Last week, I blogged about Elif Batuman, who just wrote a book about the love of Russian literature, The Possessed, (see here for the blog). This week, she's here to answer questions--about her breakfast routine with Jon Stewart, her fantasy of fixing livers, and her ideal reader.
Ilana, B&N: Some people I know have given up on literature because it’s fallen so far away from the heart of culture. Do you ever dream of alternative careers?
Batuman: Right--definitely the role of literature is changing. E.g.: At breakfast I used to read, but now I watch Jon Stewart; and whenever I spend the day [teaching] and get home in the evening, all I want to do is pour a glass of wine and watch a romantic comedy or a thriller. That said, I can't imagine "giving up on literature."
I started keeping a diary when I was four and wrote my first book when I was 7 (my father's incredibly kind secretary typed it for me on the office typewriter). I don't mean to make it sound like some kind of romantic "calling" - I think it's a confluence of coincidences from early childhood. My parents both worked really long hours (they were still medical residents when they had me), and I was an only child, so I was alone a lot. Books [were] a huge source of comfort and companionship.
[That said,] oddly, in the past few years, I've been fantasizing a lot about being a doctor! Like my parents!
…In the past few years, my med-school friends have become residents, and they *really help people*, a huge variety of people, in such immediate and concrete ways. It seems to me that doctors must experience their daily lives as [particularly] meaningful. One of my best friends in high school is now a surgical resident at Stanford. She gets up every morning at 5, rushes to the hospital, and starts transplanting livers using, like, a 6-armed robot operated with a joystick. Sometimes I find myself thinking, "That's what real life is - it's not sitting here stringing words together and trying not to play Spider Solitaire."
But, you know, life isn't just a matter of being alive (vs being dead or sick). And doctors are definitely not immune to self-doubt and feelings of futility (after all, death always wins in the end). In short, when I catch myself wondering whether I'm living my life all wrong, I just tell myself that the world needs both doctors *and* writers, so I should get back to work.
B&N: Do you write with an ideal reader in mind? What does that reader look or act like?
Batuman: There is a famous Nabokov line, "I write for myself in multiplicate," which I always used to think sounded incredibly pompous/ cynical – but now that you ask this question, I realize I also write for myself. I try to write what I would enjoy reading - which I think is what a lot of writers must do, since the reason one wants to become a writer in the first place is to sort of simultaneously repay the debt and get in on the game of all the books that brought one pleasure and comfort during the vicissitudes of youth.
Sometimes of course I need to imagine a reader who *isn't* me - e.g. if I'm wondering how much background to provide about something I already know about. Then I usually pretend I'm addressing one of my friends who doesn't know about this particular thing - i.e., a smart person who is well-disposed towards me, and just needs the bare minimum of information to keep going without getting confused.
While writing The Possessed in particular, I also occasionally tried to write for my editor's mother. My editor would periodically tell me, "I want this to be a book my mother will love!" This was mostly to get me to remove words like "overdetermination" and "topos" - he would be like, "my mother would totally know what you mean, but she wouldn't *know* that she knows." I've never met my editor's mother, but I imagine her as a very kind, very smart person who finds academic language off-putting.
B&N: You teach at Stanford. Are you a tenure-track professor there, and do you want to be? Why? Why not?
Batuman: No, I've never gone on the academic job market or applied for any tenure-track jobs. In short, if I were to land a tenure-track job now, [that work would take all my time].
I feel lucky to have the job I have now at Stanford, which is part time (25%), and combines very few downsides with numerous upsides - e.g. a feeling of connectedness to the university, some contact with a small group of students (which is fun), a small but reliable salary, access to the university library, etc. - and I still get to see some of my former professors and classmates. All these things are wonderful. But a full-time academic job is not something I'm interested in right now.