The Trillium 25 Interview: David Bezmozgis

A Q&A with the author of The Free World
Image courtesy of HarperCollins CanadaImage courtesy of HarperCollins Canada
The Walrus
June 5, 2012
By Joseph MacKinnon

BORN: Riga, Latvia

RESIDES: Toronto, Ontario


SELECTED ADDITIONAL WORKS: L.A. Mohel (film, 1999); The Diamond Nose (film, 2000); Genuine Article: The First Trial (film, 2003); Natasha and Other Stories (2004); Victoria Day (film, 2009)

BIOGRAPHY: David Bezmogzgis moved to Canada at the age of six. After studying English literature at McGill University and fine arts at the Southern California School of Cinema-Television, he created his first documentary in 1999, entitled L.A. Mohel, capturing the busy lives of three mohels (Jewish ritual circumcisers) in Los Angeles. His debut short story collection, Natasha and Other Stories, won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book and was nominated for a Governor General's Award. Later, while a screenwriting fellow at Sundance Labs, he developed the feature film Victoria Day, about two teenagers relishing in the summer of 1988 while idolizing the music and culture of the '60s; in 2010, it was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Original Screenplay. Two summers ago, Bezmozgis made The New Yorker's watch list of 20 under 40; he is currently a fellow at the Harvard/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Free World was a New York Times Notable Book for 2011 and a Globe and Mail Best Books selection for 2011.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: Notwithstanding the praise The Free World has received from the Globe and Mail and the New York Times, has the validation of the Trillium nomination in particular changed your self-perception as a writer?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Not my self-perception as a writer—because only the act of writing affects that—but some sense of being included in the company of writers who have been associated with the Trillium Award over the past twenty-five years. It is impressive company.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: You've received praise for your filmmaking, but has the reception for this novel struck a different chord?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: This novel is more complex and ambitious than my previous work—film or prose. It was more of a challenge for me to write, and in some ways, more of a challenge for readers to read. It is historical and covers several decades; it is told from multiple points of view; it has a sprawling cast of characters, all with (to a non-Russian reader) difficult foreign-sounding names; and the central event it describes (the experience of Soviet Jews in Rome) is an obscure moment in history. I had, of course, intended the book to be accessible and enjoyable in spite of these superficial obstacles. But life has taught me to respect the power of superficial obstacles, and so whenever the book is recognized or appreciated I am particularly grateful.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: Between Natasha and Other Stories and The Free World, you've likely figured out what works and what doesn't work for you when it comes to writing and methodology. Do you have a particular writing ritual that helps you get going?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: I use a software program to block the Internet.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: Where do you like to write and where do you write best?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: I need four walls and a door. Preferably also a window. I cannot write in public places — although there was a time when I could.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: Is it important to pursue other interests and activities sidelong to your literary endeavours to keep your writing fresh? What are your preferred alternatives?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Reading. When possible, travel. But any form of getting out into the world — civilized or natural.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: Do you find that your involvement in film helps inform or shape your writing? Or have I invoked a false distinction between your two passions?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: It does in the conception of scenes. There is a dictum in film, as relates to economy: Get in late, get out early.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: What would you consider the best intellectual training for the would-be writer or filmmaker?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: Life experience. And engaging with different forms of art.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: If I'm not mistaken, you're currently a fellow at the Harvard/Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. What projects currently occupy your time? Are you currently writing something new? If so, do you mind shedding some light on the direction you're taking or the subject matter you're tackling?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: I am writing a novel called The Betrayers. It is set in present-day Crimea and is about two men who meet after some thirty years. One of these men betrayed the other to the KGB and thereby changed the courses of both their lives.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: In the academic and professional circles that you've entered at one time or another, I imagine you've heard a great deal of thoughtful feedback (not that reviews aren't thoughtful). Do you often read literary analyses of your writing or filmmaking? Has literary or film analysis and criticism ever prompted you to modify or re-evaluate your style or something you've written or shot? Or is it best to dismiss the murmurs of armchair critics altogether?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: What has most affected how I write comes from reading other writers, which is to say being influenced by their examples. I've also benefited from good editors, who have corrected bad habits and more besides. And I've also learned a lot in the process of teaching writing — as is often the case.

JOSEPH MACKINNON: The Free World takes a fresh, unique look at the lives of individuals in exile, particularly individuals among the Russian-Jewish diaspora in Italy. Could you tell us a little bit about the novel, what drove you to write it, and your personal connection to the questions asked and personalities engaged with therein?

DAVID BEZMOZGIS: The Free World came about as a kind of complement to Natasha and Other Stories. After Natasha, I felt that there was still a great deal about the Soviet Jews that I needed to address, namely everything that led to these people abandoning the Soviet Union and settling, in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, in America and Canada. I wanted, in The Free World, to leave an account of these people, a people who were forged in circumstances that no longer exist — Yiddish life in the Pale of Settlement and Soviet life in all its optimistic and terrible permutations from Lenin to Brezhnev. Much of this is now either forgotten or distorted by nostalgia.

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