pub day

Pigging Out With Writers Gary Shteyngart and Chang-rae Lee

Photo: Corbis and Getty

You couldn’t think of two immigrant novelists more different than laugh-a-sentence, publicity-friendly Gary Shteyngart and Chang-rae Lee, the reserved Korean-American who favors intense interiority and wartime horrors. But the two pioneers of their immigrant niches, aged 41 and 48 years old, respectively, share a lot more than a pub date and universal raves for their new books. (Both Lee’s futuristic fantasia, On Such a Full Sea, and Shteyngart’s surprisingly sober memoir, Little Failure, are out today.) Lee helped Shteyngart get his first book deal (for 2002’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook) and introduced him to his first Korean-American girlfriend (though not the one he married); and Shteyngart, via the absurd dystopia of 2010’s Super Sad True Love Story, showed Lee one path out of immigrant fiction. Good friends who dream of one day moving to the same retirement community (in Hawaii, not Florida), Shteyngart and Lee sat down last week to a feast at the Gramercy Hotel’s haute Italian restaurant Maialino for a conversation about immigrant lit, dystopia, tiger-parenting, Korean-Russian affinities, and organ meat.

New York: First of all, what should we order?

GARY SHTEYNGART: Well, may I make some suggestions? I know this place well. I’m an offal kind of guy [pauses for laughter] … so I like the trippa, the tripe. And for those who are vegan, like you, Chang-rae, the carciofini are great. But they really do great pig here. Where is it, the — ?

CHANG-RAE LEE: The pig hearts?

GS: The pig hearts are amazing, so I’m glad you said that. Why don’t you order some chicken hearts and I’ll order a pig’s heart? Let’s get every animal’s heart on the table. [Suckling pigs are ordered as entrées.] And then, the wine menu … This guy is an expert: Chang-rae has a wine cellar.

CL: It’s one of my problems. Well, maybe one of [my daughters] can just go to three years of college.

GS: That’s what Barack Obama’s saying. Let’s curtail that shit.

CL: I mean, they’ll go to private school, don’t get me wrong. Maybe they only need three years.

NY: You teach at Princeton and have a wine cellar?

CL: I don’t have a super-impressive wine cellar, but in my view, it’s my favorite wine shop, because I don’t like to drink wine young. So I need to buy wines that are within my [price] range, but I have to have a good sense that they’ll last.

GS: He grows them.

CL: I’m planning to drink very well every night of my life when I’m 65. [Reading from wine list] Well, you know, I’m thinking maybe this Calabretta ’01. That’s beautiful.

GS: Let’s do that.

NY: So then, how did you guys meet?

GS: I started writing Russian Debutante’s Handjob in college [that’s Shteyngart’s favorite nickname for his debut]. I worked on it for five years, was too embarrassed to send it out, but I thought, okay, I’ll send it to grad schools. The one I got into was Cornell — a full ride. But Chang-rae was one of my favorite writers, so I sent it —

CL: Did you send it to Hunter College because of me?

GS: Because of you.

NY: Because you loved his first novel, Native Speaker.

GS: I was in awe of it — even just the way it starts. The guy’s drunk. He goes through this whole list of everything that one feels about being an outsider in America, but in this almost playful, insane way. It feels much more natural than the kind of mannered novel of the immigrant experience where, oh, one is introduced to the hardships suffered by the group. That’s in there too, but it was irreverent and deep and I thought, Holy shit, I want what he’s having. And that’s why I applied to Hunter. But I never thought I would go.

CL: Because there was no program! I had actually come to start the [MFA] program. I was afraid that I’d just be sitting in a room and maybe get a trickle of applications, but we ended up getting probably close to 100.

GS: For a tiny class.

CL: For a class of six or seven. The truth of it was that most of them were unacceptable. But then I come across Gary’s. I felt like I was one of those people panning for gold and believing after a whole day’s panning that you weren’t gonna get shit, not even dust. And then this nugget comes up. And I remember sitting back and thinking to myself, it’s the end of the day. Maybe this whole thing is a fantasy. Maybe I’ve fucking lost my mind and this is not what it seems to be. And then I looked at it an hour later, and then I called him immediately.

GS: Yeah, he left a message on my machine. I actually saved the machine. It was very sweet and calm-sounding: “Hey, Gary, this is Chang-rae Lee from Hunter and I just want to say I think your book is amazing.” And I thought, Oh my god, I’m dying to go. But I was already my mother’s “little failure.” I wasn’t going to law school. So going to Cornell would at least give me some kind of cachet. [Shteyngart went to Oberlin undergrad.]

