Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Interview with Michael Alenyikov

I was completely taken by Ivan and Misha when I read it earlier this month; the interconnected short stories were moving, emotional, and intense without being overwrought. It's a collection that will stick with me, and so I was delighted when Michael Alenyikov agreed to answer my usual questions. Please read on to learn more about him, his writing, and his book.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

When I think of my "first story" there are really two that were written concurrently. One is a short piece about two boyfriends in NYC who argue about what to do on a day off, a late fall day that's unusually warm. One is an outdoor, sportsy kind of guy, the other is a stay at home and watch a foreign movie on TV. It's also their first anniversary as a couple. They compromise on going to Fire Island to fly a kite. There are several elements that in retrospect were examples of what I try for in my fiction: one was using a rather cliched setting -- gay guys on Fire Island -- but sending these two who'd never usually go there; and who go their to fly a kite of all things; also, it was my first stab at writing a sex scene. I wanted to see if I could write on where every aspect of it furthered the story and came from the characters' nature, not to just throw sex into it. The kite flying, which triggers a fight and then the sex, was a working out of their issues as a couple. The other element, which has been the one "agenda" I've had as a writer in all my work was to feature gay men without any self consciousness, i.e., to write with the same freedom as a straight writers. So my stories are rarely if ever "about being gay", per se, the stories are about stuff in their lives, but it includes their emotional and sexual lives as any other writer would, e.g, Phillip Roth doesn't sit down at his desk and think of himself as a hetero sexual writer.

Long answer. The other story, which is in the book -- "Who Did What To Whom" (it was written before I ever thought of Ivan and Misha -- so I wouldn't want to give away too much. But the character of Vinnie was based on a roommate of mine back in 1983-84. All I wanted to do when I started it was capture this very unique guy on paper. It's my only story where a character is based on someone I know or knew. What I learned writing that story was that just capturing someone on paper isn't enough; I still had to come up with a story! The other aspect of what that story was about -- and I didn't realize this until I was well into writing it -- was that I was trying to capture that two year period when no one knew what transmitted AIDS, only that it was vaguely to do with sex. I remember that period all too well.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Writing routines: Not really. I've been in a long running free write group and much of my material started as first draft free writes of 800 words at a time. I've been dealing with a serious chronic illness so writing regularly -- in my dreams -- is impossible. Typically, when I've generated enough material, I'll force myself to binge for a week or two to shape and revise the story into shape. Before my free write group was created ten years ago, I'd take writing classes with local writers and force myself to come up with stuff, revise to make the money I'd paid worth it. I also went to a summer writing conference nearby for several years, again it was a way to force myself to finish stories I'd begun.

Was Ivan and Misha the original title of your book?

"Ivan and Misha" started as a stand alone story (the book's prologue was part of it). An editor in NYC who'd read the half dozen stories I'd written up to then and was very taken with it. He suggested I write spin-off stories. I felt very bruised by the rejections to that first collection -- and the near misses, which hurt even more -- so I was angry and wouldn't do it. I spent two years writing a novella and another long short story. My agent stayed in touch with me and would gently remind me of how much he liked "Ivan and Misha" and two years later, I decided to give it a shot. I began with Louie's story, "Barrel of Laughs" and it went so well that I committed to the project. The book was always going to be titled Ivan and Misha from that point on. There was some suggestion of changing it from my publisher but I said absolutely no.

As you were writing Ivan and Misha, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Surprises? I'm an intuitive writer, which is another way of saying I never have a plot in mind, not ever. I begin with an opening line, an image, a character and as I write the story emerges, either as I write, or in between writing -- once I'm working on a story, ideas will come to me in the shower, just as I'm falling asleep, etc. So quite truthfully every thing in every story was a surprise to me as I wrote it. For example, initially I thought that I was writing an amusing story about two brothers from Russia and a harebrained scheme about telephone booths. But after a half dozen pages I had no idea who to do with those damn telephone booths, so I started delving deeper into each of my characters. The surprises are part of what makes me love writing: even now I'll re-read something I've written and genuinely wonder where the heck did that come from; I certainly had never sat down to write that scene, that line, etc. And, often, unplanned characters come out of nowhere. In the story from Smith's point of view, my intention was to write about his relationship with his sister, Joanne. But as I wrote, it became, for a while, more about his relationship with Misha and when I did finally bring in his sister, his mother came long from Ann Arbor and almost took over the story. So, the character of his mother was a huge surprise to me.

Also, the character of Taz in "Whirling Dervish". I hadn't even planned to write from Ivan's point of view but came up with an interesting way to open the story (it's no longer the opening) . . . and then Taz materialized and the story became about Ivan and Taz. And then as it evolved who and what Taz was -- to Ivan, and to himself -- kept changing and evolving into one surprise after another.

Read any good books recently?

I like to read. I have to admit that I'm envious of you book bloggers who can read so fast yet read intelligently. I was never that fast a reader and other than police procedurals (I've spent a lot of good hours with Henning Mankell's Swedish novels; and lately Phillip Kerr's Berlin detective, circa the 1930s). I'm currently reading David Grossman's To the End of the Land and just finished David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. While writing Ivan and Misha -- and really early on when I started writing long short stories, I devoured both William Trevor and Alice Munro's work. I think I may be reading longer novels again because I have 150 pages written toward something, and even though I've been reading novels since I was very young, I'm feeling the need to figure out how they are written, structured, etc.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

What do I like to do? Well, I read a lot. I'm a movie buff and actually studied filmmaking at a an NYU summer intensive program a ways back. I'm a news junkie. I most like hanging out with friends, traveling when I can. I'm limited in major ways by my chronic illness, which is an enormous frustration as it sets non negotiable limits on what I can do.

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My thanks to Mr. Alenyikov for his time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about him on his website. Check out my review for a giveaway of Ivan and Misha and to see other reviews, visit the other blogs on tour.


  1. I would love to read this. Great interview!

  2. I love the answers, particularly about being surprised by all that he writes....I feel that same way sometimes...and I like the honestly about his disappointment at "rejection" of a collection of stories. That's very real to me and resonated.

    Another great interview.