DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross.
Our guest, writer Gary Shteyngart, has appeared on FRESH AIR three times before because he's a great storyteller and because his novels and a memoir have drawn on an eventful and, at times, difficult life. He comes from a Russian Jewish family, and many of his ancestors suffered terribly in World War II and in Stalin's labor camps. Shteyngart was born in the Soviet Union, and he and his parents emigrated to Queens, New York, when he was 7. Adjusting to life in the U.S. wasn't easy as an anxious, asthmatic kid who didn't speak English or the other language he was being taught at a Hebrew day school. But he persevered, became a writer and has published five successful books, many of them novels satirizing aspects of American life.
His latest is set in the COVID-19 pandemic. It's about a group of people - seven adults and a child - who shelter for several months in the country home of a Russian-born American writer in the Hudson Valley of New York. There are trysts, betrayals, mysterious threats from locals, even a blistering social media attack on the one famous member of the party. The New York Times' Molly Young called the book Shteyngart's finest yet, saying, it's brilliant about so much - the humiliations of parenting and being parented, the sadism of chronic illness, the glory of friendship. The book is called "Our Country Friends."
Gary Shteyngart, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
GARY SHTEYNGART: Great to be back. Thank you.
DAVIES: You know, as I noted in the introduction, you know, you come from a Russian Jewish family that had a lot of hardship, among them the fact that your father's father was killed in the defense of Leningrad in World War II, which meant your dad grew up with a stepfather who turned out to be very abusive. And, you know, those issues tend to cascade down through generations. And, you know, you write that you grew up as an anxious kid. I mean, you came from, as you say, one declining superpower, the Soviet Union, where you were lied to all the time, and went to the United States, where you were in a different superpower with a lot of other problems. This book is about the pandemic and how a lot of people reacted, and I'm wondering in your own life, did the pandemic, do you think, trigger fears in you that it wouldn't in other people with more secure lives?
SHTEYNGART: I would say that in some ways, the pandemic felt like normality to me because I've been so hard-wired to expect the worst that when both the pandemic and the political crisis that overtook America around that time, when both of those things converged, I thought, oh, well, I'm home; I'm back, you know, and being able to turn on the television and hear on some channels the same lies that we heard back in the Soviet Union but from a different perspective, of course - all of that sounded very familiar to me. So the milieu that I operate in - and if you look at the books I've written, many of them - "Super Sad True Love Story," for example, is this dystopian satire set in the future but dealing very much with a kind of crisis because the mode of crisis is the most familiar to me.
And before I was writing "Our Country Friends," which as you mentioned, is set during the pandemic, I was working on a funny dystopian novel about a future in which Manhattan - half of Manhattan has been overtaken by New York University, NYU, and is now run as this kind of gigantic city-state of its own. It was funny, but once the pandemic and the political crisis began to converge, I began to think, oh, my God, well, there's far worse tragedy than this NYU-dominated future. And I began to think about what it meant to live during the pandemic, which, as I was saying, did feel very familiar to me.
DAVIES: You compared the political crisis that accompanied the pandemic - well, coincided with the pandemic, I guess - you compared that to some of the lies you were told in the Soviet Union. Can you elaborate on that a little?
SHTEYNGART: The point of the media in the Soviet Union was to make you believe what was clearly false before your very eyes. And Orwell wrote about that beautifully in "1984" and in other books. And I think when you turn on certain channels in the United States, it is clear both to the persons pronouncing the lie that he or she is lying, and then it's just a question of training the audience to believe that lie as well.
So for me, I always thought that in the end, after 1991, after communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, that Russia would become more and more like America - develop a democracy, the rule of law. But again, what made this so familiar to me is that America became more and more like Russia, I think, in the last four or five years, a country where you can't really believe what you hear and what you see. So all of that was very inspirational when I was writing the novel. But it didn't become the novel because I didn't want to write a book about the political situation. I didn't want to write a book where the pandemic was everything, was the entire source of consternation and concern for the characters in the book. I wanted to write a book about friendship because I was lonely up in the mid-Hudson Valley, living by my - you know, living with my family but having most of my friends far away.
And so I began to populate the house I was living in with these eight characters. And the fact that it coincided with the pandemic and the political crisis obviously made the situation a little bit more worrisome, more anxious for them. But the basic idea was, really, to see what I could do, what - you know, this was sort of my pandemic project. I didn't make bread. I tried to populate a lonely place with the thing that I love the most, which is friendship.
