David Bezmozgis was born in Riga, Latvia, and immigrated to Canada with his family when he was six years old. He is the author of Natasha and other stories and The Free World After spending week in Israel in October 2012, he was interviewed by Janice Weizman, author of The Wayward Moon and editor of The Ilanot Review.
Janice Weizman: What gave you the idea for the story of The Free World?
David Bezmozgis: It began with an interest in this peculiar aspect of the emigration of Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, the interval in Italy—in Rome and the surrounding towns—when thousands of these Soviet Jews found themselves living in Italy waiting for some country to accept them. I thought this was fertile ground for a novel. This encounter between Soviet people and the West—in Rome of all places—seemed to me dramatic and compelling. The experience was both romantic and traumatic. The emigrants experienced a mix of liberation and disorientation. And setting the novel at this time enabled me to address not only the present tense experience in Italy but also to invoke the past that had shaped them—the Soviet past which is receding farther and farther into obscurity.
JW: Can you talk a little about your process of character development for the story?
DB: The intention of the book was to present to the reader a complement of characters who—while fully and individually human—would also serve to reflect different types of Soviet people. For instance, Samuil, the patriarch of the family, is reflective of many people of his generation, Jews who put their faith in Communism, hoping that it would improve the dreadful circumstances of the Russian Jews. His sons, Karl and Alec, born after the time of the pogroms, after WWII, and after Stalin, no longer feel their father’s burning passion for communism. For them, it is mostly hypocrisy and they are eager to look to the West. Other characters offer other perspectives, all of which were to be found at the time. Taken together, they should show the complex and often contradictory nature of Soviet Jews.
JW: Rome and its neighborhoods are portrayed in great detail in the book. Can you describe how you went about doing the geographical research?
DB: I lived in Rome for four months to get familiar with the city and also the surrounding towns that feature in the novel, Ladispoli in particular.
JW The mindset of Samuil, the staunch communist, comes across very clearly. It was fascinating to see how he justified Communism and distrusted the Capitalist west. Was it challenging to get inside his head? Which Characters were trickier for you to envision and create? Why?
DB: I suppose what was difficult about Samuil was coming to terms with the fact that someone could think so ideologically and staunchly. I read a great deal about the Soviet era, and particularly about the revolutionary and Stalinist period. What struck me most was the fervor of the communists’ beliefs, how deeply they had internalized the dogma. So many were willing to offer their lives for the revolution and, even during the time of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, refused to attribute the injustice to communism or Stalin. There was a willful blindness. Or, tp put it differently, faith. Once I understood this and accepted it, I was able to write from Samuil’s perspective. The challenge was reminding myself that such people were once very common, even if today they are practically extinct.
JW: When you wrote The Free World, what was important to you that readers take from the story?
DB: The Free World is a complement, of sorts, to my first book, Natasha and Other Stories. Natasha was a book about the experience of Russian Jewish immigrants to North America in the 1980s and 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews settled there at the time and I wrote the book because I hadn't seen anyone treating this subject. North America has a rich tradition of immigrant writing and, more specifically, Jewish immigrant writing. This last wave of immigration continued that tradition. It also happened to be my family's story and mine.
The Free World accounts for the parts of the story that preceded the action in Natasha--which is to say life in the Soviet Union and the experience of leaving that country. Little was known in the West about the reality of the Soviet Union and of the particular experiences of Soviet Jews. It is true of Canada and the U.S. that the idea of Jewish immigration from Russia was at least half a century out of date. The images that predominated had to do with the Holocaust, if not with Fiddler on the Roof. The Free World tells the updated story of Russian Jews and of Soviet life. If these Russian immigrants who now populate so many cities in the West seem strange or hard to comprehend, the book is there to help explain why they are the way they are and what unique forces have shaped this community of people.
And, of course, at the very heart of both books is the belief that the lives of these people are sufficiently interesting and dramatic to justify a reader's attention.
JW: What was the most challenging aspect of the process of writing The Free World, and how did you attempt to overcome it?
DB: I found the sheer length of the novel to be hardest. It took some seven years to write and to sustain interest in a project for such a long time was difficult. One overcomes it the way one overcomes any difficulty, by persevering.
JW: Which do you prefer, writing short stories or novels? Why? Which do you prefer as a reader?
DB: I prefer short stories. I prefer writing them and reading them. Most of my favorite works of literature are stories. I admire the concision. But not every story can be short. And, for various reasons, in the past ten years I’ve written very few stories and have instead written one novel and am now engaged in writing another.
JW: You’ve said in other interviews that the writer Leonard Michaels was an important influence on your development as a writer. What was it about his writing that appealed to you?
DB: It was a combination of his subject and his style. He wrote about secular Jewish life in North America in a way that seemed authentic and familiar to me. He grew up on the Lower East Side in the 1940s and 1950s. His characters are both physical and cerebral. This was similar to my experience growing up thirty years later in a community of Soviet Jewish immigrants. But even more than that was the quality of Michaels’s prose, the meticulous attention to detail, the richness and vibrancy of the language. And the very distinct impression that not a single word was gratuitous. I held and still hold his prose as a model.
JW: Your roots are Russian, but you basically grew up in Canada. Is there anything about the Canadian experience that you would like to explore it in future writing?
DB: I feel I have written a great deal about the Canadian experience. All the stories in Natasha are set in Toronto and so too a couple others that I have written since. The experience of growing up in a Russian immigrant neighborhood is part of the Canadian experience.