Art, Friends, and Watches: Gary Shteyngart In Conversation with Fred Savage
BY Emily Johnson, November 30, 2021
Early last year, Associate Professor of Writing Gary Shteyngart had completed 240 pages of a novel about a dystopian future in which NYU took over most of Manhattan, as he told actor and director Fred Savage in an online conversation hosted by Book Soup on November 11, 2021.
But when the world took a turn in March of 2020, Shteyngart pivoted to write about the “very present moment.” The resulting novel is one of the fall’s most-hyped, best-received books, Our Country Friends.
“I’m sure thousands, hundreds of thousands of people were like 'I’m going to sit down and write the great American novel in quarantine,'” Savage said, “and you did it.”
Our Country Friends takes place over six months in a country house in Upstate New York where eight friends have gathered to weather the pandemic. Relationships chafe and shift, new friendships and romances emerge, old betrayals return, and all are explored with Shteyngart’s characteristic wit, humour, and sincerity.
If you’re getting Chekhov vibes, you’re correct: Shteyngart was reading Chekhov for hours every day while writing. If the set-up reminds you of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the 14th century book about friends waiting out a plague in the countryside outside Florence, this was also one of Shteyngart’s inspirations: as Savage pointed out, there’s a character literally called Dee Cameron.
Savage observed that every person who ends up at the house is both a refugee from COVID, and a refugee from another part of the world, or another part of their life.
Shteyngart himself was born in Leningrad, and immigrated to the United States with his parents as a child. In discussing the actor who crashes the party in Our Country Friends, he noted that straddling two cultures often involves a certain amount of performance, code-switching, or even self-duplicity: “As immigrants you are also an actor for a long part of your life because neither part really feels one hundred percent true.”
“To you, what does it mean to belong?” Savage asked, “To be alien, or to be native? Everyone in your novel is struggling with some sense of belonging.”
“It’s an escape to a country house, but six out of eight characters were born in the United States, so for their parents it was an escape not to a country house but an escape to a country,” Shteyngart said.
Many of the novel’s characters have had the experience of coming to the golden land, he continued, the golden land which for many reasons is no longer working for them. They feel guilt that they have the means to escape the pandemic (at least temporarily) and a little sorrow that the once-safe land is compromised.
Savage picked up on the concept of a safe place, refuge, home—“that sense of home is such a fluid idea.”
Shteyngart elaborated that for him, home is friendship—stating frankly that because his family relationships are difficult, home was always the family that he made for himself.
“For me this book was the first time I really wanted to look at friendship,” he added later, as the conversation circled around to relationships, “and how love exists within friendship between people.
“Love and art—the only two things that cannot be denied,” Savage said, “I think there’s something incredibly romantic in this very complicated book.”
“To me, art and love are siblings in a really big way,” Shteyngart agreed.
“That’s what Sasha said!” Savage interjected, citing one of the main characters, “That when he stopped loving, his art died.”
“I’m so glad you remember that quote because it’s one of my favorite quotes, and kind of summarizes Sasha in a really big way.”
Savage’s obvious enthusiasm for the novel, and the easy rapport between him and Shteyngart created a warm, delightful atmosphere, even across the digital divide.
Naturally the subject of watches was brought up in the Q&A portion. Shteyngart and Savage share a passion for vintage timepieces, and have each done their own episode of the online series Talking Watches. Why the fascination, one audience member asked?
“Gary, what are you wearing, are you wearing your 1675?” Savage asked immediately.
Shteyngart confirmed he was indeed wearing the Rolex GMT-Master 1675, a piece which had belonged to an administrator in the Nixon White House, saying that he liked the idea of all the conversations it had been privy to.
Savage himself was wearing an Enicar Sherpa Super-Dive.
“Oh so glossy, oh I love that watch,” Shteyngart said.
The watch fascination started with an appreciation for design, Savage explained, but he came to appreciate them as “marvels of miniature engineering. And they’re kind of these living, beating things that if you don’t take care of and feed by winding them, they die.”
“Like a very expensive tamagotchi,” I offered in the comments.
“Exactly, yes, there you go.” Shteyngart agreed.
Shteyngart will return to teach in the graduate Writing Program this spring, a course on humor in writing. Until then, students can get a glimpse of how to execute a funny, heartfelt, dynamic novel in Our Country Friends.