DAVIES: Right. So the pandemic kind of created the setting for this sort of social experiment almost. Before the pandemic, you had a house in Dutchess County, N.Y., which is, I guess, I assume, a really pretty place in the Hudson Valley. Did you invite friends over to either stay or visit for socially distanced meals, whatever?
SHTEYNGART: Well, before the pandemic, my house was sort of, like, a fresh-air fund for my urban friends who would just come up, and we had a guest house, and they would stay there for very long periods of time, which was wonderful. And we would all cook together and grill together. And it really reminded me of the happiest parts of my childhood. As you mentioned, I came here; I didn't know the language. But there was a Russian bungalow colony in Ellenville, N.Y., which is across the river from where I am in Dutchess. And it was populated by dozens of wonderful Russian kids who I remember so fondly. And we were learning English. We still spoke with an accent, but we were sort of assimilating into America in our own way, apart from all the kids that made fun of us back in our schools.
So for me, upstate and small upstate cabins are a kind of holy grail. It's - when I close my eyes and think of something that's beautiful and safe - and I know this was the pandemic - but for me, it felt safe to be up there in every way possible. I am also asthmatic, and, obviously, the virus, COVID-19, of course, was not - is not something that interacts well with asthma, from what we know so far. But I would say that, you know, I - my favorite memories were of my friends coming over. And what I decided to do during the pandemic was to recreate it in my mind because at this point, people weren't exactly traveling to each other's houses, at least not in the early part of the pandemic.
But I do have some very good friends who live nearby, and we formed a kind of pandemic pod. There was five of us - myself, my wife, my child and two very, very good friends, one a fellow novelist and one a director, a dramaturg, at a theater in New York. And we just spent so much time together, and it really restored my sanity, that and writing a book where I had all these characters romping around.
DAVIES: Sasha Senderovsky is the main character in the book. He's the one who owns the house that this group of friends stay at during the pandemic. He is a Russian-born novelist. He was born in 1972 in Leningrad, as you were, right?
SHTEYNGART: Yes. Write what you know, as they say (laughter).
DAVIES: He has a cough from acid reflux. You grew up asthmatic. How much of you is in Sasha?
SHTEYNGART: Well, I like to take people who are a little bit like the people I know, including myself, and to make little tweaks to them. So you have a character like Sasha. He's a novelist. He's a very failing novelist who's completely running out of money. That thankfully isn't me yet. Let me do a few more books before I achieve that kind of nosedive. But yes, he has certain problems. He has a wife who is a Russian psychiatrist. Some of my best friends are psychiatrists. I love psychiatrists. I have several. Then there's the Korean American woman who's a kind of tech tycoon, and she has created this app called Troo Emotions, where people who use this app fall in love with each other. It's like a love potion. And it creates its own horrifying problems for everyone involved, including two of the characters in this book.
Then there's a Korean dandy, an Indian American failed writer. Then there's a woman from the South who writes these incendiary essays. And then finally, there is the Actor. And the Actor shows up, and he is a very beautiful, very famous actor who was working on a screenplay with Sasha Senderovsky. And he is sort of - he sets the whole plot in motion because he falls in love with one of the characters, and then another character falls in love with him. And then we have that whole Tolstoy and triangle thing - love triangle thing going. But he is the - he spurs on the plot.
DAVIES: Right. It's interesting because he's kind of a hand grenade in this whole thing 'cause he is very famous and everyone knows him. It's interesting that all of the other characters have first and last names. You describe him only as the Actor. He's an agent. He's (laughter)...
SHTEYNGART: Right. Yes, yes. I mean, he's so famous that, you know, as in some religions you can't say God's name out loud, you almost can't say his name out loud. His first name is revealed at the end of the book. It's not a very exciting name. But, yes, throughout the book, he's referred to as the Actor. And, of course, that's capitalized.
And I think, in a way, I was sort of playing around with just how we in America treat celebrities. I mean, it's beyond worship. We don't, obviously, have an aristocracy. We don't have a monarchy. But we do have these people who are boldface names who are sort of beyond the beyond. And having written and worked in the television industry, I've certainly met more than my share of actors of very great renown.
So for me, this was a fun way to sort of mess around with these other characters, whom I dearly love. I mean, this is one of the first books where I - when something bad happens to a person in this book, I feel the opposite of a sadistic impulse. I just want to sort of hug them, you know? But the Actor is not - is, as you mentioned, yes, he's the hand grenade that goes off and almost blows everyone to smithereens. And, yes, there are terrible effects of that by the end of the book.
DAVIES: Many of the characters are immigrants, as are you. This - is this a subject that you like to deal with a lot?
