Ehud Havazelet: Interview

Monday, October 3, 2011

Ehud Havazelet’s last two books have been selected as New York Times Notable Books, he’s a recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, and he is a professor in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Oregon. His latest short story, “Gurov in Manhattan,” first published in the final print edition of TriQuarterly, appears in Best American Short Stories 2011, available this week. To celebrate this achievement, read the full story here.

Havazelet spoke with TriQuarterly Online about “Gurov in Manhattan,” why Chekhov is a major influence on his work, and the importance of writing at the same time every day.

TriQuarterly Online: “Gurov in Manhattan” has been chosen for Best American Short Stories 2011–a great honor! How does it feel?

Ehud Havazelet: Very nice.

TQO: In the note that accompanies the story in the anthology, you write, "Stories begin in autobiography.” Can you tell us where “Gurov in Manhattan” began?

 EH: One day there was a very attractive, young waitress in a restaurant I went to, and she just looked right through me. It’s not as if that had never happened before, but for some reason it just clicked that I was no longer the young, attractive guy who would stop her gaze, at least for a second, before she went on. This was a couple of years ago, around the time I turned fifty, and I said to myself, “Well, that’s new.” In a way, I had come full circle from being nineteen and certain there was no woman in the world who would just go right past me. I thought about that. And I did what Sokolov, the character in the story does: I explored that desolate feeling and went back to the restaurant for a couple of days and just sat there, not because I expected anything to change, but to get a feel for it. To ask myself what it's like to be someone who used to count on certain things that don’t happen anymore. And it made me think of Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog" — what’s in store for Gurov and Anna at the story’s end? What do they have to offer each other now that the passion and romance and adventure are behind them?

 TQO: You mention Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” In a way, “Gurov in Manhattan” is a homage to Chekhov’s story. When you started writing, did you know that Chekhov’s story was going to be part of your story?

EH: Yes. In that sense it was very lucky and rare for me, because stories, like everything I write, take a long time to develop, even for me to understand what story I’m working at writing. But somehow the connection here occurred to me right away. Equally as rare, I had the title before I had the story.

TQO: You take your influences very seriously.

EH: The reason I can keep teaching O’Connor and Woolf and Carver and Malamud and Chekhov is that I don’t ever feel that I’m doing it by rote, that I need to martial my enthusiasm and trot out the old insights; I’m just as enthusiastic as I ever was. I’m in the company of these geniuses who’ve produced miracles of craft. It’s exciting, not only as a teacher but as a writer. I love teaching Chekhov because I get to introduce Chekhov, or expand people’s experience of Chekhov, which is great, but I’m also living with him in my head again. Reading “The Student” and “The Lady with the Dog” again moved me to attempt the same depth in my own work that I saw in Chekhov. To give it a shot, anyway. So yes, it’s an influence of the most visceral kind.

TQO: The failing body plays a dominant thematic role in this story. Even during Sokolov and Kelly’s breakup, he has to visit the bathroom. I love how the body intrudes on what should be romantic, how real life continues to intrude on Sokolov’s version. Can you talk about how that works in the story’s final moments?

EH: One of the barometers of change is age, and the place where it shows up most piercingly is in the body. When you've had an illness like the one Sokolov has had, there’s got to be a before and an after. You can never be what you were. So what do you do with the person, the idea of who you were? Say, "I was vain and foolish and I was wrong?" Keep lying to yourself, adapt your delusions? Give up? It’s a new world, it’s Sokolov and his dog, two old fuckers with health problems who are looking forward to a cup of soup.

TQO: Well, isn’t he even more of a hero now, having accepted himself and his life as it is, without all the hubris and vanity?

EH: I think so. It’s a matter of looking in a new way, seeing in a new way. It extends to the waitress, to Kelly, it extends to his own life, and I hope beyond, in the sense that a successful story turns a new lens on the world. How has the world changed? I couldn’t tell you; they both could drop dead going up the stairs. That’s not up to me to decide. But it’s not the same as it was before. There’s no going back.

TQO: For the aspiring writers out there, what’s your writing process like?

EH: Left to my own devices, I would write six days a week. I write in the mornings. After I got serious about writing, I found out that it’s very hard for me to regain the necessary focus once I’m out there dealing with the world. When things are going well, one is always writing in a way, even if it’s not consciously, figuring out the next chapter, the next scene, the next place to turn. And I find that the best way for me is to wake up into that place, the world inside and whatever’s waiting there. On good days, the Yankees score can wait.

I absolutely believe you need to be at your desk at the same time every day, ready to work. And that’s hard, especially for beginning writers. You don’t get to decide your hours at your job, and if you have a family, you can’t tell them to wait. But if you expect to make any real progress, you need to be doing it at the same time daily. I would call it ritual as much as routine — preparation. If inspiration comes calling, you’re in receive mode.

TQO: What are you working on now?

EH: A novel. I’m several hundred pages into it, and the most revealing thing I can tell you is that I don’t know how many hundred more pages it will take or how and where it will end. For better or worse, I find my way as I’m writing it.