gary Shteyngart, 49, is the author of six books, including a memoir, small failureand satirical dystopia A real sad love story, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comedy Fiction. His latest novel, Our friends in the country, opens in March 2020 and follows a group of middle-aged friends sheltering from Covid in an upstate New York country home, where the author himself spent the onset of the pandemic. . Shteyngart, who was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United States in 1979, told me about New York, where he teaches creative writing at Columbia University.
You had to find a new UK publisher for this book.
In America it seems to have done very well but my usual British editor, Hamish Hamilton, didn’t want it: they said it was too pandemic. Even my friends were like, “Who’s going to read this when it’s published?” Covid will be a distant memory. But when I started writing at the end of March, beginning of April 2020, I had a feeling that Covid would not be over in a year as expected. I wrote the novel in six or seven months, the fastest I’ve ever written. I just think we are entering a period of permanent crisis. We will constantly write about it. Not just pandemic-ravaged New York or anything else; New York will be flooded, London flooded, Sydney burned and Los Angeles burned. The pandemic is the amuse bouche to the endless meal of shit that we are going to receive without respite. I’m really not selling this book, am I? Allen & Unwin will dump me too.
It’s a very funny novel.
I play funny, I don’t play funny, but in fact for me it’s probably the least funny book I’ve ever written. I write about tragic things: the collapse of the Soviet Union, now the collapse of America. If you think of an intercontinental ballistic missile, like the one we and Russia may soon be launching at each other, the missile is the humor, but the nuclear payload is the tragedy, right? The humor is just a way to convey that payload to a reader who doesn’t want to sit with 330 pages of tragedy. But at the end of my books, there’s usually some kind of tragedy, like there is in this one. Humor is my way of saying, “Come on, I won’t hurt you…” So blame!
You say you write fast, but it’s less hectic than your other novels.
It was the slowest time of our lives, especially around the first iteration of the pandemic, as it would be called in Silicon Valley. Things were super, super slow. There was so much time and endless silence that I could almost hear the turtles crossing the road, scratching the gravel. But if you were a writer in a safe place, it was also an opportunity to slow down the pace of your thinking, the pace of your sentences and your paragraphs, which for this book was very helpful. And here’s the other thing: I was able to be more functional because there weren’t those evenings with other writers where you have five drinks at once and then you wake up in the morning, you know, urgh, now i have to write my three pages. I was like, I will write six pages, I’m completely sober! So it was really very helpful for the process.
The pandemic prompts the migrant actors in the novel to reflect on what has become of their adopted country.
Many of the characters are Asian Americans and one of their concerns – which people in America and possibly the UK also care about – is that their parents abandoned their culture and moved here because they thought that they could find a sense of security. Some of that security looks a lot like a mirage now. My wife is Korean-American and we have this conversation about, you know, if Trump wins in 2024, where do we go? She says maybe we can move to Seoul – she can probably get her citizenship back – and our son is already taking Korean lessons. You know, our parents brought us here because they wanted us to have a better chance and now we’re thinking about where to escape. Right-wing establishments that talk about “Chinese flu” and “Chinese virus” won’t say my wife is Korean, not Chinese, they don’t care. The book reflects this danger we felt; it’s funny, yes, but beneath the surface are real fears.
What were you reading while writing?
I re-read all my Chekhovs, not just the plays but the short stories, in Russian and in English. There is a very good new translation, fifty-two stories, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I had a great time reading it again, because in all of Chekhov’s books, people are in the countryside reaching a certain age talking about their regrets, which was perfect for this novel. I also watched the Japanese reality show terrace houseWhich one is very advised. Everyone sits down, makes soba noodles, and has these low-stakes conversations that actually aren’t really low-stakes. There are 500 episodes and we watch three or four a night.
What books do you attribute to your writing students?
I’m about to start teaching a class on comic fiction, so I’ve been re-reading a lot of very contemporary humor fiction. Andrew Sean Greer Less is in there, just like Raven Leilani and Fleishman is in trouble. Going back further we have Nabokov, Philip Roth and Zadie Smith White teeth, which is still a very funny novel and which holds up well I think. I started writing around the same time as Zadie and we’ve known each other ever since. It’s interesting to read it now because this book introduced the idea of multicultural fiction so much, at least in the UK. There’s almost a kind of optimism about the birth of this new kind of society and now it’s like, oh shit, it didn’t work out the way we expected. For me it’s a very powerful story about these two families and the children they have, their origins and the aftermath of colonialism and how British society sometimes fails and works.