The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Jeff Parker

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I’ve known Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets (HarperCollins Canada, 2014), since 1999, when we both attended the Summer Literary Seminars in Russia. That first year we were students, but we kept going back, Jeff ultimately becoming co-director of the program, myself assistant director. We spent approximately 4-6 weeks together each summer in St. Petersburg for nearly a decade.

I knew Parker was working on a book about Russia during our time there. That multiyear project became a book about his relationship with his friend, Igor. Over the years, Igor became a friend of mine, too, as Parker slowly integrated him into the social aspects of the program. It was difficult to miss Igor. He’s a large dude with a shaved head, and his hands are big enough that he can probably palm a watermelon. Igor speaks English very well, though he drops an f-bomb into nearly every sentence that comes out of his mouth. During our time together in Russia, not even Parker knew that Igor would become the lynchpin to Where Bears Roam the Streets, though looking back, it makes complete sense that he did.

All this is to say that I was really looking forward to reading Where Bears Roam the Streets. I wanted to maybe relive some old memories, but more than that, I wanted to see how Parker handled insights into a country that I’d spent a lot of time in too, and that I’d had difficulty understanding.

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The Rumpus: Parker, let me begin by saying that Where Bears Roam the Streets is excellent. On a sentence level, on a macro level, it’s very thoughtful, smart, interesting, and funny. This may be tough, but now that you have a bit of distance from the project, what kind of book is this? One cruddy review purported that it was meant to be a travel guide, which, for me, sure, you’re in a foreign place, and you call it “A Russian Journal,” but it’s not a travel book. The book jacket blurb is cool and romantic, “The book became the story of Igor, as a metaphor for Russia, in crisis. While Igor is not a model Perestroika generation man nor some kind of Putin-era everyman, he is, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, a man for his time and place.” But, I’m not sure Igor is as singular a character as the Dude. I don’t mean that we aren’t all unique and special, etc. for the record: Igor is unique and special. But you might find a few Igor-types in a random subway car, no? So, for me, the story became—and quite late in the book, I felt it strongest in the epilogue, I think—a coming of age of Igor. Could you get on board with something like that?

Jeff Parker: Hey Tom, yes, at least one reviewer hated this book with a passion. That wasn’t altogether surprising, especially given the fact that that reviewer was a Russian émigré. The book tends to focus on the problems of Russia, though, at the same time, I hope that it communicates at least in some sense, the really great things about the place and the people: the intensity of friendships, the capacity for love, etc. etc. What kind of book is it? I hope that it’s a humane one.

Igor makes for an interesting case because he possesses a lot of the characteristics of the typical man on the street, but he is a totally unique dude (note lowercase “d”) in a lot of ways. He is really incredibly smart and thoughtful. He has an amazing knack with languages and, while this may sound a little cheesy, he has a great heart. I’ve never seen a character quite like him in the literature on Russia, and his is, for me, and I think for many others there the story (at least a story, a prevalent story) of Russia over the past 20 years.

In that sense, it’s definitely a coming of age. Igor, who is a few years younger than I am, was born and spent his childhood in the Soviet Union, became an adolescent and young man during perestroika, and came of age in Putin’s Russia. He is exactly the right age to have grown up with the socio-political ground constantly shifting under his feet. He tried everything that Perestroika/capitalism had to offer—granted he didn’t always go about it in the most sensible, strategic ways—and now his life is what it is, as the epilogue describes… 

Rumpus: Yes, Igor in the epilogue: still a somewhat dim landscape, but there’s some hope there, too, which, as a reader, I appreciate. I think that was a good way to close the narrative. It got me thinking about my own view of Igor, and I suppose my view on Russia, including recent events in the Ukraine, the military, gender issues, etc. etc. As a foreigner, it’s difficult to place Igor and his extraordinariness—I mean on a purely objective level. I suppose the social scientist in me wanted more details, so I wrote to some of our mutual Russian friends to see what they thought.