CL: Plus, he’s getting some money from them, a lot of money.

GS: So you know, they could tell their friends, “Our son is kind of a failure, but at least he’s going to Cornell for something.” And Hunter to them was like, just the ultimate stab in the heart.

CL: At this point where were they with you in terms of —

GS: Very disappointed. The term “little failure” was only invented a few years before. But then a few weeks later, I also had a book deal!

CL: I don’t remember the timing so well, but I said to him: “Listen, my editor will love this. If she doesn’t, someone else will. I promise you, I will hook you up.”

GS: I wouldn’t have given up Cornell without knowing — I think it was April 15 when I met [Lee’s then-editor, Cindy Spiegel] and the deadline for the Cornell decision was at some point then. So I did go to Hunter. Chang-rae asked me not to tell anyone in the class that I had a book deal, and I would submit stuff that was already going to be published, and the critiques were hilarious. This woman kept saying, “Oh, you’re clever by half. Clever by half!” And then when the book was published she was like, “Oh, it’s great! Who’s your agent?” Your typical MFA kind of stuff.

NY: It’s interesting how much you admire each other’s work, which is vastly different.

GS: But his stuff can be incredibly funny too.

CL: I like to think so.

GS: And I sometimes dabble in seriousness a little bit. There’s a Venn diagram that overlaps.

CL: I agree that we are, on the surface of things, very very different. But underneath the hilarity, the sharpness, the wit, there was a connection that I made with Gary’s work that made me not just laugh out loud, but fall in love with it. It’s the outside sensibility that Gary has, which is melancholic and self-deprecating at base, and always probing and restless. The heart, the soul, that’s the part that made me think: It’s not just that he’s a great writer. This is work that’s important to me as a reader.

GS: And to jump off of that, I teach Native Speaker in my “Immigrants à Gogo” fiction class at Columbia. I read it every year, and there are phrases like “my mother’s happy kimchi breath” that bowl me over. I didn’t know one had permission to write like this about one’s ethnicity. I was absolutely shocked that one could get away with that. And I didn’t see that with a lot of immigrant writers. I still don’t. I can think of Junot Díaz, a few other immigrant writers, but there’s a lot of this sort of endless overcoming of obstacles, racism, the triumph over adversity, and off we go. And that’s not what Chang-rae writes.

NY: Aren’t you both also writing against the pressure to be a “model minority”?

CL: Listen, we both had a lot of anxiety growing up, about the dream for ourselves as writers. I think any immigrant kid is going to feel that. I don’t know about Gary, but it’s something that I still wear uneasily sometimes.

NY: Didn’t you spend a year as an investment banker?

CL: Yeah, and that was obviously a nod to my parents. All the years of their hard work and sacrifice, I didn’t want them to have nothing. What an asshole I would be!

NY: Was your father anything like the brutally strict striver in Native Speaker?

CL: Not at all. I always describe that man as a muscle of a man, brutish, expedient, unintellectual, right? And my father is a bookish psychiatrist. He became a doctor, but he was afraid of blood. He loved German literature and music. But really, I think it was my anxiety about my dad being that way secretly, because a lot of my Korean-American friends’ fathers were exactly like that. Just a brutal, tough son of a bitch.

GS: You know, I’m married to a Korean woman, and her parents have stories of such brutality during the war that nobody could understand them except for somebody who has lived through Hitler and Stalin. I think there is an incredible amount of anxiety that comes along with being at the butt-end of history for such a long time. And just like Soviet Jews, who feel themselves a minority, Koreans are a small nation surrounded by larger nations who mistreat Korea. And then there’s a love of cabbage that I think really unites us in a serious way.

CL: And potatoes, in the form of soju.

GS: I love Korean food more than Russian food, but I do prefer the vodka to the soju, which needs to strengthen up.

CL: Well, we don’t eat potatoes. We only drink potatoes.

NY: Both of you have written about craving American fast-food as kids, being embarrassed about what your parents cooked.

GS: When I was growing up, when I went to Stuyvesant High School, Chinese kids would hide in the bathroom eating squid. But now that food is totally hip! The world has really changed, and nowadays one no longer feels the way that I did being Russian.

CL: Well, back then, food was the flash point for a lot of heartache. I remember one of my Korean friends saying his friends came over, and they said “Oh my God, what the fuck is that smell!” It was doenjang, a Korean miso. And it literally does smell like shit. He had to admit that that’s what they were eating.

