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Gary Shteyngart: LibraryThing Author Interview

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I was already a Gary Shteyngart fan after I read Absurdistan, and was aware of Super Sad True Love Story long before I got my hands on it, thanks to the word-of-mouth spread of his hilarious book trailer. (Warning: contains illiteracy and wiener dogs.)

In Super Sad True Love Story, it's the really-near future. Everyone communicates via social network (ahem) on their äppärät (like a smartphone). Our schlubby, older hero Lenny tries desperately to keep his younger girlfriend Eunice (who navigates the äppärät like she was born with it in her hand) as they navigate New York City during the catastrophic end of America's rein over the world.

Author Mad Lib: Gary Shteyngart lives in Manhattan! When he's not writing, he's sleeping, making a fort out of the pillows and blankets, having a vodka tonic and a piece of fine beef. He's working on a new book, a memoir actually.

A good portion of the novel is about how people communicate in this future world—scanning information is literacy, reading skills are diminishing. Now, LibraryThing is definitely a niche social network, as it's a mash-up (that's like a combination, if you're over 40) of reading and digital life. Will there be room for those who are tech-savvy and yet still enjoy the mental exercise of reading?

Yes! The key is to enter a kind of equivalent of the "slow food" movement which began in Europe to counter the proliferation of fast food. So much technology is really helpful—I love the map feature on the iPhone—but if you use it too much it takes over your life and you become more technological appendage than human being. I still think reading printed books rules, but it's fun when people bring me their iPad or Kindle to sign which has happened a bunch during this tour. People are funny.

You started writing this book in 2006, writing with the crazy idea that the financial system failed. Way to hit the nail on the speculative-fiction head! With your satirical (and eerily accurate) imagination, what can you see happening in the next few years? I need to know if I should dump my shares of Land O'Lakes-GM-Ford.

I think our society will be confronted on a more regular basis with the fact that we're no longer the #1 best country ever on the planet, and that the eyes of the world will shift eastward, and that many of us (and this is really the sad part) who counted on having a normal, steady middle-class existence will not.

From member arsolot: You've got an ability to see a current trend in culture, society, technology or the like, and then use that in some way that's entertaining while providing a commentary on such things. There's a trend today to rate everything, and you've spotted that trend and commented on that in your book. What method do you use to follow up on such things?

The best thing to do is to keep your eyes and ears open, pick up on the absurdity of language, abbreviations, acronyms, new technological fads. Because I knew so little about technology when I started Super Sad I had to get a young intern who completely showed me the ropes. Before I knew it I was putting up photos of my favorite dachshund on Facebook with gusto.

Is the novel in its published form close to the book you started out to write, or did it evolve a great deal?

Completely different. I thought I'd write a real sci fi novel. But you have to know something about science to do that. So it's a love story with some scientific flourishes. I totally heart love, by the way.

What are your favorite techy bits? You use Facebook, and you have an iPhone—what about an ereader? What kind of computer do you use?

I use an Apple Macintosh laptop, a Macbook I believe. iPhone, Facebook, you betcha! Twitter? An app too far.

You had a somewhat-unrelated, but very popular book trailer (watch here). In retrospect, did its virality do more for book sales than a plot-related trailer?

I don't know how many books it sold, but I think it really helped. This guy on the street yelled at me: "Hey! Youse that author who can't read!" Talk about viral.

If "there's an app for that" is the new "that's what she said", what's are we going to be saying next?

"Could you please lend me $20 dollars? My baby needs shoes."

From member omnia_mutantur: If he was trapped in his favorite bookstore, which section would he hope he was trapped in?

Travel! I'm a contributing editor to Travel + Leisure magazine, one of my favorite jobs and I'm always planning an escape someplace warm. And then I end up in Russia.

If this were Fahrenheit 451, what book would you want to memorize and tell? (Answering "my own" is cheating.)

Nabokov's Pnin. I feel like I've already memorized it. I teach the daylights out of it at Columbia.

What book would you suggest for younger readers who need a good dose of Literature, but who would throw down something too dense?

From Russian literature Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. You got your love, your parents, your portrait of a society. And it's about 200 pages!

What aspects of 20th century (or even 19th century) literacy would you like to keep? I guess that's an overblown way of asking what about reading you enjoy.

I enjoy completely floating away inside the mind and personality of another human being. What's it like to be a 19th Century landowner with plenty of serfs? I know!!! Because I read Tolstoy and Turgenev and their ilk.

Have you acquired yourself a wiener dog yet?

I'm working on a share ownership right now, the back hind leg. Soon though it will happen!

What have you read lately that you loved?

So many things, it's almost hard to pick a few. Vendela Vida's The Lovers. That was great.

You mentioned your next book will be a memoir of essays. What can you tell us about it?

Well I want to write about my youth and immigration in a way that I haven't before. Which is to say, truthfully. It'll still be funny, I hope, but I want to lavish a lot of thought on how I became the Gary Shteyngart I am today. Well, actually, my real name is Igor. There.

From the way you describe the wall of books in Super Sad True Love Story, I can imagine that you also have a fair book collection. I relish to ask you the LibraryThing tag line: what's on your bookshelf?

So many books. The cable repairman was like: "Why you got all them books there? And such a small TV..." I know, it's a real shame. There are a lot of Russian books my parents hauled over from the Soviet Union, and tons of books by the immigrants I love like Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz and Chang-rae Lee, and also tons of funny North American books like Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version and good old Portnoy's Complaint. It's a real hodgepodge, but I do like to laugh a lot.

—interview by Sonya Green

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About author interviews

Each month we feature a few exclusive interviews with authors in our "State of the Thing" newsletter. Know an author who might want to be interviewed? Find out more.


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