnant, and in a reversal of the usual direction when it comes to adoption, they adopt an American boy from Montana. Who, at eight years old, starts acting feral. And they have no tools to understand this foreigner; they are such foreigners themselves. The novel is written from the perspective of the adoptive mother — a kind of foreigner in her own family, because of all the bits of herself she has traded away over 20+ years of marriage. I am not a parent, adoptive or otherwise; I am not a woman; I am younger than her by a decade — and it is precisely these challenges that I wanted.

What’s next for you?

LG: You made up the “get yourself noticed, get yourself problems”?  You bastard!  I often translated dialogue into Russian when I read A Replacement Life.  I could hear you saying (like “She’s in the sky”, in Russian for example).  I remember trying to translate “Get yourself noticed, get yourself problems” and I couldn’t find quite the right words…I mean, they fit, but they didn’t trigger a familiar saying in the back of my brain.  I finally said “I guess it’s just something I haven’t heard!”

As far as next for me, I’m hoping to try my hand at some magazine stories.  One of my favorite parts of writing this book was talking with various people who had helped my family and getting their stories down.  I loved the feeling of hearing something and having wheels start spinning in my head:  oh, this would make a kick-ass opening sentence!  Oh, I think I can phrase it that way!  I’d love to do some more of that, without the baggage of having to analyze my own story – as you pointed out, it’s always hard to write about yourself.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m also toying with starting a novel.  I mean it when I say I really didn’t expect to um, type that sentence.  I cling to nonfiction because it comes with a road map.  Of course, there are various versions of “the truth” and various ways of shaping a narrative arc, but in the end, my family had five members, not six, not seven, not two.  We left Ukraine on a specific date, we came to a specific place that can be easily found on Google maps.  Idea of a novel scares me, to be honest.  It’s so open.  It feels like someone dropping you off in outer space and saying “Have at it!”.

But lately I’ve had a couple ideas come popping into my head.  The one thing that reassured me a bit was reading something Thomas Harris said about fiction.  I’m paraphrasing here, but he said it felt like the story existed somewhere – in his head, in the universe – and he wasn’t creating so much as discovering it.  That made me feel better.

How did you feel when you first started on A Replacement Life?   Was it like a giant canvas?  Did you scramble for anchors?  Did you feel like the story already existed, as Harris said?

BF: My (real-life) grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and I was asked to fill out her restitution paperwork by my parents — I was just a teenager, but I had the best English in the family. This was in the 1990s. Either right then, or some years later, when I was looking for story ideas, I remembered the incredible fact that the restitution paperwork didn’t really require any proof, just a persuasive story. And I started thinking: What if someone forged these stories? And what if they weren’t evil but simply people who had suffered their whole lives, but not in the precise way they need to have suffered in order to qualify?

So that was the kernel, and I knew it was a powerful one. I knew that was good enough to power a whole story. So in that sense I was fortunate: I never doubted the merit of my story. But then you have to build a whole architecture around it. A first-timer, I was very anxious, so I mapped out the whole thing in advance — including a very smart parallel with reparations fraud after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (It used to take up half the novel, and, while it’s gone, the novel continues to take place, somewhat randomly now, in 2006 — a year after the storm.) Very smart, but very dead — the research was flawless, but when you map it all out in advance like this, the narrative doesn’t have a chance to breathe, to give you little surprises and pull you in new directions — for the plot, the characters, the story development. So I had to go back in, once my very smart and very dead draft was finished, and start pulling things back out of the bowels — for some reason I am thinking of the cavity of some dead bird, but you’re not stuffing it, you’re pulling out all that stuff that’s not very delicious to cook. And then I had to figure out what else to put in there.

I did it all differently with my second novel. There’s that by now well-known E.L. Doctorow line: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night — you can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I had my major ideas but none of the little ones, and the major chords of the characters but not the minor, and the opening scene, and that’s it. The rest I figured out as I went along. I like this novel more. It’s wilder, woolier, less friendly, a less civil citizen.

Speaking of next projects, do you know who my favorite character in your book was? I’ll give you three opportunities to guess. (Don’t peek.)

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It was Peter. What a psychologically rich character! To stick around to cultivate his father’s garden — literally! — when he hates him so much. [Peter’s an Austrian with a complicated past who helps the Golinkins during immigration.] That’s the best kind of character — the one who remains a mystery at the end as much as at the beginning, if in different ways. I see him as the anchor of some Thomas Mann novel. (Though I say that perhaps only because I am finally reading The Magic Mountain. Damn, that fellow knows how to pile on the detail. I’m a hundred pages in and still the action hasn’t started. I want to try to get that past my editor these days.)

Anyway, Peter makes me think of a couple of things I’ve been meaning to ask you about your book and — forgive me, because I am ignoring my own counsel, but I’m allowed because your book is memoir, hah! — your life.

