Interviews June 2004

From Toronto With Love

David Bezmozgis talks about his sudden literary success and his first collection of stories, a wry and intimate portrait of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family
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book cover

Natasha: and Other Stories
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Davis Bezmozgis
Farrar Straus & Giroux
160 pages, $18.00

If anything worries David Bezmozgis, the thirty-year-old Toronto-based author of the much talked about debut story collection, Natasha: And Other Stories, it's the possibility of overexposure—"though I'm not sure how or at what point someone gets overexposed, and I trust my publisher only has my best interests at heart," he tells me over the phone from somewhere in Indiana, where he is resting for a night or two, on his way from Los Angeles to Toronto by car. Bezmozgis has been out for most of the spring on a big national publicity tour pegged to the release of his first book: a spare, touching, and carefully crafted collection of seven stories about a Latvian Jewish boy in 1980s Toronto.

Bezmozgis admits to being a bit perplexed to find himself thrust into the spotlight simply for writing a book of short stories. Until recently, he worked in documentary film production and wrote stories on the side, but he was not actively trying to publish them. That all changed rather abruptly. Last year, in the span of three months, three of his stories appeared in some serious career-making arenas: The New Yorker, Zoetrope, and Harper's. By that point his work had already intrigued Lorin Stein, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Mr. Stein had received a typescript of Bezmozgis's story "Natasha" through a common friend (it had not been formally "submitted") and, liking what he saw, wrote Bezmozgis for more work samples. The rest, as they say, is history. Bezmozgis not only landed a book contract but won the house's full support as its hottest new property.

Reading Natasha, it's not surprising that a respected literary publisher would stake so much on an unknown. Here is the kind of poised and elegant storytelling that announces an already mature talent. The stories in Bezmozgis's collection are idiosyncratic, emotionally rich, and, for all of their ethnic flavor, accessible. They are all told from the perspective of Mark Berman, a sensitive smart aleck who immigrated with his family to the West in 1980. And like the best "outsider" fiction, they universalize a personal cultural experience, taking on topics like ethnic identity, family conflicts in a new land, and the challenges of assimilation. They also include astute and amusing observations about sex, love, religion, and the business world from the point of view of a perceptive young person.

One story, "Tapka," shows first-grader Mark Berman struggling to understand family responsibility, immigrant status, and guilt, as he takes care of his neighbor's dog and becomes the cause of its potential demise. Another describes how Mark's father, a professional massage therapist, must make nice with his self-interested new community in order to succeed. In "Natasha," the work's centerpiece, teenage Mark's oversexed immigrant cousin-by-marriage teaches him a few harsh but enlightening lessons about adult reality. And then there are stories in which Mark encounters the eroding traditions of old-time Judaism and tries to find new ways of looking at religious customs and spirituality. Like his protagonist, Bezmozgis emigrated with his family from Latvia and grew up in Toronto in the 1980s. He attended McGill University as an English major and moved on to film school at the University of Southern California. Over the years he has directed a number of documentaries, including the well-received short film L.A. Mohel, which introduced some of the men and women in Los Angeles who keep the ancient Jewish rite of circumcision alive.

We spoke by telephone on May 21.

—Adam Baer


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David Bezmozgis
 

One of the first pages of the Natasha reviewer's galley features a letter from Lorin Stein, your editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who says that you had never sent your work out for professional consideration. Were you simply writing stories for yourself and your friends? And when did the idea for the book come about?

I conceived the idea for the book a few years ago and just knew I was going to write it. My feeling was that until it was finished, I didn't really see the point of sending it out to book editors or agents. And I also didn't have much experience sending my work out to people like that. I really thought that if I was going to send it out, then the book had to be finished.

But did you write it with the intent to publish?

Well, I hoped that at some point somebody would want to publish it, but until I'd finished the stories and they were of a certain caliber—until they said what I'd hoped they would say—I didn't show it to anybody. Ultimately the person I showed it to was my friend, the Rimbaud translator Wyatt Mason (who would eventually show it to Lorin Stein). But I showed him things only when I really felt that I was close—not with each individual story, but with what has come to be the book's overarching narrative.

I would assume that like most writers you wrote the stories individually, and perhaps not in chronological order.

That's true.

Did you have concerns later on about the semantic threads sewn between the stories—whether they would hold strong when the stories were published together in this order?

