Tuesday, March 24, 2009

An Interview with Askold Melnyczuk

by Jeff Metcho

SO Good: Your work has appeared in some publications that are famous for only accepting the best pieces sent to them. What was the journey like to get there? How did it feel when your work first appeared in a popular publication, or any publication for that matter?

Askold Melnyczuk: I began publishing work early, and indiscriminately. By the time I was 19 I’d published poems in places like The Village Voice and a bunch of magazines nobody has ever heard of. It was exciting—it was a continuation of the conversation. Writing the poem was part of it; putting it out into the world was a way of trying to discover kindred spirits. Maybe the biggest difference between publishing in a place like The Village Voice versus New Collage is that more people were likely to see it and so to acknowledge it. Publication remains exciting (as well as distracting) because it is a completion of the circuit. You write to communicate, after all. But while there is a hierarchy there among journals,I don’t think it’s something writers should pay too much attention to. Every young writer should have a couple of well-known journals or papers they read regularly where they wouldn’t mind appearing, and a longer list of new and untried places whose conversation they want to join. Who knows but that the obscure mags may well serve them better in the long run. Established journals are always dying; new ones are forever being reborn.

SG: Your novels seem to share themes of history or heritage. How much has your personal curiosity of your heritage influenced your work?

AM: All three of my novels deal in different ways with the fact that my parents were immigrants from Ukraine. They were refugees in fact, who were forced to leave their country. Unlike those immigrants who came to the United States to improve their economic status, they were here under protest and fully expected to return home before long. As a result they made sure my sister and I learned Ukrainian before we ever studied a word of English even though we were born and raised in New Jersey. I rebelled against this in my teens and twenties. Later I realized they’d given me a passport into a parallel universe which was enormously enriching and valuable. I’ve been to Ukraine a number of times, and hope to go again before too long. Carrying around this other universe about which most of my friends new nothing forced me to look for ways to communicate what otherwise would have been a stifling secret. I’ve made friends with a number of writers there and have translated a few of them; staying in touch keeps my world larger.

SG: As a teacher as well as a writer, you probably have a lot to share with young writers. Is there any advice or wisdom in particular that you could give us?

AM: The most important thing a young writer needs to figure out is how to balance the discipline of solitude which is where the writer’s work is born and nourished while also honoring the human need for solidarity and community. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who one the Nobel Prize a few years back, in his Nobel Prize address confessed that he spent ten hours a day, for thirty years, writing…learning to write. And that seems to me a good thing to recognize: ten hours a day for thirty years, you’re bound to learn something. The other thing to be aware of is that as a writer you’re always learning, you’re always experimenting, trying new things—and that’s what makes this life exhilarating and demanding. There’s really no resting on past accomplishments. Every day you test yourself against the blank page, and discover how strong your will to live is.

SG: And finally a favorite of our group: What book or piece, fiction or poetry, is your favorite? What author has had the most influence on you?

AM: I’m a reading addict. I have learned how to create various alternate states of mind through different combinations of books. There are about thirty books stacked by my chair in my study, and I will often read a poem from one, a page of fiction from another, a polemic from a third…all in the course of an hour. And I try to be open to new influences, even if by old writers. For example, lately I’ve gotten very interested in the Austrian refugee Hermann Broch, who died in New Haven. He was a businessman in the family textile firm until he was forty; then he quit to write full time. His first novel, Sleepwalkers, published in 1930, and lavishly praised by writers like Thomas Mann, looked at the behavior of his fellow Austrians over the last forty years. He felt strongly that political indifference—indifference to the political life of one’s time—was the same as ethical indifference. He saw clearly the storm of the Third Reich building…and every one of his novels was an experiment. His last one, Guiltless, which he called a novel, is in fact a collection of poems and stories written over decades which he rewrote to develop an idea.

But he is, as I said, a recent enthusiasm. In general I like to credit Garcia Marquez with providing me with the touchstone reading experience in my life. I was 17 when I finished One Hundred Years of Solitude—it was 4 a.m. in July, 1972, and I walked out into the Ohio night and looked up at the stars in the sky and thought to myself, Wow, this really is a miraculous world. The book restored something of the enchantment of childhood and ever since I have strongly believed that enchantment was one of the most powerful literary qualities—along with incitement.

SO Good would like to thank Mr. Melnyczuk greatly for his time and welcome him to Chester next week. We're looking forward to his reading.

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