The first of these friends worked with us for many years and would like to remain anonymous (hint: a famous pop star signed the hood of her car with a Sharpie). Here’s what she said.

Anonymous: To be honest, to me Igor was initially more of a typical Russian dude prone to beer-drinking, football-watching, Zenit (Saint Pete football club)-supporting, using curse words whenever possible, a bit abrupt at times, yet with a good sense of humor, not paying much attention to his looks, wearing his hair the way most characterizing a Russian man with pretty sloppy-average style in clothes absolutely lacking character… Even though I do not know much about his life currently and have no idea what kind of existence he leads at the moment, how respectful he is to the seniors, whether is a nice and caring partner for a girl beside him, how nice he is to stray animals, if he recycles;))) However, once I learnt he picked up an acting job and became quite determined at mastering it and dedicated himself completely to it, I started respecting him SO damn much!!!!!!!!! I know it takes guts to change the life in such a dramatic way, to turn everything from top to bottom in order to pursue possibly a dream or just a completely new occupation/career not promising much at the very start.

So, to me, Igor is a somewhat inspirational figure here. Is there anything surprising about hearing this?

Parker: Our anonymous friend has uncovered the holes in my research. But I can confirm that Igor is nice to stray animals and he does not, under any circumstances, recycle. Beyond that, I agree with her. It does take guts to change your life in such a way in your mid-thirties. The very fact that Igor, who worked as a barman and kitchen worker for most of his life, decided to become an actor blew me away. I know that he doesn’t see it like this exactly, but what struck me was that he’d been playing a role in all these stage productions that have constituted the movie Life in Russia over the past twenty years, and here he was giving into the fiction and artifice of it all. There’s inspiration in that. Why not

Rumpus: Next I talked to our longtime friend and Soviet émigré, also the founder of the Summer Literary Seminars, Mikhail Iossel. Any predictions as to what he said?

Parker: I can only imagine. He is perhaps not Igor’s biggest fan.

Rumpus: (reading):

Iossel: I said, facetiously, at his book launch in Montreal, that it would take an American to find that guy (Igor) fascinating; but I kind of also jocularly-but-also-seriously meant it. He is remarkably ordinary to me; I grew up surrounded by guys like that: guys that just move along with the flow of life, taking whatever it dishes out and trying not to get themselves thrown out of the mainstream of ordinary Russian life. He wants a better life, and he makes some half-hearted efforts to do something financially promising, but it never quite pans out. I mentioned to Parker that I understand where he was coming from: let’s suppose I were to come to the US from Russia in Parker’s situation, having access to some of the leading American intellectuals and writers (the equivalents of (Mikhail) Iampolsky or (Andre) Zorin or (Mikhail) Epshteyn or Arkadii (Dragomoshchenko) or (Alexandre) Skidan or many others)—well, I might not want to draw conclusions about America by talking to the likes of Philip Lopate or Francine Prose or people like that, you know: I would want to attach myself to the salt of the earth, ordinary Americans, perfectly ordinary: a gas station attendant, let’s say. What would be different, though, with regards to my relationship with that gas pump guy and Parker’s with Igor, is that within a very short time I would certainly know the guy’s political leanings, his views on race, on democrats and republicans, and so on. Inevitably. Igor and Parker don’t really have those conversations. To Igor, the people ruling the country are a given, and objective reality, like rain or hail or drought—you just need to adjust; it’s not anything you could even remotely influence, so why care.

For me there never was anything remotely interesting to talk to the guy about. But he is in a way an interesting guy, the ultimate survival, and also into all kinds of survivalist pursuits: paintball combat and so on. Have expended a lot of ingenuity and energy to avoid army draft, he compensates with such manly pursuits as paintball and of course the ultimate guy’s guy things as banya and fishing.

In summary, he represents a highly recognizable type of young Russian man in post-Soviet society, although one interested in contacts with foreigners more than an ordinary guy: he’s a recurrent bartender at expat-frequented establishments. He strives for a better life, but he doesn’t know what his version of it would be.