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. I mean, again, this is a very much write-what-you-know scenario. And, you know, my wife is the daughter of immigrants. My mentor, the Korean American writer Chang-rae Lee, was born in Seoul. And I would say at least way more than half of my friends are also of immigrant background, chiefly the same kind of people that populate this book - Korean Americans, Gujarati Americans, other folks from the subcontinent. So 6 out of 8 characters were not born in the United States, and I think that kind of, you know, mirrors the life that I live in. And I think it's a kind of new kind of novel for people who don't live in communities that are predominantly native-born, white American.
DAVIES: All right, we need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Gary Shteyngart. His new novel, set in the COVID-19 pandemic, is "Our Country Friends." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is novelist Gary Shteyngart. He grew up in the Soviet Union, and he and his parents emigrated to the United States at the age of 7. His latest novel is set in the COVID-19 pandemic. It's about a group of people who shelter at a house in the Hudson Valley. It's called "Our Country Friends."
You know, I know that, from your memoir and from your last appearance on FRESH AIR, that you went through a long period of your life where as an adult, when you were writing, you were an angry man and not particularly empathetic. And a dear friend of yours wrote you a very candid letter describing this. And then you went through years of analysis and, I think, felt like you got to a lot better place. There is a betrayal in the center of this between - in which Sasha, the writer, the guy who's somewhat like you - we learn he - I don't know how much I want to give away here, but he kind of misled this friend of his about his own writing talent years before in a way that really kind of threw him off track. And it seems quite cruel when you kind of see it in the context of their lives together. And I wondered, did you just - is that rooted in something in your own life?
SHTEYNGART: Thankfully, no, I have never (laughter) - I have never destroyed a friend's career. In fact, what I try to do is I try to blurb as many people as possible. I'm known as a kind of blurbing king. Somebody even made a documentary about my promiscuous blurbing, as it was put.
DAVIES: Blurbs being these little things at the back of books which say, this is the best thing you've ever read.
SHTEYNGART: Exactly. Blurbs - yes, the best thing since Tolstoy, the best thing since Jane Austen. Yeah, I'm full of those. If anyone has a book out there listening to this, please just send it to me. I'll blurb it right away. We'll just get that out of the way. Yes.
But I think what you were mentioning before about growing up - I mean, I knew such cruelty as a child, both as the parents of immigrants who had themselves only known cruelty and as a child who didn't speak English who went to a school - a Jewish school where I was bullied, you know, morning till dusk. And I - there's no way that that wouldn't be lodged in some part of my personality. So, yes, in my 20s, I was certainly a very angry young man. Now, 20 years of psychoanalysis later, I hope I'm not as angry because there's nothing worse than being an angry middle-aged man. That's very sad.
So I think - but in terms of Sasha, even though he's married to a psychiatrist, I wanted him to be a little challenged in that empathy genre. And so although he loves his friends and he loves being social with his friends, he did commit in his late 20s this act of cruelty toward one friend. And only now, during this very long period of these eight friends being stuck together in this house, this thing began to bubble up and affect everyone's relationships.
DAVIES: A couple of things about the atmospherics in this novel that I noticed is you have a lot of fun making fun of these affluent New Yorkers, like yourself and your friends, who come to populate these rural communities, don't you?
SHTEYNGART: Yes. I mean, this has been a hilarious trend even before - predating the pandemic but has definitely taken up a lot of steam since the pandemic. So little towns, like Kingston, N.Y., Hudson, N.Y., are now being, well, infiltrated at a very huge rate by people coming up from chiefly Brooklyn. I remember I was trying to renew my license in Kingston, and this woman came out with a bullhorn and said, no people from Brooklyn. If you're from Brooklyn, please leave. You know, and I think that really just completely captured the atmosphere. But to be fair, I've lived there for about 11 years.
DAVIES: Can I just interrupt you there? Was this someone from the DMV, an actual official person, saying you literally are not allowed to renew your license here if you're from Brooklyn?
SHTEYNGART: Well, because they had so many - there was a problem with too many - the line was huge, and they were trying to get to people who actually lived in the area instead of were, you know, sort of carpetbagging up there. But I kind of felt for people who lived there who are now being completely displaced. And, you know, so there's - I understood it.
But I do spend - I've been upstate for about 11 years, and I do spend most of my time there. So in some ways, I identify more with upstate than I do with the city. I have a child who goes to school in New York, so I do have to spend time here. But if I had my druthers, I would just be up there all the time. It's - for a writer, it's magical. I mean, at this point, it doesn't really matter where I am, so - but I can write probably twice as fast upstate as I can here with all the noise and the parties and all the other stuff.
