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


Author photo
Photo credit

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?

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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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