Parker: Yes, that last line there perhaps catches best my sense of Igor. Or maybe he does know what the best version of that life would be and he’s just unsure how to attain it. Frankly I don’t know. After the 2008-09 crisis, the time period at the heart of this book, even while he was becoming an actor, he seemed to my slightly (I don’t want to say “broken” because that’s not it) diminutivized—he wasn’t the larger-than-life figure who we met in 1999 anymore. After you’ve tried so many paths and schemes always only to run into some socio-political block like an insurmountable bribe, after you’ve reinvented yourself three, four times, wherefrom do you take the energy to try a new path, to reinvent yourself yet again? On the other hand, maybe he just seemed like this because by that point he was much more my friend than he was a figure representing the story of Russia.

Rumpus: Misha also said, “The book itself is very fluidly and gracefully written; I believe it to be the best non-scholarly book on Russia in years.” To me, there are few higher compliments. Congratulations.

Parker: That’s the highest compliment.

Rumpus: Here’s a section that really resonated with me: “A young man of military age is presented with an interesting decision: go into the military or evade it, usually through bribes and falsifying of medical documents. Either way, the process is an indoctrination—into cruelty and violence on the one hand, into corruption on the other. It seemed to me that this explained so much.”

I’m not sure I ever spoke about military duty with Sasha (Skidan) or Dmitri (Golynko-Volfson), etc.—did you have a chance to hear how the literati dealt with military duty? Did you ever talk with anyone else who recognized this predicament as an indoctrination or otherwise?

Parker: I think the literati and intelligentsia are like anyone else. Some of them go and some of them find their way out of it. Skidan served in, if memory serves, a submarine off the coast of Vladivostock. This idea about conscription being a two-way indoctrination obtained in my discussions with Ella Polyakova of Soldiers Mothers in St. Petersburg. She’s a passionate human rights advocate in Russia and believes that many of the country’s social ills stem from mandatory military service.

Rumpus: I know this book was difficult for you to finish—even as you were working on it, I got the feeling it was more difficult than most, if not all, of the other projects you’ve done. Do you think you were trying to do too much all at once? When did it finally gel? Was that when you were out swimming in the Black Sea? Can you talk about how this book took shape?

Parker: Oh, man, it didn’t gel. For a long time, I simply thought, What have I gotten myself into? But to a certain degree I guess you write about something because you don’t know what to make of it yet at the same time it ceaselessly intrigues you. And of course I was trying to do too much at once. I was trying to write about Russia but I didn’t (and don’t) trust myself. There’s too much untranslatability. How do you ever know a place? Through a character probably, through the people who you know who inhabit the place and how you’ve seen them behave. Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal was asking all the right questions fifty years ago yet not quite answering them, and many of the contemporary Russian books I’d read, while some were great and even important, didn’t capture the world I saw before my eyes when we were there all those years. The weird shape of the book emerged from this weird collection of intuitions or whatever you want to call them.

Rumpus: I know there’s a lot of content that didn’t make it into this book, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but what about the non-Igor content that did make it? The crises centers, activists, and war veterans, etc. What criteria did you use in your mind in determining what was relevant or significant enough to the story to be included? Asya, for instance, you compare Igor and this young feminist, and you do it in stronger ways than you do with others in the book. Can you talk about your compulsion to do so?

Parker: The book is in the end about Igor, but part of his story is how his disposition—his misogyny, his apoliticalness, etc.—is and is not present in others. I thought Asya was fascinating, but I don’t think that I necessarily compared them. The idea was more like: Igor’s view is sort of the dominant view, but here’s someone who’s living a life in deep conflict with that view. Of course, I was also aware that a lot of the book focuses on male experience, and Asya was a great character whose story tells about the female side. So in a sense the other characters in the book, like leftist activist Ilya Budraitskis and crusading Novaya Gazeta journalist Olga Bobrova, are those whose experience contrasted most drastically with Igor’s.

