(Interviewed by Andrea Nolen.)
1. My husband has been a wrestling fan since he was young; he introduced me to it and I enjoy learning about the wrestlers, how they developed their stage personalities, etc. How did you find wrestling? Are you drawn more to the fight, or the back story or something else?
I remember I first discovered wrestling on a Saturday morning: Cyndi Lauper was managing a wrestler named Wendy Richter in a match against Leilani Kai, who was managed by the legendary Fabulous Moolah. The internet tells me this happened in early 1985, so I would have been nine years old. During the match Moolah attacked Cyndi Lauper outside the ring, choking her until she “passed out” and needed “medical attention.” I was so excited by the whole affair I rushed to tell my dad all about it, and I was devastated by his response: “You know that’s all fake, right?” I guess I knew it was, but why did I have to worry about that? It was still wild to see something like this on TV, especially back then when we only had five lame channels. I watched wrestling whenever I could as I was growing up, and eventually I got my dad to take me to the (then) WWF house shows when they came to town.
I do get a charge from the wrestling itself – there’s nothing like watching a guy perform a frog splash or suplex — but it’s the literary aspect of the WWE that really keeps me watching. These huge stadium spectacles are perfect settings to explore conflict metaphors between all sorts of archetypal and symbolic characters, and the feuds are held together by storylines not unlike the narratives I try to craft in my own writing. The more talented “mike men” among the wrestlers deliver monologues that are cerebral, poetic, and at times even Shakespearean. Sometimes it is melodrama, sometimes epic, sometimes morality play and sometimes straightforward coliseum sport. It also has its own mythology and folklore. Garish and violent it may be, but there’s no arguing that it’s quite literary. I think wrestling makes its audience think more critically than they do when they watch ultimate fighting or football.
2. On your website, http://thespectacleofexcess.wordpress.com/, you write about music, international affairs and even philosophy through the lens of wrestling. What inspired you to create the blog?
I started watching WWE again about a year ago after mostly losing track of it for the better part of a decade when I didn’t have cable. Wrestling evolves constantly to keep the audience interested, so the product I’m watching now is entirely changed from what it was when I left off – the roster is full of new wrestlers, the show’s focus is increasingly television drama and internet spectacle rather than live side show, and the entire tone has changed, I think because Stephanie McMahon, the next generation of wrestling mogul, has taken over creative direction from her father Vince. They’ve also created what amounts to an archive of their own history with their new WWE network. So I’ve really been getting into the new product, and my husband and I have taken to amusing ourselves with own layer of commentary and pontification while we watch, mine of course focused on the literary aspects of the show.
Back when I was going to indy wrestling shows in Las Vegas, I made friends with some of the smarks — that’s the name for the fans who really study wrestling, understand the art and athletics inside and out and always have an opinion about which way the storyline should go. They might not know how to talk about archetypes and metaphors, but these people have their own concerns and a vast, colorful vocabulary of jargon unique to wrestling. They taught me way more about narrative and character than I learned in my MFA program. So I found a notebook from that era in which I was writing the kind of smark lit-crit I’m writing now, and I remembered how much fun it was to write that stuff. Back in the day I didn’t show anybody my wrestling writing because I felt like my wrestling and literary interests had to stay separate or worlds would collide – the MFA people would think I was a wingnut and the wrestling folks would think I was a snooty intellectual. But more recently I stopped caring so much about what people think, so it seemed like a good time to start writing about wrestling again and putting it out there on the internet to see what happens.