GS: Now I think Americans are so bored with themselves, they desperately cling to an identity that’s not American. People come up to me, they’re like, “Hey, I’m Russian too!” And I say, Guvarity paroosky? And they say, “I don’t know what that means, but five generations ago my great-great grandmother lived in Minsk.” So people want to have an identity.

CL: I never rejected it. I just felt it was something private. Growing up in Westchester, I was fairly well-integrated. I had only white friends, who made it a point to say, “You’re one of us and we don’t mind that you’re Korean.” That’s not to say that there weren’t certain anxieties that were unaccessed.

GS: I was mortified at being Russian, just because of the Cold War. People really hated me just for being Russian in Hebrew School, and I had to pretend I was German — in Hebrew School! “I was born in East Berlin.” In Stuyvesant, everyone was from somewhere — but at Oberlin, I realized, Holy shit, I can really get some action here! I can wear a whole Cossack outfit and a big fur hat.

CL: Now imagine, if you knew then what you know now, all the Korean girls you could have gotten.

GS: Oh my God! I would have brought them all kimbop! I would have not done drugs. I would have taken the LSATs early. I would have gone to the Bible crusade in Madison Square Garden.

CL: Because that’s where we would meet, at church. All the girls were into church, especially the cute ones. I don’t know what that was.

GS: My first Korean girlfriend, I met at an event that Chang-rae was hosting at Hunter College. And you sort of introduced me as the prize pig because I had a book deal. So you got me laid, you know.

CL: I understood your proclivities.

GS: I always had a great relationship with Koreans. It took me my first book deal for Korean girls to start liking me.

CL: But I thought it was Stuyvesant!

GS: No, they were very unattainable. Because I was with the stoner crowd, and they all hung out on the other side of Stuyvesant Park.

CL: The violin crowd?

GS: The violin crowd, and the Jesus-loving crowd.

NY: You’re both going in new directions with your books. Gary, you write that in your first novel you’d often “turn away from the truth,” and here you are heading straight for it. Was the humor in your novels a form of misdirection?

GS: No! Everything that happened in the novel happened to me. I mean, I wasn’t involved with the Russian mob in Prague, but I went to Prague, I met all these crazy people. The parents were not exactly my parents, but much more successful and opportunistic versions of my parents, what my parents would be like if they lived in Great Neck instead of Little Neck. So it was a projection of what they wanted to be and who I was worried I was. But in fiction, you always take the truth and decide what to do with it. When you’re writing a memoir, there’s only the truth. You can embellish it, but you can’t change the plot. You can mess with the sequence of events.

CL: You can talk to James Frey.

GS: Wait till I’m exposed as a complete fraud. I’m actually a Minnesota farmer who’s never been to Russia, [or] Hebrew School. The truth is gonna come out. I’m not even Jewish. Why am I eating all this pork?!

NY: More important, what will your parents think? They come off as complicated but borderline abusive. Did you run anything by them?

GS: No, nothing. They haven’t read it.

CL: Really? He may not have a relationship with them pretty soon. But the funny thing about people is even if it’s non-fiction, they tend not to recognize themselves.

NY: Chang-rae, what have your parents thought of your novels?

CL: Well, my mother died a long time ago, before I became a writer. My dad professes to, but he says he has no opinion because his English isn’t good enough. So it’s very easy that way.

NY: But they’re translated into Korean.

CL: Yeah, but then he says it’s a terrible translation. He doesn’t want to go there, I guess.

GS: You’re a rock star in Korea, whereas when I go to Russia the headlines are like, “Balding Traitor Betrays Motherland.” That hasn’t changed and I don’t think will change if this book is translated. [Shteyngart was recently listed on an extremist site as a “Pathological Russophobe” who should be denied entry into the country.]

CL: Koreans only like me because they feel like I’m their one chance maybe to get a Nobel Prize. And the only reason for that is that I ended up on [the betting site] Ladbrokes one year. They showed me at 30-to-1 odds. That’s not bad.

NY: You both do go back all the time for research. What’s that like?

CL: When I was doing research for [his second novel] A Gesture Life, interviewing former sex slaves. For most of the interview, I could detach myself, do my work, keep my perspective, but about 80 percent of the way in, I felt this strange and very unexpected welling of emotion. There’s something anthropologically significant about being in a room with people who share your bloodlines talking about these things, rather than having it reported to you. I could easily imagine my grandmother being one of these women. It was a very, very moving experience for me. Immigrant fiction is about legacy. That’s why I think Gary has written his memoir.

