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Mikhail Shishkin: “The idea behind Letter-Book came to me overnight”
Writer Mikhail Shishkin, as is characteristic of “living classics”, is quite focused, exacting and unhurried. He diligently puts out one novel every five years, but each one is highly regarded by readers and critics alike. The winner of numerous literary awards, Shishkin has spent the past 15 years of his life living in Zurich. Recently he visited Moscow, where it was announced that he had won first prize of the Big Book Prize for his most recent novel Letter-Book. Here we republish an interview with the author from 2010. Mikhail Shishkin explains how he manages to get by outside his native language and cultural environment and shares his thoughts on his own creative work, modern literature, and life and the creative process in general.
– How is it possible to be a Russian writer and write about Russia while living far away from the Motherland?
– It seems that if you are a real writer, then everything that you experience is your capital, your deposit box, and it is not so important where you are. Your Motherland is where you are born, but it is not necessarily the place where you live. And everything that happens to you: whether you go to prison, get married, have children; whether you are a tiger trainer or a school teacher – this is all your capital from which books are born. If a writer remains in the country of his native language, then this is his capital; if he leaves the country of his native language, this is also his capital. I think that I was very lucky that due to certain family reasons I ended up living outside Russia. And it was this that helped me come to understand what my native language means to me.
– What is special about a writer living outside his native language environment?
– It is a widely held belief that a Russian writer cannot live without his native language – in foreign lands he will certainly be tortured with nostalgia. But those that promote this are probably not writers. Such ideas are those of leaders and tyrants who do not want to let writers go, as they are more difficult to control from afar. If we recall that such a text as Gogol’s Dead Souls (and what could be more Russian) was written in Rome, Switzerland and Paris.
I believe that it is unimportant where a writer lives. Furthermore, it seems to me that a writer must travel outside his own country, outside his own language, for a while. If you live in Switzerland, you see both Switzerland and your own reflection. How can you live your whole life without once looking in the mirror? Observing from a different perspective helps you understand your own country and yourself.
– How do you keep up with life in Russia? How do you keep informed about its constantly changing state of mind?
– When I lived in Russia, I was first and foremost interested in people, and I did not write about the country. But if I write about life, then I write about life in Russia. But when you leave Russia you come to understand that life there is not the entire world. It is only a small piece of an enormous world. And perhaps it is not the largest or most important piece.
I don’t think you need to write about Russia or about exotic Russian problems. You should write about people. Regardless of where you live, you should write about people and all their problems, which will be the same in Russia and in any other country.
Why to people in the West still read Tolstoy but ignore contemporary Russian authors? Of course they are translated but the print runs are minimal. And even if detective novels are translated, their readers are not the same that usually read detective novels. Russian detective novels are read in the West by those who are interested in Russian culture and Russia in general. They try to understand contemporary Russia through these books. Russian authors will once again be read in the West when they stop writing about the Russian exotic and begin writing about the reader, regardless of his nationality, be it a Chinese, American or perhaps a Swiss. After all, when someone in the West reads about Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Bolkonsky, he is practically reading about himself. When contemporary authors learn to write about people, for example, in the way that Tolstoy could, then a new wave of Russian literature will come, and it will be read everywhere. Until this happens, Russian literature will remain in its own little Russian ghetto.
– What is unique about Montreux-Missolunghi-Astapovo, which you wrote in German? Did the use of a different language change the manner in which you wrote it, your style?
– I know German as a foreign language. And the main particularity of any work written in a language that is foreign to the author is that it be written correctly. After all, people communicating through a foreign language strive to correctly present their thoughts. An author can write in his own language in the manner of his choosing. And a writer should write incorrectly. The artistry of a work depends on the degree to which it diverges from the norm: to present words in such a manner that it reaches the heart, and if you write in a textbook style it won’t do that. When I write in German I never write prose – only essays or articles. In the book you mentioned, the parts related to Russia I of course wrote in Russian, but when I wrote of things outside Russkiy Mir, I wrote in German and strived to do so correctly.
– How would you describe the art of writing? What is it? Work? A profession?
