Autumn 2010: Of Note

Dialogue with Olga Grushin 93C

By Susan Carini 04G

Q: What ties have you retained to Emory?

A: I’ve kept a few close friends from my University days and have stayed in touch with some of my professors. There has been some talk about my doing a reading at Emory, and I hope that will materialize at some point. I understand the place is much changed, and I’d love to come and measure my memories against the new setting.

Q: Did you meet your husband at Emory?

A: My husband, Michael Klyce, did indeed go to Emory; we graduated the same year. While there, we had a passing acquaintanceship of sorts, but we never spoke to each other until much later, some five years after graduation, when both of us were living in D.C. and we just happened to run into each other. We had fun going through the exercise of determining how close our paths had come together in our Emory past without ever really crossing: we had apparently lived in the same dorm (Hopkins) in our freshman year; at one point, I had briefly dated Michael’s future roommate; we had gone to some of the same crowded parties but missed seeing each other through purple strobe lights and clouds of smoke. After Emory, he attended Duke Law School, where I too was accepted—only to decide, at the last minute, to give up on the idea of legal profession and attempt to write for a living instead. I can’t help but compare the times preceding our accidental encounter, a period of near hits and improbable misses, to the pre-courtship passages of my favorite Nabokov novel, The Gift.

Q: How do your two children view Russia? Do they have a strong connection with it? Are they bilingual?

A: I’m raising my children to be bilingual, of course: I speak to them primarily in Russian and I read Russian books to them—favorite stories and poems from my own childhood. I can’t vouch for my one-year-old’s sense of self as of yet, but my six-year-old has spent some time in Russia and is very much aware of his Russian half.

Q: You dedicate the book to your father, who, among many accomplishments, established public opinion polling in Russia. You open a number of your chapters with voices of unnamed citizens as they stand in line. Aren’t there, at some level, affectionate nods to your father and the work that he did in making ordinary voices heard? Is he the real spirit of the novel, at least as much so as Stravinsky?

A: The short answer is yes, absolutely. The novel is dedicated to my father’s memory, and his spirit permeates the book in many different guises. He is indeed present in the chapters in which one hears the communal voice of the line, though I was paying tribute less to his public opinion studies than to his groundbreaking research into the little-explored sphere of “mass consciousness” (as he termed it) in all its manifestations, from anonymous anecdotes to folk songs. The eponymous line of my novel undergoes vacillations and transformations, from a disjointed gathering of hostile individuals to a rumor mill to a Greek chorus to a violent mob to a true community, and in depicting its evolution I drew on my father’s work. I also couldn’t resist grafting the shadow of him into the book as a character—two separate characters, actually: the bearded man who organizes the crowd and becomes the line’s natural if nameless leader, and the mysterious old man with piercing eyes who holds the people together in a less tangible way—by giving them hope.

The musical aspects of the book owe much to my father as well. He was the greatest lover of music I have ever known: he knew entire operas by heart and always worked with his radio tuned to a classical station. Alexander’s childhood memory of his father hearing a beloved piece on the radio and bursting out of his room to invite his family to join him, to listen, is borrowed from my own childhood. The rest of us hadn’t always been overly enthusiastic about listening; so, in a way, this book became my way of telling him that, although it didn’t always seem so at the time, I did hear the music he was trying to play for me all through his life, and I thank him for that.

Q: As the years since you lived in Russia lengthen, do you more often consider what it means to be an emigré and continue to examine how—or if—the pieces of your identity shift based on soil? I found your April piece in the Wall Street Journal simply beautiful. It seems the writing is by someone trying to bridge an important gap—perhaps not just the obvious gap of communication (related to the immediate circumstance of the Moscow subway bombings) but simultaneously a gap of identity.

A: You know, whenever I see myself described as an émigré, I bristle. I am not an émigré. Nabokov was an émigré; much of his art was fed by his nostalgia, by his sense of loss, by the knowledge that he would most likely die without ever seeing the land of his youth again. I can, and sometimes do, call an airline and find myself in my childhood home within twenty-four hours. This may sound like a technicality, but it makes all the difference to me. The world has changed; its borders, geographical, political, and psychological, have shifted, become fluid. I am still a Russian citizen; I am not forcibly cut off from my roots; my entire family, with the exception of my husband and two children, live in Russia, and I do not exclude the possibility of someday dividing my time equally between my two homes, which at this point I cannot do for practical reasons—my son’s schooling, my husband’s job, and the like. I do not think of myself as of someone who has decided to leave her land; I think of myself as of someone who has chosen to spend most of her time elsewhere for the time being due to specific circumstances.