GS: That’s right. How many immigrants of our generation who came at 3 or 7, they have an identity, or they have a connection to their parents, but they don’t dwell in it, try to explore it. They live only in the present. And I’m not saying that’s bad, but the job of the artist is to explore and to try to figure out how — this book that I wrote is just basically how I became me through how my parents became who they were. That’s all of it.

NY: You’ve both seemingly invented a new sub-genre: the immigrant-dystopian novel. Super Sad revolves around an affair between Russian and Korean immigrants, and On Such a Full Sea, set in a fractured America, takes place largely in a future Baltimore resettled by Chinese refugees.

CL: This is what I want to say: All immigrant novels are dystopian novels. They’re just not dystopias for most of the readers.

GS: Yes, because you’re dealing with an alternate society, where things aren’t working out so well.

CL: Where all the rules are upside down —

GS: Exactly —

CL: Where people don’t see you as fully human, where you don’t speak the language, and where all the conduct and practices are a mystery and maybe sometimes dangerous.

GS: Yes, exactly, but also, Chang-rae comes from a society that was, by 1953, almost completely obliterated, I come from a society that obliterates itself every 30 years. There is a dystopian element to where we’re from. But Chang-rae, wasn’t it fun to write this?

CL: I don’t know about fun, but I wanted to free myself of everything that I’d ever done. I wanted to be at liberty in both content and form.

NY: Gary, did you write Super Sad to free yourself formally?

GS: Well, I loved science fiction growing up, but it was very liberating in the sense that I could do whatever the hell I wanted to society. I could change the rules whenever I want. Writing a memoir is the opposite. You can play around with it, but you can’t change the plot. Although coming to America, that for me was like science fiction. There were a lot of cheesy science-fiction films I grew up seeing in Russia, but then you see a Chevy Corvette and you think, Oh, so that’s what the future actually looks like. It’s not like a spaceship on a string bobbing around.

NY: Were these departures also about changing the idea of yourselves as immigrant-lit specialists?

GS: Every writer develops a reputation for certain things they do well, and there is the Philip Roth or William Faulkner question: Do you specialize in Newark, New Jersey, or Wappwahamma, whatever county? One of the reasons I wrote this memoir is that I wanted to write something that was completely different. I think Chang-rae already embarked on that, and that was in Super Sad as well, because I had a Korean female character there.

NY: In fact, you vetted that with Chang-rae for cultural sensitivity, right?

CL: I told him people would be upset, but who cares!

GS: And they actually weren’t that upset. In fact, sometimes when I’ll do a signing, a Jewish nebbish will walk up with this cute Korean girlfriend and he’ll be like, “I’m just like Lenny!” And she’ll say, “I’m just like Eunice! I shop all day long and I have no other interests!” I think Russians are much crueler to me than Koreans. I think Koreans are wonderful.

CL: It was clearly written out of love, there’s no question.

GS: I do hate ethnic pride. I remember marching in the Israeli day parade in Hebrew school, thinking, So we’re better than everyone? It never made any sense to me. Wherever I go, I see the glories of people and their follies as well. It’s always so obvious.

CL: And the people leading those ethnic pride parades are those members of your group that you probably least admire.

GS: I never want to lead an ethnic pride parade, that’s my goal.

NY: But if Super Sad felt liberating, how did the memoir feel?

GS: This was literally journalism in the sense that I had to sit there, take notes. I got to know your friend the recorder quite well. Huge interviews with my parents and a huge trip with them back to Russia, and they haven’t been back to Russia in 35 years. That all happened there, and maybe you shouldn’t give it away.

NY: Suffice it to say that some traumatic and revealing memories popped up. You didn’t see them coming when you started the book?

GS: Many things happened that I didn’t know about, at least consciously. But when I came back from that trip to Russia, I was as depressed as I’ve ever been in my life. I’d never been on SSRIs. They were a disaster. They didn’t work, I got fat.

NY: Chang-rae, your father was a psychiatrist. Did you ever go into therapy?

CL: I did therapy because I had a dark period after writing A Gesture Life. Because the narrator of that book is a monster.

GS: Really? I never thought that of him.

CL: He’s a total monster. Living inside his head, and also my first child was being born … But you know, my dad was a pharma psychiatrist. There was no sense in our house that we would be talking about this or that. Although when I did go to see that kind of therapist, just to talk through things, I really enjoyed it!

NY: Gary, your book is dedicated to your parents and your therapist. Are you still with the latter?

