Keith Gessen on Soviet Publishing and His Roundabout Path to Writing Fiction
In Conversation with Will Schwalbe on But That's Another Story
Will Schwalbe: Hi. I’m Will Schwalbe, and you’re listening to But That’s Another Story. One of the most popular questions adults love to ask kids is what they want to be when they grow up. It’s a terrible question. But nothing will stop old people from torturing young ones, it seems. I grew up at the dawn of the space age, so for a while, I told adults that I wanted to be an astronaut. It was a safe answer. I next went through a period of telling people I wanted to be an artist. But there was one little problem with that—I couldn’t paint, draw, or sculpt. I went through an actor phase, but eventually that fell by the wayside too. I can’t remember the other things I said to keep adults off my back. But there was one thing I’m certain I never told an adult I wanted to be when I grew up: the host of a podcast. Which just goes to show what a stupid question it is. I think Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it best: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But recently, I got to talking about how even when you know exactly what you want to do, a book can push you in the right direction with today’s guest.
Keith Gessen: I’m Keith Gessen, and I wrote a novel called A Terrible Country.
WS: Keith Gessen is a writer of journalism, that has been featured in The New Yorker and The London Review of Books, and also of the novels All the Sad Young Literary Men and, mostly recently, A Terrible Country. Keith was also a founding editor of the literary magazine n+1. Much of his work has focused on Russia and the former Soviet Union, which makes sense—it’s where his story starts.
KG: My family came over from the Soviet Union when I was six, so I was pretty small. I don’t have much memory of Moscow, aside from just kind of playing in the courtyard and having my dad take me to school on a sled.
WS: The Gessen family moved to Boston and got situated in America, but the Soviet influence remained omnipresent.
KG: I grew up in this very Russian sort of archipelago inside of American Boston. All my parents’ friends were Russian and all the people that we interacted with—our dentist was Russian, our doctor was Russian, the clown who came to birthday parties was Russian.
WS: Though the family had seemingly left life in Russia behind, the split was not so straightforward.
KG: My parents had left the Soviet Union because it was bad and scary and they thought they would have a better life in the United States. So, Russia on the one hand was this kind of terrible place that we had run away from. On the other hand, it was also kind of the source of all enlightenment and culture. So, Russia was this kind of ambiguous figure in my life, and certainly for most of my childhood and adolescence, I took the first lesson to be the primary one, meaning Russia is a bad place, and we’ve moved to America. I really took our assimilation very seriously, especially as my sister was quite a bit older, my parents were never really going to assimilate, so I was kind of the front lines of our assimilation. I took that task very seriously.
WS: But there was one particular area that made it clear full assimilation would never be possible: books.
KG: So, my parents, like much of their generation of Russians, were real kind of bibliophiles. And so when we were emigrating, the one thing we took with us were our books. I think you were allowed a few suitcases and whatever, but you were also allowed to mail stuff. But there was a kind of limit to the size of the package. My dad over a period of months was going to the post office in Moscow every day with a package, a ten pound package of books, and gradually mailing our library to the States. In fact, the first really big fight—my parents were not big arguers with one another—but I distinctly remember a major fight they had back in Moscow. And it was an argument about which books to take and which not to take.
WS: As that library took shape in America, there was a clear hierarchy among the books.
KG: The way the Soviets published books was in these multivolume editions, so you couldn’t just get War and Peace by Tolstoy, you had to get 18 volumes of Tolstoy’s works. There were always problems with like volume 13 or 16 or something. It was hard to get. So, some people would be missing that volume, but if you are a real diehard, you would find it. The fact that it was kind of hard to acquire these books and that you had to kind of acquire them sequentially, I guess, made people kind of attached to them. So, in our house we had all these Russian books on the first and second floor. And then in the basement, we had the English language books. And for whatever reason, it felt to me like those were like the secret disreputable books that you could go downstairs and secretly try to read.
WS: As Keith grew up, he was a voracious reader, developing a zest for writers like Ernest Hemingway. So it came as little surprise that he wanted to be a writer himself.
KG: My mom was literary critic and so she was writing. So, in our household it wasn’t a kind of weird thing to want to do. In fact, it was very much a kind of admired thing. Some of the people that my parents most admired were writers, so yeah, I think some combination of those things. I also think maybe it had a little bit something to do with the experience of having a kind of private life that seemed so different to me from the private life of my peers—having a home life that didn’t resemble theirs and just kind of walking around with that and not really having anybody to talk to about it. There must be some reason that a disproportionate number of the children of Soviet immigrants have become writers.
WS: Keith Gessen had grown up with volumes of Tolstoy on display at home. His family made reading and writing a priority. But as Keith began trying to write his own work, he ran into a problem.
KG: I very much wanted to be a writer and yet, the books that I read throughout my adolescence and into college and really through the end of college, were all old books. Whenever I came across more or less contemporary literature, I didn’t like it. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand what it was doing, which is weird. There should be some account of this. I could read Dostoyevsky. I could read Tolstoy. I could read Hemingway. All that stuff seemed like something that I could totally understand. The kind of morals, stakes—some of the historical stuff was clear to me.I don’t know why. It may have had something to do with the fact that my own family was a little bit cut off from American life.
WS: But for Keith, there was never any doubt that he would still attempt to write something himself.
KG: I remember graduating from college and moving to New York, very much with the idea that I was going to live very cheaply and I was going to figure out how to be a writer. I would take the 7 train to the mid Manhattan library.