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah. It is just beautiful country, too. It really is. If you'll permit me, I'll just read a little line here. You say that (reading) stranded social novelists up and down the river dutifully photographed hard-to-identify flowers and took notes on the appearance of gathering storm fronts and menacing thunderheads. More than one could be found looking up at a slumbering owl or a sunburned meadow, beseeching their higher power to help me make something of all this stillness.
SHTEYNGART: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, that was exactly my feeling. I mean, I was up there now 100% of the time. And I started walking around and thinking, God, what is - is this like a moral failure on my part that I can't identify these flowers and trees? What happened here? You know, I'm - I love the country. I've been here all along. And everyone started downloading these apps where, you know, every tree and shrub could be identified and then excitedly telling us things that the locals, of course, had known for centuries about, you know, the particular fruits and vegetables and birds and sparrows and whatnot. And one friend of mine, who had moved upstate, called the police and said, there's a murder happening outside, and the police said, we're not going to come. He said, what do you mean you're not going to come? And he said, those are a bunch of owls hooting at each other.
DAVIES: The operator could hear it over the phone.
SHTEYNGART: Yeah, they could hear it over the phone. They said - and they said, let us - they said, let me guess; you just moved up from the city, didn't you? And he said, yes. So these kinds of hilarious things happen all the time. But, yeah, so somebody who's been there for 11 years, I hope that I am not scared of the howls of coyotes or the parliament of owls. I, in fact, find myself going to sleep when I hear that melodic screeching. But, yes, at first, it felt a little strange to be there. But now - you know, look; there's parts of Kingston where you feel like you're in Bushwick, so it's not - in some ways, it's a little sad. I mean, I love these new restaurants and bars, but it does feel like a large part of it has migrated upstate. And the book - yes, as you mentioned in that paragraph, the book dutifully makes fun of all of that.
DAVIES: There's also an uneasy relationship or a fear of some of the locals among the colonists, as you call them, the people that are in this little colony sheltering during the pandemic. There's, you know, a mysterious black pickup that would seem to show up at times. I don't know. You know, I guess the idea was there are - they are afraid that there are people there who resent or hate immigrants, and, you know, they were Asian American immigrants staying here. Was this something that you saw and experienced much in your own time there?
SHTEYNGART: It's very complicated. I mean, I think we - because we're a small community, everybody sort of gets along. But we live in a very unusual place because it's about as purple as you get anywhere in the country. In fact, I think it's rated 50-50 because literally 50% of the vote goes to Democrats and 50 goes to Republicans. So, you know, Obama won, Trump won. We never know exactly what's going to happen. But even walking down these streets, you could see sort of the way people are isolated from one another, the way some houses, of course, have Blue Lives Matter flags or Cold Beer Matters flags while other houses have, you know, Hate Has No Home Here signs. It's a very unusual place. But all these worlds do live, I think, completely separately, even though we are part of the same community. I think in a pinch, we would probably come to each other's aid. And - but - you know, and so when trees fall on my property, I make sure that people on this road, no matter, you know, what their political allegiances are, that I will give away the firewood because that's a nice, neighborly thing to do. And I would expect if something went wrong on our property, they would help us.
But at the same time, in this book, because a lot of the people who come up are fresh to the country, there are a lot of conceptions and misconceptions, you know? And I'm not going to give away who that black truck belongs to, but it's a more, I think, surprising answer than one would think.
DAVIES: Let's take another break here. I need to reintroduce you. We are speaking with Gary Shteyngart. His new novel, set in the COVID-19 pandemic, is called "Our Country Friends." We'll talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMIL GILELS PERFORMANCE OF BEETHOVEN'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1 IN C MAJOR, OP. 15: I. ALLEGRO CON BRIO")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with writer Gary Shteyngart. Among his previous books are the novels "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," "Absurdistan" and "Super Sad True Love Story," and his memoir, "Little Failure." His latest book is a novel about a group of people who flee the COVID-19 pandemic by spending several months in the country home of a writer who, like Shteyngart, was born in Russia. The book is called "Our Country Friends."
You know, a lot of the people who are in this colony of people who are there are people who have been friends or have had relationships that date back decades. And you know, things happen in here. Changes occur among these - I mean, you know, betrayal and, you know, unrequited love that takes a completely different turn after many, many years. And I wonder, as you thought about this and developed these things, I mean, do these things happen in this place in time simply because of this isolation and extended proximity to people who you've known forever, but haven't spent this much time with? Or is it more time - is it, you know, the threat of this invisible virus? I don't know. What's the catalyst for all this?
