Grushin was born in Moscow in 1971, at the age of 5 moved with her family to Prague, Czechoslovakia after her father, a pioneering Russian sociologist and philosopher, found himself at odds with the Soviet regime. In 1981, she returned to a Moscow very different from the one of her youth. She studied art history at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and journalism at Moscow State University where she won a Golden Pen Award for an article about the absurd abundance of Lenin monuments in a nearby town. In 1989, she received a full scholarship to Emory University, becoming the first Russian citizen to enroll in a four-year American college program. She earned bachelor degrees in sociology and religion.
Her first novel, the acclaimed “The Dream Life of Sukhanov,” was published in the United States and more than a dozen countries. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including “The New York Times,” “Granta,” “The Guardian,” “Partisan Review,” and “Vogue.” A citizen of both Russia and the United States and a resident of Silver Spring, Grushin is the 2007 recipient of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award.
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. Tickets are $3
advance sale at the CSM box office and $3 at the door with a student ID, or $5 general admission at the door. Books are available at the CSM College Store.
In preparation for the November Connections program, Grushin discussed literary traditions and expectations and the importance of community and hope.
CSM: Your first novel was compared to the Russian authors Nabokov, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, etc. How do you work toward your own vision when readers and critics have so many expectations for your work?
Grushin: There is a natural tendency, I think, to compare people writing within a certain literary tradition to what came before them, so whenever a new Russian-American author appears, especially one writing about Russia, you will often find him or her being compared to Nabokov or Tolstoy.
Of course, it can be flattering, and I do indeed draw on the Russian tradition. I grew up reading the Russian greats, which formed my ideas of what true literature could do, and I pay tribute to the Russian classics in my books, whether openly or with hidden references and allusions. And, as it happens, Nabokov really is one of my greatest influences.
At the same time, though, I strive to speak with my own voice, to accomplish something original, to develop my own brand of storytelling. I love the idea of linguistic inventiveness, and the stories that attract me tend to combine the universal emotional and philosophical dilemmas underlying much of the 19th-century Russian literature with the stylistic experimentation characteristic of the 20th-century Western literature, a literature I’ve gravitated toward since coming to America two decades ago. I think that my straddling of two cultures and
two languages has helped me form my own style, which is neither purely Russian nor American.
CSM: In “The Line,” you use a composite of three Russian time periods (the repression of Stalin’s 1930s, the hopefulness of Krushchev’s late 50s-early 60s, and the stagnation of Brezhnev’s 1970s) to create the setting of this novel. What kind of freedom did this composite setting offer you as a writer?
Grushin: It was very liberating not to be unduly constrained by facts. This allowed me to borrow from whatever history best suited my story. “The Line” is based on a real event that took place in Leningrad in 1962, when people waited in line for an entire year to buy tickets to a concert by Igor Stravinsky. I briefly debated the merits of writing an actual historical novel. But I understood very quickly that what I was most interested in was telling a sort of fable, free of time, free of place, a universal tale about human dreams and hopes. I saw it as a dark
fairy-tale set in a Soviet dreamscape of sorts, a historical amalgamation to which the reader could hopefully relate without knowing much about Soviet history. And I think this particular story needed this kind of historical freedom, as there were plenty of narrative constraints I imposed upon myself in structuring the novel.
CSM: You have mentioned that your writing is greatly influenced by your father, who or what are your other influences?
Grushin: My father was not a literary influence per se-he did write books, but he was a scholar rather than a writer. His is the deepest influence on my approach to work and life in general: I’ve never known anyone as uncompromisingly devoted to his vision, as hard-working or as honorable.
As for purely literary influences, Nabokov and Gogol come to mind, followed by Chekhov: I’m indebted to both the realist and the fantastical aspects of the Russian literary tradition. And, of course, there are many things outside of literature that I’m interested in and that find their way into my writing. In “The Dream Life of
Sukhanov,” I used my studies of art to attempt writing a highly visual book which would, in some sense, merge the domains of literature and painting, while “The Line” draws on my early experiences with ballet dancing and my love of music.
CSM: In the beginning of the novel, an old man beckons Anna to the kiosk and tells her they are selling “whatever you’d most like to have. What would you like?” Could you talk a little bit about the power of dreams and hope in the novel?
Grushin: Hope is one of the two central themes of “The Line,” the other theme being time. At the heart of the novel is a family of four whose lives are drab, devoid of purpose or excitement. Then one day a mysterious kiosk appears in their neighborhood, with a promise of something wonderful, something new, and gradually all of them begin to long for a change.
Ostensibly the kiosk will sell tickets to a concert by a brilliant exiled composer, but over time this coveted concert ticket comes to mean something entirely different for each of my characters. I tried to make them complex and multi-dimensional, of course, yet at their very core, their motives boil down to simple, universal human desires: Anna, the wife, wants her husband’s love and familial happiness; Sergei, the husband, dreams of creating eternal art; their teenage son Alexander longs for travel and adventure.
The line itself is many things-a menacing mob, a Greek chorus, a sociological experiment, a means of killing time and so on; but most importantly, it is a physical embodiment of human hope: the idea of waiting day in, day out, come rain or snow, for something you want, something you think you want, though the actual act of waiting, of
interacting with the people around you, may change the very nature of your desire.
“The Line” explores the many ways in which individual hopes clash against one another and change with the passage of time, as well as the ultimate power of hope to transform people’s lives.
CSM: The novel is written from five distinct voices, four family members each with their own perspective of the events, and the communal line. Which voice was the hardest to write and why?