Well, what FSG saw originally, in manuscript form, is not what you see today. We elected not to include one of the stories. Another story was written after FSG made their offer. That story is "Tapka," which is first in the collection chronologically but was the last one I wrote. And that had a lot to do with—really everything to do with—what the arc of the book was going to be like.

"Tapka" strikes me as one of the more confident stories in this collection. Would you say that getting the deal from FSG provided a big confidence boost for you?

Well, before "Tapka" I wrote a story that was much longer, which I ultimately abandoned. That was the first thing that I tried to write after getting the contract with FSG. So I don't know if getting the contract gave me confidence or not, because I tried to do something and failed. Then I read a lot of Chekhov, and thought, Let's do something really simple. The idea for "Tapka" seemed like a simple idea at first. I wrote it, I think, in three weeks—which for me is incredibly fast.

How long does it usually take you to write a story?

A minimum of a month. Sometimes longer—usually longer, depending on what it is.

Are you the kind of person who writes full drafts or constantly edits as you go along?

Constantly edit.

As you write each sentence?

As I write each sentence. Which is why a "good day" is sometimes just a paragraph.

I recall your saying in a recent interview that you had sort of been writing these stories your whole life.

I've been writing them—or treating the subject matter, in one form or another—for as long as I've been serious about writing. Which is maybe ten years.

Mark Berman, the narrator of these stories, is not only precocious but also very sympathetic toward his parents. One clichéd but common aspect of the immigrant experience for children is that they're mortified by their parents. Did you choose not to play that angle up?

I suppose so, yes. That's not what interested me about the experience. That's sort of a facile way to approach it. I was much more interested in how the narrator would be sympathetic to his parents and feel what they were going through, rather than feel himself isolated from it or be embarrassed by it. I also wanted to write a book about what I consider a "functional family." I think I've had a good experience with my own parents, and I wanted to write a book about someone who loves his parents and witnesses them going through hardship. And even if he doesn't always agree with them, he doesn't reject them or define himself through his rejection of them.

And now for the question most often asked of debut fiction writers: Is Natasha at all autobiographical? You mentioned that it parallels the way you feel about your own family.

Superficially it's autobiographical—but only superficially. The superficial circumstances provide a framework, and after that I find some means of getting to the themes that interest me.

Have there been reactions from your family other than pride?

Relief—that I can now make a living doing something. I come from a family that's literate, but not literary. My parents are educated, but they don't know what The New Yorker is, they don't know what Harper's is. And I think that's great. I mean that's why I enjoy writing about my community. For them these names didn't mean very much. I would tell them that I had placed a story in one of these magazines and they would tell me that was very good, because they obviously understood that's what I wanted them to say. But then, recently, a short article about me appeared in the Toronto Star, which is a local paper, and my mother got a call from a friend. And my aunt got a call at work from a friend. And at that point it seemed legitimate that something had happened. The Toronto Star had taken notice. At that point there was a little more pride.

Each of your stories places Mark at a different stage of his life, in a different role. Did you ever worry about not being able to flesh out the character as fully as you might like with a collection of only seven stories? Did you ever consider exploring other members of the Berman family more closely?

No. I knew I was married to this structure. Once I'd written four or five of the stories it would just seem strange to interject one or two from another character's perspective. So the collection had to sustain itself with just one narrator and one perspective—which is why it became very hard to write at the end. I was trying to find new stories that could be told from Mark's perspective, and it was incredibly limiting. And it raised the question: When had I written enough? When did enough stories exist to accomplish the arc that I wanted? Hopefully enough stories exist to accomplish that. Maybe somebody will tell me that's not the case, but it's too late now.

Is there a particular aspect of storytelling that you find most challenging? Finding the right tone? Deciding when to reveal a vital detail?

Finding the right word. Seriously. I've spent a lot of time looking for the right word. I can be stymied for hours.

The phrase "fractured yip" from "Tapka" comes to mind.

Yeah, the word "yip." There's also an "atonal chorus" in there. I couldn't remember the word "atonal" when I wanted to use it. It took me forever. I was looking for it, and I couldn't find it, and I'd just sit around feeling pretty stupid.

I'm sure you've heard that people are comparing you to a number of writers. One of them is Isaac Babel. Is he an influence?

Babel is definitely an influence. But I also think that his is the sort of name that often gets dropped: Babel, Malamud, Roth. It's a shorthand. I don't really pay much attention to it. It just so happens that Babel is somebody who has influenced me, but I think his name could just as easily have come up in reference to another writer's work. And it probably has.

Would you say that you feel, in some way, like a part of the Russian literary canon?