SHTEYNGART: You know, it's interesting. I think that this pandemic has made people reconsider their lives. I know so many people who have changed careers, who have changed their conception of themselves and sometimes their conception of themselves in relation to their friends. I see this and hear about this all the time. I think we were trying to shield ourselves from the pandemic, but were also trying to discover who we were, both as individuals and as groups.
And this - I remember I have a friend, a good friend of mine, who lives in Germany. And she's left for - she's left a couple of years ago. And we were always best friends. But because of the distance between us, we didn't talk as much, and we certainly didn't see each other as much. But because now it's very cheap to communicate, we would talk for hours during the pandemic and remember all these things that I had completely forgotten.
And there's two characters who remember that when they were growing up, when they were teenagers, they would talk to each other on the phone while watching "The Simpsons." And they would sort of live play the way people now do on Twitter, you know, and say, oh, my God. Can you believe Moe just did this? And, oh, look at Barney. He's drunk again. You know, and this is how we'd live. We'd sit there with our, you know, landlines and talk about and watch television together. And that's something the two characters discuss in the book.
And I'd completely forgotten about all this. But I think there was - even though we were so far apart, people were so in need of knowing that other people exist, that one is loved, not just by family, but by greater circles of friends. It was very, very touching. And though I obviously operate in the field of humor, for me, that touching part was - it almost was the point. I almost felt like this is why I came to America, in a way, was to make groups of friends like these, you know, to finally - even though I didn't belong as a child, but as an adult or as a young adult, to find the groups that would make me feel like I belong here, like I am an American.
DAVIES: It was interesting when you were describing how so many of these people from different immigrant backgrounds had parents that had expectations that didn't really fit with their lives in the states, and they tended to parent one another. I imagine also that as their parents got older, they had similar issues kind of relating to and taking care of their parents.
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. I mean, I think all - I mean, look. In some ways - we bring up immigrants, but in some ways, yes, every generation has these issues. And the Russian writer Turgenev wrote, to me, the definitive book about all that called "Fathers And Sons," which I heartily recommend. It's a very short book, and it's absolutely lovely and hits and all of these issues.
I think that also the - that also technology has interfered in this process, you know? Because now - and this shows up in the book as well - you know, certain parents are getting so much misinformation, which is interesting, right? Because, you know, my parents grew up getting misinformation in the Soviet Union, and now here they are. And you know, they've heard of things like critical race theory. They're not sure what it is, but they've been told it's very bad, you know? So they're constantly being fed this diet of propaganda, the same way they were in the Soviet Union. And that's happening to a lot of parents who aren't immigrants, but also to a lot of parents who are immigrants, who may have come from societies where there was a lot of - where there was an authoritarian regime spreading misinformation.
So the way we deal with our parents, first of all, I think, has to come from a place of love. Because now you understand more than ever just how much they were hurt by the societies from which they emerged, that they can't kind of pull it together, especially in times of crisis. Oddly enough, I think it's us, the children of immigrants, who are - who both have the instinct to rise up during times of crisis because it's in our blood, but who also have the correct information to know what to do because we filter our information in a way that educated American people do.
DAVIES: You had a recent story in The New Yorker about your experience with what you describe as a botched circumcision. You were actually circumcised at the age of 8 or 9. You actually wrote about this in your memoir. Do you want to just remind us why you were circumcised then and what the effect was at the time?
SHTEYNGART: Yeah. I actually thought I was circumcised at 8, but I was actually circumcised at 7, only one month after we had arrived to America. So welcome to America (laughter), now pull down your pants. Yes. What had happened was, my father - my parents were visited by a Chabadnik - this is a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe - who happened to speak Russian and told my parents, look. You've got to circumcise your kid. So I was taken to a hospital in Brooklyn, and the surgery was botched from the beginning. I suffered months of infection. It hurt to urinate for years. And quite a bit later - last year, in the middle of the pandemic, toward August, September - without getting too graphic about it, the surgery's mistakes reasserted themselves.
What happened was that I was - I went through unbelievable amounts of pain for about half a year, if not more. And I saw maybe 20 different doctors, including urologists, of course, but hypnotists as well, and psychiatrists and plastic surgeons. But throughout all this pain, I was starting to lose my mind because some of the drugs that were prescribed created hallucinations - just disequilibrium, a mental disequilibrium.
