I met Stephan Clark for the first time in a Russian restaurant in St. Paul, for a conversation he said would be “deeply preliminary.” He is a slender man, with a receding hairline — “since the third grade,” he says — and eyes that move between green and blue in color, depending on his surroundings. This chameleon-like nature is fitting, considering the peripatetic nature of his life. As I discovered while interviewing him over the course of several days—driving to a Russian store in Plymouth for German bread and Jewish salami, a visit some months later to the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis to see an Oleg Vassiliev installation, and then a night of pickles and vodka at his Longfellow bungalow—he has lived in five countries and three times as many cities. These stays have included one year in Russia, where his wife is from, and another in Ukraine, to which he went on a Fulbright Fellowship to study the mail-order bride phenomenon. Clark now resides in Minneapolis and teaches creative writing at Augsburg College.
This interview began in the fall of 2011 as a series of digitally recorded conversations. Transcripts were made from more than seven hours of taped material. Clark returned the final, edited manuscript along with a note that begins, “Now to see if anyone cares enough to read it.”
After moving around as much as you have, do you feel any strong sense of national identity?
That sounds familiar.
You’ve been asked the question before?
No, I’ve read it before – wasn’t it in an old Playboy interview with Nabokov?
Well, perhaps. But then wasn’t it Bob Dylan who said all great art is stolen?
If it was, I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s a thief. You don’t get a philosophy like that unless someone flashes a light in your face as you’re running out of their house with a television in your arms.
I suppose I should say [inaudible] . . .
Stolen too. The introduction. Almost word for word from an interview with Don DeLillo in The Paris Review.
Well can we at least put these crimes to good use and say these writers exerted an influence on you?
That, or that I like to read contemporary American poetry and admire the human form.
Sounds at least half-right.
I’m not really comfortable with the direction this interview’s going. I’m supposed to be asking the questions.
It’s a self interview.
Then why do I feel you’re a practitioner of Gotcha! journalism. [consulting notes] So, have you?
A strong sense of national identity.
Oh yes – no, I mean no. I’m an American writer, born in a country that no longer exists (West Germany) to a Norwegian mother and a Texan father. I was educated in England for the greater part of my formative years, then brought to the United States for the final decade of the Cold War. My wife is Russian. I studied French in high school. I don’t care for the Olympics.
The stories in your collection are set in Russia or Ukraine and span from the time of Peter the Great through the purges of Stalin and on into the mail-order bride agencies of the present day. The longest story is about an Italian castrato who hopes to sing for the tsar. Two others are about American men and their travels to the Former Soviet Union. But the rest of the stories are about Russians and they’re told from a Russian point-of-view. Was it difficult writing about a culture other than your own?
Ah, the authenticity question. I could practically see it lurking there in the shadows behind you, drooling like some latter-day Atticus Finch.
I only ask because I was recently reading Percival Everett’s Watershed —
— you were not.
— and in the introduction of it, Sherman Alexie says his books — Alexie’s, not Everett’s — and those of his fellow Native Americans have probably been outsold by a single book by Tony Hillerman, the non-Native author of a series of bestselling Navajo-based murder mysteries.
I can already see where this is going.
[Louder] And so Alexie speaks of a paradox — a paradox. He says while the mainstream is interested in hearing Native American stories, it’s not interested in hearing the stories of Native Americans. Let me read a brief section to you. “So if this audience for Native American stories exists in such huge numbers, then why do Native American writers continue to be ignored? It’s because the audience is hungry for a certain kind of Native American story, the stereotypical tales filled with wise elders, spiritual quests, half-naked warriors, noble political activists, and pantheistic philosophies.” With that being said, do you think there is an equal hunger for a certain kind of Russian story?
Sure. One filled with serfs and samovars? With breathless women running across moonlit snowscapes? Probably. Mystery is the terrain of all good fiction, and to most people, westerners at least, that’s what Russia is — a mystery. But I think there’s another reason “Russian” literature is so popular. It’s a safe place to explore all those ‘accursed questions’ that troubled Dostoyevsky. Is there a God? What becomes of us when we die? How should I live my life? The big metaphysical questions that define every college sophomore’s “Russian novel phase.”
