Gary Shteyngart’s new memoir, Little Failure, chronicles the writer’s early years as a Russian immigrant in New York: Wading through Hebrew school, learning English by writing science-fiction novels, flirting briefly and intensely with Republicanism.
All of it, he said last night at a Chicago Humanities Festival-sponsored talk with novelist Aleksandar Hemon, helped him develop as a writer. Given the success of his books, like The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan, and Super Sad True Love Story, he probably knows what he’s talking about.
So, if you also wish to channel your lifetime of tragicomic assimilation experiences into a successful career as a novelist, take these six lessons from Shteyngart :
1. Motivate yourself with little rewards to get started.
“My grandma was a journalist for the newspaper Evening Leningrad, and one day [when I was five years old] she asked me, ‘Can you write me a novel? I’ll give you a piece of cheese for each page you write.’ So I wrote a 100-page novel called ‘Lenin and His Magical Goose.’”
2. Start reading Chekhov.
“We didn’t have a TV. Other kids were talking about The A-Team, I had [Chekhov’s short story] ‘The Lady with the Dog.’ Without my background in Russian literature, I don’t think I would have become a writer.”
3. Indulge some self-centeredness.
“Most of my first book (The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) was written while I was in college. There’s a lot of self-involvement at that age, a lot of looking in the mirror at yourself.”
4. Go to therapy. Lots and lots of therapy.
“I’ve spent the last 12 years in therapy. A lot of the material for this book came up through psychoanalysis. I could project everything all onto a sounding board.”
5. Mine your past.
“Writers look for conflict. For immigrants, conflict is right there in your life every day. If you’re a native, you have to write about your parents’ divorce in Scarsdale or Winnetka.”
6. Own however your parents messed with your head.
“My mother called me a ‘little failure’ because I told her that I didn’t want to go to law school and I wanted to become a writer. But my parents really did every possible thing to make me a writer—no TV, good Russian literature in the house. And they also provided me with material for this book.”