For the past four years novelist David Bezmozgis has been writing a book set in Crimea. His forthcoming novel, The Betrayers, was intended to be set in August 2014, but that isn't possible now. Brooke speaks with Bezmozgis, as he sits between manuscript lock and book release, about trying to adjust his fictional story set in a fraught, factual place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Putin reclaimed Crimea as part of Russia on Tuesday. Certainly, novelist David Bezmozgis is among those most closely following those developments. For several years, he’s worked on a novel set in present-day Crimea, which was, until recently, relatively unknown to his American friends.
But now, for the first time since Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met in Yalta to divide up post-war Europe, Crimea is headline news. His forthcoming novel, The Betrayers, was intended to be set in 2011, then 2012, then 2013 and, finally, August 2014. But as he sits in the purgatory between manuscript lock and book release, the novelist wrote a blog post in the New Yorker about how he’s struggling to update or adjust a fictional story set in a fraught, factual place. David, welcome to On the Media.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Hi.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me about the various stages you went through [LAUGHS] when Crimea suddenly became super relevant, kind of like the five stages of grief, although some of them, at least the first one, was pretty triumphant, in a way.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Well, precisely. I mean, the place to most people is quite obscure. The irony is that obscure places get into the news only when bad things happen to them, which seemed like in a way a stroke of luck for me. For instance, I’m speaking to you on the radio, and I don’t think that normally would happen about Crimea.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So, your second stage was essentially concern and fear and you were a little shocked.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Yes. I imagined the people that I know there and worried about them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then the third stage.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Well, the third stage was a type of apprehension that I’d had from the very moment that I launched this project. Part of the appeal for writing this book was to take on the challenge, that the things that the novel would be talking about were things that were still urgent for people in the present moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: And the novel would become part of that conversation. And I always worried that current events would outpace what I was writing. It takes a long time to write a novel, in this instance, about three to four years. And if you want it to be current, the chances are that, you know, the world will change. And so, you take that risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you take me a little through your thinking and your process, as you were watching the violence unfold, your awareness that things weren’t gonna be the same again?
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: All the way through, I kept hoping that I could somehow retain this construct, where the action could still take place in the summer of 2014. You know, when the protests started in the Maidan, nobody really could see that it would go quite this far, and you thought there might be a settlement, and I thought, okay, if there’s a settlement then I can make some small changes to the manuscript just to acknowledge that this thing had happened in Kiev.
But that ultimately there was no change, that the same sort of pessimism that characterizes Eastern European and Soviet people would just persist, it started to be clear that that was less and less plausible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what are you going to do? Your publisher told you that you could make changes, and we’re talking about really minor changes, up until June, 2014. That's not very far away. Do you put the date that the novel begins back? I mean, you can't start over.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: That’s right. And before Yanukovych fled and before the Russians seized Crimea, I still thought, well, if the election happens in Kiev at the end of May and things are more or less stable, maybe I could still do what I’d planned from the very beginning. But that’s clearly not possible anymore.
And so, I think the only choice is to take it back, let’s say, to the summer of 2013, which is something I resisted all along, for other reasons that have to do with the novel that are just too convoluted to get into here. But it seemed like the lesser of two evils.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't want to get into cliché here, but the question has to be asked. We’re flooded with information now, 24- hour news cycle, on and on. Do you think that the novel can really speak to contemporary events?
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Well, it's difficult. And the question is, does digital technology enable the publishing industry to do something of the sort, maybe not in every instance, maybe not –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why can’t it just hurry the heck up?
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Well, most of it has to do with marketing and publicity and the time it takes to do that, to put a catalog together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so it seems that the schedule at many publishers is out of step with our times. Let me quote from the end of the blog post you wrote in the New Yorker.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said, does all this that you’ve been going through and all the challenges of this fast-paced information environment render the pursuit of a novel with political ambition a fool's errand? And, if it does, what's the cultural cost?
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: The blog post answers the question because it goes on to say what the difference is between a work of journalism, which is made of facts, and a work of fiction, which is an imaginative and moral leap from atop those facts. You can put yourself into it and you can debate whether this was right or this was wrong, if it conforms with the world, as you believe it to be, or not, whereas a work of journalism, you really can’t do that because you know that it’s based on fact and, therefore, it is what it is.
The experience for the reader, and so the experience for the culture, is different, in that you can become personally involved in this world, rather than standing and watching it objectively. It comes down to a question of empathy and identification. And if we’re no longer able to do that, if the novel is no longer able to do that, then I think it is a great cultural loss.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.
DAVID BEZMOZGIS: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Bezmozgis is a writer and filmmaker. His novel, The Betrayers, will be published by Little, Brown and Company on September 23rd, no matter what happens.