Of course, I constantly debate the implications of my decision for my art and for me personally (which I wrote about in the essay you mention)—and, of course, those implications are real. I do believe that the places we inhabit determine a lot in our makeup, and some places simply carry more weight than others, have richer stories. But this, for me, is where imagination enters the picture. The Russia I carry within me is very rich in memories and stories, and I will always continue to turn within for inspiration. On the other hand, my life in America provides a second source of inspiration; so, if anything, I feel lucky to have been given two countries, two cultures, and perhaps two identities—lucky both in terms of my personal life and in terms of my writing.

Q: How do you react to some reviewers who have struggled with your different style in The Line? You have said that you consciously created a freer style more resembling fable. How does a writer with an enormously successful first novel avoid being pigeonholed?

A: I feel that to draw a sharp distinction between my two novels would be to miss the mark. Leaving aside the superficial similarity of the Soviet setting, the books do explore some of the same themes—time, memory, the role of art in our lives—and share a style that I’d like to think of as my own: a mix of fantasy and reality, narrative experimentation, frequent ventures into dreamlike states of consciousness, transitions between light and darkness, and a certain intonation that I see as typically Russian in nature. That said, they are very different books, of course. The Dream Life of Sukhanov is set in Moscow in 1985 and its events are tied to specific historical occurrences; The Line is set in an unnamed city in an unnamed country in a time that has characteristics of the 1930s, 1960s, and 1970s. The story in The Line had to be told in this particular fashion in order to work artistically: as you note, I set out to write a fable—a dark fairy tale about hope and desire, if you will.

A writer friend of mine once said something that struck me as very simple yet deeply true: a writer in his craft is really at odds with his readers (and, by extension, the critics). When your readers tell you that they loved your first novel and can’t wait for the second, they are probably hoping for more of the same—they want to find in each subsequent novel whatever attracted them to the first one. The writer, though, wants to experiment and develop rather than write the same book again and again—and therein lies a potential conflict. When I published The Line, I was prepared for the critics’ reaction: I knew it would disappoint some and please others. There are those who prefer my first novel; there are those who prefer the second. I believe this is inevitable if one hopes to have a long artistic career filled with variety and daring. I hope that ultimately my work will be seen, and judged, in its entirety, and I don’t let myself get too focused on individual reviews of individual books.

Q: I have heard that you generally go to a café and write in longhand—not unlike the working habits of J. K. Rowling when she was writing the Harry Potter books. Then, if you feel that you have usable material, you return home to capture it on computer.

A: For me, café-writing is a means of trying to outwit writer’s block: if I sit in front of a computer screen in my office, ordering myself to craft immortal sentences for posterity, the whole exercise soon begins to have a paralyzing effect; whereas jotting a few thoughts down in an old notebook filled with grocery lists, while people at the next table are discussing football scores, is rather noncommittal and a lot less terrifying. That, and the fact that good strong coffee helps to clear my head at the start of the day: I’m not a morning person, you see.

Q: Though most reviewers of The Line acknowledge fully the presence of all the family members, I have found it interesting that reviewers seem to hone in on one character or another. For me, it was the grandmother, whose silence I found vastly interesting. Do you have a character for whom you felt a stronger pull of connection than the others?

A: Throughout the book, the narrative moves back and forth between the four major characters, and I must say I felt equally close to all of them: each is quite flawed, of course, but at the core of each lies a rather universal desire that I was able to relate to (as I hope the reader will). There is the grandmother’s desire to relive her idealized, fairy-tale past; the grandson’s longing for adventure and travel; the wife’s hope for family happiness and love; and the husband’s craving for artistic immortality. At the same time, I gave each of them a few bits and pieces that were uniquely mine—a childhood memory, perhaps, or a small trait. It was vital for me to be able to sympathize with and understand each of them in order to write from these characters’ points of view in a fully realized way.

That said, I did enjoy writing certain characters more than others—namely, the grandmother and grandson. As I’m sure is true of most writers, I love to set challenges for myself, and the grandmother’s voice was the most difficult from a purely technical point of view because, unlike the other three voices, it is indirect: she has no narrative of her own but is always overheard (or, indeed, only dreamed about) by the others. And Alexander’s story was most conducive to stylistic experimentation: he is prone to fantasy, not to mention a few episodes of drunkenness, and his frequent dips into the in-between states of consciousness were such fun to write. 

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Autumn 2010

Of Note

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