And in the meantime, I was trying to finish my book. I was trying to finish "Our Country Friends." So for readers who read this book, about three quarters in - there's going to be no botched circumcisions in this novel. I can guarantee that right now. But in the middle of all that, the tone of the book, I think, began to change a little bit. So the humor hopefully stays through the rest of the whole book.
But about a quarter toward the end, I think the pain and the feelings of mental collapse verging on suicidal feelings because the pain was so great, and I've never felt anything like that before in my life - all of that began to infect the book and I think influenced its outcome a little bit as well - certainly the way I wrote about it. Because without giving too much away, there is a character in terrible pain in the book. And before this had happened, the only pain I really remembered is the pain of that circumcision when I was 7, 8 years old. And that, of course, was a very long time ago. But now, almost as if on cue, as I was writing about a character in pain, the worst pain of my life began to occur. And what happened was that I was - I started feeling like I wasn't a person. I know this is strange to hear. But I - because the pain is in such a personal area, it began to affect just my very conception of myself. And moving was impossible. I had to wear what my wife called an Elizabethan collar around my genital.
DAVIES: Elizabethan collar. That's like what the dogs wear? Like the...
SHTEYNGART: It's what the dogs wear. I wasn't in any danger of licking myself. But, you know - but that was the only way to keep something moist around that area so that I wouldn't be in constant pain.
I was completely disabled for about half a year. And the only thing that kept me sane was the company of my wife and son and just, you know - just hugging my son and smelling his 8-year-old hair was one of the few balms in my life. And the other part was writing this book because it gave me a purpose, you know? So three hours a day - and I don't write for more than three hours a day - for three hours a day, I would try to forget the pain by focusing on the pain of my characters and the love of my characters and the company of my characters. And then I remember that when my - you know, when I would sort of run out of energy or material for the day - because, again, I only write maybe three pages in draft and then I stop writing - then the pain would return, and it would be horrifying.
I have such good friends - again, this theme of friendship comes up - because all my friends rallied around me. My friend Suketu Mehta sent me these dhotis. It's this Indian garment that's a little bit like a sarong, but it's very loose-fitting. And, you know, it looks - it's not a dress, of course, but it - it's a way of wearing something without underwear coming up in contact with the affected area. So he sent me that. Salman Rushdie, my friend, talked to me about his own experiences with the horrific results of religion - of religious extremism, I should say, such as the Chabadniks who convinced my parents to have this done to me. So all of this - all of my friendships played a role.
And as I said before, just the communion with writing - it had never been so important, except maybe when I was a kid. You know, when I was a kid and I didn't speak any English, and the kids bullied me and made fun of me, writing saved my bacon back then, too, you know? Because I started to write - I was in a Jewish school, so I made a satire of the Torah called the Gnorah, which I wrote on an actual scroll, where Exodus became Sexodus. And all the kids - you know, this is how I made my first friends in America. Everyone was laughing at the satire and making fun of the crazy rabbis we had and stuff like that.
And I think in this case too, as I was undergoing not just a medical crisis but a kind of spiritual crisis - I don't mean in a religious sense, but I mean in the sense of no longer understanding who I was. Even my wife said, you know, I've never seen you like this. You don't have your sense of humor. And humor is my main source of strength and armament. And all I could do was put it into my book while I was undergoing this very great calamity.
DAVIES: Yeah. It's interesting that you so readily described this condition to your friends. Is - have you gotten beyond it? Do you experience today - pain today?
SHTEYNGART: Thank you for asking. So I've been prescribed - it took 12 urologists or more to find one who actually specializes in pelvic pain. And weirdly enough - his name is Robert Moldwin, and weirdly enough, he operates a pain clinic at a hospital in Lake Success, which is the title of my previous book. So you really...
SHTEYNGART: ...Can't make it up. And it's also right down the road from where my parents live, so it's absolutely perfect. And he prescribed a medication, which is fascinating. It's a tricyclic antidepressant in the form of a cream, which is applied topically to the area in question. And it kind of cuts off the pain's signal to the spine, which then gets translated into the brain and causes the pain. So it - I'm a lot better. I'm much, much better. But it does have certain side effects in other parts of the downstairs region, but they're not as bad as what I was going through. So I am now functioning to the point where I'm perfectly fine swimming, which is my favorite activity. I'm fine walking around or sitting down and having dinner, but it's not completely gone.
DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you again. We are speaking with Gary Shteyngart. His new novel, set in the COVID-19 pandemic, is called "Our Country Friends." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWEET TWEET")
ABRAHAM INC: Tweet, tweet. Tweet, tweet.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Gary Shteyngart. He has a new novel set in the COVID-19 pandemic. It's about a group of people who flee the pandemic by spending several months in the country home of a writer who, like Shteyngart, was born in Russia. The book is called "Our Country Friends."
