I have a bit of history with Gary Shteyngart. First I read Russian Debutante’s Handbook and admired him. Then I read this interview in the Forward and despised him. Various people who have come in contact with him told me various unsavory stories that helped solidify my dislike, and I didn’t read Absurdistan, which might have complicated it.
Now I read this interview with him and feel all conflicted. On one level, I can relate to an uncomfortable amount of what he says. Like this:
Before the book deal, while you were working those five years on the manuscript, did you identify yourself as a writer?
No, no, no! Are you kidding me? I’m always shocked by Americans and their self-confidence. They haven’t published anything, and you ask them what they do and they say: “I’m a writer.” I say, “Oh, who is your publisher?” And they say, “Oh, well…I’ve been working on this book for the past 87 years and it’s brilliant but…” I do have to say that takes a lot of chutzpah and that’s wonderful. It really means that you think of yourself as a writer. I didn’t think of myself as a writer until the book came out.
On the other hand, we diverge here:
What were you spending your money on at the time?
Beer. Wine. Vodka.
Oh, Russians. I got my hair cut by a Russian this weekend. Or, more succinctly, I got bobbed! The Russian in question, Leila, was excellent at what she did, and yet she still managed to rub me the wrong way.
ME: (looking in the mirror) I don’t know. I’d like it to be a little … more exciting?
RUSSIAN: (disapproving) Well, you are the boss. You tell me what to do and I do it. But how do I know what you think is more exciting? Maybe you think mohawk is exciting.
ME: There are a lot of mohawks about these days.
RUSSIAN: Tell me about it.
Eventually she gave me a great haircut. But how much do you have to pay a Russian to do a good job *and* be nice to you? A question for the ages.
Back to Gary, who is either more ballsy, more arrogant, or simply more determined to be a full-time writer than I am:
I always tell my students to find a non-profit job because non-profit means that there is no bottom line! Or some kind of municipal job. You want to work 9-5, so that when the day is over it’s over and the weekends are yours. And the best thing, which I had at a couple of jobs, is when you can lock yourself in your office and write. People would say, “Oh Shteyngart is not a team player, he is always locked in his office, God knows what he is doing in there!” I used to work at this non-profit that dealt with immigrant resettlement and I would help write directions for new Russian immigrants, like how to not get drunk, how to avoid AIDS, stuff like that. That took max a couple of days a month, really. And the rest of the time I would lock myself in my office and work on the draft of my first novel. Half of it was finished by my senior year in college and the other half was finished working that job. It wasn’t the kind of service job where I would come home exhausted. I would come home ready to write or would have accomplished the writing at the office. It was brilliant.
I didn’t work more than two years at any one given place because there’d be lay-offs or people would realize I wasn’t doing anything.
It is twisted, but I kind of admire that. Here I am trying to please my bosses at whatever 9-5 job I am currently working while also trying to ultimately do the author thing. I would never close my door and work on my novel. For shame! Also, until now I’ve never had a door. But perhaps Gary’s willingness to piss off anyone who is ultimately unimportant *means* something. It can be freeing, I imagine, to stop caring about inessentials. Trouble is, the idea that someone could dislike me — especially a boss — has never been something I could shrug off.
I have to admit I’ve never worked more than a year and a half at any given place either. Not entirely by choice, though. Again, like Gary. Hrm.
On Friday, I met Mark Oppenheimer and we talked briefly about Gary Shteyngart. I mentioned the offensive article in the Forward. Turns out it was his piece — he was doing the interviewing. I also met the adorable & fantastic Myla Goldberg, who went to Oberlin like Gary Shteyngart, and the adorable & fantastic Irina Reyn, who went out on dates with Gary Shteyngart back in the day. Holy lord, people, can a world with six billion people in it be so small and yet so full of Russians?
ETA: Jesus Christmas, as the children say: The man is everywhere! Here is another interview with him on Tablet.