Did you always want to be a writer?
Even as a child I liked words. I later came to love words, and I chose as my lifelong profession philology. That’s a fancy way of saying I became a teacher/professor of language and literature (Russian). A philologist is a “lover of words” (from Greek PHILO- [love prefix] +logos [word]). In my opinion the most important thing for any writer—especially of fiction—to be is a word lover.
Some writers think the social message is the most important thing.
Do you want me to respond to that?
How did you learn Russian?
It’s a long story, since nobody learns Russian overnight. I started out studying Russian at the University of Florida. Took the basic two years of Russian, and came out saying little more than “hello” and “good-bye.” Didn’t even say “hello” very well, because it’s a hard word in Russian: здравствуйте. Then I went into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era. Didn’t want to go, but they made me, and that turned out to be a tremendous stroke of good fortune for me.
Why would you be able to say only “hello” and “goodbye” after two years of studying Russian in a university?
Because the way foreign languages are taught in universities makes no sense. To learn a foreign language you need extensive practice, but in universities the students are exposed to the language only three-four hours per week. Meanwhile, they are taking four or five other courses, so they can’t find the time for language study. Late in my teaching career (at Miami University) I tried to get the Russian curriculum changed radically. I suggested having Russian-language students return early for the fall semester, two weeks before the term began. The band and the football team and the cheerleaders are already doing this; it’s nothing that unusual. During those two weeks, so my plan went, first-year Russian students would be exposed to Russian eight hours per day, in courses taught by native speakers. In only two weeks they would complete the whole first year of Russian. Besides that, they would learn and retain a lot more than the students who piddle around with meeting only three hours per week, over the course of a semester, in classes taught by professors who prefer to teach Russian in English.
They teach Russian in English?
Yes, plenty of professors still do. It’s a terrible mistake. They think they need to explain the grammar in English. They don’t. The textbook already explains the grammar in English. All Russian language classes should be conducted solely in Russian.
You sound vehement about this issue.
I’m vehement about almost everything; it’s just my personality. I’m a maximalist.
You never finished telling about how you learned Russian.
Yes. So I tried to revise the curriculum radically, so as to teach beginning Russian in a more sensible way, but none of my fellow instructors would go along with that.
Because college professors are arch-conservatives. They get into their little niche, and they don’t want anything changed. Of course, they profess to be flaming liberals, they go for despicable Nazi/ “liberal” practices such as “political correctness”—in an attempt to stifle free speech and free thought and force everyone into “proper” modes of thinking—but they don’t really want anything changed.
So you don’t believe in PC?
I despise PC, I loathe PC, I spent my whole university teaching career fighting against the excesses of PC. Now I’m retired from teaching, and that’s probably a good thing, because the excesses of PC, which were already ludicrous 15-20 years ago, have now been pushed, in universities all over the U.S., to a position far beyond the ludicrous.
Tell me more.
No. I can’t stand talking about PC. The situation is just too sad. Ask me a different question.
You never finished telling about how you learned Russian.
The last bastion of free speech on university campuses resides in the fraternities, where drunken and callow frat boys spout out racist ditties. Now how’s that for irony?
How did you learn Russian?
As I was saying, during the Vietnam War era I had to go in the army. What luck. They sent me to the best language school in the country, the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, for a nine-month intensive course in Russian. I served three years in the army, working in the rather unintelligent field of endeavor called “intelligence.” During my work hours I sat behind a desk and did %$^^&***((())% (passage redacted out for reasons of national security). I got all my work done in three hours of an eight-hour shift; then, for the other five hours I read books in Russian.
So after Monterey you were already fluent in Russian?
Oh no no no no no. Getting “fluent” in Russian is a matter of a lifetime. Nine months of intensive study is only the bare beginnings. I read all the time to pick up a good reading vocabulary. After I got out of the army I went to graduate school to study Russian. But what I really studied was Russian literature and linguistics, because you don’t normally study the language in a graduate program. I got an M.A. at Tulane, then a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and I began teaching Russian language and literature at Miami University.
So then were you fluent?
Actually, no. I could read Russian well, I knew the rules of grammar, but getting fluent in speaking and listening takes extensive practice in a language, and that practice was not available.
We were smack in the middle of the Cold War. It was hard to go to and remain for a lengthy stay in the one place where you could get the extensive practice: the Soviet Union. I first went to the country in 1972, with a group of American professors on a study program at Moscow State University. I was there ten weeks, but still did not get immersion in the language. Why? Because Russians were afraid to associate with Americans. We were the enemy.
Is it different now?
Yes. Unfortunately, we are still the enemy. In that respect things haven’t changed. But Russians in the modern-day Russian Federation are not as scared as they once were. So if a young American wants to learn Russian he/she can visit the country for a lengthy stay. Or go in the Peace Corps—to Ukraine, or to any of the former Soviet republics that still have Russian as a national language. It’s much easier to achieve fluency than it was in my time. There are also a lot more Russians resident in America. I attained to near-native fluency in spoken Russian only in the nineties, after the U.S.S.R. collapsed and finding Russian contacts became much easier.
What’s Russia like?
Hah. You want me to write an encyclopedia?
I’ve heard that basically, deep down, everyday Russians are just like Americans.
Stop. Don’t do this to me. I’m rolling on the floor, HAR, HAR, stop it…Tell me this: what do you know about Russia?
Um. Bears, ice and snow, vodka, gloom, Putin the bad guy.
Yes. That’s exactly what 99% of Americans know about Russia.
Okay, let’s change direction here. Do you get writer’s block?
I just don’t. I guess it’s because I’m a graphomaniac.
I see. Tell me this: who are your favorite writers?
I’m an elitist and a snob. I read only really really really really good writers. Don’t insult my intelligence by mentioning most contemporary American writers to me. I love all the great Russian writers—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Gogol, Gogol, Gogol, many more. I love Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Phillip Roth, Rebecca West. Lots of others. I think, to name just one novel, that Don DeLillo’s White Noise is beyond wonderful.
Why do you live in Florida?
I’m not sure. I just kind of ended up here, where I started out. I have lived all over the place, kept on the move for many years, hoping to outrun bad luck and death. I’ve lived in California, Virginia, South Carolina, Germany, England, Russia, Ohio.
Did you outrun bad luck and death?
So far I have. Фу фу фу, дай Бог не сглазит!
What’s that you’re saying?
It’s a Russian expression that you use to ward off the evil eye.
I see. What’s your favorite, of all the places you’ve lived?
Hmm. That’s a hard question. I still have a soft spot in my soul for good ole Ohio. Also love South Carolina. I suppose my favorite state of all is California. I never get enough of going back there, to the ice plant, to the arfing and yelping sea lions of Monterey Bay.
What are your views on religion?
Ew. Ew, ew, urghh.
What do you mean to indicate by making such noises?
Religion is a sore point with me. I grew up in a household where a Hundred Years’ War was being waged over religion. I had a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. They were on opposite sides in that war.
It was a draw. Or maybe right this moment, somewhere in the Afterlife, they’re still fighting their war. As for me, late in life I decided to find some middle ground: I joined up with Russian Orthodoxy, which is a branch of the oldest Christianity on earth, Eastern Orthodoxy. I have a prayer book with some great prayers in it. They’re in the Old Church Slavonic language, which is the language God speaks.
Hmm. I always thought God was multilingual.
He is, but He has His preferences. Take football. God is, by and large, not a football fan, but He does watch a bit of Notre Dame on a Saturday afternoon, and He can’t resist waving a fist in the air and cheering for the Irish.