You know, like the writer in this novel, you've been working on some TV projects in recent years, some - couple related to books of yours. I'm wondering kind of how the culture of television differs from the culture of publishing, how the people who inhabit them are different.
SHTEYNGART: You know, it's interesting. I love television - specifically television and not film, because as a novelist, I respect short stories and film quite a bit. To me, they're a little bit sort of related. I envy people who are brilliant at putting a short story out there, like Chekhov, who - whose ghost sort of hovers around this book too, because I was reading a lot of Chekhov as I was writing "Our Country Friends." But I also know I'm terrible at writing stories because I can't shut up, you know? And it's the same thing about a film, right? I - an hour and 40 minutes? Just - I can't even think in those terms. I need, you know, six, seven hours to get things across.
So the show that I worked on a little bit that I love very much, and I think many of your listeners probably do, is "Succession." And that's a terrific, terrific show. And to me, the way that's presented - look, you know, it's almost like a fine, literary novel. So to me, you know, parts of HBO are similar to a house like, you know - like Knopf or Random or FSG, where you publish, you know, very good material - very good fiction. So there's a kind of similarity to the best types of novels and to the best types of television series. With "Succession," it's fascinating to me - right? - because it is a show very much set in current events. Right? It's a Murdoch-esque kind of media empire, but it's also the story of four children who just want their father to love them (laughter). It's never going to happen. So as much as, you know, they're not attractive characters in some ways - but it's sad because Daddy will never love them. And of course, we saw that with a certain president we had recently, right? So there's some great comparisons there.
But again, what I love about those shows is that they meld the private and the public, right? So with "Succession," there's this family. And there's also the insanity of everything that's going on in our politics and especially in our media - right? - with that show.
DAVIES: Is there one character in "Succession" that you particularly identify with or feel like you had some insight into?
SHTEYNGART: (Laughter) You know who I really - I mean, I love all of them. And of course, Cousin Greg is such an important character and kind of represents, you know, all of us at this point, which is huh? What's happening now? But I love Shiv because, to me, she's the most conflicted character. You know, she comes with all these supposedly progressive views.
DAVIES: The one daughter among all the brothers, yeah, yeah.
SHTEYNGART: The one daughter among all the brothers, right, so already, you know, that kind of dilutes the maleness of that ensemble. But she's really great, the actress. Of course, the actress is absolutely brilliant. But yes, she's - she really has more, I think, edge than all these other characters because she's more multidimensional by design. A part of her does want to do good and not just for the idea of doing good. Right? But she can't quite get there because this is not the system into which she was inserted as the daughter of this horrifying Murdoch-type person and also as a woman in this very predominantly male world.
DAVIES: When you spent time among people in the financial industry, did you find women that were compelling, that that informed your views there?
SHTEYNGART: It's funny because, originally, I thought that my character would be a woman, the main character of "Lake Success." But as I hung out with predominantly men, but also some women, the women didn't make as conflicted characters because the women I met in finance actually were doing fairly conservative investing and very smart things, whereas the men were all blowing up these billion-dollar funds and losing money left and right, you know, because women knew that they had to work harder and not lose money for their client - for their investors the way that men could. So what I found was that a lot of the women I met were people that I would actually give my money to but didn't make as interesting a character from the point of view of a humor - you know, a humorous book about a hedge fund guy whose entire fund and life falls apart.
DAVIES: Did your vocabulary change as you got into the TV world - I mean, let's do lunch...
DAVIES: ...Take a meeting, that kind of stuff?
SHTEYNGART: What do I say? Let's circle back kind of landed. Let me circle back on that. I still don't really know what circle means. Like, what - who am I circling with? Am I the circle or - but yeah, stuff like that. And definitely my diet changed because whenever I'm out in LA, I'm eating, you know, just things I would never consider eating back here - parfait, chia seeds. I don't know what that is, but, you know, it's what's out there, so I'll eat it. It's pretty good. I lost so much weight when I've been to LA 'cause you also can swim in an outdoor pool a lot of the year. So I like that lifestyle, you know. Now that I've sort of learned how to drive, maybe I can live out there.
DAVIES: All right. In a future book, maybe.
DAVIES: Well, Gary Shteyngart, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us again.
SHTEYNGART: Thank you so much. Always great to be here.
DAVIES: Gary Shteyngart's new novel, set in the COVID-19 pandemic, is "Our Country Friends."
