It’s been a decade since the Soviet-born author Gary Shteyngart published his debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. (Or, as he likes to call it, The Russian Debutante’s Handjob.) Since then, he’s developed a top-shelf reputation in the publishing world thanks to celebrated novels like 2006’s Absurdistan and 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story, not to mention popular essays, ubiquitous book blurbs, and a highly active Twitter account.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary of his debut, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be hosting a roast of Shteyngart tonight, with high-profile guests like Kurt Andersen, Jay McInerney, and Sloane Crosley getting in on the action. In honor of the writer’s imminent shaming, we got the man on the phone and discussed his career, his fears, and the fate of publishing. He even offered to blurb the interview for us: “Not since Gay Talese failed to interview Frank Sinatra has there been an interview of such importance and scope. The best interview I’ve had since my co-op board.”
Read on to find out more about Shteyngart’s thoughts on sheep, American Airlines, and the person whom he’d most like to roast.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, where are you?
GARY SHTEYNGART: I’m in the countryside above New York. Upstate, as some might say. It’s really nice here. There are trees, and sheep. A lot of sheep.
Are they your sheep?
Nah, they belong to a sheep farm. But I’d love to rent a few just to mow the lawn, because they eat a lot of grass.
But then you’d have to store them somewhere.
That’s the big problem. Where do you put them? And then how do you not eat them? They’re so tasty.
You just have to resist these urges, Gary. Moving on – your roast is coming up. Are you excited about that?
I am excited! I mean, it’s time to get roasted, I think. It’s been ten years of being a whatever, and it’ll be nice to… well, maybe not celebrate [my work], but they’ll at least allude to it.
Your dog Felix seems to be a little more nervous than you are. Are there any secrets that you or Felix fear will come out during the roast?
Oh, I think they’ll all come out. I mean, people know that I’m illiterate – that’s not a big secret. But there’s so many other dark things. The sheep, for example. My links to Petraeus. I mean, it’s all very dark.
What’s your darkest secret?
That I sometimes dance. There are pictures. Apparently my upper body doesn’t move, it’s just – I’m all legs.
So, Felix – how often does he write, and what kind of stuff usually?
You know, Felix is a very experimental writer. So he’s not exactly the kind of writer I thought he could be. But it’s all this kind of meta-universe where, you know, he can talk. It’s complicated. He went to Iowa. Which is funny, because I didn’t get into Iowa, but my dachshund did. So he’s a proud graduate. And he’s doing a Ph. D in Comp Lit at Yale now, which is annoying, because he’s always gone. He’s always traveling to New Haven. And he’s editing the canine edition of Granta.
If you could roast any writer living or dead, who would it be?
I’d like to roast Nabokov. Wouldn’t that be great? Because you know, he’d blast us, and you wouldn’t imagine he’d permit himself to be roasted. And then I would just invite the things that he feared the most in his life – like the Red Army Choir, maybe. And then I would have all the members of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute show up and serenade him. That could be great.
Did you get to pick who would be roasting you, or was it beyond your control?
Everything’s beyond my control. You think I just woke up one day and said, hey, roast me? They said, look, you have to do this, because that’s how publicity works these days. Anything that’s happening, you have to do it. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, I’m on – just, help. Help!
When you Google “gary shteyngart,” some of the first autofill results are “gary shteyngart married” and “gary shteyngart girlfriend.” Any thoughts?
Wow! That’s really shocking. I mean, have you seen me lately? Well, I guess shaving part of my beard worked? I didn’t realize I was going to get this kind of adulation. The first book that I wrote, The Russian Debutante’s Handjob, was written just because I wanted someone to share a bed with me. And I guess with these Google results, it’s worked out. But that’s my life. That’s life as a successful contemporary author: they don’t even mention your novels. It’s all about your sex life. And your tweeting.
How does your life differ today from back when you were writing Russian Debutante’s Handbook?
Oh, it’s very luxurious now. I’ll wake up at 11 o’clock instead of 7. I’ll have a leisurely brunch until 1. And then I’ll write for maybe 2-3 hours. And then I’ll go see my psychoanalyst. That’s from 5 to 6. And then I meet other writer friends at the Café Sabarsky on the Upper East Side for a post-psychoanalyst dinner. Then the drinking begins around 7 and lasts until 1. And then begins the great hour of crying, when all the writers cry about the death of the publishing industry, and the merger of Random Penguin and all that stuff.
Have you gone back and reread Russian Debutante’s, in honor of the ten-year anniversary?
I read it recently just because, you know, I’m writing these memoirs right now, and I’m trying to remember what my mindset was like then. It’s interesting – it’s a pretty strange book, you know? I was trying to set my life in order in a way. I was trying to come up with a formula for the 20-odd years that I’d been on this earth when I started writing it. I started writing it in college. I was a very confusing man. And boy, I sure liked to party then! I was one of those people getting drunk – right on!
So getting that novel out helped you move on to the next stage of your life?
