I read Lara Vapnyar’s first novel, Memoirs of a Muse, when it came out in 2006. At the time, the Russian-American author who, by her own admission, did not even dream of being a writer just a few years earlier, was still struggling to find her identity as a creator of fiction and a fairly recent transplant to New York City. I fell in love with her protagonist Tanya, who finds her vocation in becoming a companion to a prominent novelist, but soon comes to be disillusioned with him and the fabulous NYC life.
Vapnyar wrote with grace and economy; impressed by her attention to detail and the ability to fully inhabit her characters, I picked up all of her subsequent books and read them sometimes twice over. She has penned six in all: two short story collections and four novels, the latest of them, Divide Me By Zero, to be released in October by Tin House Books. A famous and award-winning writer, Lara might now identify closer with that man of letters character from her first novel. She is beloved by critics, her MFA students at Columbia, and by the editors at the New Yorker where she publishes often. Her work still deals with the immigrant experience and the complexities of the writing life.
I spoke to Lara, my fellow immigrant from Moscow, about turning her pain from a dissolving marriage and the loss of her mother into her fourth novel, and about her love of teaching and how it morphed into something unprecedented—a new form of couples counseling based on creative writing technique. We conversed in Russian, as Lara, who writes freely in English, still prefers to speak in our native language. I translated our exchange as faithfully as I could.
The Rumpus: You came to the US at twenty-two, with a degree in Russian Language and Literature. Did you write fiction at the time?
Lara Vapnyar: Never even tried it. When I arrived in America, I was pregnant and not feeling well. Since I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to learn something. My husband was a programmer, and everybody said that was where the money was, so I started learning a programming language. I’d spend my whole day working on some code, and then my husband would return from work and say, “I could write this in thirty minutes.” I felt incredibly stupid. So I abandoned coding and decided to study English instead—by reading and watching movies. This continued when I became a stay-at-home mom. I was very lonely; all of my friends stayed behind in Moscow, and I had almost no one to talk to. That’s why I started to write, I think—to articulate my thoughts.
Rumpus: You started working on your first stories about Russian immigrants?
Vapnyar: I did not even dream of writing fiction, what with my poor English at the time. But for some reason, I thought I could write a screenplay. I’ve been in love with movies my whole life and always wanted to do something in film. In the 90s, you could buy screenplays to famous movies on the street; they sold them printed out into thin booklets. I bought those and studied them closely, then wrote my own. It was a children’s adventure comedy—not a bad one, actually, I still like the idea. Then I bought a book called How to Sell Your Screenplay, and sent email pitches to Hollywood companies that produced comedies, all four hundred of them. Forty of them responded and asked to read the screenplay, and four of those forty called me to say they liked it. It’s been more than twenty years, but one of the producers still reaches out to me once in a while to say she’s hoping to find the money someday.
Rumpus: How did you make the transition to fiction?
Vapnyar: While I was working on the screenplay, I met some people who did the same, and they introduced me to an agent. He said that selling a screenplay was tough and suggested that I write a short story. At first, I was scared: it seemed to me that writing fiction entailed a much better command of English. But he liked the text and encouraged me to write some more. Nowadays, it takes me at least eight months to write a short story. At the time, I wrote two in a week.
Rumpus: Was the agent able to sell them?
Vapnyar: He was! My first short story was published in the literary magazine Open City, run by Thomas Beller and Joanna Yas. By that time, I found a job teaching basic English to old Russian people who needed to pass the naturalization test, and it turned out that I liked teaching. A friend told me that you could get a PhD in comparative literature at CUNY, which cost practically nothing. With that degree, I’d be able to teach college students, so I applied and was accepted. There, I had two incredible professors, André Aciman and Louis Menand. They were both true intellectuals, and I was in such an awe of them that I kept my mouth shut during their lectures so as not to risk sounding dumb. But, gradually, I gathered some courage and showed one of my short stories to Aciman because he was a brilliant fiction writer. When he told me he wanted to meet after class to talk about my writing, I ran to the bathroom, locked myself in one of the stalls, fell to my knees, and started praying, “Please, God, make him like my story.” He liked it and encouraged me to show it to Menand, who was a staff writer at the New Yorker.
Rumpus: And the New Yorker published it?
