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How Gary Shteyngart's pandemic pod inspired a novel about friendship

Gary Shteyngart's previous books include<em> Super Sad True Love Story, Little Failure</em> and <em>Lake Success. </em>
Brigitte Lacombe
Penguin Random House
Gary Shteyngart's previous books include Super Sad True Love Story, Little Failure and Lake Success.

Some people got into baking bread during the pandemic. Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel instead. Our Country Friends is about eight friends riding out the COVID pandemic in the country home of a Russian-born American writer.

"This was sort of my pandemic project," Shteyngart says. "I wanted to write a book about friendship."

The novel mirrors Shteyngart's own pandemic experience, in which he hunkered down in upstate New York with his wife, his child and two close friends.

New York's Hudson Valley holds a particular significance to Shteyngart. Growing up as the child of Soviet immigrants in Queens, N.Y., he struggled to learn the language and was bullied relentlessly. Occasionally his family would leave the city to visit a bungalow community of other Russian immigrants upstate, and he'd feel at home.

"For me, upstate and small upstate cabins are a kind of holy grail," Shteyngart says. "It's when I close my eyes and think of something that's beautiful and safe."

In the novel, the friends taking refuge together during the pandemic are mired in drama. There are trysts, betrayals and a social media campaign trashing a famous member of the group. In real life, Shteyngart's experience in a pandemic pod was powerful for other reasons.

"I almost felt like this is why I came to America in a way was to make groups of friends like these," he says. "I didn't belong as a child, but as an adult, or as a young adult, [I found] the groups that would make me feel like I belong here, like I am an American."

Interview highlights

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

On how the pandemic and political crisis reminded him of growing up in the Soviet Union

I would say that in some ways, the pandemic felt like normality to me because I've been so hardwired to expect the worst that when both the pandemic and the political crisis that overtook America around that time, when both of those things converged, I thought, "Oh, I'm home, I'm back!" ...

Before I was writing Our Country Friends, which is set during the pandemic, I was working on a funny, dystopian novel about a future in which half of Manhattan has been overtaken by New York University, NYU, and is now run as this kind of gigantic city-state of its own. It was funny, but once the pandemic and the political crisis began to converge, I began to think, Oh my God, there's this far worse tragedy than this NYU-dominated future, and I began to think about what it meant to live during the pandemic, which, as I was saying, did feel very familiar to me.

On the changes people made during the pandemic

I think we were trying to shield ourselves from the pandemic, but we were also trying to discover who we were, both as individuals and as groups.

I think that this pandemic has made people reconsider their lives. I know so many people who have changed careers, who have changed their conception of themselves and sometimes their conception of themselves in relation to their friends. I see this and hear about this all the time. I think we were trying to shield ourselves from the pandemic, but we were also trying to discover who we were, both as individuals and as groups.

On why many of the book's characters are immigrants

This is a very much "write what you know" scenario. My wife is the daughter of immigrants. My mentor, the Korean American writer Chang-Rae Lee, was born in Seoul. And I would say at least way more than half of my friends are also of immigrant backgrounds, roughly the same kind of people that populate this book — Korean Americans, Gujarati Americans, other folks from the subcontinent. So six out of eight characters were not born in the United States, and I think that kind of mirrors the life that I live in. And I think it's a kind of new kind of novel for people who don't live in communities that are predominantly native born, white American.

On how the pain he suffered as the result of a botched circumcision he had at age 7 affected the tone of his novel

The surgery was botched from the beginning. I suffered a month of infection. It hurt to urinate for years, and quite a bit later last year in the middle of the pandemic, toward August/September, without getting too graphic about it, the surgery's mistakes reasserted themselves and I ended up having a second surgery in which a nerve in that very sensitive region was cut. ... But what happened was that I went through unbelievable amounts of pain for about half a year, if not more, and I saw maybe 20 different doctors, including urologists, of course, but hypnotists as well and psychiatrists and plastic surgeons. But throughout all this pain, I was starting to lose my mind because some of the drugs that were prescribed created hallucinations, a mental disequilibrium. And in the meantime, I was trying to finish my book. I was going to finish Our Country Friends. ...

There's going to be no botched circumcisions in this novel, I can guarantee that right now, but in the middle of all that, the tone of the book, I think, began to change a little bit. The humor hopefully stays through the rest of the whole book, but about a quarter toward the end, I think the pain and the feelings of mental collapse, verging on on suicidal feelings, because the pain was so great and I've never felt anything like that before in my life, all of that began to infect the book and I think influenced its outcome a little bit as well.

On how fake news in America reminds him of the Soviet Union

The point of the media and the Soviet Union was to make you believe what was clearly false before your very eyes, and Orwell wrote about that beautifully in 1984 and in other books. And I think when you turn on certain channels in the United States, it is clear both to the persons pronouncing the lie that he or she is lying, and then it's just a question of training the audience to believe that lie as well. So for me, I always thought that in the end, after 1991, after communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, that Russia would become more and more like America, develop a democracy, the rule of law. But ... America became more and more like Russia, I think, in the last four or five years, [it became] a country where you can't really believe what you hear and what you see.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.