Whom do you mean by "the Russian literary canon"?

Partly I'm thinking of Babel and other Russian-Jewish writers, but I'm also thinking of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.

I do feel a kinship to Babel. I've read Chekhov. And, you know, I think this is probably sacrilege, but a lot of the time I just haven't been that interested in his work. I've never really done very well with Dostoyevsky either.

The title character in the story "Natasha," who has had some shocking sexual experiences for a fourteen-year-old, is a product of the dissolution and lawlessness of the "New Russia." How common, in real contemporary Russian life, is the experience of your Natasha? And how much tougher do you think it has been to be a Russian kid over the past twenty-five years?

I don't know how common her experience is. I hope not very common. But yeah, it exists. How much tougher? I don't have enough experience to say.

So you don't feel very connected to contemporary Russia?

I know very little about it. Last summer, for the first time in twenty-four years, I went back with my parents to where we're from, which is Riga. I'm glad we didn't stay there to live. It would have been a much harder life. A lot of people I met in Riga who were my age or younger were talking about how to leave and where to go. And the question comes up: Where would I have been today had we stayed? I think the short answer is Israel or America, eventually. I don't think we would have remained in Riga until now, but had we, I think things would have been a lot harder for us, and harder for me.

Did your family come to Toronto for the same reasons as the Bermans? Because Israel might have been too dangerous?

Yes, roughly. My grandparents went to Israel, we came here. Part of it had to do with the fear of war. And other things—economic reasons. The belief that the Canadian and American economies were superior. That there was more opportunity.

Why not New York?

Actually there was a fear, for some reason, that my parents had of New York. That it was too loud, and that there was too much of everything there. We had originally intended to go to Atlanta. Then we were told by a friend of my father's that that wasn't such a great idea and that Canada was accepting applicants, and why not go there.

By the end of "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," Mark's family has learned to be wary of everyone in Toronto—even of the Kornblums, the prosperous Russian Jews who invite them to dinner and offer to help them but end up just being disrespectful. Everyone in the West, it seems, is looking out for him- or herself.

But the Bermans are looking out for themselves too. They go to this dinner very much with self-interest in mind. Everybody is self-interested. Everybody at that dinner was trying to get something from someone else. The Bermans are no better than the Kornblums or the other couple. I don't think they're any better at all.

Do you think they realize that?

No. Maybe they'll realize it years later, but I think they're too deep into trying to survive to realize much of anything. It's a luxury to learn lessons in life. It means you're no longer fighting.

In the story "Choynski" Mark breaks Jewish law by visiting his grandmother's grave before a month has passed since her death, intent on burying her new dentures beside her. "I felt that I was following other laws," Mark says. Could that be a metaphor for how modern Jewish fiction is changing?

For me, that line means something completely personal. It's Mark's personal definition of his Jewish faith, beyond what the scriptures say. I think there are a lot of people who'd say that religion nowadays has become much more personal. Now that you don't have to follow every single letter of the law, you follow the spirit of it. "God would understand" is something you often hear people say. "I'm really a good Jew. God will understand."

In the course of writing the book, were you thinking about how best to universalize a localized ethnic experience so as not to alienate a broad readership?

That's a very good question. There are ways to say things that are … that won't alienate someone who is not Russian and not Jewish. At the same time, I also don't want a reader to feel as though I'm trying not to alienate someone who is from outside the experience. Here's an example. In the story "Minyan," there's a point where the narrator says, "You know, I couldn't understand how in an apartment building of all Jews they couldn't find ten men for the services." That's something I was conscious of: not wanting to explain what a Minyan is—not wanting to say, "Having ten Jewish men is required for a proper religious service." So yes. I think about these things.

And there are words in the book, both Yiddish and Russian, that some people just won't know.

Yeah, and that's good. That's one of the things I like when I read fiction about another culture—when there are words that I don't understand, and they're not explained to me. If I'm really, really interested I'll go and look them up, and I'll feel as though I'm in on something. Or I won't look them up, and I'll just know that this is something about the culture I don't understand. And that's okay. It feels authentic. I don't feel like I've been talked down to.

Do you think the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience will remain a constant in your writing?

It's something I care about, yeah. I'm sure it will continue to come up. Will it be the only thing I write about? Probably not. But will I continue to return to it? I think so.

You've also worked in film and directed documentaries. Being a print writer who has worked in radio, I've found that writing for live forms of spoken media has helped me to write more clearly and directly. Has film done that for you?