  1. Why do you hate cities?
  2. Where do you work, and how do you combine it with a writing schedule?
  3. What do you love about fantasy books?
  4. What is your relationship with your sister now? [It’s somewhat strained in the memoir — ed.]
  5. Where are you now on the psychological/spiritual journey described in the book?

LG: Being the family translator is the quintessential young immigrant experience in America.  I think anyone’s who’s ever worked in a doctor or lawyer office has seen their share of families coming in with a kid playing translator/assistant decision maker.

I love the Doctorow quote — still remember finding it — I was browsing through a quote book in Barnes & Noble, actually, and wanted to see what people said about writing.  It resonated so much, especially because I had zero experience with it all – writing, marketing, getting an agent, etc.  That quote really resonated with me.

I failed to guess your favorite character in the book.  My three guesses were young Lev, adult Lev, and adult stoned Lev.  But that’s cause I’m self-centered.  Kidding, I can tell you’d love Peter.  He’s…man, I’ll put it this way:  I would imagine when you’re creating fictional characters – you want them to be memorable.  I mean, you can’t have everyone walking around with peg legs and crazy accents, but you reveal little things, things that make you feel like you can recognize the character on the street, like Arianna’s birthmark in A Replacement Life.  With nonfiction, I really wanted to nail the characters, as well.  When I was a child, I read and reread Gerald Durrell, who wrote about his travels through the world, and the people he encountered, and I felt like I knew these people, I felt complete trust in Durrell’s descriptions, and would imagine myself hanging out with them.

So I made accurate descriptions a high priority.  The best compliments I’ve gotten on the book are when someone who knew one of the people would say, “You got them down pat.” The one exception was Peter.  He is such a damn fascinating and surreal character I told myself, if I can get 2/3 of his personality down, I’ll consider it a triumph!

As far as your questions:

  1. I hate cities because I hate Kharkov, I think. I loved the idea of suburbs and was overjoyed at living in a house. Cities represent danger, and annoyance, and people bustling around and getting in your business.
  2. I work at a doctor’s office at the front desk, part-time. My boss gives me time to work on the book, which is key. Especially after I got the book deal, it started to feel like I was working two jobs.  I don’t know if I could’ve done it with an actual full-time job with big responsibilities.  Like, if I was an air traffic controller, people would die.  Because I’d be reconciling edits and planning ways to integrate a side story into the narrative while alarm bells would be sounding.
  3. Why do I like fantasy books? Oh Boris – thank you for giving me a chance to embarrass myself as not just a nerd, but a boorish nerd. It’s the mythology and maps.  OK?  I said it.  I’m a sucker for world building and deep ancient histories that are half forgotten and gradually emerge.  I’m a plot guy through and through.  The awesome fantasy that I read has great characters, but to be honest, those are a fun add-on for me.  Give me a detailed map of a non-existent place and slowly tease me with bits of non-existent history and I’m yours.

Damn you for asking me that.

  1. My sister has very pleasantly surprised me. I had assumed she would want nothing to do with the book and even bet someone that she wouldn’t read it. I didn’t tell her until the manuscript was close to being accepted, because I didn’t want to needlessly stress her.  She’s very private, as she’s told me a hundred times.  At first she was icy about it, and insisted on changing her name (which I did).  Then she called me back and said “I want my book name to be Abigail.”  A strange conversation ensued in which she kept listing the merits of Abigail (for some fucking reason!) and I kept insisting that it would not happen. It’s like what the fuck??  The Golinkin family is made up of Samuil, Svetlana, Faina, Lev, and Abigail.  Disclaimer: One of these names was altered.  But she read the book and really, really liked it.  Which was a pleasant surprise.
  1. I’m a work in progress. Which is exactly what the book says at the end. In a previous question I said it’s not an I’ve been to the mountaintop book…and I’m not an I’ve been to the mountaintop person.

Boris, I mentioned I lost a bet because I didn’t think my sister would read the book and she did.  There’s another bet I lost – I told my editor I didn’t think more than 5 ex-Soviets would be interested in the book.  I was wrong.  What was the feedback you got for A Replacement Life?

BF: Nothing’s been the way I expected. I wondered if American Jews would come down on me for writing a novel about Jews behaving badly. They didn’t. (I think this audience has grown greatly in sophistication and confidence since Portnoy’s Complaint. But I am also describing the book inadequately — it’s also very tender toward its subjects.) I wondered what the Russian-Americans would say. They’ve said nothing. (This part I understand less well — Russian radio and newspapers used to want interviews all the time, after I did far smaller things. Was my pained love letter to my community too pained?) And, like you, I wondered if anyone else would care — and have been blown away by the response.