GS: Yeah, I’m finishing up. This is probably the last year. What’s so crazy is that I’m ending analysis, I just had a kid, and I’m publishing this memoir at the same time.

CL: I couldn’t believe Gary would have kids!

GS: Really?! You really couldn’t believe that?

CL: I’m still amazed! And when I see the pictures I think, Where did you get this, off the Internet? He’s a cute kid. I mean his wife is beautiful, so I can sort of understand it …

GS: Well, he’s starting to look like me, so let’s try to move that along. Though I think he looks Asian, schnoz-wise.

CL: Thank goodness. But it may come out in puberty.

GS: So what do I do, just press on it?

CL: No, Gangnam!

GS: Ah! The plastic-surgery district [in Seoul]. Gangnam-style!

NY: You both seem to have had a lot of pressure growing up. What are you doing differently as parents?

CL: My older daughter, who’s 16, said to me the other day, “I wish you guys had been more like Tiger Parents.” I’m definitely not like my mother was. My mother was supremely organized, meticulous in terms of our family life, and a very sweet woman, but very hard driving with us. I’m probably the worst parts of my mother, tough and impatient, but more mercurial. I don’t have a program to my rage. Laid back, but then with fits.

GS: Sounds great, I’ll take that. Not being born in the Soviet Union was a huge plus for my kid.

NY: What was it like, Gary, plumbing your childhood traumas while expecting your first child?

GS: It was a really full-circle kind of moment. I realized one thing: If my kid ends up being a Republican Hassid somewhere, so be it. But one thing I have to do is respect choices that the kid makes. In the culture where I grew up, you were an extension of your parents, and it still is impossible for my parents to realize that I have different political opinions, that I may want to live my life differently, that I’m not them, I’m my own person. And that’s what I want my kid to be. I don’t want him to be this!

CL: I think my parents, my mother not so much, but my dad was much more open — and that’s why when I became an English major, there was not this storm of tears and hand-wringing that I did hear about from my other Korean friends.

NY: And you wouldn’t have those tears, obviously.

CL: I certainly wouldn’t want them to be writers.

GS: Jesus Christ. I mean, air conditioning and refrigerator repair would be nice. But writing, my God.

NY: Gary has been vocally gloomy about the future of your profession. Do you share that pessimism, Chang-rae?

CL: I share his pessimism about what people would be paid for them. I think great books will always be written. How we value them is changing. And monetarily, I think they’ll always be worth something, but —

GS: How much is the question.

NY: Gary, you’re working on a TV script of Super Sad.

GS: They take forever, but we just started. It’s Media Rights Capital, they did House of Cards and other stuff. Yeah, I’m working with a co-writer and he’s flying in for the pilot. I’m having so much fun!

CL: But how about the assholes that tell you what to do?

GS: It’s not as much of a problem as it used to be.

CL: So they’re actually smart?

GS: I think they’re pretty smart.

CL: And they’re not venal?

GS: What I’ve learned is, the smaller the pie, the more insane the people. I’ve worked in nonprofits where they’re murdering each other. These people are more generous. It’s not that they’re not competitive.

NY: Chang-rae, what about you? I smell a trilogy in Full Sea, which ends on a cliffhanger.

CL: I didn’t say “To Be Continued”! But I think I would pursue a next chapter in a different medium, or a TV show.

GS: Fifty years ago, it wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. Fifty years ago, I would have been doing laps with John Cheever in his pool.

CL: Yeah, but don’t forget, Agee, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, they all did movie business.

GS: Well, often with terrible results. I like Hollywood, though. Honestly, if I were a generation younger, I probably would have started with TV instead of books.

NY: You two obviously have different media strategies. I don’t see Chang-rae doing a trailer in which he makes out with James Franco.

CL: I’m not that way. I have a Facebook account, but I don’t really do much in it.

GS: I do Twitter.

CL: Yeah, you’d be perfect for Twitter. I don’t do Twitter.

GS: [I have] 32,000 followers. You’ve got to be there and chat with Salman. I love Salman, my god. Everything you could ever want!

NY: And yet you got Jonathan Franzen, Twitter’s sworn enemy, to cameo in your online book trailer. Did you write his dialogue?

GS: I sent him the script, and he said absolutely. It was really funny. We showed up in his apartment, and I think he put all the Freedoms behind him, you know. He was such a great sport.

NY: Back in the ancient world of print, what’s next for both of you?

