Speak, Memory

How I Write: Elena Gorokhova

Elena Gorokhova’s memoir has been called the ‘Angela’s Ashes’ of Russia. She talks to Noah Charney about studying with Frank McCourt.

Lauren Perlstein

Memoirist Elena Gorokhova’s debut work, A Mountain of Crumbs, about life in the former Soviet Union and emigrating to the United States, has been praised by many people, one of them being former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who said, “Elena Gorokhova has written the Russian equivalent of Angela’s Ashes.” Indeed, Gorokhova wrote A Mountain of Crumbs after taking Frank McCourt’s memoir-writing workshop.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Leningrad, the second in size and the most beautiful Russian city, in the 1960s and 1970s. The balcony of my top-floor apartment overlooked the tide of roofs and the gray dome of the city’s only synagogue. In the winter, my mother used the balcony to store buckets with salted wild mushrooms we had picked in August and September in the woods near our dacha, a welcome supplement to boiled potatoes and black bread and the mandatory vodka chaser for the numerous celebrations.

Where and what did you study?

I studied at a special English school and then at the English department of Leningrad University. There was something magical about the sound of English. It was mysterious, rarely heard, musical: all those rolled r’s and soft l’s and the intonation that soared at the end of sentences. I studied a lot of English and linguistics—the tricky verb tenses and Chomskyan sentence trees—but also a lot of required Marxist philosophy, Scientific Communism (the actual name of the course) and the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

When I was 10 and beginning to study English, I bumped into the English word privacy. After several unsuccessful efforts to find the translation in the English-Russian dictionary, I realized, with the help of my tutor, that Russian didn’t have a word for privacy. This was one of the first manifestations of the split reality we lived in, the linguistic disconnect that mirrored the schism between the official and the private life in Soviet Russia. We all sliced our souls in half: one for yourself and your close family and friends, the other for the official world of Soviet bureaucracy and lies. It was an almost schizophrenic existence, and a few bizarre remnants of this doublethink still punctuate my life here.

You grew up in the Soviet Union but now you live in New Jersey?

Ridgewood, New Jersey is close to New York City and has good schools. It is a rare suburban town where people walk on the streets.

Of which of your books or projects are you most proud?

My memoir A Mountain of Crumbs. It tells the story of the disillusionment and stagnation that marked, for my generation, the last chapter in the Soviet existence. It also tells the story of my mother, a mirror image of my motherland. Born three years before the Bolshevik Revolution, she was among the first Soviet-trained physicians operating in frontline hospitals during World War II.

On a smaller scale, I am proud of my essay “From Russia with Lies” in The New York Times Magazine, which was translated into Russian and elicited in one day over 400 responses, mostly from angry Putin supporters who accused me of siding with the evil U.S. and betraying my country, all over again.

Describe your morning routine.

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Two cups of espresso before walking the dog and reading the Arts section of The New York Times. If it's a teaching day, I drive to work. If it isn’t, I go to my office on the second floor of my house, chain myself to a chair in front of the computer, and stare out the window at my neighbor’s shaved lawn. An occasional car passes by. Every few hours my neighbor comes out and tosses a ball to his dog. I sit and wait and once in a while something happens.

What is a place that inspires you?

My Leningrad courtyard. In Russian cities, buildings are arranged in a quad, and all life happens on the inside, with eyes of windows watching over you. It looks very much the same as it did when I grew up there: five or six poplar trees grow around the playground and in June cover the asphalt with their fuzzy seeds in a blizzard of summer snow. Every time I visit, I go to my old courtyard, sit on a bench, and resurrect some Russian ghosts.

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

I have an extra glass of wine. I sit in front of the computer and lean over the keyboard as if it could compel the keys to start typing all by themselves. They don’t. Then I write ideas on index cards and scraps of paper, which allows nonlinearity and hence makes every day a possible new beginning.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

The sun reflecting on the gold dome of St. Petersburg’s Isaac’s Cathedral at midnight in June always makes me happy. My husband’s cynicism makes me laugh.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

The end of Three Sisters.

Do you have any superstitions?

One from Russia: sitting down in silence before going on a long trip. It is supposed to ensure safety.

What is something you always carry with you?

A sense of guilt. The particular kind of guilt Russian mothers instill so expertly in their children. The guilt for having left the country, for ignoring my mother’s unsought advice, for being as controlling and protective with my own daughter as my mother and my motherland used to be with me.

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

My mother, who lived with me and died a couple of months ago. I would cook her favorite, buckwheat with onions, which I was too busy to make when she was alive.

What phrase do you overuse?

There is a Russian saying that can be roughly translated as “If you call yourself a mushroom, jump into the basket.” I said it to myself a million times before I had a nerve to send my work to literary journals and to a top literary agent (who is my agent now). I say it to my daughter, who is trying to be a photographer in New York, and to anyone who has artistic aspirations: “If you call yourself a mushroom, jump into the basket.”

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

For many years the book was an amorphous compilation of reminiscences about growing up in Leningrad. One editor who read an early submission referred to it as “monochromatic,” which clearly meant “boring.” It was just like the old movies, where a camera pans over bleak landscapes and characters do nothing but pontificate about their black-and-white lives. It all changed in the summer of 2004, when fate brought me to Frank McCourt’s memoir workshop. He was as brilliant a teacher as he was a storyteller, and my black-and-white writing began to bloom with color. Among the many things I learned from Frank McCourt was irony. As a result, the voice of the memoir changed and it all congealed into A Mountain of Crumbs.

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

When J.M. Coetzee included A Mountain of Crumbs in his top reads of 2011.

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

I’ve always wanted to be a forensic pathologist. My mother was an anatomy professor, so I grew up among bones on wires, organs in jars, and dissected bodies on marble-top tables. I am sure this would have made her happy.

What would you like carved onto your tombstone?

“Has lived two lives.”

What is your next project?

A memoir about coming to this country and trying to figure things out. A story of a stranger in a strange land.