Are you saying that contemporary American fiction isn’t concerned with these questions?
Not necessarily, no. But I will say this: when I was in grad school — this was well after Carver had given way to Saunders — it seemed as if every other story I came across in a literary magazine was set in a run-down amusement park that was populated by characters who were about as conforming in their nonconformity as the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was conforming to his period’s conformity. Did I say that right? Either way, you get my point. I tired of it, I’m saying. The overbearing quirkiness of it all — it became a kind of shtick, and so I found my writing turning more and more toward Russia. Stories set there at least offered the possibility of a little gravitas.
And do you think there’s any danger in writing about a culture that’s not your own?
Probably, yeah. I’ve never met the man, but I’m sure you don’t want Tony Hillerman telling you what it’s like to be an Indian, just as you don’t want to come to any of my stories to “understand” what it means to be a Russian. But in the end, I’m not really interested in anything that’s authentic, because I’m not even sure such a thing exists. When I hear someone call a work authentic, I think they mean utilitarian, as if once they’ve finished a book they can feel better about themselves, because now they know all about “The Black Experience.” Or “The Immigrant Experience.” Or “Life in the Inner-City.” I’m not saying it’s not important to read about the perspectives of other cultures from the perspectives of those cultures; it is, very much so. But that shouldn’t be the only horse in the race. I mean, Shakespeare, take Shakespeare. Some people say he was gay, others that he was Francis Bacon — the one thing we can all probably agree on is that he was British, and so did he have any right giving us Hamlet? Or can we agree that play wasn’t about “The Danish Experience”?
You’re not comparing yourself to Shakespeare, are you?
I’m not even comparing myself to Francis Bacon. I’m just saying my stories are trying to get at something larger than Russia.
Itself a very large thing.
The people I write about have been displaced from the culture at large; they’re outsiders or they feel as if time has passed them by. They’re no different than me.
And so why set your stories in Russia, then?
God, you won’t let this go, will you?
Who not Germany?
We are not where we are born.
England then. You spent the majority of your formative years in England, you’re always saying you’re more British than American – you have it set up so Amazon sends you a case of PG Tips every six months. Why not set the stories there?
Lynn Freed once asked me the same thing. I’d just told her how my parents had had a garage sale in the English village where I grew up, and how the constable or the bobbie — whatever they’re called — came around to check in on us, because this just wasn’t done, not in England, all your things out for everyone to see, your knickers and whatnot — it just isn’t proper. “Write about that!” she said. “That’s wonderful!” But I couldn’t imagine anything more difficult, because I’m cut off from all the triggers, both cultural and geographic, that might bring the memories flooding back. I’d have to conduct research and interviews if I ever wanted to get all the essential mundane details right. That’s probably why I feel such a kinship with Nabokov. The Revolution took away the Russia of his childhood, leaving him in a Western Europe and then an America that was entirely foreign to him. In order to produce a believable fiction, he had to relearn how to “inject average ‘reality’ into the brew” of his stories. That’s no small thing: to conjure up the homes on your street, the food your neighbors eat, the conversations you have with your friends — it takes years for your perceptions to normalize, to reflect your surroundings, and so if you’re a transplant, or if you’re constantly on the move, you can only achieve this effect through conscious study.
Is that why several of your stories are set in the past?
Probably, yeah. The dead are a lot less likely to send you an email saying you got it all wrong. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to get everything right; I did. I read works of nonfiction; I visited museums and traveled to the places I was writing about, spoke to people, soaked up details. The detail is divine, I don’t deny that.
And then some other stories were drawn from a more journalistic approach.
That’s right. If research and interviews can make creative nonfiction believable, why can’t it do the same for fiction? If a journalist can go anywhere in the world and return with a story that’s at least worth starting a conversation, why can’t a fiction writer do the same?
Do I dare ask what you’re working on now?
A western. Would you believe it?