Bookforum talks to Keith Gessen

A Terrible Country: A Novel BY Keith Gessen. Viking. Hardcover, 352 pages. $26.

Keith Gessen’s timely and hilarious new novel, A Terrible Country, arrives ten years after his first, All the Sad Young Literary Men. The story follows Andrei Kaplan, an overeducated, underemployed young academic as he relocates to Moscow to look after his sick grandmother in the summer of 2008. Over the course of the year, Andrei cares for his grandmother, plays hockey, befriends revolutionaries, and falls in love. I spoke with Gessen on a hot summer afternoon in the Greene Acres Community Garden in Brooklyn in the presence of many mosquitos and at least one cooped chicken.

Was there a difference for you between publishing your first novel and your second?

You know, I really thought my first book would change my life. I was like, my book’s coming out in April, and after that, I can’t make any plans—I can’t commit to anything. But now I just know that’s not what happens. Or, at least, I don’t expect it to happen for me.

You’ve been busy the past ten years with journalism, translations, and other projects. What made you want to return to fiction?

After All the Sad Young Literary Men came out, I had the opportunity to go to Moscow. I went to interview a hedge fund manager for n+1, and that turned into a book. I was also finishing up the translation of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, but mostly I was doing journalism. I wanted to do more fiction but I didn’t know enough about this place—I thought I couldn’t write about Russia in fiction. Then I got home, and I thought, wait a second—that time I spent there with my grandmother was profound, and if I keep the narrative focused tightly enough, I can branch out into other aspects of Russia, at least somewhat.

It felt like it should be fiction, not memoir, because there just wasn’t enough material for a memoir. There was enough material to form the germ of something fictional. As a writer, I’m pretty attached to, you know, reality—not things that actually happened, necessarily, but things that could have happened.

Did you feel like Andrei was a separate entity from yourself?

It’s hard to say. So much of the stuff that happens in the book—besides the grandmother conversations, which are pretty verbatim from life—is made up, so it was more like, “Andrei’s in the situation, what would I do?” Lydia Davis has this line where she’s complaining about fictionalizing stuff, and she’s like, “I’m writing a story about a guy who plays the violin, but now do I have to change it into an oboe? This is ridiculous.” But sometimes you start changing stuff and it takes on a kind of logic. Once I decided that Andrei would be an academic, that material became so fun to write, I almost got carried away with it.

I didn’t have an experience with Andrei where he started talking to me or anything like that. But he ended up in situations that I haven’t been in. And at a certain point it’s not even about you at all. Like, OK, here’s what I hope I would do in that situation, here’s what I probably actually would do…but neither of those is interesting! What would be interesting and serve the book?

He makes a decision at the end which is questionable—I don’t know what I would have done there. But I wanted people to finish the book and feel like they would have done it differently. I wanted it to be a book about someone who’s made a terrible mistake, and for the reader feel like she would make a different choice. It’s a profound feeling when you finish a book and feel that way, I think.

As opposed to a character making the noble choice so the reader can say, “Oh, good, I would have done that too,” and never think about it again.

It’s more powerful if it’s a mistake.

Throughout the novel, Andrei has a certain anxiety about using Russia to advance his career—he doesn’t want to go back to America and parrot US talking points about the country in order to get ahead. Do you wrestle with similar feelings in your work?

It’s a question for any writer who writes about anyone, or anything, but certainly a question for academics and especially journalists who go to a place and talk to a bunch of people and then go home and write their article and get celebrated for it. The people they interviewed might not ever read the article. Probably their lives aren’t going to change much. That’s always a dilemma.

With journalism, when you’re doing it in your home country, in the best circumstances the work will actually change something. You find out someone accused of murder is innocent, and they’re released; or you show that the Department of Education is segregating the schools and they implement changes. But when you’re writing about a foreign country, certainly when you’re writing about Russia for an American audience, that is very unlikely to lead to any changes in Russia. The people in the Kremlin read Kommersant, they read Vedomosti, they read Novaya Gazeta. They do not read the New Yorker. And they certainly don’t read the London Review of Books. They may read the New York Times. I think they do read the New York Times. I think they do read The Guardian. But when you’re writing magazine stuff—what are you doing, really? I don’t want to say it’s bad, like it’s bad to go to other countries and see what they’re up to. That’s not a bad thing in itself. But you should be clear about your motives and what can plausibly happen as a result of what you write.

It becomes especially tricky when you’re writing about a place that people have a certain amount of information about, or preconceptions, rather. You can write the most subtle, nuanced thing and people at the end are like, “Putin’s a real monster. I enjoyed your article, you really gave it to Putin.” Because that’s what people are looking for. But if you let that get to you, you can fall into this opposite trap, like telling people that Putin’s great! “I want to rub in your face the actual accomplishments that he’s had, just to wipe some of that sanctimony off you.”