3. You were enrolled in an MFA program, what are your thoughts on the MFA scene?
The MFA program has always struck me as a pyramid scheme. You enroll naïve, thinking becoming a writer sounds so romantic and here’s a way to learn how to do it and maybe even become a professor! But you soon discover the system is churning out so many graduates it’s nearly impossible to get the professor gigs even if you do publish a book, which is very difficult to do as well because the book market is flooded with supply from all these people coming out of the MFA programs with you who are all writing books that only interest a small audience. So you put in all this effort for an advanced degree and discover you’re still going to have to wait tables or take a soul-crushing, poverty-level adjunct professor job to pay your rent. The people who bought in early on the pyramid got some pretty cush gigs – tenured professorships, grants and such – but even many of them are dissatisfied because the academic literary world is very insular and demanding, full of burdensome teaching loads, university obligations and awkward cocktail parties, about which there have been more than enough books written already, so what will they write about? And when will they even find time to write? A writer visiting our program once floated the idea that MFA programs should have a vocational requirement so writers emerge with a useful skill like plumbing or welding. That way they could earn a decent paycheck and work in the real world, because that’s where the good stories are. It’s a great idea but as far as I know it hasn’t materialized anywhere.
The nature of an MFA workshop is also inherently problematic. My advisor used to tell us we should really be sharing our work with like-minded writers in salons and cafes, and that the MFA workshop is a flawed proxy for that culture in American society. Flawed it is indeed – you put your writing in front of a room full of strangers you didn’t choose to work with, most of whom don’t get where you’re coming from as an artist and haven’t yet learned how to be thoughtful critics. Not all of them are talented writers, either. They know they’re supposed to speak up in class, though, so most of them learn a formulaic critiquing method in which they dismantle anything unusual in your story and smooth any rough edges out of your sentences. I saw more than one talented writer get confused and disheartened enough to quit writing. And heaven forbid you write about fairies and spaceships or reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s only scorn for that nonsense in the MFA workshop (at least in my experience).
But all of that aside, the four years I spent working on my MFA were fabulous. I lived by my wits in Las Vegas, traveled around Eastern Europe in the summers, and managed to have huge blocks of free time for reading and writing. I met and discovered a number of cool writers from whom I learned a great deal. Some people complain about having to teach, but I liked teaching, and after the first year I was able to get awesome course assignments like Creative Writing, World Literature, and even Literary Theory. I also got serious about translating while I was an MFA student because my program had a translation requirement. I certainly got pissed off at the way the workshops would try to sanitize and domesticate my stories, but I decided early on that I would find a way to learn from everything that made me angry rather than let it crush my spirit and wreck my writing. My proudest work from that era was never published and looks immature to me now, but I would not be the writer/translator I am today if I hadn’t been able to dedicate those four years to reading, writing, and honing my craft. So even though the MFA scene is a debacle and has arguably damaged American letters, a determined writer can totally make it work to his or her advantage.
4. Can you tell us about some of the Russian punk fiction you’re translating?
I’ve been working with a writer named Vladimir Kozlov for several years – his work has been a self-study project for me to teach myself the art and craft of translation. I’ve published a number of his stories in various literary journals, and have a novel of his forthcoming soon called USSR: The Diary of a Perestroika Kid. Most of what I’ve translated is about growing up during the last few years of the Soviet Union, a childhood set against the background of a country on the verge of political and economic collapse. Vladimir uses “punk fiction” to describe his style of stark minimalism, in which he depicts the gritty reality of everyday life without any kind of embellishment or gloss. It’s an ethos that he says reminds him of early punk music, hence the name. There are occasional punks and hoodlums in his stories, too.
5. Translation is hard. What do you find most challenging about it?
For me the hardest part is finding a way to translate the cultural baggage that comes attached to the words and ideas of a Russian text. The texts I’m drawn to tend to be heavy in slang, profanity, regional dialects, technical jargon and obscure cultural references, stuff that’s hard to track down and even harder to render smoothly and accurately in English. This gets especially tricky because English words have their own cultural baggage, which has to be as unobtrusive as you can make it. You don’t want, for example, a Russian farmer to sound like he’s from Texas or a Russian teenager to sound like she’s a valley girl. It’s inevitable that something gets lost in the translation, but translators have to do their best to strike a balance that maintains the original essence as much as possible.