– If you look at it from the point of view that the writer creates a product, which the reader takes with him in the metro or train when he has nothing else to do, then writing doesn’t seem interesting to me. In this case it is a sort of service in exchange for money. A writer that clearly understands what is in demand on the market and strive to write books that will suit the majority of readers and know how to do this are simply serving the masses. Such authors serve the needs of the consumer. I have no right to pass judgment on this, as it is also needed. But for me personally this is not interesting, and I approach my own writing differently.
It seems to me that you cannot just decide to become a writer. If you are a normal person, you must recognize your responsibility to your family, to your children. You must make a living. And if you decide one day “I am a writer!” then this could lead to family catastrophe. In my opinion, you can only become a writer in a childish, instinctive manner. After all, when a child picks up a pencil and begins to write something, he doesn’t take account of what he is doing. In a sense it is of course an ailment, but a healthy one with which you can live to the end of your days.
– It’s understandable how the urge to write is born, but why did you continue to write?
– For me, writing is like an attempt to answer the questions that I asked myself as a child. Once I was walking along with my grandmother, and on the side of the road we saw a dead cat. And my grandmother went home, got a shovel and returned. And when she buried it on the side of the road, I suddenly realized that I too will someday die… And grandmother will die, and all the people that I love and that love me will die some day. And what can one do about this? And ever since I have been asking myself: is it possible to fight death?
It seems that words are these small pieces of eternity from which you can build a wall against death. And you start to think of them as protection form death, and it seems that the writers of books have found this loophole into immortality. But as a person changes, so do his answers to these very same questions. At 16 years of age, even before writing anything, I was sure that writing was the path for me to overcome my own death. But then at some point in time I came to realize that this won’t save me from death. Words, like a ship, promise to take you with them into eternity. But the ship sails of at night, and it turns out that the words attain immortality, but you remain there on shore.
At some point in my life I came to understand that death is a gift, and the same kind of gift as love. I realized that my appearance here on earth is an unbelievable privilege, and thus we should relish every second that we have been given. If it were not for the death of the closest and dearest people, we would never understand why we are here and why we have been placed on this earth.
– How do you begin writing: from some sort of idea, a plot line or simply the desire to create something new?
– There is an unwritten rule among authors – write one book a year, or at least one book every two years, otherwise you will quickly be forgotten. In this sense, I am absolutely not a professional but rather an amateur. A novel, in my opinion, is not born, out of an idea but rather in the absence of an idea. A novel appears out of a black hole, out of failure, from some sort of bottomless barrel that you fall into after finishing your previous text. A novel begins from a feeling of complete mediocrity, from the sense that you have been used. In the previous novel you created the Cosmos, but you cannot create the Cosmos again. You realize that you have been used, like a disposable pen, and you won’t write anything more in your life and it is impossible and intolerable to live any longer. And from this excruciating feeling, which could last a day, a month, a year or two, or more, that the next novel begins.
– Do you fear that you will not have enough energy for a new novel?
– I am convinced that every person who is engaged not only in absorbing things but also producing has one fear which will haunt him his entire life. This is the fear that the energy which makes it possible to create will leave him. And this is a tragedy, because by inertia you continue to be what they call you. You write because this is what they expect and not because some internal source of energy is making you write. I am scared to death of this. And I know from experience that following each novel this happens to me. When I finished Letter-Book, I was waiting for this downturn, and with it depression. But suddenly instead of this, some new ideas started appearing for some short texts, essays and even the next novel. Perhaps this can be explained by me having reached, let’s say, ‘creative maturity’.
– How do you collect materials for you future works?
– My life amounts to rummaging through everything that is happening around me: I select words, dialogs, situations… I chew them up, spit them out, chew them up, spite them out – and sometimes store something away in my depository. For example, while reading memoirs of some 19th century French explorer in Central Asia, I pay attention to some details about how he describes a train. And I jot down these details, bearing in mind that these details characterize the railroad at that time. I’m not sure why I do this. But if I suddenly need to send a hero to Central Asia, then he must go right at this time in history and not 20 years earlier or 20 years later, because I have an understanding of the reality at this particular time. And when an idea suddenly appears to write some novel, I peruse through my notes and create this new reality.
