Harper Perennial

Author Boris Fishman On Immigration and Identity in Fiction

Boris Fishman (Photo credit: Stephanie Kaltmas)

Boris Fishman (Photo credit: Stephanie Kaltmas)

By Adam Vitcavage

Boris Fishman’s latest novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, is about a young Jewish-American couple that immigrates to the United States from Eastern Europe. (You can read my full review in March’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar.”)

While traveling abroad to participate in panels for the London Jewish Book Fair, Fishman was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his perspective on immigration, global affairs, and his new writing project about food.

Adam Vitcavage: You immigrated to America at a young age. You’ve also been in American longer than I have—I was born a year after you came to the country as a boy. Now, I’d say you’re probably more “American” than I am because, technically, you lived here longer than I. Whatever that means. What has it been like being an immigrant in America in 2017?

Boris Fishman: I’m more curious about your question than my answer. In what way do you feel less American than you imagine I do? My own condition on this is all over the place. Despite having very strong sympathies with their side, I don’t feel like one of the immigrants who are centrally affected by what’s going on in this country right now. But I couldn’t feel less “American” than you imagine me to. (Equally curious why you do.) Perhaps because I was born in another country—and continued to live in it, so to speak, emotionally and psychologically as I grew up in my family home here in the States; the immigration shouldn’t be dated to 9 years old but my post-college twenties, if that—I have very different values when it comes to certain things. More Russian values, more European values. The two areas in which I am proudest to be an American—now under attack—are its rule of law and civil liberties. There are many other issues where that’s less the case. But that doesn’t make me feel like an immigrant. It makes me feel like a foreigner.

AV: In a recent interview you said, “The problem with Russia reporting—just like, say, Iran reporting—is that the political tension makes non-political stories rare.” I’ve noticed a trend since the election that a lot of topics have become politicized in America. Do you feel American rhetoric is shifting in tat direction? Or are we just in a wave of tension right now?

BF: In the Soviet Union, we used to have three television channels. At American airports—I’m writing this at JFK—it feels like there’s only one: CNN. I travel a lot, and there’s no airport gate that isn’t besieged by poor Wolf Blitzer droning on about the same things over and over. (I have to imagine that the airport people are trying to split the difference between Fox and MSNBC.) Meanwhile, serious newspaper journalism—an indispensable safeguard, a civic necessity—is dying. And social media makes it too easy to gaze at no navel other than one’s own, and heap scorn on the other side that one would never dare heap were one doing it to someone’s face. So I’d say not so much that we’re becoming more politicized, but that the loudest among us seem to be eagerly, rapidly becoming stupider and lazier. Less interested in nuance. Less tolerant of dissenting opinion. Less thoughtful before we speak. More gratuitously provocative. More indulgent of our baser instincts. The dominion of social media is one of the reasons it’s so hard for me to feel at home here right now. This country is full of thoughtful, moderate people. But they’re not the ones shouting at us everyday. I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. I don’t have a television. But I still can’t escape it.

AV: You recently traveled to Estonia and Latvia to discuss creative life in America. What can you share about the arts and literature in Eastern European countries like those?

BF: There are lots of fascinating things going on there. Estonia, a country the size of your fingertip, is so much more technologically advanced than America is, it’s embarrassing. Riga, in Latvia, is an enchanted place—the best of Europe at a third of the price. Latvia is in a real nationalist mood, which leads them to cut off their noses to spite their faces politically, but on the other hand, it’s so nice to see a capital city untouched by the globalized sameness you see in so many places around the world, from Brooklyn to Moscow and even Tallinn, whose proximity to Finland is curse and blessing both. Latvian food, Latvian fashion designers, Latvian jewelry designers—you get a very strong sense of place. But there’s no way to be in either country without feeling the political shadow cast by Russia next door, and Trump’s abdication of NATO guarantees to the Baltic states. It takes real effort to see past, indeed, the swarming political questions.

AV: This novel explores themes of immigration, acculturation, assimilation, and more. Your first novel touched on similar themes What entices you to explore these topics?

BF: They’ve affected every moment of my life.

AV: When you’re crafting a story to tell, do you write for a particular audience? For Americans? For Jewish immigrants?

BF: I want to write the smartest possible book for the broadest possible audience. What this means is that in my books there are no sinners or saints; no easy feelings; no straightforward answers. Because those things exist in real life very rarely. But that ambiguity, ambivalence, and complexity can never be an excuse for vagueness, diaristic philosophizing, or gratuitous difficulty in the writing. I am fanatical about giving my reader as many tools as I can to help him or her make sense of the human mess I’m describing. So to the extent I imagine an audience, I imagine smart people reading carefully, and I thank them by making it as easy on them as I can. But I’m incapable of doing that by simplifying the story, by making the ideas simpler, the language homelier. And that isn’t for everyone. Someone told me recently, “I was really affected by your book, but I really couldn’t do anything else while I read it.” As far as compliments go, it was a begrudging one. For my part, I don’t want to write a book that would be simplistic enough to make full sense of while watching television or doing the laundry. That book would be a lie, as I see it. But some people read to escape into a better, or easier, world. And that’s okay. We all worship different things.