Grushin: They all presented different challenges. The grandmother’s voice was the most challenging from a technical point of view because it was indirect: she has no narrative of her own but is always overheard or
even dreamed about by the others.
Alexander’s story allowed me more stylistic experimentation: he is prone to fantasies, not to mention a few episodes of drunkenness, and his frequent sojourns into the in-between states of consciousness were fun to write.
Anna’s story was the simplest, perhaps, and the challenge there was to make sure that her parts of the book were not proceeding at a different, slower pace than the rest.
In general, whenever you have several voices there is always a danger that the reader will prefer one particular voice to the others and will want to stay with that character, so the main challenge, I suppose, was an overall one of making each voice distinct from the others and exciting in its own right.
CSM: Returning to the grandmother, how hard was it to blend her voice into the other stories so that it would complement rather than disrupt the flow?
Grushin: The grandmother, Anna’s mother, is the only character in the book who faces back, not forward. Maya was a prima ballerina before the Revolution, and has secret memories of a beautiful, bright past, as well as a mysterious connection to the returning composer. I wanted to portray her as someone living entirely in the past, and a past frequently misremembered or perhaps misrepresented. The trick was to tell her story in a continuous fashion without ever giving her a voice of her own: instead, her voice slowly seeps into the others’ dreams, is overheard through the walls, is mistaken for a neighbor’s radio, and so on, almost like the voice of a ghost.
I loved writing her bits, loved the technical challenge involved. I don’t think I’d ever be interested in telling a simple linear story in a simple linear fashion, as it would be boring for me as a writer. And, to be honest, when I write I don’t worry about how challenging it might be for a reader-I do what feels right for the story.
In Maya’s case, if it seems confusing to the reader at first, it’s intentional, as Maya is hidden from the other three family members as well: these sections are supposed to have the feel of dreams, surprising explosions of fairy-tale beauty and color in the midst of drabness. As the book goes on, Maya’s story gradually does come into its own, becoming more and more crystallized.
CSM: Could you talk about how community and friendship come into play not only in the formation and rules of the line but in the politics of the society in the novel?
Grushin: There are basically two opposite ideas that I was interested in exploring in my book. One is a notion of human loneliness: we can never truly know someone, not even someone we live with, and each and every one of us is essentially alone.
This premise is illustrated by my family of four. Each of them has his or her secrets; each of them sees the same events in an entirely different way. Their points of view, in the beginning of the book, are strictly segmented, isolated. Then the line comes into their lives, and with it, an idea of togetherness.
I envisioned the line as a system of mirrors: each character is a distinct mirror reflecting his or her own corner of the line from his or her own angle; yet gradually the reflections begin to merge into a coherent whole. The boundaries between their voices start to blur; their lives become less isolated; they are forced to form relationships, first with the strangers in the line around them, then, often through the mediation of these strangers, with each other. And of course there is a political aspect to the concept of togetherness, just as there is a political aspect to my exploration of change and hope.
This is not just any community; it’s a community that forms in the face of repression. On some basic level, this story, of hoping, of waiting, could have been set anywhere-say, waiting in line to audition for “The American Idol”-but the Soviet setting allowed me to explore additional aspects of oppression, danger and trust, and how the darkest times can bring out the worst and the best in ordinary people. Some will betray their fellow men; some will risk their freedom and lives to help one another.
Historically, the sense of community among like-minded people, the whole subculture of the so-called kitchen conversations, was very important in Russia, and it helped people through the worst times in Soviet history. This background lends drama to the universal story in “The Line.”
CSM: You are a fairly young writer. Which of your contemporaries do you admire and wish people would read?
Grushin: To be completely honest, I tend to read writers long dead. Some years ago, I embarked on a rather ambitious project: to read the whole of world literature in chronological order. I am still perusing Virgil. At my current pace it will probably take me another 200 years to get to the 20th century. I do, of course, read a living writer now and then, and I can mention a few names: David Mitchell, Jeff Talarigo and Paul Lafarge from my generation, and, from the older generation, John Banville, John Crowley, James Lasdun and Steven Millhauser. These are all wonderful writers.
CSM: You mentioned in another interview that as a child you were prone to retrospection and on your 13th birthday had wrote, “My life is halfway over, and I’ve achieved nothing.” What is your proudest accomplishment so far and what would you still like to accomplish?
Grushin: I’m afraid I still feel the same way I did at 13, except now my life really is halfway over. I suppose my proudest accomplishment so far is writing in a language not my own. But I would still like to accomplish absolutely everything. There are so many books I want to write.
CSM: What advice do you wish someone had given you when you started writing?
Grushin: None, really. I discovered everything about writing on my own, through reading and writing. I’ve never taken any writing classes or seminars, never been in any writing groups, never considered getting an
MFA. I do like reading books on writing, to learn how others do it and what works for them in terms of craft and daily writing rituals. In the end, though, I’m glad to have made both my own mistakes and my own
For information on Connections Fall literary events, call 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 or visit the Connections website.
Excerpt from “The Line” by Olga Grushin
“…Of course, on any other day, she would hardly consider wasting her
time waiting for God knew what. Today, though - today was different;
today, she realized suddenly, she wanted to be surprised; felt entitled
to a surprise, in truth. Making up her mind, she hurried down the line,
blinking at the snow; the descending sun made things bright and hazy,
breaking the city into blinding triangles of chill and brilliance. She
took her place at the end. A cake would be lucky, she mused-she loved
the anticipation of a sweet mouthful traveling down her tongue,
narrowing the whole universe to a pinpoint of one flaking,
sugar-sprinkled moment …”