Vapnyar: They did. I was happy, though probably not as elated as a normal American writer would be. I knew that to be published there was great, but I didn’t have any idea as to what a huge honor it was. I received a call from the editor—they actually called writers who made their debut at the magazine—who said that I’d wake up famous soon. What happened after was funny, because the first piece of feedback I got was when I went to a gallery with a friend, and there were two ladies looking at artwork. I overheard one of them saying, “Did you notice, The New Yorker fiction section is becoming worse and worse? That Russian story—such crap!”
Rumpus: Ouch! Hearing that probably hurt a lot?
Vapnyar: It did. It still does. One of Chekhov’s characters—I think it was Trigorin from The Seagull—said something to the effect of, “When you’re praised, it makes you happy, ever so slightly. But when you’re criticized, it’s very painful.” I find it to be true. When I receive accolades, it makes me feel good for maybe an hour, but when I read something scathing about my work, it stings for a month.
Rumpus: Did you get to finish your PhD?
Vapnyar: I passed all of the exams, but writing a thesis turned out to be a problem. In the end, I received a Master of Philosophy degree—something in between a Master’s and a PhD.
Rumpus: Your writing career took off after that publication in the New Yorker—you got a book deal right away. Since then, you have sold four novels. For the latest, Divide Me by Zero, you drew on some of your most painful experiences.
Vapnyar: I was going through a very difficult divorce just as my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died four months after the diagnosis. I was so depressed that I thought I would never write again. Or that if I ever wrote again, I would have to say something very important about death and love—and I did. This novel is my most intimate and biographical. I would say it’s a dark comedy that is part classic Russian novel, part Soviet math textbook, and part American self-help manual.
Rumpus: By writing it, you were able to help yourself to make sense of your loss. Is this what inspired your idea of couples counseling based on creative writing?
Vapnyar: It started with a class for Columbia MFA students. I was teaching them how to write sex scenes and asked them to compose one scene from two points of view—their own and that of their partner. Afterwards, some students came up to me and said that this exercise helped them understand their partner better. One of them even said that she had been thinking of divorce, but after completing the scene she came to understand her husband’s perspective. They went on to stay together and even had a child. I started thinking, writers have this unique set of skills with a potential to help people. I’m not a psychologist and will not in any way try to get onto psychologists’ territory, of course. But I know how to teach people create characters and to imagine what they feel and think about, in vivid detail. When I do this, it turns out that what I imagine is actually pretty close to reality—that’s why this technique works. I decided to try it not with creative writing students, but with people who have nothing to do with writing. Some of my friends and their friends came, and the results I got were incredible.
Rumpus: How does this work exactly?
Vapnyar: This method works best with scenes where couples fight: she says this, and then he says that, and then it escalates, and so on. It goes without saying that it is not applicable to serious problems, such as spousal abuse. It only works when there is miscommunication involved, and writing a scene of a fight from your partner’s point of view makes you understand him or her better. For example, you think that your husband said something to hurt you, but then you write it out and analyze it, and realize he has a different motivation. I’m not sure that “counseling” is the correct word for what I do—I haven’t come up with a name for it yet. But I do hope that I’ll be able to market it as a service and make it into an actual business.
Rumpus: What’s your primary motivation in this case—helping people, earning money, or developing something novel?
Vapnyar: All of the above. I love teaching. When I help people learn something they didn’t know before or figure out a problem they had, I get a high from it—it’s like a high you get from controlled substances. To invent something that nobody ever thought about before would be great, of course. And money—writers don’t make a lot of it, so it would be wonderful to complement my income.
Rumpus: You are also working on a screenplay for one of the streaming giants right now. Your dream of doing something in the film industry came true.
Vapnyar: It definitely did, although I’m not allowed to talk about it in detail. When my novel Still Here came out, my agent showed it to her friend, a Hollywood agent, and he started to introduce me to producers. Even though most of them liked the novel, they said it would be difficult to put onto the screen and asked me if I had something else. My agent then sold options to two different projects. One is an adventure comedy that is loosely based on a short story of mine. The other is a drama about immigrants and maybe a bit of a thriller because the plot involves a murder. I’m currently working on the pilot which has a very complex structure. I’m amazed that I even signed up to do it! But it’s often more enjoyable than writing fiction: I don’t have to agonize over every word. I see the picture in my mind and transfer it to paper.
Photograph of Lara Vapnyar by Mark Gurevich.