6. Do you have a favorite a) living and b) dead Russian author? Favorite US authors?
My favorite American writer is and probably always will be Thomas Pynchon. I’m one of those. Solzhenitsyn and Gogol are my most beloved dead Russian writers. I spend so much time translating these days that I don’t manage to read as many contemporary Russian writers as I would like, but I was totally dazzled by Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair last year. I’ll admit I comprehended only maybe a third of it. It’s kind of a Russian Gravity’s Rainbow.
7. What are your thoughts on DIY publishing verses traditional publishing? Do you have plans for publishing future work?
I think it’s great that some writers are having success eliminating the middle man this way, but my own experience with self-publishing has been a little dizzying. To explore the process Vladimir Kozlov and I self-published his novella “Number Ten” a few months ago and while the publishing itself went smoothly, I felt like a babe in the woods trying to promote an ebook that didn’t fit neatly into a genre. There’s this whole secondary market of consultants and websites who will promote your book and tons of places in the social networks to tell people about it, but in those realms it felt like droves of writers were promoting to a small number of interested readers. Everybody and their mom is publishing an ebook these days, so it’s really hard to make your book stand out in the listings without an eye-popping gimmick of some sort. In short, I haven’t yet cracked the code of how to get the novella seen beyond the people I knew would be interested in online Russian literature groups and such. It’s a dark and edgy coming-of-age story about an injured athlete, and I still feel like it has an audience out there somewhere I haven’t found a way to reach yet. Still, though, we were able to share his writing globally with ebook readers who I don’t think would have ever found it in a literary journal, and it can stay active as long as we want for future readers who might get interested in Kozlov’s work, so I don’t feel like my efforts were in vain. I actually came away from the project with a new appreciation for what editors and publishers bring to a book. Not that writers can’t do it themselves, but it certainly isn’t a cakewalk. I’m keeping it in mind as one option for future projects, but I’ll probably try to find a traditional or ebook publisher first.
8. Is there a website/publication you recommend for English speakers who want to learn more about what’s happening in Russian literature today?
My translator friend Lisa Hayden Espenschade is a tireless booster of Russian literature. She reads everything in Russian, usually before it’s translated, and then gives her honest assessmen on her blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf. She has become rather well-known in Russophile circles. I “discovered” Mikhail Tarkovsky, one of the authors I translate, in a post on her blog. Whenever I need a quick overview of a Russian writer, I look to see what she has to say.
9. What are you working on writing right now?
Besides translating Mikhail Tarkovsky’s Siberia stories and stories by Andrei Dichenko, a young cyberpunk and sci fi writer from Minsk who I’ve recently become friends with, I’m working on a book about my late grandfather Nick Gregovich, who I can best describe as an early twentieth century Arizona cowboy tycoon. He was a son of Serbian immigrants who built his own little cowboy village called Nicksville, which was fronted by his iconic saloon Nick’s Place, a popular drinking hole and gathering spot for miners, artists, cowboys, and the assorted misfits who passed through the area. Arizona was a new state and from what I gather law enforcement turned a blind eye on the lingering wild west stuff in the area, which allowed Nick to add a small gambling empire to his portfolio: slot machines stationed in establishments all over the county and a “lounge” attached to Nick’s Place for poker and roulette. He was also notorious in the region for a feud with the city of Tombstone over water rights and was featured in Life magazine as one of the first pilots in history to experiment with cloud-seeding in a plane he won in a poker game. I recently took up the project because most of Nicksville burned down in a wildfire a few years ago, and I realized all these amazing stories were at risk of getting lost and forgotten if I didn’t start digging them up and writing them down.
Thank you, Andrea!
Andrea Gregovich has been published in Pindeldyboz, New Geography and Liberty. Her translations have appeared in: Tin House, AGNI Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, 3:AM Magazine, BODY, Guernica, Cafe Ireal, and several anthologies. Gregovich’s translation of Mikhail Tarkovsky’s “Ice Flow” is forthcoming as the Russia story in Best European Fiction 2015 from Dalkey Archive Press.