– Tell us, please, about how did you come up with your novel Letter-Book?
– My latest novel was really difficult for me, as nothing was working out. I was staying outside Berlin living on a stipend. It was wintertime. There is a lake there called Wannsee, and every day I strolled out to this frozen lake and was haunted by this horrible feeling. I understood that four years had passed since by previous book, and I hadn’t really written anything since. In that area lies the grave of one of my favorite writers – Heinrich von Kliest (he committed suicide on the lakeshore). And when I walked by that place every day I thought, “My God, but he was right!” And if the ice had given way beneath my feet, I would have felt the joy of deliverance. I reached the very absolute end, taking myself apart into little pieces, and then one morning I woke up and all the pieces had fallen into place overnight – the idea of a correspondence dawned on me. And then I spent a whole year writing it down. How the idea of Letter-Book came to me overnight, I still am not able to explain…
– What is the book about?
– Letter-Book, like Maidenhair, is about everything. This is the shortest of my books – the correspondence between two people in love who write each other letters. There is of course a historical background behind the book: the hero finds himself in China in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, when Russians together with the Japanese, French, English and Americans marched on Beijing. There was a sense that this would be the last war.
– What is the overriding image of your heroes? Who are they?
– When I open a contemporary novel I am often shocked by the description of the characters. Authors assimilate ready-made heroes and play off the readers associations, for example: “he looks like Schwarzenegger.” In the world of my heroes, there is no Schwarzenegger and there cannot be. And my characters cannot even imagine what the real Schwarzenegger looks like. While my secondary characters may be described with some single detail about external appearance, the main heroes always go without a description. And this is the case for one simple reason: all of my heroes are me. I pluck myself into various characters primarily based on age: the young man who is struggling to figure things out, the adult who is similar to who I am now and the old man that I may become someday. All male heroes are a unified ‘I’, and all female heroes are my perception of a woman. So all of my books are intertwined, leaving only the boundary between man and woman. And in all my novels there are really only two heroes – he and she.
– How important to you are critics’ assessments of your work?
– When you publish for the first time, it seems that this is very important. You read about yourself, worry a lot and, it is particularly painful when you see negative reviews. But it is important to recognize that critics do not write about you, but rather they use writers as support for their own ideas and disputes with their own opponents. And this really doesn’t have anything to with what you wrote. But when you are young and inexperienced, criticism can kill you. It can be unjust and boorish. But if criticism has this effect then I think that this is a good thing, as young authors should be chastise, doused in mud – everything that might make them stop from writing. And if they do quit, that means that they are not true writers, and this will be better both for their families and for world literature. A true writer will not stop writing for anything.
As far as the significance others opinions for me, I can say that at some point I came to the following conclusion: regardless of what you write, there will be 10 people who say that you have saved world literature and 100 people who say that you wrote utter rubbish, and the rest of mankind won’t even know that your book exists. And this is something you just need to live with.
– Are the opinions of readers important to you?
– It’s a bit more complicated with the readers. At the beginning if you are dependent on the print run, then the opinion of readers is the most important thing for you. But then you stop being honest with yourself and are quick to make compromises. As soon as you start thinking about whether someone will like your writing, then you stop being yourself and start providing a service. And if you don’t want to be in the service industry, you shouldn’t think about the reader.
– Which contemporary Russian authors catch your attention?
– It seems to me that there have always been several authors who sit in their attics and write brilliant texts. But we cannot appreciate the brilliance of these texts – this will perhaps only become clear a hundred years from now. If you take, for example, the 1920s, then we now speak of very different authors than those who were well-known back then. And those who not recognized then are now accepted as representatives of that era. I am sure that from our time, for example, such authors as Alexander Goldstein, who unfortunately died before his time, will live on. He was ahead of his time, published but not read. He will be joined by others whom I do not know, and they will represent Russian prose of the early 21st century.