So as not to be part of the chorus that’s just railing against him.

For a long time—really between 1998 and 2014—things were pretty quiet in that sense. In ’98, the Russian economy collapsed, and everybody went home. People folded up their tents and left. Then Putin came to power and people were like, “I don’t care very much, Russian’s a dying country.” Which objectively was correct. But then oil prices went up and Russia started doing better. Still, writing about it back then, I didn’t feel that much ideological pressure. I felt some, and I wanted to write things that didn’t fit into the Bad Putin narrative. And you could do it then. But then, after Ukraine, it became really intense. Anything you wrote was going to be part of that, one way or another.

Russia’s political situation is a major source of the book’s narrative tension. How did you navigate that?

One of the things I thought about a lot was, when do you know it’s really bad? Russians are very conscious of their history. They ask themselves, is it 1917? Is it a revolutionary situation? Is it 1975? Stagnation—is it the seventies again? For a while people said, “Oh, Putin’s back, it’s just the stagnation era, life is fine, there’s no political freedom but aside from that it’s cool.” And this is something Putin used to say, in a way—“We have our problems,” he’d say, “but at least it’s not 1937.” Meaning people aren’t being dragged off. But right now, people are being dragged off. If you’re in Chechnya, and you’re gay, you are being dragged off. It is 1937. It doesn’t happen in Moscow, but the further you get from Moscow, the worse it gets, so that’s a constant question. Can we still sit here? Can we still go to the movies?

I spent this morning reading about kids being pulled from their parents at the US border and thought, “This is it. It might get worse, but this is as bad as it’s been.” It does make it hard to do stuff. You don’t want to be paralyzed by this, but you don’t want to go about your day like it didn’t happen. I think there’s an answer to that, but it’s kind of new to us. And I feel like some of the people in this book have been living in that situation for a while.

Was there a canon in your mind while thinking about this book?

I actually read a fair number of books about hockey people who had gone over. I read a great memoir by a guy, Tod Hartje, who played college hockey and got drafted in like the seventh round by the Winnipeg Jets. It was the last few years of the Soviet Union, and they were trying to create some relationship with the Russian league, in part to start getting the Russian players to come over and play. And they were like, this guy isn’t ready to play in the NHL, normally we’d send him to play in the AHL, but why don’t we send him to this team in Kiev for a year?

That memoir was great for my purposes. What does it sound like to go over there for exactly a year? There’s that initial feeling of alienation and discomfort, and then gradually you become accustomed to it, and then you come to really like it. And then you leave. In Hartje’s case, the reason for him going home was simple: his contract was up. There was another memoir I read by a Canadian hockey coach who went over there. He actually coached Evgeni Malkin at Magnitogorsk when Malkin was nineteen. That book had the same arc of being confused, and then gradually less confused. Whenever I got lost, wondering if the book was doing what I set out to do, those were the books that I looked to for guidance.

Aside from that, have you read The Cossacks? That’s a great early short novel by Tolstoy about a guy who goes somewhere, finds it weird and strange at first, then falls in love with it, but has to leave. Same thing as the hockey memoirs. I’ve had to leave Russia a few times, each time partly thinking I wasn’t actually going to leave. And I think I read The Cossacks after the first time that happened to me, back in college. It was very powerful.

I’d be remiss not to mention the grandmother, whose repeated questions become a kind of literary device in the book. You said those were based on real conversations you had with you grandmother, right?

At a certain point, when they were happening, they felt like Beckett, or Petrushevskaya. It did start to feel literary to me in a way. And there was this amazing thing she did where she would tell her friends about me and forget a lot of stuff, so she’d fill it in. I’d get home and hear her talking to a friend of hers about how I lived in California, and she had this account of my first marriage that was totally made up. I did have a first marriage, but it was not as she remembered it. The mind does that. It makes up stories.

When I started writing the book, the question was, how do I avoid turning the grandmother into this goofy, lovable literary character? There were things about my grandmother that were actually goofy and lovable and funny, but also things that were sad. One of the early reviews said she was “hilariously depressing,” or “depressingly hilarious,” and I thought that was right. That’s how my grandmother was.

She’s certainly not “wacky.” She’s a pessimist, but to her it’s just being realistic. She’s come by her worldview honestly.

At my grandmother’s house were letters that my mother had written her, but then at my father’s house were letters that my grandmother had written my mother. I always thought her depression was simply a function of her dementia, but from reading those letters it’s clear she was always a pessimistic person. I was glad to learn that, in a way. The dementia had deepened this aspect of her personality, but it hadn’t fundamentally altered it. It was still her—it was still my grandmother I was living with.

Andrew Ridker’s debut novel, The Altruists, will be published by Viking in March 2019.