Award-winning author shares experience with local readers

Published 9:57 am Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Satirical novelist Gary Shteyngart shows off one of his childhood notebooks to the audience inside the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center during his talk Friday evening. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Satirical novelist Gary Shteyngart shows off one of his childhood notebooks to the audience inside the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center during his talk Friday evening. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

When it comes to his art form, satirist Gary Shteyngart is willing to pour hours of research into his work. 

Fortunately, sometimes he can pull that off without ever leaving his hotel room.

On New Year’s Eve of last year, the award-winning author spent a week holed up in his hotel room at the Four Seasons in New York, consuming nothing but state-controlled television from his motherland of Russia. With a setup that included three 55-inch monitors displaying programs from three of the country’s largest TV networks, Shteyngart set out to discover how the Russian government used the media to expand its influence across the general population for an article he was writing for The New York Times Magazine.

Recalling memories of his own time living in the nation, when it was still under communist rule as the Soviet Union, Shteyngart said he noticed that stations had shifted from having a very anti-Semitic tone to now having a homophobic one, with programs either mocking or scorning same-sex couples.

“It has a real effect,” Shteyngart said. “You hear reports all the time in Moscow and other parts of the country that there are attacks happening all the time, that are all state-sanctioned. It’s a very ugly and scary environment.”

His thoughts about his recent weeklong “excursion” was one of several topics that Shteyngart discussed during his presentation last Friday, inside the confines of the Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center. The writer visited the Grand Old City as this year’s featured author of the 24th annual Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, which wrapped up its more than weeklong worth of events and presentations Sunday.

Shteyngart kicked off the event by reading a few passages from his 2014 memoir, “Little Failure,” followed by an extensive question and answer session with the audience.

Born in Leningrad, Russia, in 1972, Shteyngart and his family came to the U.S. in 1979. Like many Jewish families living in the country at the time, the Shteyngart clan came to America as part of an exchange program brokered between President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, which the author dubbed as the “Jews for grain” program.

“I was exchanged for a loaf of bread,” Shteyngart said.

Changing his name from Igor to Gary (his father was a fan of the late actor Gary Cooper), Shteyngart used writing as a way to try and fit in with his new classmates, he said.

Currently residing in New York City, Shteyngart went on to become an acclaimed author, with his satirical novels “Super Sad True Love Story” and “Absurdistan” both winning awards and regarded as some of the best books of the years they were published.

Last year, the author switched gears from his usual fictional stories with “Little Failure.” While still employing his trademark biting humor, focusing the plot around his own life and experiences presented him with a unique set of challenges compared the usual fabricated plots and universes he creates for his stories, he said.

“The problem is you, if you really want to write a good memoir, is that you have to be incredibly accurate,” he said. “You can’t lie. You can’t make things up. And for me, that entails a huge amount of research.”

The author is currently undertaking another huge departure from his prior works, this time stepping into the world of television writing. Shteyngart is currently co-writing the pilot episode of a TV adaptation of “Super Sad True Love Story,” produced and directed by comedian Ben Stiller.

When asked by a member of the audience if, after years of success in America, he still considers himself an outsider, Shteyngart said he often doesn’t, a fact that he somewhat regrets, he said.

“Most artists who are successful are not exactly happy people,” he said. “If you grew up with a loving family, with a wonderful school environment, and you went on to have a great job, you’re married to the best girl in world, you have a 401K plan…what the hell are you going to write about?”