Rumpus: And, what the hell are you going to do with all of the interviews, excursions, journal entries, years of being in Russia, etc. etc. all of those gold nuggets you’ve got but didn’t get to use in this book? Does it feel differently to have that “wasted” content in a nonfiction project than it does with, say, chapters pulled from a novel-in-progress? Or, is that a part of refinement and editing, the old adage that what whatever you cut out remains in the story somehow, effectively in your mind, that “unused” content helping to shape a story and characters, etc., which may be total crap, and may be an even bigger pile of horse apples when you’re working on a nonfiction project?

Parker: Yeah, the first draft of this book was more than 500 pages. Which was way too much. I’m sorry to lose what I had to lose. There were others who I spent lots of time with whose profiles were left on the cutting room floor as well. One of the leading animal-rights protestors. A famous fashion designer. A young politician. A prominent gay-rights activist. The interviews that I did with the gay rights community in 2008 were very interesting. This was well before the recent stoking of endemic homophobia in Russia. At the time it was just a small collection of unknown activists who were severely beat down with regularity by the cops and had to come up with innovative protest strategies. Somehow it just didn’t fit in the context of a book about Igor, who isn’t homophobic. On the other end of the spectrum there were countless hilarious anecdotes and episodes involving Igor—you can imagine—that are leftovers, I expect, for future stories…

Rumpus: Can you share with us one funny anecdote or episode that didn’t make it into the book? For me, I might say, for instance, the late Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko asking a participant at the opening reception—she’d been in Russia for maybe eight hours—if he could watch her pee, or taking a walk early in the morning, jetlagged our first year, and so many people on their way to work with a bottle of beer in hand.

Parker: I completely forgot all those people walking to work with bottles of beer in hand. What was up with that? Well, beer wasn’t considered alcohol until a couple years ago. (Technically, it was “foodstuffs”.) Maybe that had something to do with it? One episode that didn’t make it into the book was being robbed by drunken police right across the Griboedov canal from where I met Igor. They were the most drunk cops I ever saw, yet, absurdly, in slurred speech, they were accusing us—Adam Levin and I—of being drunk in public when neither of us had had a sip. That wasn’t the only time I was robbed by the cops there, but it’s memorable because I had mistakenly left an envelope with a lot of cash from the ATM in my pocket and lost most of it.

Rumpus: When people ask you what they should do if they go to Russia, what do you tell them?

Parker: I tell them just go. Go to St. Petersburg. Go to Moscow. Go to Sochi. Go to Siberia. Even now. Go direct into the belly of the beast.

Rumpus: And, if you encouraged them to visit Lake Baikal, what advice would you have for them if they found themselves riding in that van on the way to Olkhon with Igor (Igor: still drunk from the night before, in the clothes he slept in, talking nonstop and cursing wildly).

Parker: And then definitely visit Lake Baikal. It’s one-fifth of the entire world’s fresh water supply. I feel a bit sorry for that tasty, endangered fish that lives there, but the scene itself is absolutely stunning. I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, however, that hung-over bus ride. But if one finds one’s self there, I would recommend drinking at least one full jar of pickle juice beforehand. It’s the best hangover helper in Russia now that the saltiest Georgian mineral water Borjomi is banned.

Rumpus: Borjomi, yes, that was some kind of magical elixir. But a jar of pickle juice? Man, you must have gotten on that kick during your latter years in Russia. To me, the best hangover cure, if you have the time to do it, is the banya. Incidentally, in preparation for talking with you today, I saunaed- and steam roomed-to-shower three times, replicating a trip to the banya as best I could. It felt excellent. You were my entree to the banya years ago in St. Pete, so, thank you—and I suppose thank you to Igor, too. The banya—and immediate relaxation, temporary distance from problems—is just one of many things I learned on our trips to Russia. In fact, I owe a lot of my growth as a person and writer to my time in Russia, to you, to Misha (Mikhail Iossel). What’s the biggest thing you’ve come away from this book with?

