Sunday, November 4, 2007

Daniel Goldin Asks Ellen Litman To Explain, Explain

This interview was conducted by Daniel Goldin, the senior front list buyer for Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops.

Some questions for Ellen Litman, author of The Last Chicken in America; but first, some jabbering...

Welcome to my first posting on the Schwartz blog, The Inside Flap. I have worked for this group of independent bookstores in the Milwaukee area since 1986, and currently do a bunch of new book buying as well as some manager-y stuff.

I have been told that the key to blog success (blogwise) is linking to other blogs. To that end, I would like to do a shout out to Arsen Kashkashian at Kash’s Corner and Megan Sullivan The Bookdwarf in the desperate hope that they will then link here.

And a special yodel to my sister company, 8CR, who is bloggarific!

I referenced Megan in a Schwartz email newsletter (which you can read here) in which I extolled the virtues of Ben Percy’s short story collection Refresh Refesh. I’m glad to say it’s getting extremely good reviews everywhere, though not everybody likes the speculative stories. I thought it was great the way Percy did a lot of genre bending, yet always stayed connected via setting and themes.

We’re hosting Ben Percy at our Downer Avenue shop on Monday November 5th, along with another budding short story writer, Ellen Litman, author of The Last Chicken in America. The stories take place among the Russian Jewish immigrant community of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill, centered on one Ellen-like character named Masha. They are funny, provocative, innocent yet worldly, and filled with arresting details, such as the tidbit that her father has a different job in almost every story. And funny, did I mention that? I like funny.

Here, in modern epistolary form, is our Q&A, with one caveat. I lost my original questions and had to reconstruct them.

Goldin: I love your book so much. I hope you don’t mind that I am writing to you out of the blue with these questions. I got permission from your publicist!

Litman: Thank you for your message. I'm very excited about coming to Milwaukee to read at Schwartz! I spent a year in Madison and managed to take a couple of trips to Milwaukee while there, usually to go to readings. And I'm looking forward to meeting Ben Percy. I've been hearing a lot about him lately.

Thank you, also, for your kind words about the book!

Goldin: I’m assuming the book’s somewhat autobiographical. What’s true; what’s not?

Litman: I did live in Squirrel Hill, for 3 years. My family came to Pittsburgh from Moscow, in 1992, and my parents still live there. So, much of the book did come from my experiences of the early years there. I was 19 at the time we immigrated, a bit older than Masha, the main character in the book. But like her, I studied computers at the University of Pittsburgh.

Goldin: What led you to start writing?

Litman: For a while I was a computer programmer, not daring to even imagine I could write in English. (Though writing was what I always wanted to do.) Then, eventually, I signed up for a fiction writing class, and when that went well, I signed up for another one. And so on. I was living in Boston at the time, working for a software start-up. I would get up really early in the morning and write for a couple of hours before going to work. I thought, at first, that's what I would do: work as a programmer, write on the side. Except I was tired a lot and I was starting to realize that I needed to put more time into writing and that writing was becoming a lot more important to me than computer programming. So I followed my teachers' advice and applied to MFA programs.

Goldin: What was the inspiration for this collection of stories? Which story came first?

Litman: The first story I wrote about Russian immigrants in Squirrel Hill actually didn't make it into the book. It was called "Engagement" and I wrote it in the first person plural (inspired by The Virgin Suicides, which I love!). It was my first published story. But in the end I had to leave it out. It was covering the same territory as some other stories in the book, and these other stories were doing it better.

Goldin: What was left out? What was changed? (editor’s note: I find that one gets very interesting answers to this question at readings. I learned that Audrey Niffenegger’s heroine in The Time Traveler’s Wife originally ended up institutionalized—who knew? Try asking it the next time you attend an author reading.)

Litman: There were some other stories that got left out. By the time I finished my MFA (at Syracuse), I had a version of this book ready. Then I had a couple of agents read it, and they pointed out that a lot of the stories felt too similar. So I had to rethink the whole thing. The following year (while I was in Madison on fellowship), I rewrote it. I ended up leaving out 3 stories and writing 4 new ones. Most of the new ones were about Masha, the main recurring character.

Goldin: What are you working on now? More stories or a novel or another hybrid?

Litman: I *am* working on a novel now. A "real" novel, which is to say, not in stories. And it's a whole new game, of course, and I feel like I'm floundering all the time, which I guess is normal. It's set in Moscow during the Perestroika years, so in the name of research I get to re-watch a lot of old Soviet movies.

Goldin: What was the glaring difference to you about life in the US versus pre-immigration, and in this, I'm looking for an unexpected answer, not, for example, that you used to speak in Russian.

Litman: Probably how different people looked. There were various ethnicities in Russia, too, but hardly any people of color. Also, you saw few people with serious disabilities. There seemed to be so many of them in America, it was kind of alarming. Of course, in reality, there had been just as many in Russia, but they were hidden. There was simply no place for them there, no way to go outside, no buses that could accommodate wheelchairs, etc.

Goldin: Who do you like to read a) living b) dead c) famous d) not so famous?

Litman: That's a tough one, because I always feel l'm missing so many. But I'll try:
a) George Saunders, Jeffrey Eugenides, Mary Gaitskill
b) Chekhov, Bulgakov, Edith Wharton, John Galsworthy
c) Philip Roth
d) Kelly Link, Gary Lutz

(editor’s note: While we and many independent bookstores carry works from the first nine authors, Mr. Lutz’s collection Stories in the Worst Way, seems to have come out from Knopf in 1996 and is now out of print—alas! For those like me that always need to know more, Mr. Galsworthy’s most famous book is The Forsyte Saga, and he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932.)

Goldin: What’s the best Russian book that hasn't been translated into English?

Litman: There's a book I read as a teenager and always loved. It's not even *that* well known in Russia, but among those who've read it, it has sort of a cult following. It's called The Road Disappears into the Distance, by Aleksandra Brushtein, and it's about a young girl growing up in pre-Revolutionary Russia, in a small town that's half-Russian/half-Polish, and gradually becoming aware of some heartbreaking realities around her (poverty, inequality, chauvinism) and what it takes to be a decent human being.

Goldin: Who do you think made the best French Fries in Pittsburgh?
a. Primanti Brothers (multiple locations, but only the Strip District is 24 hours)
b. Original Hot Dog (O's) in Oakwood
c. The Potato Patch at Kennywood Park
d. Someplace else
e. French fries are bad for you

It's kind of shameful to admit, but of the places you've listed, I've only been to Original. Once! What can I say, my parents don't eat out much even now, and as for me, it took me a while to get used to the idea. I think I used to buy cheeseburgers from McDonald's on campus. And coffee. No fries.

Ellen Litman teaches creative writing at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.
She will be appearing at the Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue, 2559 North Downer Avenue, on Monday, November 5th (2007) at 7 PM. Their phone number is 414-332-1181.


Justin Riley said...

Welcome to The Flap, Daniel! I hope this is the first of may postings.

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