Before I meet David Bezmozgis, I’m overwhelmed by nerves.
This is, after all, the writer who The Globe and Mail described as “a tad prickly, even downright hostile,” and who wrote a parody of an interview with himself, contained at the back of his bestselling short story collection, in which he explicitly stated, “I hate being interviewed.”
However, when Bezmozgis meets me on a chilly afternoon at Massey College, he is cordial, kind, and pleasantly soft-spoken.
Bezmozgis, like many writers, is a character — in his public persona and perhaps in his own work. His short stories have been published in various magazines including The Walrus and The New Yorker, the latter of which also named him one of the most promising young writers in their “20 under 40” issue. His first book, Natasha and Other Stories, received various awards including a nomination for the Governor General’s Award. His second, The Free World, was published in 2011 to wide critical acclaim. He is also an award-winning filmmaker.
A trilogy, somewhat
Although Natasha and Other Stories was published first, it can be seen as a sequel to The Free World. While the first tells the story of a Russian immigrant family in Canada from Russia, the second describes a family in the process of immigration overseas. Bezmozgis believes that different stories are better suited to different mediums, and contests the frequent claim that Natasha can be considered a novel.
“I see [Natasha] very much as a book of short stories, in a tradition of books like it which they would call story-cycle books… They’re individual stories that add up to something greater than their parts but they could be read individually… [The Free World] was… a much bigger story… It took place over 70 years and dealt with two countries, so the canvas of it was much larger. It was told in three voices. I didn’t see that as something that could be done in stories, whereas the experience in Natasha could be told… in individual stories… I just felt like the ambitions were different.”
Bezmozgis is currently working on a modern-day film version of Natasha. He has also written a second novel set to be published this fall, entitled The Betrayers.
“[The Betrayers] continues my interest in the Russian Jews but from a different angle,” he says. “It’s very contemporary. It’s set in the present day as much as possible, in Crimea and Ukraine which is very much in the news right now — it wasn’t all the years that I was writing — so it just deals with the question of… what legacy will these people leave, these Russian Jews, post-Soviet Jews? You could look at the three books as a trilogy in a way because they deal with different eras about this very same community.”
“Read a lot and get out”
This semester, Bezmozgis is the Jack McClelland writer-in-residence in the Department of English at U of T, in partnership with Massey College. He teaches a writing class to a small group of students he selected based on writing samples.
“For me, teaching those classes is just an opportunity to talk about what makes good writing… What rules or guidelines can we follow to make our writing better? It’s as simple as clarity… basically we’re spending 12 weeks learning how to say what we mean clearer, better.”
Bezmozgis studied English literature at McGill as an undergraduate student. Reading the literature of others inspired him in his own work, and continues to be a crucial tenet of his writing practices.
“Being an English major meant I read,” he explains. “I read a lot. I should have read more… I spent four years reading… being exposed to things I wouldn’t have read on my own, and I don’t regret anything that I read over those years. I wish I remembered more of it, frankly. I wish I had been more adventurous.”
As a writer, Bezmozgis continues to read in order to research for his works, which describe the twentieth century Russian-Jewish experience. When he engages historical narratives, he does a great deal of research in order to ensure the factual integrity of the work.
“I read until I feel like I know well enough what I’m talking about and can convincingly write about it,” he says, “I think that’s one of the great virtues and pleasures of being a writer… you’re constantly learning something. Every book is like a PhD in something.”
Bezmozgis encourages aspiring writers to read first and foremost. He advises, “Read a lot and get out into the world. Go places, see things. Later in life, it will be harder to do that — it will be harder to have time to read as much as you like. It will be harder to have the freedom and the liberty to go and do diverse and borderline dangerous things.”
The questions that remain
Bezmozgis smiles when I ask him about his reservations about interviews.
“I just don’t think they’re necessary,” he explains, “I mean, you seem like a nice person. I’m okay to do it, but… the writer’s main job is to write so you have something to read. So, doing a bunch of interviews takes up your time and, rather than writing, you talk about the writing you’ve already done and that’s kind of diminishing returns.”
Many critics have suggested that Bezmozgis’ work is semi-autobiographical. When told that many U of T English courses begin the study of a text with an introduction to the author, Bezmozgis responds that, while it satisfies a certain personal curiosity to learn about writers, it is not necessary to an understanding of their work.
“What questions remain when you read a story?” He asks, “Do they have anything to do with the writer? They might have something to do with time and place and history, but you don’t need to know about the writer to answer those questions.”
The Fine Print
Major influences: Leonard Michaels, Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Dennis Johnson, J.M. Coetzee
Every English major should read: The Bible.
In university, I wish I had read: Middlemarch, Proust, more Victorian literature
Exciting new books: Shroder, Amity Gage; Summertime, J.M. Coetzee