Fiction is a kind of freedom where you act out all the illegal parts of yourself

Boris Fishman was born in Minsk, in the former Soviet Union, in 1979, and emigrated to the United States in 1988. His journalism, essays, and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and Book Review, The New Republic, The Nation, Harper’s, Vogue, The London Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal. A Replacement Life is his first novel.

Although it is your first novel, your writing has appeared in many publications such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and you also co-wrote and edited the U.S. Senate’s report on Hurricane Katrina. How did you decide that you wanted to write a novel? Did you feel it required a different mindset?

I wanted to write fiction from the beginning, but I was too scared to try because, how do you begin? Do you get a cabin in the forest and wait for something to happen? There’s no professional track. Part of the reason I was so shy is because, like a typical Eastern European Jewish immigrant, my family expected very traditional things, and I was a good son, it was very difficult for me to disobey. And I thought “they are over here, and my passion for fiction is over there, what can I find over here that’s a little bit like writing but has a more concrete professional track?” So the answer was journalism. But at the end of the day, the purpose of journalism is information. The purpose of fiction is something more complex. You can very have creative journalism, and you can have very journalistic fiction. But for me, fiction is a far more creative style. So, for five years, it was like wearing a shirt that was too small by one size, and eventually I was incapable of doing this anymore. As scared as I was, I had to take a deep breath and try it.

After Slava writes Lazar’s story, there’s this sentence: “the stories came out better if he didn’t know everything in advance”. Does this apply to your writing process?

Yes. I have written my second novel, and I wrote it very differently from the first. For the first novel, I was very anxious, so I created a plan for the whole novel, from the beginning. That’s a real problem, because all the characters have no opportunity to surprise you or take on lives of their own. The best is when they tell you how it should be. The reason why the first novel took this many drafts—twelve drafts—was because the first drafts felt dead. The idea was good, but it felt dead, so I had to undo the design and sort of open it.
E.L. Doctorow has this great line: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night, you can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way”. This is what I did in my second novel. I had only the broadest idea and I only planned two steps ahead. I think I came up with something which is maybe less organized, but it is also sort of wild, in a good way. The novel is about a boy who is wild, so it comes together. Now my style is very different.

In the novel, the uprooting from the original culture is more felt by the older generation than by the younger generation. Is this a discrepancy you wanted to emphasize by having Slava as the protagonist?

Yes, of course. The older generation is not only more connected to the original culture, they are voluntarily trapped in it. They don’t want to leave their culture. People like Slava’s grandfather, the Soviet Union survives through them. The people who have stayed in Russia, who didn’t leave, they have continued to change with their country, for better or for worse, but they’re no longer Soviet people, they’re Russian people. Maybe in the smaller cities, there are still Soviet habits and traditions, but in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, it’s Russia, not the Soviet Union. But people who left Soviet Union in the 1970s or 1980s and came to America, they settled in these neighborhoods like the one in which Slava’s grandfather lives, where you watch Russian television and you read Russian newspapers, you have only Russian friends, you never have any interaction with the American culture at large. They’re like the flies that are stuck in amber jewelry, they’re forever Soviet. Somehow, America makes it possible to live this way and somehow feel American anyway. America says “you don’t have to learn anything and you can still be American”. Slava hates this, because it’s provincial. Slava feels that if America took us in, we have a debt to America, we have to understand America on America’s own terms. But the problem is that the American culture that Slava encounters in Manhattan, at this magazine, it’s supposed to be very impressive and very prestigious, but it has no soul, and all the soul is still in Brooklyn. That’s the question of the novel, because he needs a special kind of soul, because of where he comes from, because of the Russian definition of what soul is. There’s this line in the novel from Israel, he says “what you wrote is very good because it has the silence of ours. Americans are always making noise because they need to forget that life is going to end, but we remember the silence, even when we’re shouting and laughing.” It’s a kind of tender, soulful melancholy that he lacks in Manhattan.

All the replacement lives are included in the narration in a kind of metanarration. How did you structure the novel with these texts in mind?

They were in the plan from the beginning. They were something very exciting about the idea of creating this fiction within fiction. There’s something exciting about the idea of creating something illegal, because I guess that, in my life, I am a pretty law-abiding citizen. The message of the novel is: fiction is freedom. Even when you do no have the opportunity to find an answer in real life, it doesn’t mean that you must live without an answer, you can invent the answer. This is the kind of freedom that invention and imagination gives you, it is the ultimate freedom. Slava loses his grandmother before he can find out her stories, but that doesn’t mean he must live his whole life without. In a way, fiction is a kind of freedom where you act out all the illegal parts of yourself. Of course, so much of the novel is at least partly autobiographical, but those three false narratives, they are completely invented from 0 to 100. It was very liberating to be free of my autobiography, and to just completely invent from nothing. What is the debut writer’s first anxiety? It’s: am I good? Can I invent something from zero? These stories are invented from zero. They were very satisfying to do, in a number of ways, and they were planned from the beginning. Part of the meta connection is that Slava is learning how to tell a story, at the same time that I am learning how to tell a story, behind the curtain. We are kind of having a conversation with each other and teaching each other, so that was the experiment, why we were doing that together.

The reader grows to learn Slava’s grandfather but also Israel and Lazar, for whom Slava writes these replacement lives. Did you adapt these letters as you also grew to learn the characters?

