Q&A with Novelist Gary Shteyngart

Perry Santanachote for NYC-ARTS |

Author Gary Shteyngart. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Best-selling author Gary Shteyngart brings his wit to the PEN World Voices Festival in the form of a pop culture Q&A he has designed for the literature festival’s founder, Salman Rushdie (author “The Satanic Verses: A Novel”).

The festival (April 30 — May 6) convenes writers from around the world to discuss matters both literary and political at public events across the city. At the annual closing event, the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture,  Sir Rushdie will examine the many faces of censorship in contemporary society and the role of the author within a climate of forced silence and intolerance. The post talk “game” requires Rushdie to ad lib responses to whatever the satirical Shteyngart brings to the table, where nothing is taboo.

NYC-ARTS caught up with Shteyngart, who was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and moved to the U.S. when he was seven, to talk about his own roots and how it has affected his writing.

He is the author of the novels “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” which won the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and “Absurdistan,” which was chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by The New York Times Book Review and Time. His most recent novel is “Super Sad True Love Story.”

Q: In what ways do your Russian roots affect your work and life in New York?

A: When the occasion calls for it, I’ll eat some meat in aspic and follow it up with a horseradish vodka shot. Just for old time’s sake. And I talk to my parents in Russian.

Q: Were your parents initially supportive of your literary aspirations?

A: They thought it was an excellent hobby to be combined with something fruitful, like accounting or law. They were probably right.

Q: You moved here at such a young age, but what do you still hold on to from home?

A: Not all that much. I go back to St. Petersburg almost every year, just to see what’s left. No family there, but dear friends.

Q: Do you in any way “export” the knowledge and experiences gained here back home?

A: I don’t think anyone in Russia is particularly interested in what I have to say. They have their own problems.

Q: Among your novels, which one is the most obvious reflection of your duel heritage?

A: My first book, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” dealt with a lot of identity issues. I wrote it in in my twenties, during a time when it’s all about figuring out who you are.

Q:  Are you nostalgic for the Old New York you depict in “Super Sad True Love Story”?

A: I’m nostalgic for the days when every street corner south of 116th Street didn’t sport a Chase Bank or a Duane Reade. But I guess that just makes me old.

Q: Who did you look up to, read profusely, or try to emulate as you were starting out?

A: All the big Russians, Chekhov, Turgenev, and of course, the Big Nabster himself, Nabokov.


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