Friday, March 12, 2010

Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman has published articles in The New Yorker and Harper's. Her debut book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, is a collection of interlinked essays about the bizarre characters and situations she encountered while earning a PhD. in Russian literature at Stanford University.

From her Q & A with Alexandra Alter at the Wall Street Journal:

You posed the question of whether Tolstoy was murdered in order to get a field research grant to travel to Russia. You didn't get the grant, but you did attend a Tolstoy conference held at his estate, and continued to speculate jokingly over whether Tolstoy might have been poisoned by his wife or another enemy. What's your current theory?

The premise of the story was kind of an elaborate joke I made up to try to be eligible for a larger grant. The part of it that wasn't a joke was, I am really interested in detective fiction…. [My interest in] detective fiction came from the question of literary biographers: Who was the writer, and how did he produce the work?

I used to have a dream of writing a detective novel, and definitely the hardest part was motive. When you started looking at the life of Tolstoy, there was so much passion and anger and drama surrounding him. A lot of people wanted him dead.

How has the community of Russian-literature scholars responded to your book, particularly the parts that paint unflattering portraits of other academics?
I was really nervous about that before publication…. I originally wanted to turn this material into a novel or fictionalized stories, but no one was enthusiastic about this, not even my wonderful editor. Publishing it as nonfiction, I stand by it, but it wasn't my original decision and I'm not completely sure how I feel about it…. I changed a lot of the names, but...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue