Elif Batuman, author of the acclaimed The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is serving a sentence as writer-in-residence at Koç University, on the outskirts of Istanbul. Here’s the way she describes it: “I don’t really feel like I’m living in Istanbul because I’m in this office all the time, and then I work here until late, and miss the bus that goes home, and then I walk home through this forest for 25 minutes.”
“I feel more like I’m living in the country of squirrels than the country of Turkish people.”
What’s she thinking about?
“Well, I have been thinking about how a lot of the writers that I know are incredibly good email writers and a lot of the time I find their emails more compelling than the things they are writing at the time. It is connected to this thing that I quoted from Chekhov in The Possessed, about how everyone has two lives and one is the open one that is known to everyone and one is the unknown one, running its course in secret. The email is kind of the unknown life, and the published writings are the known life.”
For me, [writing] is about turning off the censor that says you are writing something bad, so stop writing. It’s like going to the gym. Once you go to the gym you never regret that you went to the gym. Once you sit down and write, even if you can tell that what you’re writing is bad and isn’t leading anywhere, the cognitive act of moving sentences around is making you a better writer. You just have to remember that and not censor yourself. And in writing non-fiction there were a lot of times that I was imagining the various annoying voices in my head of people who would be offended that I’d written that or annoyed that I’d written that. Learning to turn that off was useful in a broader sense. You have to make sure that it is just you and the computer screen and other people aren’t going to come into it until later.
On the ideal reader (warning! opposite p.o.v. from statement above):
I’ve been trying to think about that more. It’s something my editor told me when I was working on The Possessed. He said, “I think you should be writing this for my mother. My mother already loves this book, but she doesn’t know that she loves it. If you keep using words like ‘over-determined’ she is never going to know that she loves it.” It was about taking out the jargon without dumbing it down or removing the theory. That was actually really useful.
On funny academics:
… they are all pretty funny. They are all kind of marginalized from real life, and they are all aware of that. They are very self-reflective, and where there is self-reflectiveness and breadth of reading there tends to be humor. It isn’t a hard and fast rule. You meet plenty of humorless academics, especially in older generations and in other countries. But American academics have a pretty good sense of humor, and they aren’t that inhibited. If they want to do something crazy they will just go ahead and do it.
Will she ever burn out on Russian lit?
Absolutely! I absolutely think I will. When you write a book and promote a book, you really aren’t an expert on anything except having written that book. In my case it was very small and idiosyncratic book that did not have an encyclopedic knowledge of very much of anything, but they have to make you an expert on something. You find yourself on this cycle of festivals, and I was on all of these panels about Russia with Sheila Fitzpatrick and Pavel Basinski and these great guns of Slavic studies. So I imagine that my next book is not going to have very much to do with Russian literature, and then there will be another slot to put me in. I don’t think I will go down as an expert on Russian literature for very much longer.