Chewing the fat with Gary Shteyngart at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, plus highlights from Vivid Sydney’s opening week. Illustration by Matt Kambic.
“The ‘Roo has got to go!” Gary Shteyngart says hungrily. Of all the primal red meat treats we’re trying at Sydney’s Ester, our pick is the flavoursome kangaroo tartare. It’s freshly ground up with deep fried capers and smoked oysters, and garnished with kangaroo floss.
“I think you and Philip Roth and Woody Allen have destroyed Judaism,” a woman once lambasted the hilarious, endearing satirist at an Upper West Side reading. He’s not strict re: kosher. “I have literally eaten ten different animals today,” beams the Russian New Yorker who gave us Absurdistan’s delightful glutton Misha Vainberg. We’re tucking into fried pig tails, part of a voluptuous spread including blood sausage sandwich, roasted bone marrow, and octopus.
Hugging a wombat and a koala was a trip priority. He proudly shows me the photos. “This koala looks like my uncle,” he says of one distinguished snap. Two drunken Australian women at the bar next to our table are amused by our interview; they repeatedly steal my dictaphone and yell profanities into it. “They’re fuckin’ vicious” one shrieks, ostensibly about the critters. “They cuddle you, and then they fuckin’ hate you… Welcome to Australia!”
As well as headlining the Sydney Writers Festival at photogenic Walsh Bay—further highlights include Irvine Welsh’s comedy, Reza Aslan’s fire, and A.M. Homes’s images (On France: “Everything begins with ‘It’s just not possible’”)—Shteyngart is writing an article on Australian food for Travel and Leisure. He’s putting in the hard yards in the last nine days of a 149-day hardback book tour for his memoir Little Failure.
After they emigrated from St Petersburg, Shteyngart’s babushka (grandmother) maintained her intense love, “expressed through a [at least weekly] three-hour gorging process” of Russian cuisine as they adjusted to New York life. “She would feed me like there was no tomorrow. I was a fat fucker, oh my God! My Bar Mitzvah suit was husky, specially made out of two suits.” We toast to still calming a nervous disposition with good food.
He laments Super Sad True Love Story was an epitaph for mass reading and quality fiction. I counter he’s very popular. “It’s a great age for literature in America, the problem’s just that nobody’s reading it. My audiences keep getting bigger but you know how hard I work to sustain them: I make out with James Franco, I’ll do anything. But not every writer has that in them. You’ve got to be a show person.”
He also took acting classes with Louise Lasser, Woody Allen’s second wife, to brush up for his book trailers. He described her as “hellfire” in Little Failure. “Everybody was crying in that class, which I guess is how you teach it. You just make them a little squealing gerbil of a person.”
I laugh about Misha Vainberg’s rapping. “I had to make up my own rap because I couldn’t license Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Fucking You Tonight’. I heard R. Kelly’s lawyers were too busy with that pissing lawsuit.” There will be lots of cool moments at Vivid Sydney gigs—Black Francis and the Pixies unleashing ‘Where Is My Mind?’, Lauryn Hill juicing up ‘Everything is Everything’, St Vincent’s arresting choreography for ‘Cheerleader’—but what comes next is the funniest. Shteyngart starts rapping in a Russian accent. “Girl you look fine, just like a fine wine, my Rolex genuine, can I take it from behind? Which way you want to climb? Can I love you long time?”
Absurdistan was the most fun to write. “I wrote it while I was living in Rome and I was eating huge amounts of carbs just to get into Misha mode. I was pretty big and slothful. I was living his life while writing it. It was great.”
Unlike Super Sad, he’s not bullish about Absurdistan being adapted. “It’s too esoteric. Oil politics in the Caucasus, yeah baby!” Isn’t there a greater appreciation of oil politics in America now? “We went through that phase after Enron collapsed, but we’re done.”
We share Ester’s signature Three Milks dessert: sheep’s milk yoghurt, ricotta panna cotta, and dolce de leche—with lashings of rosemary, olive oil, and biscotti fragments—the different flavours and feels heightening each other. “I love riffing between these three,” Shteyngart waves his spoon, content.
He’s looking forward to relaxing at his upstate New York home. “Upstate, there are no sounds. Sometimes a coyote attacks a sheep and the [Australian] sheepdog has to separate them, but at night—complete silence. You can almost hear the earth breathing, if that makes any sense. I’m so relaxed there.”
He’s productive, too. “A lot of my good writer friends live up there as well, so it’s not like I’m lonely. I also learned how to drive this year, so look out America!” But it’s not without challenges. “My next book’s about how the financial industry controls a lot of today’s world, the sadness of the hedgy… I’ve got to learn how to shoot a gun because that’s part of the book, too. In America it’s very easy to buy a glock, you go to a convenience store and say: ‘Can I have a glock please? And a milkshake?’ Then let the violence begin.”
Our greens, a generous serve of cavolo nero and kale, spiked with Russian size chunks of deep fried garlic, were unfinished. “We tried [to eat something healthy],” Shteyngart shrugs. We resolve to get lots of walking (“The great equaliser. If you’re ambulatory, why not do it?”) and swimming in the next day. “I love swimming. I swim a mile a day when I’m upstate. I built my own pool, which had been my project for a long time.” You can eat ten animals when you’re swimming a mile a day. “That’s right, the animals will just tear you to pieces otherwise. But swimming has changed my life. Your mind goes into this aqua mode.”