Super Sad True Love Story (2010) turned Gary Shteyngart into a superstar. He is now the kind of author that fills venues. In January, he released a memoir, Little Failure. He met up with his longtime friend and fellow author Suketu Mehta at New York City’s Tenement Museum to discuss the book.
Shteyngart begins by introducing his memoir as an immigrant story beginning in Russia. Along with Mehta, Shteyngart belongs to a small literary cabal that he describes as a group of immigrant authors. The circle of friends includes John Wray, Ray Isle, and Akhil Sharma, who has a second novel, Family Life out today. Seven years ago, the group met regularly for dinner. Today, Shteyngart splits his time between the city and upstate.
The memoir begins in Russia with Shteyngart’s parents and his escape from Lenningrad. Then, he says, he suffered from asthma, a real concern in Russia before steroid inhalers. Today, fans bring him inhalers to sign.
Even then though Shteyngart found himself writing. His grandmother would bribe him with cheese–one piece per page. He wrote a hundred page novel titled Lenin and His Magical Goose. The story followed Lenin and the goose as they invaded Finland, but the alliance broke apartment when Lenin, a Bolshevik, found out the magic goose was a Menshevik. Lenin promptly ate the goose. (editor’s note: Mensheviks were to Lenin what liberals are to Obama: ostensibly on the same side, except when it comes to governing). Shteyngart then read a portion of the memoir.
The first question Mehta wants an answer to is what it was like for Shteyngart to kiss James Franco. He asks this with the seriousness of a teen girl. Its an allusion to the LIttle Failure book trailer, the elaborate video put together at great expense by the publisher to promote the book.
People like trailers, Shteyngart says, suggesting maybe they like trailers more than reading books. His is a star studded affair including Rashida Jones, Jonathan Franzen and Sloane Crosley. The four minute video plays out like an awkward sitcom: Franco and Shteyngart play a married couple, and Franco’s Fifty Shades of Gary, a sex adventure, is being read by everyone Shteyngart meets.
Shteyngart compliments the moistness of Franco’s lips, saying his own were dry. Shteyngart claims they shot the kiss for the trailer sixty-three times, and all the while Franco’s lips remained perfectly puckered. Franco, who studied under Shteyngart at Columbia, also has a recent novel, Actors Anonymous (2013).
The memoir is not just based on memories. Shteyngart was Shteyngart says he did a lot of interviews for the memoir from all periods of his life. Still, there were days he sat day and embodied his younger self trying to bring to the surface his repressed memories. He says his time at Oberlin was maybe the most difficult to remember. He smoked a lot of weed. “I don’t remember what the hell happened,” he said.
He learned a lot about his parents too. He has spent a lot of time wondering why his parents pushed him so hard to be a successful capitalist rather than accepting that he rather be happy with what he describes as his non-profit life. “By the time I finished the book, they were really different parents,” he says. Hitler and Stalin were both part of their lives growing up, he explains.
“I never thought I would have a kid,” he says. He has one now though. Part of the reason he undertook this project was he wanted to find out the good and bad parts of his upbringing so he could be a better parent.
He describes a story he and his father invented — Planet of the Yids. The planet was under constant attack by the slavs launching pork torpedos. That kind of endless humor is what he cherishes about his parents and wants to impart onto his own child.
The New York of Shteyngart’s childhood seems to be disappearing. He attended Stuyvesant, before it moved to Battery Park. Then, he says that he and the other kids had mugger’s wallets — they kept their cash in their socks and their wallets contained very little money so they could be stolen without much loss.
Now he lives mostly in the country. “I send a lot of sheep pictures,” he says. He cites the writer Henry Roth who had a mental breakdown and moved to Maine to farm ducks and geese as inspiration for moving to the country. He wanted to be like that, maybe without the breakdown.
Shteyngart outlines his life now: he writes for four hours in the afternoon, takes a nap, gathers with the other writers in his community (he assures the crowd there are many) for dinner and drinks, and then late in the evening they all sit around crying over the state of the publishing industry.
More than two hundred books have been blurbed by Shteyngart, a task that he sees as returning the favor to an old professor who helped him sell his first book. Shteyngart jokes that he has written so many blurbs, he is devaluing his contribution. Mehta jokes that if a book doesn’t have a blurb from Shteyngart, something must be seriously wrong with it.
Finally, as to the kind of author Shteyngart sees himself as — a Jewish author, an immigrant author, a male author — he doesn’t much care. He just wants people to keep writing about him and reading his books.