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Biofile Keith Gessen Interview

By Scoop Malinowski

Status: American novelist, journalist, literary translator. Harvard (History and Literature). Assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University Graduate School Of Journalism.

DOB: January 9, 1975 In: Moscow, Russia

Childhood Dream: I wanted to be (Fyodor) Dostoevsky. Yeah.

Hobbies/Interests: I play football and hockey.

Favorite Movies: There’s a Russian movie called Autumn Marathon. Great movie. It’s about a guy who’s cheating on his wife, who has to run around Leningrad all day. And the bridges in Leningrad, they are open. So he has to be back before the bridges go up.

Favorite TV Show: Simpsons.

Musical Tastes: Radiohead.

First Job: Huh? I can’t remember. I guess I was a camp counselor for kids in Boston.

First Car: An ’86 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. (Color?) Purple [smiles].

Early Career Memory: I reviewed Ken Kalfus’s PU 239, it was a book of stories. And I knew him a little bit and he wrote me an email. And he said that was a real nice review and my publishers are very happy too. And I was like, I think it was too nice. And he’s like, No, you called one of my stories ‘gratuitous’ – you asshole! [laughs]

Favorite Meal: Borscht.

Favorite Breakfast Cereal: I never… I don’t eat cereal.

Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: Chocolate chip.

Greatest Career Moment: As a book critic? … I wrote a 5,500 word review for the New York Review Of Books about these Russian guys. And the editor of the New Yorker wrote me a note and he said, ‘That was a lovely review.’ That was in about 2003.

Most Painful Moment: Ohhh… I wrote a review about VS Naipaul who won the Nobel Prize (in 2001). But the new book wasn’t very good. And I said it wasn’t very good. And somebody emailed and I mixed up – one guy’s name was Peter and the other guy’s name was Richard – and I mixed up the names. And my editor’s like, ‘I think we need to run a correction, because you mixed up the guy’s names [smiles].’

Favorite Vacation Spot: Cape Cod.

Favorite Writers: Oh… Don Delillo. (Nikolai) Gogol. I love Gogol. And Michel Houellebecq, the Frenchman.

People Qualities Most Admired: I guess… you live in New York, the wrong time and people are always lying to you. Like I love what you wrote, thing that you wrote, so great. So… honesty. Honesty. Because people are full of shit [laughs].

Gessen’s novels: All The Sad, Young Literary Men; The Terrible Country; Raising Raffi: The First Five Years.

He is a co-founder of the literary magazine n+1 and the author of the novels All the Sad Young Literary Men and A Terrible Country. He has written about Russia for the London Review of Books, n+1, the Nation, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine, and has translated or co-translated several books from Russian, including Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and It’s No Good by Kirill Medvedev. He is also the editor of the n+1 books What We Should Have Known, Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager, and City by City.

(Note: I was fortunate to sit next to Keith in the Madison Square Garden press box at a New York Rangers game in 2005. And while observing the NHL game, we did this Biofile interview.)

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