I know some people don’t read their reviews — what was that thing Ken Kesey said to Donna Tartt? Don’t bother, kid — the good ones are never good enough and the bad ones will kill you; something like that — but I read most of mine. After all the no’s I heard on the way here, no online review — negative nor positive — can cut very deeply or give me something I haven’t already given myself. (Which isn’t to say I don’t prefer the positive ones 🙂 Perhaps here, too, I’m misstating things a bit. I got an e-mail one day with the subject line “My first fan letter (at age 86).” It said: “I’m close to tears because I don’t want the book to end, and there are only a hundred pages to go.” It would be safe to say just about every drop of blood and sweat dropped in the preceding four years had been worth this message. (Also my mother texting me at 1:30 in the morning after she’d finished the book — she is the only person in the family whose English has been up to reading it — to say something like, “Now I get it. You’re different from us.”)

So it goes all ways. I care so deeply about what my readership thinks of the novel. That isn’t to say that I will be swayed by these views, nor think of anything other than my own compass when I write the next one. But I am never going to pretend I don’t write for an audience — I do, openly, proudly. I write to connect. I write to say things that will make people think, and change their minds, about something I care about. Is there a cooler thing to do with one’s life? I can’t imagine it.

And, in turn, I read books because they are where the most interesting people among us go to be most honest. “[Books are] our most intimate and acute means of communication” (John Cheever). Since I started you off with an impossible question, let me return to my original scenario, but in the service of an easier question to close this conversation. So let’s say my little fantasy ends in… nuclear apocalypse (oops), and only Lev Golinkin makes it out alive, onto a desert island (what is a desert island, anyway? is it desert or island?), in the possession of nothing but a fig leaf and three books. Which three?

LG: You know what, thank you for saying how you feel about reaching out to the readers! I haven’t read much about the art/science of writing, but I know there is a school of thought which says write in a vacuum, don’t worry about response, that’s cheapening the craft, etc etc. I don’t relate to that at all. I didn’t set out to write for myself – that would be a diary. I didn’t set out to write an exercise to impress a professor – that would be a term paper. I wanted to put down words that would make a complete stranger want to read more and would get in his or her head. That’s what my favorite books to do me, that was my goal, and I would feel magic when I got a piece to the point where I felt it ready.   It’s an incredible feeling. Thank you for sharing that, Boris. Glad to know you feel that way too.

I feel you on the older generation understanding you better after reading. I think it’s the same with my family.

Soooo, desert island books. [Aside: I also have no idea what ‘desert island’ is.] [Second aside: can I roll up and smoke the fig leaf? Or am I mandated to use it for modesty purposes?] I’m gonna go with the mashed potatoes books, the ones that imprinted on me since I was a kid. Collection of four stories by Gerald Durrell (The Drunken Forest, The Whispering Land, Three Tickets to Adventure, and Menagerie Manor). Greek Mythology by Edith Hamilton – or, conversely, a very similar book written by Nikolay Kun, a Russian scholar). I may take Kun over Hamilton, for two reasons. First, there’s the childhood nostalgia, because I read Kun first. Second is the priceless Communist Party commentary they wedged into the book. For example: the Greeks arrive at the Trojans’ shores. Odysseus urges the men to sack Troy. Enter footnote explaining that while Odysseus was excited, the foot soldiers – the common people – were probably just abused and forced to fight this war on behalf of the heartless aristocracy. Magnifico! And finally I’ll take that thing Dick Cheney handed out to CIA recruits…The Divine Comedy. Mark Musa’s translation.

You????????????   [C’mon you made me answer! The people want to to know!]

BF: Did you cheat? Is that four books masquerading as one by Durrell?! I’m kidding.

As a former Soviet citizen, I am no one to deny the (suffering) people. Especially if they want to know. (‘Cause sometimes they don’t, you know.) My choices will not be as classic as yours. #1 (in no particular order): Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Perhaps because I’ve just re-read it. I think some people like to beat on this book as self-indulgent claptrap, but I think it’s just the opposite. First of all, I admire it for the visceral candor and open-hearted curiosity — and humor, and intelligence — with which Gilbert takes up her journey of self-discovery. She is so very smart. And yet accessible. She makes self-exploration — that vague, abstract journey to understand ourselves that so many of us never complete — as comprehensible as I think humanly possible. (By the way, please understand — I never go to the self-help aisle. I would! But just about every single thing in it is claptrap. This is the only good book about self-discovery that I’ve encountered, and it’s not just good — I think it’s brilliant.) And I think it’s heroic that she engages in that kind of self-questioning as a way of life. I think a lot of people like to dismiss that way of living as, again, self-indulgent, but in fact, I think that it’s by answering your own questions that you free yourself up to be a) more available for others, and b) save them from projections by your unexamined psychodramas.

Then Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. Because he writes in an entirely different style. So chilly, so spare. But unlike, say Nabokov, who (for me) never warms up and remains in the brain, a great big sun of humanity shines forth from this slim, miraculous book by its end — and all the more powerfully for the austerity that preceded it. I recently re-read it, too.

In closing, anything by Bernard Malamud. Have you read him? You must. He — not any of us — is the truest repository of the voice with which the Old World speaks. Spoke. Not to mention there is not an extra word in anything he wrote. He was a master jeweler — his every line is as whittled and clear as a diamond.