Bestselling author Gary Shteyngart, author of the forthcoming novel Lake Success (Random House, September 4), will deliver an afternoon keynote at the 2018 Winter Institute in Memphis.
Lake Success takes place during the summer before Donald Trump is elected president. Hedge fund manager and 1-percenter Barry Cohen leaves his unhappy marriage to take a Greyhound bus trip across America, on the lam from the SEC and in search of lost love. In the meantime, his wife, who gave up a career as a lawyer to care for their autistic son, begins an affair with the Cohens’ downstairs neighbor.
Shteyngart is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Little Failure (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist) and the novels Super Sad True Love Story (winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), Absurdistan, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (winner of the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction). His books regularly appear on best-of lists around the world and have been translated into 29 languages.
Shteyngart’s afternoon keynote will take place from 3:00 pm to 4:00 p.m. in Ballroom A at the Memphis Cook Convention Center on Thursday, January 25.
Bookselling This Week spoke with Shteyngart about the 2016 presidential election, income inequality, and a few of his favorite indie bookstores.
Bookselling This Week: Lake Success was written between June 6 and December 21, 2016, from the rise of Donald Trump to Republican nominee up until the month after the election. What was it like watching the events of 2016 unfold as you wrote?
Gary Shteyngart: I wrote the first draft of the book pretty much as I was going across country on a Greyhound bus. In June, I left New York with the idea that America is a country where Trump could never win. By the time I got to San Diego, I wasn’t so sure. The book definitely took on some aspects of journalism. I was witness to probably the strangest year America had seen since the Civil War.
BTW: The saga of Barry and Seema highlights the sheer enormity of the divide between the hyper-wealthy 1% and the rest of America, both materially and psychologically. In writing this book, what were some of your thoughts on the nature of this divide, including its potential to be bridged?
GS: I’m not sure it can be bridged. The days when people aspired to be upper middle class — the town lawyer, the town doctor, etc. — have been replaced by an all-or-nothing mentality. The 1% has nothing to do with the rest of the country. It lives in a private, shut-off world. Even Manhattan, where every other storefront is a Duane Reade or a Chase bank, feels like an island-sized gated community.
BTW: Barry’s relationships with other people tend to be shallow and transactional and often stem from assumptions about others’ worth based on apparent wealth, race, or physical appearance. His most intimate relationships, it seems, are with the contents of his expensive watch collection. What was the particular significance of your choice of watches?
GS: Barry can’t relate to people, but he loves his watches. The watches represent aspects of his personality that he hopes to rekindle — his wit, style, grace. They are stand-ins for all the people he could not truly love — his wife, his son, his father, and himself.
BTW: In some ways, Barry’s background is similar to President Trump’s, including having demanding, withholding fathers as well as the desire to be accepted by elite society. Do you see Trump, like Barry, as a uniquely American figure?
GS: Yes, and let’s not forget they’re both from Queens! (As was I.) There’s something about growing up in Queens, so close to Manhattan and yet so far, that makes an ambitious person mad. Barry does share some of Trump’s feelings of inferior superiority, but, without giving too much of the book away, he does have some capacity for love and change.
BTW: What role have independent bookstores played in your life? What are a few notable stores in your locale or stores that you have visited and enjoy?
GS: I’ve spent a great deal of my life in bookstores. From the Strand Annex in the Financial District where I spent a part of my 20s (I was supposed to be working, but goofed off amid the aisles for hours each day) to my current haunts, Spotty Dog Books & Ale in Hudson and Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, bookstores rule!
Shteyngart’s keynote will take place in Ballroom A at the Memphis Cook Convention Center from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, January 25.
Winter Institute 13 is made possible by the generous support of lead sponsor Ingram Content Group and from publishers large and small. See the full Winter Institute program here.