GS: I’m thinking of doing a thriller. Three months of the year I’m abroad, for book tours or for Travel and Leisure. I want to do a thriller set in, say, Shanghai, Bombay, Dubai, Brazil. With maybe a non-Russian-Jewish female character in the lead.

CL: Korean?

GS: Let’s do half, how’s that? Let’s split the difference.

CL: Half-Korean hot spy with killer instincts.

GS: Woo! We’ll do a focus group. We’ll have readers write in.

CL: Did you read about how they can now digitally track where readers are skimming? And there’s this one writer that comes on and says, “I love that information.” God! You are not a writer, are you? What are we running, candy shops?

GS: Can you imagine publishers sending you one of these reports? “Most readers didn’t like when the balding Jewish guy appeared, dispensing humor.”

CL: “You should keep doing four subordinate clauses instead of six.”

NY: What’s in Chang-rae’s future, focus-grouped or not?

CL: I once abandoned a social-realist novel about China, about factory workers, and that’s sort of what informed the novel I’m working on. I’d done all the research. I want to write this kind of picaresque, rollicking novel all over Asia.

GS: Picaresque rules.

CL: Formally, I think there’s a lot left to do. It’s totally wide open. That’s what excites me about the next work, not necessarily the content. I mean, look, I’m not some radical.

GS: Amen.

CL: I mean, I’m not John Cage in letters.

GS: I’m not even Peaches in letters. Although I used to have the build.

CL: But I want to continue to be curious and interest myself.

GS: You’re doing books quicker now.

CL: I feel like I’ve got to get it out. My goal when I was younger was, well, DeLillo had written ten novels, and I said that would be excellent.

GS: That’s my goal too! Ten books, that’s all I want.

CL: Ten interesting novels. Ten novels that would each have its fans. That would be great. But now I’m thinking no, I don’t think I can do it.

GS: Of course you can! Every three or four years, you’ll be fine. In Buenos Aires, there’s a government pension for any writer who’s published five books. You have to take Argentine citizenship, which is $800 and an empanada. So you’re there, and I need one more book. [Actually, the pensions are only open to natives.]

NY: You both teach fiction, and you’ve mentored other immigrant writers. Where do you see that type of fiction going?
GS: A lot of my students are not immigrants, per se, but are students from India or Pakistan or Afghanistan. They’re foreign, but educated at Yale, at Cornell, or whatever, and the weird thing is that Americans hate books in translation. They don’t want to read about smelly people being smelly in their own language. They want immigrants to be the bridge. And what I’m seeing is a lot of students coming to schools like Columbia who are not immigrants. They are actually people that come from that place and go to American schools, and their bridge leans more toward their side of the world.

CL: Like Mohsin Hamid. He’s not am immigrant.

GS: He’s a great example. He lives in Lahore, shit. It’s now not so much immigrant culture as global culture. It’s bounced around.

CL: I see much more of that. They’re from Nigeria, Singapore, Malaysia. And my white, American students are pushing themselves too. I get very little domestic-type fiction. There is some element of either fantasy, magical realism, something to skew the narrative. That seems like a given, and I applaud that. I don’t get a lot of stories about families on Nantucket, having —

GS: I haven’t read about a divorce in Scarsdale in years.

CL: I’m even more excited about the fiction now that I’m reading than even ten years ago, when I started teaching.

GS: Fiction is good. If it had a readership, it would be even better, but it’s good.

NY: What do you think, then — should it be subsidized?

GS: Let me say this. I was the judge of a Canadian prize, and it’s subsidized, they all get grants. Out of a million entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people just don’t take the same damn risks! Maybe they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is. Now, I’m as leftist as can be —

NY: No, you’re not.

GS: Having suckling pig at Maialino, I think all of us are bourgeois pigs, in a sense. We should all have an apple in our mouth.

CL: Spit-roasted!

NY: Neither of you seem very conflicted about material pleasures — not so much as the average writer, anyway. Is that an immigrant thing?

GS: I can say without a doubt: I love pleasures.

CL: You grab it while you got it! You’re not gonna let it go by.

GS: I never understood the aristocrats and privileged Wasps. You go to their wonderful estate, and then they serve you crap. It’s just shocking! Why be alive?

CL: I think maybe there’s some part of us feels like it’s gonna be snatched from under us, like this whole thing is a game.

GS: If somebody buys me a suckling pig, I will eat such pig. It’s so funny because the next generation will be like, “Oh, the pig is too rich, I’ll have the kale.” But we’re still in the pig stage of development.

Gary Shteyngart and Chang-rae Lee Pig Out