When I write a screenplay, I'm aware of how much easier it is than prose in some ways. Because not everything counts in a screenplay; description, for instance, doesn't mean very much. I don't know how that affects my prose writing, but I'm definitely aware of the difference. Maybe it's given me a greater appreciation of narrative drive. The prose writers that I gravitate to are attentive not only to language but also to story. Something happens in their work.

Who are some of those writers?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The 'What If?' Game" (October 30, 2002)
Tim O'Brien talks about his new novel, July, July, and the urge to wonder how life might have turned out differently.

Leonard Michaels is a very big influence. And Babel, of course. Those are the two main ones. Then there are a few others whose work I read every now and then and that I really like. Tim O'Brien, for example.

Why did you choose to go to film school instead of to a graduate creative writing program? Do you feel that studying the act of writing can impede a natural storyteller's means of expression?

I went to USC, and to film school, specifically not to write. I went there and studied directing. I really didn't take any writing classes except the ones that were compulsory, although I did end up taking one elective class with T. C. Boyle, who teaches at USC, just because I read his stuff and wondered what a writing workshop class would be like. But I don't think any of those classes really influenced the way I write. I don't have very much experience with writing programs, so I couldn't say how it affects anybody. But my feeling is, if you're a writer, and you have something to say, no amount of influence will distract you from that purpose. I think you're going to write how you write. And if you allow yourself to be distracted, then you should probably not be doing what you're doing.

Is there a reason you gravitated toward documentaries at USC? I mean, as opposed to fictional, feature-style films?

It had something to do with the culture at USC. The narrative film program felt like a miniature version of Hollywood and embodied all the things I didn't like about Hollywood. There was a lot of jockeying for position, a lot of chest-beating by the people who ended up landing narrative films. In the documentary department there was a fantastic faculty, maybe unrivaled in the States, and the atmosphere was completely different. I just thought I would be able to do better work there. And I think there are similarities between the way the documentaries I like—and have made—work and the writing that I do. So in a way it was very natural.

Have producers made you any offers to turn Natasha into a film?

No, but I now have a film agent who's trying to represent the book. Good luck.

Would you want to be a part of producing that project in some way?

I doubt it. I spent a lot of time writing this book. I'm not sure what I could bring to it to help realize it on screen. I never thought of it in filming terms when I was writing. I thought of it very much divorced from that type of writing, screenwriting. It was something else entirely. But that's not to say that it can't be done. So if the right person comes along and sees something in it I don't, God bless them.

Maybe Charlie Kaufman will want the gig.

Yeah, maybe Charlie Kaufman will come along and turn one sentence into a crazy screenplay. You know, Tapka will come back, et cetera.

So does Tapka the dog actually die? It's unclear at the end of the story if the doctor will operate on her.

Ah: That's the thing that I'm happiest about in that story. Because even I don't know anymore. Literally. I was very concerned about ending it in some definitive way, where you would get the feeling that yes, the dog has died, or no, the dog hasn't died. Because that's not important. What's important is how the narrator feels at the end. His guilt.

You've been on the road promoting your book, guerilla-style, in a tour described by Publishers Weekly as "Bezmozgispalooza." What is the book-publicizing business like, and do you think this is something you could get used to? You've already worked in film and spent some time in Hollywood. So maybe it's not so foreign?

Well, my time in Hollywood was spent in the lowest possible echelon. So I never experienced any kind of publicity. That said, I'm not naïve. I think it's great that FSG has put the kind of energy they have into promoting this book. And so far the experience has been fine. They haven't asked me to do anything unpalatable. I'm glad they made the effort to get the book out to people, that they've supported it. It's been made clear to me that this was a very unusual situation, that short story collections rarely get this kind of treatment. And I can only say that I'm grateful for it.

So no plans to start your own hipster literary journal?

No, no plans for that.

I'm told you're already working on a debut novel. Is there anything about it you'd like to divulge?

I'm actually very superstitious about that sort of thing.

How did it feel to hear this had all happened for you: that FSG had taken you on, and that in the span of three months your stories would be published in some of the world's best magazines?

The big emotional thing was when Lorin offered to publish the book. That was probably the happiest and most intense moment of my life. How did I feel? I felt that the story I wanted told would now get told. I felt that I had actually achieved something with my life: that my life wouldn't be a complete and total failure. That if I do nothing else, then that's okay.

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Adam Baer is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and Slate, on NPR, and elsewhere.

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