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One On 1: Gary Shteyngart Writes Off Personal Past

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Writer Gary Shteyngart's latest book is set in the future. But his past greatly influences his style, making him one of New York's most popular young writers. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

Reading a Gary Shteyngart book will often make you laugh, and in the case of his second book "Absurdistan," may occasionally get you a date.


"The paperback became what I think is called an accessory book. Which is where people buy it to look smart and they would take it on the L train with them. Hipsters would be like, 'Look.' Try to attract the opposite sex, we sold many many copies that way, it was great," says Shteyngart.

Shteyngart says his latest book, "Super Sad True Love Story," doesn't, in his words, have quite the hipster saturation of his previous book.

"This book I think is a little more tender so we're gonna hit at about 70 percent. We're not going to do as well as with Absurdistan. That was about 325 lb. man with a bad circumcision. That's gold," says Shteyngart.

Gary Shteyngart has had quite a first decade as a writer. Three novels -- all best sellers --satirical, irreverent looks at his own Russian, Russian-American and Jewish cultures.

We met at a favorite haunt for Russian-American writers and artists, Russian Samovar.
His first two novels were named as books of the year by publications ranging from the New York Times to Time Magazine. This year, the New Yorker put him in their list of the 20 best writers under 40. His latest book is set in a futuristic, repressed, illiterate America with an addiction to handheld devices.

At a reading in Bryant Park, Shteyngart explained that the original title was "The Army of Love." But then he went on a reading tour for American soldiers stationed in Germany.

"One of them stood up and said 'Sir! Permission to criticize, sir! 'The Army of Love' is the worst title I've ever heard!" recalls Shteyngart.

Shteyngart occasionally writes in Stuyvesant Square, not far from his home and near his old high school. "Super Sad True Love Story" is written partially in the voice of a man of Russian descent, much like his first two books. But part of this book is written in the voice of the character's Korean-American girlfriend. Shteyngart says it helped that both his writing mentor and fiance are of Korean descent, and that he attended Stuyvesant.

"God knows there were so many Korean kids and I always had a good rapport with them I think because they reminded me of Soviet Jewish immigrants, both from parts of the world where there weren't the happiest of national histories," says Shteyngart.

Shteyngart teaches a course on immigrant literature at Columbia. He emigrated from the Soviet Union with his family when he was seven. His books display a heavily Russian sensibility, in the characters, the language -- also the humor, as in the protagonist in Absurdistan proclaiming, "Stalin had killed half my family...arguably the wrong half."

"It's like airing the dirty laundry of your ethnic group. It feels very wrong," says Shteyngart. "My father always says is this book going to be good for the Jews. I say this book's not going to be good for anybody."

He calls his parents' generation the "alpha immigrants," the generation that gave up their homeland, culture and language to come here to try to succeed at all costs.

"But what happens to the next generation? We don't have the same impetus to be great," says Shteyngart.

Gary Shteyngart is especially popular among his own generation. But back in his old country, the reviews aren't quite so glowing.

"'Balding traitor betrays motherland,' that was a good review, one of the better ones. Shteyngart pleases his American masters,'" recalls Shteyngart.

Shteyngart was born in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, and early on discovered the gratification of writing.

"My grandmother, when I was living in Leningrad she said, 'Write me a novel!' You know as only Russian grandmothers would say to a four or five year old child," jokes Shteyngart. "I made my grandmother smile and I made myself laugh and I thought this is something very sacred in its own right."

The family moved to New York in 1979, settled in Little Neck, where Shteyngart attended a Hebrew day school and hated it.

"There's a guy in a giant fur hat who speaking in some horrible version of English as I spoke back then, that's a communist right there. No matter what your parents say, you're gonna hate that kid," says Shteyngart.

From there it was on to Stuyvesant, Oberlin College in Ohio, and back to New York to try to become a writer. The early years were not auspicious.

"I was living in this roach infested apartment and working for a settlement agency writing brochures for Russians how not to get drunk at a party," recalls Shteyngart.

Shteyngart says he was so upset with an early version of his first book that he chucked it -- 500 pages in the garbage. One problem though, the bag broke as it was being carried out to the dumpster.

"Seventh Avenue in Park Slope was covered with my manuscript from one end to the other, pages fluttering around. Stupidly I put Gary Shteyngart at the top of every page if some editor should see it. My friends would walk around and say 'Page 230 is looking pretty good here,'" says Shteyngart.

His graduate school professor at Hunter College helped him get his first book published in 2002. "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" was a hit.

"My therapist has always said to me, 'Ya know, success is going to be a lot harder for you than failure,'" says Shteyngart.

Shteyngart says that given his genetic makeup, it's shocking that he doesn't have a depressive personality.

"But I did certainly inherit a lot of the anxiety that people from the Soviet Union have very naturally. When your childhood is spent surviving Hitler and then Stalin, you're not going to have the most cheery outlook on life," says Shteyngart.

He does a lot of traveling, thanks largely to a steady writing gig for Travel and Leisure magazine. But, like his characters, he always comes back to New York.

"I think all my characters always pine, the ones that are, the ones that have to leave New York for whatever reason like Misha, the character in 'Absurdistan' and they always pine for New York," says Shteyngart.

Thanks to his writing success, he has the ability to travel wherever he'd like. And yet, every year, much to his parents' chagrin, he finds himself back in his old homeland.

"And I see these people and their faces and their deep unhappiness, which is almost ancestral and also a response to circumstances. Then I begin to understand where I'm from," says Shteyngart. "I begin to understand who I am and for a writer that's invaluable."

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