Every great writer has an inspiration. Gary Shteyngart, whose novels combining hilarity and poignancy in describing the immigrant experience for Russian-born Americans have won him critical acclaim and a large readership, says he was first motivated by cheese.
At a Jewish Week Forum co-sponsored with the Genesis Philanthropy Group last Wednesday evening at The Great Hall of Cooper Union, he noted that when he was 5 years old, back in Russia, his grandmother gave him a cheese sandwich for each chapter of a novel he wrote involving a statue of Lenin, an attack on Finland and a giant goose. Don’t ask.
Interviewed by his friend and fellow best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer, Shteyngart delighted the large audience with tales from his newest book, “Little Failure: A Memoir,” which has received rave reviews. It tells of his coming to the U.S. from Moscow with his parents in 1979, when he was 7, and how this “furry, nebbishy Soviet Jew,” suffering from asthma and anxiety, struggled mightily for acceptance in his new world, well into adulthood.
On stage he seemed like a younger, Russian-American version of Woody Allen as he discussed reducing his visits to his psychiatrist, after 15 years, to four days a week, and offered numerous examples of how he was ostracized or bullied by his classmates at the Jewish day school in Queens he was “sentenced to for eight years.”
At that time, being Russian was so unpopular, Shteyngart said, that he tried to convince his classmates he was from East Germany. How pathetic, he mused, that it was a step up to tell his Jewish peers he was German.
But underneath the rapid-fire one-liners of self-deprecation, he acknowledged as accurate Safran Foer’s observation that the book was “about language, culture, redemption,” but “primarily a love story.” As he was writing, Shteyngart said, he was able to channel his anger toward his parents that came out in his earlier books into a genuine sadness in recognizing the sacrifice they made in leaving Russia and coming to the U.S.
“I had never quite acknowledged how hard their lives were,” he said, noting that his father’s earliest memories included witnessing the deaths of his father and his best friend in Leningrad during World War II.
Having mined his neuroses now, he said he is working on his “empathy muscle” in the novel he is writing. “I feel a little out at sea,” he acknowledged. “I’m always trying to replicate the experience of being lost, and afraid you can’t fit in.”
As for advice on writing, he responded to a questioner from the audience: “Keep throwing out drafts until it’s good.”