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MAY 2006

The Metamorphosis of a Writer:
An Interview with Gary Shteyngart

By Liza Young

To read Gary Shteyngart’s work is to experience his politically and socially keen eye, with his satiric wit often generating a laugh out loud response. His rich and evocative descriptions illuminate real life oddities through humor.

His latest novel, Absurdistan, explores the tale of Misha Vainberg—weighing in at 325 pounds and the son of the 1,238th richest man in Russia—who finds himself caught in the middle of a civil war in the country ‘Abusurdistan,’ by chance becoming the Minister of Multicultural Affairs.

Shteyngart travels extensively, fueling ideas for his novels, and his work as a contributing editor to Travel & Leisure and the New Yorker. Recently Shteyngart, returned from Brazil, and shared with Education Update his wit, humor and insight about the metamorphosis of a writer.

As the first generation in his family to grow up in the United States, or generation 1.5, as he calls it—as he’s had to navigate back and forth between his own generation and that of his parents and grandparents—Shteyngart has faced challenging times. But he credits his early experiences with his success today. His first published novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, received vast critical acclaim, including the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction.

Shteyngart immigrated to NY with his family from Leningrad at age seven during the early 70’s. In contrast to today’s global society, the experience for him was like “landing on Mars.” He recalled the first time he ventured into the new territory of eating a pizza and almost choked trying to “scarf down the cheese in one bite.” His experience at Hebrew Day School was a struggle as he had to learn Hebrew, in addition to working on mastering English. Although his parents did not choose to live in a predominantly Russian neighborhood such as Brighton Beach, Brooklyn opting instead for the greenery of Little Neck, Queens, they spoke Russian exclusively at home, limiting English even further by not purchasing a television for the next four years. Shteyngart thus faced yet a third barrier at school, unknown television terminology (actors, programs) and endured the ostracism of his classmates.

Taking all this in stride, he found solace in writing, a talent first fostered by his grandmother who paid him in cheese for a journal he wrote at the age of four in Russia. Solace turned into acceptance and admiration from his fellow fifth graders when he began reading his humorous stories for his creative writing class.

Shteyngart credits the absence of TV for the opportunity to immerse himself in rich Russian literature, the great 19th century novels of Tolstoy and Chekhov. This coupled with growing up in a home filled with books, opera, and visits to museums provided Shteyngart with an intellectually rich environment.

At Stuyvesant HS, Shteyngart was surrounded by students with aspiring dreams to do great things, and there he found great support for his writing, particularly from his English teacher Ms. Kocela (today Kocela-Hawk). A tough teacher, she set high standards, but also gave him the sense that he could succeed in a career as a writer and actually did line editing for his first book, which he began as an undergraduate at Oberlin College.
There were some debacles in getting the novel into print. Upon graduating Oberlin, Shteyngart found that the “real world” did not provide the same culturally nurturing environment that was present in college, and following a hard day’s work as a paralegal, he did not have the stamina to get back to his writing. After a summer in Spain and a less demanding job, he enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at Hunter College, where author and professor Chang Rae-Lee, in reading his book, told him it was ready for publication.

Shteyngart’s advice to aspiring writers is to choose a career that provides the luxury of being able to come home and write following a day of work. He also recommends that the writing group one joins be composed of members who share a similar taste in writing.
Getting an agent is critical to a successful writing career—publishing credits as well as completion of an MFA program are instrumental in getting an agent. The bottom line with the MFA program is that it’s a worthwhile investment if one can afford it, but if money is short, the benefits from the program will not outweigh the cost of debt.

Shteyngart, who has taught at Hunter College and will teach at Columbia University in the fall, has cautionary advice for educators. He regularly reads the National Endowment for the Arts reports and is disturbed by the rapidly continuing decline in literacy rates.
He hopes for teachers to present classics, such as Oliver Twist, to children as young as 12 or 13, and to teach these novels not in a way where the book “is dissected as in a lab,” but in an inspiring fashion—a sound recommendation from one whose talents burgeoned under the fertile words of Chekhov and Turgenev.#



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