AV: Writers often embed truths about themselves in their own writing. Did you do that with your last novel? Did you discover anything surprising about yourself?

BF: Yes. I thought I was writing a novel about the many women of my mother’s generation who have given their lives to taking care of the men around them, and then I realized that in writing about an adopted child I was writing about myself. Immigration renders you so foreign to your elders that you might as well be adopted.

AV: Your first novel came out in 2014. This came out in 2016. Can we expect the next book like clockwork for early 2018? If so, can you share a little bit about the project?

BF: I’m in the last third of the first draft, so very possibly! It’s a food memoir. The first part is the story of our Soviet lives, and immigration, told through food—Soviet food was way better than its reputation suggests because it was, by necessity, local, seasonal, and organic, at a cost of next to nothing. Refrigeration technology came late; supply chains were inefficient; agriculture didn’t make industrial use of pesticides in the same way; and so on.

The second part is the story of a woman who came into my family’s life after my grandmother passed away in 2004—a home aide from Ukraine who took care of my grandfather. She was a phenomenal cook, and her tables, not to put too fine a point on it, ended up bringing me back to a family and culture I was trying very hard to abandon. I followed her to Ukraine, and learned to cook from her, and then ran with it on my own: I worked in a restaurant on the Lower East Side for five months.

So Part 3 is all the ways my own time in the kitchen has saved me. I had a very difficult personal experience several years ago; cooking brought me out of it. It was also how I met the woman with whom I now live. And it was our proving ground. We spent the first week of our courtship using some very inadequate tools to cook for 40 screaming Lakota Sioux kids on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, part of a traveling summer camp for which she was a counselor and I, somehow, a chef.

To learn more about Boris Fishman, visit his official website.

The Writer’s Bone Interviews Archives

Early Morning Paperback Writer: 12 Questions With Author Nicholas Mainieri

Nick Mainieri

Nick Mainieri

By Daniel Ford

I plan on gushing about Nicholas Mainieri’s debut novel The Infinite in greater detail in December’s “Books That Should Be On Your Radar,” but I’ll say this: It's one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read. Everyone should buy the book and read it while scarfing beignets and downing coffee.

Mainieri talked to me recently about his early love of storytelling, how his writing process has evolved, his decision to get an MFA, and what inspired The Infinite.

Daniel Ford: Tell us about your origin story. How did you become a storyteller?

Nicholas Mainieri: I always liked to write stories. I liked that more than speaking them. We had an old typewriter in the house when I was a child, and I found myself retelling stories I’d seen in movies, that sort of thing. Then, when we were given free time to draw or read or whatever in grade school, I’d spend it writing in the back of my notebook. I remember mentally planning stories during recess, knowing I’d have a half hour at the end of the day to write them down. It was just a fun thing, I thought. I imagine a lot of writers had those impulses, growing up. I didn’t discover that storytelling was something one could take “seriously” until I was in college. I’d heard somewhere that to be a writer you just had to get up and do it every day, so that’s what I started doing.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

NM: For a good few years of adolescence, I read Stephen King almost exclusively. Character, conflict, structure—King’s work was instructive before I realized it. Cormac McCarthy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ralph Ellison, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Raymond Carver, Breece D’J Pancake, Stuart Dybek—these were some of the writers I discovered right around the crucial time when I was turning to storytelling as a way of life. Once I had some idea of what I was looking for, my reading tastes tended to especially gravitate toward writers I thought of as interesting stylists.

DF: When you actually sit down to write, what’s your process like? Do you outline, listen to music, devour beignets?

NM: I had some beignets just the other night! Highly recommend Morning Call in City Park when you come to town. Sadly, beignets would likely be an unsustainable part of my process (though I’m willing to give it a shot). I’m an early morning writer. When it is still dark outside, when I am still a little fuzzyheaded from sleep. The voices of doubt are quietest then. When things are going well, I’m up and writing every day. I don’t outline because I like the process of discovery, but I usually keep an open notebook beside the keyboard and fill it with barely legible notes and reminders as I go. When it comes to rewriting, I can do that any time of the day. But for creation, early mornings are best.

DF: There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s worth it or not to pursue an MFA. You earned yours from the University of New Orleans, so I’m interested to know how you made your decision.