Parker: Well, the jar of pickle juice is essentially a Gatorade: electrolytes. Igor turned me onto that on. As for banya, you probably went to the banya with me more than anyone else from the West. I remember well apprenticing Igor’s birch-branch beating technique on your red ass. That was awkward huh? I miss it a lot though (the banya, not your red ass), and I’m planning to build one in my backyard in Amherst. Still, equating our sitting in the bathhouse and eating those salted squid rubber bands that the Russians call “Kalmar” and drinking beer with “growth as a person and writer” seems a bit of a stretch.

Rumpus: Let me approach it another way. Studies show that bilingual or multilingual individuals are more capable thinkers, they multitask better; their brains seem to work more efficiently. To me, spending time in other cultures does something similar to our sensibilities and values, how we approach tasks and life. You apparently drink jars of pickle juice now, and I have first-hand evidence of your beating naked people with birch branches—while these aren’t themselves wholly remarkable, I think they represent larger shifts within ourselves. Don’t you feel your outlook on life has evolved because of your travel in Russia? Can you give an example of some of the larger things? This is an extreme case, but for instance seeing that guy dying on the street in Krasnoyarsk, people moving about as if not much was out of the ordinary. Things like that change a person, don’t you think?

Parker: Oh yeah, for sure, going to Russia changed me completely. But not because of seeing dead bodies. I like how you put it: spending a lot of time out of the country does something to your sensibilities and values and how you approach tasks and life. I think that’s true. What’s harder is to put it in specifics, but I think it’s probably simpler than we might make it out to be: What first presents as difference can often be reduced to commonality. Okay, sure, as Tom Bissell says probably Russians are Chaos People and we are Order People. Yes, we don’t walk to work with bottles of beer in hand or beat our red asses with birch branches in scalding steam rooms. But in the end people care about their families and their friends, and they worry about what life means and they worry about death—granted they may care and worry in different ways than we do, but in the end it all comes down to that. So at the heart of it, it increases your capacity for empathy just like reading, it broadens the scope of what you can relate to in some way, shape, or form. Almost more importantly for me is the way that immersion in a wholly different cultural context changes the way you look at your own culture and at yourself—your hopes and dreams and beliefs. Selfishly speaking, that’s maybe the most important outcome, the becoming of a foreigner to yourself (I think a version of this is a Proust quote).

Rumpus: When you sit down to write something, do you approach fiction and nonfiction differently? Do you look forward to or fear one more than the other? Does one style feel more natural to you, for better or worse?

Parker: Fiction feels far more natural. Nonfiction was a big struggle for me actually. At times, I thought about asking my editor if I could just turn it into a novel. It probably would have been easier to write. If it ever got boring, if the narrative pace ever slowed, you could just have someone walk into the room with a bottle of vodka and an AK-47. Instead, Igor got a job in the middle of our trip to Siberia and we had to cut it short. We had initially hoped to go onto Vladivostock. So in nonfiction, your story has to roll with it, for better or worse.

Rumpus: Lastly, I want to ask about the title. It’s commentary on Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal—was that one of the initial impetuses of the book, possibly even way back? Also, I remember a few summers in St. Pete when there actually were performing bears on the street outside the Museum of Curiosities.

Parker: At a certain point I wanted to change the title to Igor in Crisis. But my editor felt strongly that WBRTS was the better title. The line came from something that Igor said to some flight attendants who refused his offer of vodka in Siberia: “Do you want the foreigners to think that bears don’t roam the streets and women don’t drink vodka in Russia?” You’re right, there are the occasional bears in the streets in Russia, but arguably not as many as there are bears in the streets in, say, Canada or Northampton. That Russia is a place where bears roam the streets is a cliché like most of our Western notions about Russia are clichés. So in a sense the title is more of a punching bag than a title.


Tom Burke received an MFA from UMass Amherst, and his writing has appeared in Tin House, Playboy, Hobart, and elsewhere. He Currently lives in Chicago and works for the Humanities Institute at Northwestern University. www.tsburke.com More from this author →