Interview with Gary Shteyngart: On Travel Writing

Travel Interviews: Rob Verger asks the author about the search for authenticity and the evolving task of travel writers

06.03.09 | 10:20 AM ET

Gary ShteyngartPhoto by Marion Ettlinger

Gary Shteyngart, 36, is that rare talented and accomplished modern writer: He is both a successful novelist and travel writer. His two novels, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan, have received numerous awards, and the latter was chosen as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. He’s also a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure, and his essays from that publication have been anthologized in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 editions of The Best American Travel Writing.

In his work, Shteyngart excels at not just evoking and juxtaposing differences of culture and place, but also at writing with a sharp sense of humor. I sat down with him in his office at Columbia University, where he teaches writing.

World Hum: You moved from Leningrad to New York City when you were 7. What were your first impressions of New York City?

Gary Shteyngart: Well, first impressions were of just incredible technological advance. When I was a kid I loved science fiction, and it kind of felt like science fiction. The thing that I remember the most, well, a couple of things: One was landing at JFK—we landed at what was then the Pan Am terminal [now Terminal 3]—or we jetted past it—and now it looks very dated. But back then it seemed like it was a flying saucer or something. It’s a very circular building. I think Delta uses it now. Whatever it is now it’s like a real crappy place, but back then it seemed like it was the most amazing thing.

And then the other thing I remember are the cloverleafs. Our relatives were living in Queens, and so they took us from the airport to Queens, and just being on this highway, going so fast, and then all of a sudden it felt like you were in the air. And then the houses: I couldn’t believe that each house had its own backyard and belonged to a family—it was just inconceivable. But you know Queens, obviously, so these weren’t big houses by any stretch of the imagination. I thought my God, what a country, just the wealth of it. Even as a kid, a 7-year-old, you could tell that you were in a very futuristic land.

Your writing is frequently hilarious, and in both your novels a lot of the jokes have similar themes. You like to tease about both Western infatuation with “authenticity” in other parts of the world, as well as gently mock celebrations of multiculturalism you might find at certain liberal American colleges. I find the jokes to be laugh-out-loud funny, but what’s so funny to you about mocking these ideas?

What’s weird is that when I was growing up all my parents wanted to do was get the hell out of Russia. And they’ve never been back since they left. And I go back all the time, and they keep asking me, “Why do you go back? Life is so great here ... Go to Spain, or Italy or something that’s understandable, but why would you go back to Russia?” America is—well things are about to get very interesting in America as the country goes to hell in a hand basket—but for the most part life has been fairly predictable here, in a way that there’s a sterility to life that makes people want to rediscover their roots. There’s a huge movement among Jews, Italians, certainly the Irish; there’s this constant movement to find authenticity abroad. I think a lot of it stems from very good impulses: the need to figure out how you became the person you are. But a lot of it also stems from a need to fetishize the past. The shtetl wasn’t a good place. It wasn’t fun. It sucked for most people. And if you go back to the Ukraine these days, it sucks still. [Laughs.] So I’m a little confused about the motivation for that. And more recent immigrants I think often shy away from that kind of stuff; unless you have relatives or friends [in the old country], most people don’t want to explore their past.

What do you think is the role of travel writers today?

Well things have gotten very different. I mean, it used to be that in travel writing, you struck out for some land nobody had ever heard of, and you went there, and you brought back news of some other land. That news now exists in such capacity that the crappiest parts of the world have been explored, and written about, and written about, and written about, so before you even start off it’s possible to know a huge amount about a certain place. And the key is, I never go anywhere unless I know people there, who I trust as just not being the average jerks, but interesting people. And preferably you want to know people who are from several walks of life.

Is writing in each genre—fiction and travel writing—satisfying to you in different ways?

Well, I don’t write short stories, I only write novels, and that is a very complex task. Travel writing, because it’s in shorter units, is much more fun for me in many ways. It gets me out of bed, too, and that’s the great thing, because a writer is always moored in bed, or on the couch—I don’t even have an office, I just write at home. Everything I see changes my worldview. The stuff I write is pretty global anyway, in fiction. I mean, if you look at my fiction, both my books start in one place, and then there’s the travel segment, and then they go someplace else. So, in many ways, there’s a unity to the travel writing I do. I take the travel writing as seriously as I take fiction in terms of the quality—obviously, many a story will focus on stuff that the traveler needs to know. And that’s one of the things that pull you in several directions: You want a piece that will be read by somebody and somebody will have an idea of what the culture is like, and also have an idea of what to do with their time if they do end up there. You in some ways want to encourage the person to go there. On the other hand, you also want it to be a real essay, a real travelogue that can stand up to the best of them.

Thanks, Gary.

Editors’ note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.