After writing three critically acclaimed novels, Gary Steyngart turned to memoir. Little Failure, published this month, is an unsparing, often funny, account of Steyngart’s anxiety-ridden life from his early childhood in Russia, through his family’s immigration to Queens, New York, and ending with the publication of his first novel. Our reading of the memoir raised some additional questions, which Shteyngart answered via email.
You've written three successful novels. Why a memoir now, earlyish in your career?
Earlyish? I'm 41. That's 76 in Russian years.
You dedicate Little Failure to your parents and to your analyst. Readers will discover why. What does your analyst have to say about you honoring him this way?
He seemed pretty happy, although he doesn't really say much of anything. It's old-fashioned Freudian-like therapy where I just blather on and he keeps mostly quiet.
You describe a father frustrated by his failure to achieve his dreams who was abusive to you. Does he still believe the adage you quote in the book that "Not to hit is not to love"?
I don't think so. Now it's all about love without hitting.
Ok it was a mistake. But your father took you to see the film Emmanuelle: The Joys of a Woman? How old were you?
Old enough to know I was watching the best film ever made, young enough not to know what to do about it.
Like many Russian Jews who left the Soviet Union, your father idolized Ronald Reagan. Early on you did too. You describe your then self as a "ten-year-old Republican." While your father is still a conservative, you are not. What happened?
Oberlin College, that's what happened. Plus a general softening towards people. On my part.
You write that from your mother you inherited, among other things, "fanatic attention to detail." What traits did you inherit from your father?
Dark humor, love of nature.
You were severely asthmatic as a child growing up in Leningrad. Soon after you arrived in NYC at age 7 your symptoms seem to have disappeared. What's the explanation for that?
I think the asthma went away when I hit puberty, which I believe happens to many children.
You didn't entirely lose your Russian accent until you were 14. How much of a conscious effort did you make to speak American English like a native?
I practiced in the mirror like crazy. When I got a TV, I got a Texan accent (“Dallas” was on).
"Soviet vacationing was a rough, exhausting business," you write of your childhood trips to the Crimea in the 1970s. Where do you travel for fun these days?
To the Crimea of America. It's called Miami Beach.
You graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin College—despite the recreational excesses that earned you the nickname Scary Gary. Who coined the phrase and what episode inspired the coinage?
I can't fully recall who coined it. I think at some drunken party someone said, "Oh, look, even Scary Gary is here." A nickname was born.
Really? You never, ever had writer's block?
Sorry. I have many other problems, though.
What's your favorite photograph in the book? Why?
Maybe the one on the cover. Most boys would grab the steering wheel of the toy car, but I was scared out of my mind. I knew what the insurance rates in Leningrad were like.
Little Failure essentially recounts your life until the publication of your first novel. But in passing, jumping ahead, you several times mention your wife. You're married? Do tell.
I am married! To a woman! She's very nice!