Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. He was born in Leningrad in 1972 and came to the United States seven years later. His fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, GQ, Esquire, and the New York Times Magazine, and his essays from Travel + Leisure were selected for the 2006 and 2007 editions of The Best American Travel Writing. He lives in New York.
How did you get started traveling?
I left Russia with my folks when I was a kid and we first spent almost a year in Rome. We traveled all over Italy and it was the best time of my life (really, it was all downhill from there). I’ve always associated travel with being alive.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid in Russia. My grandma paid me in little pieces of cheese for every page I wrote. That’s how you create a writer. By paying him or her with something edible.
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
When my first novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook was accepted for publication.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
The challenge is to get everything done within a set time (usually a week or two). I always go to places where I have a good number of contacts and can have the same experiences as the locals.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
I usually don’t find this part very challenging, unless the language is very difficult (see: Thai) and the address system of the place I’m writing about is very strange (see: Seoul).
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Well, I’m primarily a novelist. That’s my main bread and butter. But the travel writing is very important to me, because it gets me out of the house. I still believe that writers need to see the world to understand their own place in it.
What travel authors or books — fiction and nonfiction alike — might you recommend?
I like some of Paul Theroux’s writing and I find that fiction is often the most helpful. Aleksander Hemon, for example, who writes a lot about Yugoslavia is brilliant. Oh, and George Saunders’ piece about Dubai is the most hilarious thing ever written.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into writing?
Have patience. This doesn’t happen overnight. Get good waterproof boots and a serious rain jacket while you’re at it. Don’t forget to deal with visa requirements several months before you leave. If a piece of meat smells like it’s rotting, it’s probably rotting.
What is the biggest reward of life as a traveler and writer?
Life is short and our planet is finite. What can be more important than seeing the totality of the human condition in this awful and wonderful world of ours?