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#111 Keith Gessen

111 Gessen Headshot.jpg

Sometimes the line between memoir and novel is thinner than others.

Keith Gessen came on the show this week to discuss his latest novel, A Terrible Country. Drawing on his own experience caring for his grandmother in Russia after graduating from college, Keith originally set out to write a much bigger book than the one he ended up with. He had fantasies of covering aspects of Russian culture in between the narrative sections, and coming up with – essentially – the Russian equivalent of A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth. 

He won a fellowship to work out of the New York Public Library and had access to every book in the system and wrote with this vision of a large book in mind for the year he was in residence there. 

And then he sat down and read the result and was horrified to find that it bored him. In our conversation, we discuss how he pared it down into the final manuscript and the things that scared him along the way to a final novel. Keith is very open about his experience in a way that will make everyone listening remember that, even though you write a novel by yourself, you aren't alone in how scary it can feel to do it. This will be a great comfort if you feel any doubt about reaching the end. Let Keith be the voice from the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Discussed in Episode 111 with Keith Gessen:

  • Has been writing about Russia since the 90's, when Russia was not particularly interesting to a lot of readers. 

  • When he started novel, didn’t imagine it would be commercially successful but it was the story he needed to write. 

  • 2014 Russia invades the Ukraine, Russian interest blossoms. 

  • But his novel wasn’t finished. He was afraid he blew the timing. 

  • Then Russia hacked the US election and interest in Russia remains. 

  • “It was kind of an accident that it had taken place in Russia.”
    On his first novel, All The Sad Young Literary Men

  • Had a Cullman Center Fellowship at the New York Public Library

  • “As soon as I get to the library, this is going to happen for me.”
    On the illusion that research would drive the story. 

  • After the year fellowship at NYPL he had a 500 page manuscript he was excited to read. Printed it out. But it was unreadable. 

  • “I learned that my initial conception was dumb.”
    On the lessons of writing a 500 page unreadable manuscript. 

  • “Why is this so boring?”
    Figuring out how not to bring setting and exposition into a story.

  • “I guess it’s a trick.”
    Creating a narrative motivation for exposition dumps. 

  • “As a reader I have a very low boredom threshold.”
    Why it’s essential that your book is interesting to YOU first.

  • “I want my book to be true.”
    On how far from lived experience can you write fiction.

  • “It’s only when you’re lying that you go into these long explanations.”
    On how to tell fiction from memoir.

This episode sponsored by Listeners like you via the Secret Library Podcast Patreon