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "My Monticello," the debut work from a Charlottesville, Va., public school art teacher that's already inspired a Netflix movie. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Jocelyn Nicole Johnson has worked as a public school art teacher in Charlottesville, Va., for the past 20 years. Now, at the age of 50, she's the author of a new fiction collection called "My Monticello," and Netflix is slated to make a film of the title novella. It's a heady debut, but our book critic Maureen Corrigan says Johnson's talent is the kind that rightly attracts lots of attention.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: "My Monticello" by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson is a striking debut collection of, well, fiction that resists categories. There are five short stories that are sort of realistic, and the superb title novella that I'd label dystopian light because it's too close to present-day racial realities in America to be quarantined within the realm of fantasy. "Control Negro" is the standout short story here about a Black college professor who still finds himself mistaken for the janitor, so the professor decides to conduct an experiment.
What I needed, he says, was to watch another man's life unfold, a Black boy not unlike me, but better than me, an African American who was otherwise equivalent to those broods of average American Caucasian males who scudded through my classrooms, ACMs I came to call them. I wanted to test my own beloved country. Given the right conditions, could America extend her promise of life and liberty to me too, to someone like me? What I needed was a control, a control Negro.
That control Negro will turn out to be the professor's own son, whose interactions with white society the professor clinically observes at a distance for years. The power of this lead story derives not just from its ingenious, punch-in-the-gut ending, but from the realization that racism has so profoundly damaged our professor that he'd even sacrifice his own son to test its outer limits. The characters in "My Monticello," Johnson's novella, take a last stand against the forces of racism high atop the little mountain that gives Thomas Jefferson's plantation its name.
This novella, which is set in the near future, is something else entirely - a rich and strange riff on American mythology that's imbued with the eerie menace of a survivalist tale of terror, a bit like Josh Malerman's ominous "Bird Box," which I made the mistake of reading early in the pandemic. Here, though, the monsters aren't aliens, but rather homegrown white supremacists. The premise of "My Monticello" spirals out from the real-life reality of climate change and the violent Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. Fast forward some years ahead - as ocean tides rise and electricity fails, armed white men in jeeps blaring "The Star-Spangled Banner" and shouting ours set fire to a mostly Black neighborhood in Charlottesville.
In the thick of the onslaught, our narrator, a Black University of Virginia student named Da'Naisha Love, pulls her asthmatic grandmother aboard an abandoned city bus, and with her white boyfriend and assorted neighbors, drives off to take refuge at a deserted Monticello. Da'Naisha recalls this time was the beginning of the dark new unraveling when everything had been set free again. It was unclear whether we were under siege or whether the world was toppling under its own needless weight. The refugees take shelter at first in the outbuildings at Monticello. But eventually, cold weather propels them into the mansion proper, heated by fireplaces. The terrible irony here is that hiding out in Monticello represents a sort of homecoming for Da'Naisha and her grandmother because they're descendants of Sally Hemings, Jefferson's enslaved mistress.
Johnson's precise, pictorial writing style gives this American nightmare its you-are-there quality. The group, for instance, liberates bags of old-timey, dark chocolate drops covered in white sprinkles and many tins of Virginia peanuts from the gift shop. They head into the mansion led by one of the men who's traded in his dirty shirt for a novelty T-shirt made to mimic the scrawl of the Declaration of Independence. As he moved ahead of our group, Da'Naisha says, Thomas Jefferson's words undulated across his back. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Nineteen cloistered days go by. What if nobody comes? - asks Da'Naisha's white boyfriend, who signaled for help. What if somebody comes? - replies Da'Naisha in a stark encapsulation of their different, racialized life experiences. The terrible tensions Johnson dramatizes so acutely in this extraordinary novella reflect those of the American project itself, the promise captured in Jefferson's deathless words of justice and freedom for all smashed against the little mountain of his own racism and hypocrisy.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "My Monticello," by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson.
Tomorrow, Paul McCartney returns to our show. He'll talk to Terry about his new book, "The Lyrics," a two-volume collection of his lyrics and the stories behind them. And they'll discuss the new documentary, "Get Back," about the three weeks in 1969 when The Beatles wrote and recorded the songs on their final album, "Let It Be." I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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THE BEATLES: (Singing) I've got a feeling, a feeling deep inside. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. That's right. I've got a feeling, a feeling I can't hide. Oh, no. No. Oh, no. Oh, no. Yeah. Yeah. I've got a feeling. Yeah. Oh, please, believe me, I'd hate to miss the train. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And if you leave me, I won't be late again. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. Yeah. Yeah.
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