There are several reasons why Slava agrees to do this. One of them is that his grandfather’s argument begins to make some sense. The second one is that Slava has a big ego, and he wants to be a writer. He wants people to want writing from him. But the third reason is that it gives him an opportunity to invent his grandmother, to recreate her on the page. All the stories are less about Israel, Lazar or his grandfather than they are all about the grandmother. In Israel’s story, it’s less about him than about Israel’s sister, she’s the one in the corner of the screen, and she’s the one Slava is interested in. He’s constantly putting her in all these stories because he wants to imagine what she was like, what it was like when she was there. He gets these little crumbs from his grandfather, and he tries to make a whole meal out of that. It’s less about those men, it’s more about women. That also was important for me, because I am less interested in the men and more interested in the women.

The women are very important even if they are secondary characters: Arianna, Vera, the mother, the haunting presence of the grandmother…

Exactly, she dies at the beginning of the novel and she just sorts of hangs over… In the second novel, it is written from the perspective of a woman, because I’m interested in that. In the first novel, the male characters exist in the same way from the beginning, but the female characters began as two-dimensional characters. They were the weakest characters and I had to do the most work on them. I don’t know if I did a perfect job, but they certainly made the most progress.

Your novel is dedicated to your parents and grandparents. Did they get to read it? If they did, did they relate to the gently cruel portrait you paint of Slava’s family?

My maternal grandmother passed away ten years ago, my grandfather does not speak English, my father does speak English, but his English is not good enough to read the book, so my mother is the only one who read the book. She read it twice. The first time, the novel began as a short story, and I wrote it in 2005, and I gave it to my mother. It was the first piece of fiction I’d ever written. I was anxiously waiting for her reaction. When she finally called me, I said “well, what do you think?” and she said “when I was finished, I was so angry that I took everything on my desk and I just swept it off”. And I said “why, is it bad? Is it so bad?” She said “no it’s good, but how could you say those things about your grandfather?”, and we had to have a long conversation where I tried to persuade her that a reader is sophisticated enough to understand this as fiction, and not think that the grandfather is my grandfather. She said “but it says: ‘my grandfather’”, because originally it was in first person. It was kind of a difficult beginning, but she had a very different reaction when she read the novel. She wrote me a text message at 1:30 in the morning, when she finished it, and it said “Number one: now I understand. You are different from us”. It was a great compliment, because what could you want more than your mother to say “I understand, you’re different from us, but we still love you”. The second one was “You are 100% Russian, and 100% American”. That was her reaction, so I think it’s hard to hope for more.

People sometimes ask if I have received a bad reaction from my community, but I’ve heard nothing. The journalism that I used to do very often was about the community, I heard from them all the time, they would put me on their radio shows, but this time, nothing. I don’t know why, but what I try to do is to hold up a mirror to the community. I know that what you see is not always the best, but—and sometimes people forget this—I would only want to hold up a mirror to people I love. It’s because I care about the soul and the future of this community. I don’t hold up a mirror in front of people or communities I don’t care about. One of the things about Soviet culture is that you show someone you love them by agreeing with them. Whereas the lesson I’ve learned in America is that you show someone you love them by telling them the truth about who you think they are, and also asking them to tell you the truth. That’s where connection and intimacy comes from. It’s a very different idea than Soviet culture, so I think there are still some conversations to be had both with my family and my community about our impressions of each other after this work.

One of the panels you attended at the Festival America in Paris dealt with the question “What is America?”. Did you feel that writing helped you make sense of this question?

We came from the Soviet Union in 1988, I was nine years old, and when we finally had some money, my family and I began to travel. We went to very conventional places, like all-inclusive hotels in Mexico, but then when I began to travel by myself, in the late 1990s, I would always go back to Europe, always go East. New York is on the East Coast, and I would not even look West, I would just go East. Then something happened around 2007. I turned around and I looked West for the first time. I spent five or six years just seeing every single place in America. I was finally ready to see America. This, more than anything, helped me make sense of America.

New York is a magnificent place that has nothing to do with the rest of America. It has an energy and a kind of beautiful ambition and a beautiful aggressiveness that no other place has. It’s inside me and it makes it difficult for me to exist elsewhere. However, New York is also incredibly provincial. It is the kind of place where people think only about themselves, and it might as well be its own country, because they may think of L.A., but they certainly don’t think of Missouri, or Nebraska, or North Dakota, or Florida. I’m exaggerating, to make a point. Getting outside New York and seeing this incredible country… I’m not religious, but I come closest to being religious when I am for example in the West, seeing the landscape there. That did a great deal.

The novel helped me feel at home in New York. When I was writing journalism, I was one of a thousand people in New York City, doing the same thing. It’s why I left to go do the Katrina report in Washington. As an immigrant, you get adopted by this country, and the only thing that I wanted was to be necessary, to be useful, in some way. It was impossible to feel useful or necessary as a journalist, with a thousand people like me doing the same thing. But somehow, in the experience of the novel, in the process of writing it, I became more confident as a person. It stopped mattering whether it sold or not. You hear “no” enough times and then you pick yourself up and keep going, and you stop caring whether they say “yes” or “no”. You begin to write for yourself instead of anyone else. But HarperCollins buying the novel and the novel getting the reception that it’s gotten has done a tremendous amount for my sense of belonging in New York. The people who come to readings, the people who come to events, the people who write me emails, the people who speak to me after, it is so meaningful for my sense of belonging in New York, which I had never really felt until I was published.