This blazingly fast and funny semi-autobiographical novel follows a Russian man's comically earnest pursuit of the American dream. As a child, Alex, living in 1950s Siberia with his parents and grandparents, sees a picture of his American-born second cousin, Annie, and he believes he has found his destiny. Throughout his formative sexual experiences, he fantasizes about Annie, who embodies the exoticness of Western culture and the wholesomeness of the American dream. By the late 1970s, when Alex's parents decide to decamp for the U.S., Alex packs up his wife and their young daughter, too, and after the trio land in upstate New York, Alex goes to work at the IBM-like HAL Corporation while his wife, Lyuba, an internist, takes longer to settle in. At first, Alex is content with his new freedom-loving democratic identity, but as his children grow and Lyuba becomes more independent the dream begins to lose its sheen. The novel is hilarious, eye-opening and, by the end, a little depressing. It's tough not to have Alex's buoyant energy rub off on the reader.
I talked to Mark over email about the novel:
Tania: How long did it take you to write this book and what was the first section you wrote?
Mark: Well, it took me all my life to write it, but it took me two years to actually put it on paper. I wrote chapter 1 first.
T: What a neat answer, to have started with chapter 1. It took you all your life because it is, more or less, your life story? What made you start two years ago?
M: Original, too. Yes, it's my life story, however I fictionalize it to protect the innocent (I am guilty myself, so I need no protection). My younger daughter urged me to put the book on paper.
T: Was it a story you used to tell your daughters at bedtime? Did they already know a lot of it? Or did she urge you to write it down because she wanted to know?
M: No, I actually kept it mostly to myself. She wanted to know.
T: How was it, exploring something you had kept to yourself for so long? What did it bring up for you? Was it cathartic? Are there parts of Alex that are definitely not you and did this make the process of writing the book easier?
M:It was like quenching thirst. I should have written the book earlier, but I was ashamed to expose myself to the readers. So, yes, it was cathartic, physiologically speaking. As for Alex, he is more adventurous than I am and less inhibited. That's why I made him my spokesman.
T: Quenching a thirst, that's a great way to describe writing a novel! Perhaps you couldn't have written it earlier, I believe things come out when they come out - maybe you weren't thirsty enough before? You have described the book as "a novel in flash stories". You are the editor of the wonderful flash fiction magazine Vestal Review, which publishes stories under 500 words in print and online. What do you love about flash? And was this a conscious choice to write your novel this way?
M: I like the economy and the energy of flash. The ability to say a lot with a few words. As for your question if it was a conscious choice, writing is part art and part science. So you can plan but you need to improvise. Yes, I wanted the chapters to be short, but sometimes they spilled beyond my intended boundaries.
M: When you are a sole author rather than a co-editor, it's like driving your own sports car rather than a rented minivan. Unfortunately, my publisher does very little promotion except for sending a copy to book reviewers. I do most of the work myself through my website and blog, contacting reviewers, blogs and publications. I find reviews of the books that are similar to mine and send a reviewer an e-mail asking if they would be interested in my book.
T: Ok, last question: What's your next project?
M: I have several. A new anthology I co-edit will come come next year from Persea. We still need to add more stories to it. My agent is looking for a home for my next completed novel about two immigrants in search of a diamond.
And I am writing a novel about Lenin.
Busy man! Thanks so much to Mark for taking the time to answer my questions, I wish him much success with My Life at First Try. You can find out more about Mark on his website.