When he started writing his first-ever memoir, Gary Shteyngart says he thought he knew plenty about his own life story. As he began researching his past--an awkward childhood in the Soviet Union, his family's move to the United States, his early struggles to become a writer--he discovered another story altogether.
"By the time I finished, I realized just how little I had known," he said.
This discovery comes late in his funny, sad, true story of love, hope, and family, Little Failure. (The title comes from his mother's telling nickname, a Russian/English mashup, failurchka.) There's a tender melancholy to the story, a sweetness. Instead of mocking his immigrant parents and their unreasonable expectations for their Americanized misfit of a son, Shteyngart ultimately comes to understand them better.
"If I had spent part of my youth feeling rage and unhappiness toward my parents, the rage of a Little Failure, by the time I finished writing this book I felt nothing by sympathy and sorrow and love," he says.
Describe Little Failure in one sentence.
Soviet fur-covered asthmatic immigrant recreates his world through English words and finally learns to breathe.
Who did you write this book for?
This is a Twentieth Century story. In 1979, my loving but bickering parents, my beloved grandma and I moved from the USSR, a waning superpower, to the United States, the world's last superpower. This book is the story of my family's experience, the experience of jumping out of a black and white Soviet film into a pool or pure American Technicolor. I want other Americans to know this story, how surreal, heartbreaking, and spectacular being an immigrant in America can be. Here are the horrors and wonders of immigration, from being the Commie "Red Gerbil" of Hebrew School to the intensity of flying through the air on my first highway overpass in a sedan that could have passed for a truck back in Leningrad. I also wrote it for all the people who have ever felt they let their parents down, as I did. At a recent reading a young teary-eyed woman asked me to sign the book "To a Little Failure, unemployed paralegal." The expectations of immigrant parents--Little Failure was my mom's nickname for me--can be so demanding that sometimes it's hard to see their love shining through. But the love is there. So, lastly, I did write it for my parents. Their life stories, their histories, indeed, our entire family history, is so much larger than just who I am as a person and as a writer. The past is bigger than all of us and this book is an attempt to uncover and celebrate a difficult but necessary journey.
I write mostly in a little house in Upstate New York. I write in bed, typing on a Mac Air, propped up by at least four pillows. There are tons of trees outside my window, and the blue jays go nuts on warm days. If I squint I can see a few very minor hills in the distance. To break up the routine I visit the sheep farm next door. There's nothing more peaceful than looking at sheep after a few hours of writing. Unfortunately, the best friend of the sheep, an Australian shepherd dog, often comes out to chase me away.
I am too embarrassed to tell you that I listen primarily to the German electronic music band Kraftwerk while writing. The steady beats keep me typing away. Don't judge me please! (Sample lyric: "Vee are zeh robots, tum tum tum")
When I was a little boy my grandma back in Leningrad wanted me to be a writer so badly she paid me a slice of my favorite cheese for every page I wrote. Even today, Random House pays me in cheese, so I keep a fresh wheel of it by my bedside as I work. When you're this lactose tolerant, cheese can be the best motivator. For those who can't eat cheese, I suggest dark chocolate. For those who can't eat dark chocolate, key lime pie.
Napping is an important part of getting work done. I am a huge admirer of pro-siesta cultures. You eat some cheese, you take a nap, you visit the sheep, and the words just come tumbling out.
When I was in my twenties I saw a book on the architecture of my hometown, St. Petersburg, Russia, in a bookstore. The photo of one church in particular led me to an awesome panic attack, and when I returned to the city of my birth and visited the church, I had a dreadful bout of anxiety as well. Little Failure is structured as something of a mystery--why does this one church incite such feelings of dread in me? The answer isn't revealed until the last chapter when I revisit St. Petersburg with my mother and father and find out more about myself and my parents than I had bargained for.
> See all of Gary Shteyngart's books
> See the scrapbook Gary recently shared with us
> Watch Gary and his "husband" James Franco, in one of the funnier book trailers ever produced