How I Write

12.26.12

Gary Shteyngart: How I Write

The author of Super Sad True Love Story talks about why he writes so many book blurbs.

People don’t tend to think of funny when they think of Russian authors. Gogol had a wonderfully dark sense of humor, but he’s technically Ukrainian …

No, Russians are funny. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one.

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Writer Gary Shteyngart poses during a portrait session held on January 20, 2012 in Paris, France. (Ulf Andersen/Getty)

Can you define what you find funny?

Whatever makes me cry.

Where and what did you study?

The Stuyvesant High School for Shy Nerds, The Oberlin Academy for Self-Expression, and Huntah College for Everybody.

What do you look for in a good opening line/page/chapter?

I like to read in English or, barring that, in Russian. Too many of the literary works I come across these days are in Tagalog.

Describe your daily routine.

A middle-aged man in his bathrobe shakes his fist at the rising sun. Then, breakfast. Then, four hours of writing. Then, psychoanalysis. Then, dinner. Then, tears.

What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?

I’ve never met a dachshund I haven’t hugged. Shit, I’m hugging one now.

A website is dedicated to “the collected blurbs of Gary Shteyngart,” and you recently appeared in a feature about blurbs in The New York Times, written by a mutual friend of ours, the very funny A.J. Jacobs. What’s with the blurbs? 

People were very nice to me when I was starting out. And by people, I mean Chang-rae Lee. I’m just trying to pass along the love, ease young people into being published. Being a young writer these days is like being a chubby hamster in the Republic of Pythonlandia.

Who are blurbs for? Readers scanning in a bookshop? Reviewers considering what to review? Authors helping out a buddy?

I honestly have no idea.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

Penguin shirts.

What are some books that consistently make you laugh?

Anything by Ayn Rand.

Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?

I have, like, 30. Akhil Sharma comes to mind.

What is a place that inspires you?

Any city with a comprehensive transportation network. Shanghai, let’s say. Or Hamburg. I like to always be going somewhere.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.

I’ll read something by a better writer, and I’ll be, like, “Hmm, what if I made this, you know, more Russian?”

Do you have any unusual rituals when you write?

I write in bed while blasting Crystal Castles into my eardrums. Sad.

You have been described as a “hot ticket” for New York dinner parties. What makes for a great dinner party? Any memorable stories from the Republic of Dinnerpartyville?

I’m more of a Gentleman Farmer these days. But when I drank, boy did I drink. The Carabinieri had to remove me from a rooftop party in Rome once. No, twice.

Readers often wonder how much of a “clique” the New York writers’ world is. Within any given genre, are writers all hanging out together, saying brilliant things over elaborate coffees?

Back in the days when we could afford elaborate coffees, yes. Now it’s all done over Skype.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?

I write in bed. In the countryside, my view is of trees and some kind of mountain range in the distance. In the city, my view is the side of an important Manhattan skyscraper, the top of some townhouses, and a truly unspeakable ’70s monstrosity.

What do you do when you are stuck or have temporary writer’s block?

I suffer from many horrible afflictions (the last edition of the DSM-IV was dedicated to me), but never writer’s block.

Describe your ideal day.

I play badminton with a bunch of dachshunds yipping at my heels. Then I eat sea urchins until I drop.

What is something you always carry with you?

Renminbi in 100 ¥ denominations. You never know anymore.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

My grandma. She called me “my little sun” in Russian.

What is your favorite snack?

That dried packaged Asian squid that goes with beer. Mmm.

What phrase do you overuse?

“I would like to call my lawyer now.”

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

Chang-rae Lee sent it to his editor, who bought it right away. Those were gentler times.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had made it as an author?

After my “illiterate” book trailer with James Franco and others. A man came up to me on the street and said, “Hey, youse dat writer who can’t read.”

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

Two to three pages in first draft, five pages in second, seven in third.

Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.

I did a reading in Lexington, Ken., and no one came. Ha ha. That was funny. No one came.

What would you do for work, if you were not a writer?

Air conditioning and refrigerator repair. Hey, the night’s still young.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Air conditioning and refrigerator repair.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“He did not want to die. But the universe took him anyway.”

What is your next project?

A memoir.