WS: It was thanks in part to the layout of that particular library that Keith’s education in contemporary fiction began.
KG: Right now it’s under construction, but until recently you could walk in to the first floor and the fiction section was on the first floor, so you didn’t have to take the escalator and you didn’t have to take the elevator, which is often broken. It didn’t smell very good, but you can just get into the first floor, get some fiction and get out. I spent that year catching up on contemporary literature. I started reading stuff that my friends had started talking about in my senior year of college.
DeLillo. Pynchon. Infinite Jest had just come out. I read that. That’s kind of the sort of postmodern canon, as we called it. I liked those books a lot. DeLillo, I thought, was really funny. But I also distinctly felt like it wasn’t something that I could be very good at writing. I did a lot of imitation DeLillo writing during that year. I definitely went through this period of reading a book and then writing an imitation story. Even earlier, I had read Bright Lights, Big City, and I wrote an imitation story of that. I read Pale Fire. I wrote an imitation story of that. It felt like the closer we got to the present, the easier it became to imitate.
WS: Keith also brought some books from his parents’ house back to New York—some of the disreputable English language books from the basement. One of those books was Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift.
KG: He’s some kind of writer and he has writer’s block. He’s decided, as part of his way of dealing with his writer’s block, he has started working out a lot. The book begins with him talking about how he’s been working out so much that when someone tries to rob him on the streets of Chicago, he’s able to run away. Mostly, the book is an account of his friendship with this poet named Humboldt, who’s based on the poet Delmore Schwartz.
WS: The book quickly became a source of inspiration for Keith.
KG: That book, for the first time, was this contemporary book—it took ideas seriously in the way that I felt like DeLillo and Pynchon and David Foster Wallace had done. It took history seriously. I just thought it was hilarious. I thought it was really funny. It felt to me like not only was it contemporary literature that I enjoyed—I loved white noise. I loved it for the jest. I loved End Zone by DeLillo. It felt like something that I could kind of maybe do. What if I arranged some of the experiences that I’ve been thinking about writing about in a story that sounded a little bit like this?
WS: The process of writing that book—published in 2008 and called All the Sad Young Literary Men—was not such a straight path.
KG: I started writing my Bellow-Roth-Leonard Michaels influenced stories a couple of years out of college. I was also doing journalism and reviewing to pay the bills. I really realized that if I didn’t try to go to grad school, I might not be able to write fiction anymore because I was really getting sucked into doing more journalism, more reviewing. So, I applied to grad schools. I got into one. The one that I got into was Syracuse. I went up there for two years and I wrote about two thirds of my first book. Then I moved back to New York and all I had to do was write one third. It seemed so easy. But then we started n+1, a literary magazine which basically took over my life. So, it took me another three years to write that last third of the book.
WS: After the book was published, Keith found himself turning back again to the lessons from Bellow about incorporating his own experiences in his writing as his second novel began to take form.
KG: It was after my first book came out and I kind of didn’t have much going on. There was an opportunity to move to Moscow and take care of my grandmother. That was 2008. That was the year that I went and lived with my grandmother. And that’s the basis for A Terrible Country.
WS: A Terrible Country tells the story of a failed academic living in New York who moves back to Moscow to care for his grandmother.
KG: That experience of going to Moscow to take care of my grandmother feeling, not disappointed, because I’d been to Moscow before, but certainly feeling like I wasn’t being very helpful to my grandmother. Just not knowing what I could do for her. It took me a very long time to understand that she didn’t need me to take her on exciting adventures around Moscow—that even though she might think she wanted to do that, actually, it was sort of mentally, especially physically just much too taxing for her. And that what she really needed from me was just for me to hang out there and kind of be physically present. It took me a very long time to figure that out. I certainly didn’t think I was going to write about it. It’s certainly based on my experience in Moscow. It’s not literally what happened, but what felt like had happened.
WS: I’m curious, did you ever have the opportunity to meet Saul Bellow?
KG: I went to a class of his. Actually, he was teaching a class at BU. In the late 90s, he was teaching a seminar at BU, and a friend of mine was auditing it. And Bellow, at this point, was in his mid eighties, I think. I have no idea why he was still teaching a seminar at BU. It’s kind of amazing. He must have really liked it. My friend said, well, yeah, you could go to his office hours. I go once in awhile and it’s really fun. He falls asleep sometimes while I’m in there, but it’s pretty cool. And he’s like, you should come with me. And I was like, I don’t really feel like subjecting Saul Bellow to having to try to stay awake during his office hours while I’m grilling him. But in retrospect, I wish I had done that.
WS: So you didn’t go?
KG: I didn’t go.
WS: What would you have asked him?
KG: I guess I don’t know what I’d have asked him. You always want to wonder what books a writer didn’t write right that they wished they’d had time to write or which books they would rewrite if they could. Had he lived his life correctly; incorrectly? That would have been a tough question to ask. I think things went pretty well for Saul Bellow.
But That’s Another Story is produced by Katie Ferguson, with editing help from Alyssa Martino. Thanks to Keith Gessen. If you’d like to learn more about the books we’ve mentioned in this week’s episode, you can find out more in our show notes. You can also find a transcript of this episode and past ones on LitHub. If you’ve been enjoying the show, please be sure to rate and review on iTunes—it really helps others discover the program. And subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen. If there’s a book that changed your life, we want to hear about it. Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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