Yeah, I think so. It was just – oh my God, I used to work for a bunch of non-profits, and I’d just get canned all the time and be basically just collecting all this unemployment insurance. But writing a novel? It’s a license to ill. And it’s strange, because books are so diminished, but still being a writer gets you props. I’m not quite sure how that works. People still respect writers – it’s crazy.
You mentioned once that you considered naming the novel Pyramids of Prava or The Adventures of Gunter Goose. Do you think the title you went with in the end helped the success of the novel?
Yeah – plus that chick on the cover. Everybody likes her. I once got a letter from some dude, some young man, who was like, “I thought this was going to be about some hot young blond woman! But it’s about some furry immigrant – what’s up? I want my money back!”
Super Sad True Love Story was a bit preoccupied with the decline of capital-W Writing. Do you feel like that’s come to fruition in recent years?
Well as a writer, it’s exactly what we talked about. You have to promote your work incessantly. I spend as much time doing publicity as I do actual writing. Nobody wants to read this crap! So you’ve got to get on your knees, you and your dachshund, and say please! – or woof!, in their language – and beg people to read your books.
What are the pluses and minuses of being a name-brand author in 2012?
I don’t know what the pluses are, but the minuses are extremely hard work. The two hours of work I do are extremely tough. And we all have 100 different jobs. I’m a travel writer, I write other things, I do air conditioning and refrigerator repair. If you need anything done in that line, I can help.
You teach creative writing students at Columbia. Does that encourage you about the future of publishing?
Yeah, it does. All those rosy-cheeked faces make me feel better. Like, if they can believe in it, why can’t I?
Have you come across any future Gary Shteyngarts in your classroom?
Everyone who leaves my classroom is a Gary Shteyngart, and that’s pretty scary. An army of Shteyngarts marching around.
So you’re just training your competition.
Yeah, one day they will eat me. They’ll roast and eat me!
Are you afraid your students will take you less seriously one they see you get roasted?
I don’t think they take me that seriously to begin with!
Back in 2010, you wrote a big profile on M.I.A. for GQ. Are they any other celebrities you’d like to profile, for a magazine or otherwise?
Yeah – growing up, I’d listen to Ice Cube. Lots of Ice Cube. So I’d love to meet him. And he’s changed quite a bit! He’s into modernist furniture now. He’s very different. I used to know all his lyrics by heart, and I still know a lot of them. I’d like to go to Compton [with him], and I’d like to sling some G’s. Yeah, that’d be very nice.
You set your first couple of novels in the Russian/Eastern European sphere, but Super Sad mainly took place largely in New York. Do you think you’ll ever set another novel in that part of the world?
Well, I’m finishing up a memoir now. And my dream is that after I finish it, I won’t write about any of this stuff anymore. I’ll just write about what I’ve always wanted to write about – which is ponies.
Do you have a pony?
No, but maybe for Christmas one day.
Do you have any novels planned for after you’re done with the memoir?
No, I think I’m going to take a break. I’ve been working pretty hard. Every four years I come out with some sort of book. So it’s time to just relax and play with the ponies and the sheep. I’m a different person now.
So, you wrote quite an op-ed shaming American Airlines. How has the airline handled that? Have you heard from them?
Yeah, I got into quite a tiff with them. They called, and they said “I’m sorry.” They had an old-timey gentleman speaking to me, and he also complained about the service. They’re very upset. I heard that the C.E.O. was very upset, and that he actually flew the New York-Paris route himself [to see what was up.] That’s what I’ve been told. I also got emails from flight attendants telling me they don’t think AA should flying New York, or transatlantic either. Yeah, it was such a nightmare.
Surely they’ve presented you with a free flight or something?
They gave me nothing, no. I fly so much, though, that sure, I’ll end up on one of their flights again. There’s no way around it. Which means they’ll probably downgrade me.
You’re also known for your prolific book blurbing. How long does it take you to write one of your blurbs?
It’s very quick. I sometimes do it even before I open up the book; I know what I’m going to write about it. Because you can tell – from the cover, the fonts.
Have authors became wary of your blurbs now that they’ve become such a thing? Have they become almost meaningless?
That’s the dream! That they become so meaningless that no one will ever ask me to blurb again. That hasn’t happened yet, though. But the value of my blurb is very low. In fact, if a book comes out without my blurb, you can say it was an original.
Do you ever see one of your blurbs at a bookstore and critique yourself, think you could’ve done better?
You know, I do. I think that they’re not enthusiastic enough. I think that they should all begin with, “Not since Tolstoy has a novel about shopping been so relevant,” or something like that. I feel like I’ve let a lot of authors down by being very modest in my enthusiasm.
Is there anything else I haven’t covered that you’d like to say?
I need more Twitter followers. If I don’t get 20,000 followers by the end of this year, I’m finished. The writing’s on the wall: I need more Twitter followers. If there’s anything your audience can do to follow me, it’s very simple – @shteyngart. How many Shteyngarts do you think are out there?