Earlier this year Elena Gorokhova had her memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, published by Simon & Schuster Canada. This book chronicles the first part of her life, prior to her emigration to the United States. I was keen to read Gorokhova’s story as I have an strong interest in Russian life and Russian literature. This memoir was yet another way to gain a peek into what it is like to come of age in a country that is, for me, cloaked in intrigue and even a little bit of mystery.
Owing much to late author, Frank McCourt, whose memoir-writing class Gorokhova attended at the South Hampton Writers Conference, she acknowledges his influence in the epilogue of her memoir. She says, “I owe the voice of this memoir to Frank McCourt, who taught me to look for the “hot spots,” those defining moments in life when something significant happens, and to dig deeply into the past. He compared memoir writing to walking on the beach: you can look at the surface of things, or you can take a metal detector, wait for it to beep, and go for the gold that’s deep inside. If you are thinking of writing a memoir, think of the hot spots in your life, arm yourself with a metal detector, and dig for the gold.”
I feel that Gorokhova really took this advice from McCourt to heart as she is very blunt in conveying her life, growing up in Leningrad. This bluntness is apparent in Gorokhova’s willingness to share not only the minutiae of day-to-day life, but the bigger and defining moments as well. Gorokhova came of age during the time between Nikita Khruschev’s Cold War “thaw” and Mikhail Gorbachev’s time of perestroika. While there is a directness in her writing, there is also a very engaging quality in Gorokhova’s voice that compels the reader forward.
Anneliese Grosfeld, marketing assitant at Simon & Schuster Canada, has been helping coordinate a blogger tour for Elena Gorokhova. I am fortunate to be included on this tour and I welcome Elena to my blog. She was gracious enough to answer some questions I had for her, upon finishing reading her book. Below follows our exchange:
Question: What was it that prompted you to write this memoir? (Put another way: Prior to taking the workshop taught by Frank McCourt, why did you have such a strong urge to share your story?) How long did it take you, from the time you began writing your story until the time your memoir was published?
Answer: I think I wrote this memoir to exorcise my demons. Chekhov once said, “If you are able not to write, don’t.” I wasn’t able not to write, I suppose, and over the years I kept writing bits and pieces about my life in Russia. The book came out in hardcover in 2010. My first published story, which later, in a revised form, became a chapter in the memoir, appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1996. Does this mean it took me over 15 years to write this book? It is a depressing thought, especially considering the fact that I’m now in the initial stages of writing a second book.
Question: The “voice” of your memoir is very matter-of-fact, even without emotion, in some instances. Is this the result of your Russian upbringing and, if so, what is about the Motherland that creeps into Russian lives to create this sort of demeanor or disposition? It appears there is a lack of hope. Were people raised to not consider the idea of hopes and dreams and that to do so is foolhardy? (Trying to understand more fully this idea you presented of “vranyo”.)
Answer: I think it is the opposite: people in Soviet Russia were raised exclusively on hopes and dreams of the approaching bright future of mankind and the decay and eventual death of capitalism. The problem was that those hopes and dreams, shoved down our throats since nursery school, were phony because they were based on lies. We weren’t living in the best country in the world, by any standard. The stores were getting emptier as the radio announced the biggest ever harvests of every crop; slogans hailed our respect for human dignity and human rights as censors banned every book that so much as hinted at the tens of millions who had disappeared into the Stalin’s camps of GULAG. My generation, born after Stalin’s death, was much less enthusiastic than my mother’s. Many of us were disillusioned and cynical, living the life of vranyo, or pretending: we knew the government lied to us but in order to survive we pretended – with the half of our souls that we let the outside see – to believe it.
Question: What do you think your mother managed to convey (during your upbringing) to you and your sister that would attribute to both of you achieving a different form of escape?
Answer: My mother was a great believer in the Soviet dream, and maybe it was that disconnect between what she preached to us and what we saw in real life that made both my sister and me look for an escape. Our adopting our mother’s enthusiasm, misdirected as it was, still gave us the strength to search for a better life.
Question: Has there been any time when you have had regret about leaving Russia?
Answer: I have nostalgic moments, like all immigrants – remembering my courtyard, my apartment’s smells of cooking, my friends – seeing my childhood through the rosy glasses of time. But I have never regretted leaving Russia.
Question: Has your nature or personality changed at all since moving to the United States? If so, would you share an example of how your move to America has affected you?
Answer: It was a happy discovery for me, after I came to the U.S., that hopes and dreams can be real and that they can be reached. It was good to feel less cynical, to see that public institutions are truly public, to see that if you vote in elections your candidate could win. It felt good to be among people who didn’t snarl at you, didn’t try to humiliate you, didn’t need to compete with you for a bottle of ketchup or a pair of tights. But the damage from being brought up in an insane, paranoid state remains. No matter how American I may become, it will always remain, I’m afraid.
Question: I am sure you have been asked this next question more times than you can count but, do you plan to write a follow-up to this memoir, covering your early years in America?
Answer: I’m working on my second memoir, my life in America. It’s still too early to tell what it will be, but it has to tackle the questions you’ve asked earlier, I think. So I’m so glad you asked them!
Question: In reading the section where you attempt to decipher the idea of privacy, I was really transfixed by this lack – both in words and in practice – within Russia. Was the concept of privacy – the availability of privacy – hard to adjust to, once you were living in the U.S.?
Answer: Privacy, as with all good things, was very easy to adjust to. (It is a lack of privacy, I think, that is so hard to get used to.) I always knew the concept of privacy from the few Western books that reached us, but living in the West has given it a name and a deeper understanding.