NM: At UNO, I was welcomed into a place that wasn’t pettily competitive or designed to turn me into someone’s cookie-cutter idea of a writer or anything like that; I found a community of hard-working artists that cared about one another and one another’s work. Even while applying to MFA programs, I was pretty uneducated in terms of what they actually are. But UNO turned out to be exactly what I needed, and I imagine that my development as a writer was expedited by such an intensive, artistically focused environment with a built-in audience. I think it would’ve taken me much, much longer to learn certain things about the relationship between the written word and the reader had I not been through an MFA program. And all this before mentioning the many peers and faculty members who became great friends and mentors. As far as the whole MFA debate goes, I don’t know. It’s nice, certainly, if a grad program will provide funding or a tuition break, as that amplifies the worth of the MFA as I see it: an amount of time that one isn’t likely to find otherwise.

DF: What’s the premise of The Infinite and what inspired the tale?

NM: Jonah and Luz, two young people whose histories are informed by loss, meet and fall in love in New Orleans. Luz, who is from Mexico, came to the city with her laborer father in the post-Katrina construction boom; Jonah is born and raised. Both of their lives have been largely shaped by loss, and they find both refuge and hope in each other. When Luz becomes pregnant, however, her father sends her back to Mexico and her grandmother. When Jonah doesn’t hear from her, he sets off on a road trip to visit. Unbeknownst to him, Luz’s homecoming has derailed amid drug war-related violence, and she is fighting to survive.

I had observed a teacher-friend’s classroom in a local high school that had been marked for closure by the city. The school was a pretty chaotic place, the drug trade and attendant violence spilling into the hallways dramatically and often horrifically. In those hallways, though, I met a bunch of funny, smart, and resilient kids who were simply caught amid some tough circumstances. The characters started chattering in my head soon after that.

DF: How long did it take you to write the novel and what was your publishing journey like?

NM: I wrote the first words in the fall of 2010 (the novel is set, mostly, in the spring of 2010). All told, I think the first draft and a bunch of rewrites took me about five years, including finding a home for it. I’m very lucky to have an agent and editor both who understood the novel from the beginning, who saw it as I saw it. It all took as long as it needed to take, the book somehow winding up in the hands of its perfect caretakers. And seeing the final thing in print is a real joy, but it’s also an extraordinary relief—to know that all that time spent writing, and thus separated from my wife and friends and family, amounted to something.

DF: You tackle some pretty big issues for a debut—both post-Katrina New Orleans and the Mexican drug war. How much research did you do before writing the book, and how did you decide on the themes you wanted to explore?

NM: The key experiences that informed the writing can’t be considered research because I had them before the idea for the novel ever occurred to me (a couple summers spent studying in Mexico, moving to New Orleans, visiting the local high school, etc.). But, they created for me a number of memories, impressionistic and backlit with emotional pulse, that lingered and resulted in questions. I wondered about what I’d seen or heard from people. Somewhere in there the novel was born, and so I talked to people and, chiefly, read many things—about the drug wars, about American appetites, about the immigrant experience in New Orleans after the flood.

DF: I love your main characters’ dynamic, which is established right from the get-go. How did you go about developing Jonah and Luz, and how much of yourself ended up in them?

NM: Thanks! In writing young characters I thought an awful lot about how we discover things like love and violence and loss in the world—discoveries we often make when we are young. So, in the abstract, that feels derived from my experience, what I know of these things. In the details, however, neither character has a life that resembles my own. I’m a believer in putting characters on the page and letting them act and interact. I try to bring as much imagination, intelligence, and respect as I can to them, and go from there. The opening pages were written later on in the process (maybe even after a draft had been completed), after I’d discovered the kinds of things that were important to both Jonah and Luz.

DF: The Infinite has generated praise from authors (including Writer’s Bone favorites M.O. Walsh and Philipp Meyer!) and plenty of media outlets. What has that experience been like, and does it give you more confidence as a writer going forward?

NM: It’s exciting! But it is also a scary thing when the first people who are reading your book are authors you love! I was fortunate enough to receive kind blurbs from a handful of them—and that remains one of the more meaningful parts of the whole process. I’m still searching for adequate ways to say thank you. Confidence…maybe I feel more confident, I don’t know. Blurbs or reviews or whatever, they at least give me a bit more to combat those negative voices that arise inside my own head while writing.

DF: Speaking of going forward, what’s next for you?

NM: Well, two things. I’m working on a new novel and happy to be doing so. Transitioning out of the headspace required by The Infinite was difficult in some respects, but finding a new story to tell is exciting. I’d say more about the project but it is still early yet and I’m superstitious about that sort of thing!

Secondly, my wife and I have been working on another fun project that is based on her experience tending bar in a few iconic barrooms and my experience drinking in them. We’re hoping to be able to do something with that book soon.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

NM: Get up every day and do the thing. Don’t rush. Every word you write is necessary, regardless of which ones end up in print.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

NM: Crystal Hot Sauce is my favorite hot sauce.

To learn more about Nick Mainieri, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @NickMainieri.

The Writer’s Bone Interview Archives