Brooklyn BookBeat: Russian-born Author Credits Brooklyn As Inspiring Home for Writers
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Throughout the history of literature, authors have explored the psyche of a protagonist who is coming of age or experiencing a midlife crisis, but rarely do these two narratives intersect within a single character. Intertwining stories that take shape from distinct time periods in a character's life can be challenging, yet Lara Vapnyar has managed to do so rather seamlessly in her latest book, “The Scent of Pine” (Simon & Schuster, January 2014). Following her acclaimed novel “Memoirs of a Muse” and her collections “There are Jews in My House” and “Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love,” Vapnyar’s new novel tells the stirring and layered story of a woman whose retelling of her past weaves surprise into her future.
Like the author herself, Vapnyar’s protagonist, 38-year-old Lena, moved from Russia to the U.S. as a young adult. Although she's on the young side for a “mid-life crisis,” Lena is nonetheless itching to be liberated from stifling circumstances. She has long been married, has two children, and for years has felt dissatisfied with her family life.
When the book begins, Lena is heading to upstate New York to attend an academic conference where she plans to present a paper on sexual education in Soviet Russia, drawing upon the experiences she had as an 18-year-old counselor at a Russian summer camp that attempted to repress sexuality. At the conference, Lena meets Ben, a gentle, middle-aged man who is also unhappy in his romantic relationship. Neither Lena nor Ben is particularly forward, yet despite their reticence, the two manage to connect rather quickly, and upon leaving the conference they spontaneously decide to escape their static lives and spend a few days together at Ben’s cabin in Maine.
As Lena begins to share her background with Ben, focusing on the summer she came of age amidst Moscow’s perestroika and the sexual revolution, her current state of repression slowly reveals itself and she experiences an entirely new wave of sexual liberation. She speaks about her early romantic interest in several co-counselors, some of whom disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Lena is slow to open up to Ben, but as she grows comfortable with their intimacy she divulges enough so that the two can begin to uncover her past in a surprising twist that binds them together.
In juxtaposing Lena’s past life with her present, Vapnyar creates a poignant, well-rounded character whose loneliness and sensitivities are particularly resonant. And while English is not her first language — Vapnyar came to Brooklyn from Russia at age 22 and published her first English-language piece in 2002 — the author’s deft command of English semantics and storytelling shines through.
Brooklyn Eagle checked in with Vapnyar, who shares with us how she wound up in Brooklyn after leaving Russia. She offers her view on the differences between sexual education as it’s taught in Russia versus the U.S., and reveals a preview of what she’s working on now.
Lena is such a complex yet accessible character. Did you have her in mind before you began writing or did she develop alongside the story’s plot?
I hadn’t realized that I was doing that, but now I see that I developed Lena as a softer, quieter version of myself.
You’ve written before about sexual education and liberation, but in this novel the theme is explored from different angles — from Lena’s past experience as a counselor and from her current state as a married woman who feels trapped in her relationship. Did you find that Lena’s narrative was a continuation or divergence from your past writings that deal with this theme?
In this novel I tried to take a closer look at some of the most painful and uncomfortable aspects of sex. So, I guess I explore the same problems, but the divergence comes from being even more honest about them.
How might you compare the sexual education you experienced growing up in Russia with what you’ve witnessed in the U.S.?
What we had back in the Soviet Union was the extreme lack of any type of knowledge about sex. My friends and I had to resort to classical literature to get some sort of information. Just as the characters in my novel do, we were digging for hints in “Arabian Nights,” “Decameron” and “Canterbury Tales.”
Needless to say, the information was incomplete and often misleading. What I witness here (in New York City—I believe it’s not the same in other parts of the U.S.) is the excess of sexual education. My teenage daughter gets all sorts of information in her Sex. Ed. classes. Some of it, like safe sex practices or ways to build up your confidence, is extremely useful—I wish I had known that when growing up. But some of it, like detailed anatomy of sexual organs, is too clinical, too graphic and not that necessary.
When you moved to the U.S., how did you wind up settling in Brooklyn (and in which neighborhood did you live)?
As is often the case with new immigrants, we relied on our relatives to find us our first apartment. My uncle found us a place near where he lived in Midwood—a very Russian area of Brooklyn.
Brooklyn is emerging as a haven for writers — so many renowned and emerging authors live here, and the literary culture is thriving. Are there any ways that you think that might have encouraged or helped you, particularly as an author who learned English later in life?
I had always been an introvert, so I didn’t become part of writers’ community as easily as an extrovert might. But what I’ve always loved about Brooklyn was diversity of places where you could look for inspiration. I think this is one of the reason writers like it there so much. I could spend hours walking along Manhattan Beach in the summer. Or I could spend hours in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in the spring under all those blooming cherry trees and lilac bushes. Or I could just sit in a café with my notebook pretending to write and striving to feel like a “real writer” among people who did the same.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a new novel with a tentative title, “Virtual Grave,” about a group of talented but hapless immigrants who see the Internet applications business as the Gold Rush of our times.