Today I'm honored to be able to present an interview with author Elena Gorokhova, whose wonderful memoir A Mountain of Crumbs is now out in paperback.
1.Why did you decide to write this memoir? Why is it important for an American audience to learn about day to day life in Russia in the Soviet era?
I wrote this memoir to exorcise my demons. Chekhov once said, “If you are able not to write, don’t.” I wasn’t able not to write, I suppose, and over the years I kept writing essays about my life in Russia. I wanted the American audience to see how similar we all are, despite our different social systems and the ocean between us.
2. Why did you decide as a child to start studying English?
There was something captivating about the sound of English when I first heard it at age ten coming from a record called “Audio-lingual drills.” There was something mesmerizing: all those rolled R’s and soft L’s and the intonation that soared at the end of sentences. It was so foreign, so rarely heard. It sounded like music. It sounded like magic.
3. Who were your literary influences? Whom do you love to read?
I was brought up with books by Russian classics: Turgenev, Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. We all were; these writers were part of our high school curriculum. My friends and I craved contemporary English and American literature, but very few books from the West were allowed into Soviet Russia. We read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms because it was an anti-war novel. We read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath because that book, as Pravda put it, “exposed the ulcers of capitalism.” Now I read both in English and in Russian. I love to read poetry: from Ovid to Boris Pasternak to Iosif Brodsky to Billy Collins. I love the prose of Ursula Hegi and Mark Doty. I love to read both fiction and nonfiction by J.M. Coetzee, the finest writer alive.
4. Was there any subject you found particularly challenging to write about? How did you approach it, or did you avoid writing about it after all?
The most difficult chapter to write about was “Simple Past,” where my father dies. I was 10 and he was in the hospital (children were not allowed in Soviet hospitals). I made a call one day and heard the clerk say, “Died last night.” No matter how difficult that chapter was to write, it made me feel relieved. It felt as if a heavy rock had lifted off my heart.
5. What's your writing process? Do you write every day? Are you working on something now?
I would like to write every day, but I teach full-time. I write as often as my schedule allows. I’m now working on my second memoir about coming to the U.S., about the first year or two living as a lost stranger in a strange land.
6. Have you been back to Russia? How do you feel about the changes in the country since the fall of the Soviet Union and what do you think is the cards in the future?
I go back to Russia for a visit every year, and I have witnessed many changes. My country is no longer locked behind the Iron Curtain; people can travel abroad and read anything they like. Yet, in a way, it is the same country. The communist apathy has been replaced by the general apathy, allowing the Kremlin to consolidate their influence over the national media and discourse. The government controls all television and all but one radio stations. Russia’s governors are not elected but appointed by the president. The new generation of Russians are too busy traveling and making money to pay attention to the freedoms being stealthily stolen away from them.
Ms. Gorokhova, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and best of luck with your next book. I can't wait to read it!