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The Dead Writer Interviews: Fyodor Dostoevsky

(This post originally appeared on the site, Tagged & Towed.)

At Tagged & Towed, we’re not above chasing down an author or two for some juicy Q&A.  Now, in our continuing effort to push the envelope, think outside the box, and grab any idea that comes our way, we are proud to introduce a new feature:  The Dead Writer Interviews.

Up-close, personal, in-depth, with the kind of perspective you can only get from writers who have passed away, The Dead Writer Interviews will finally bridge that gap between the writing life and the afterlife.  Join us as we unearth vast treasure troves of experience and summon the great mentors of the past.

Today, we are proud to present one of Russia’s greatest writers, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky, author of Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and many other thick Penguin Classics.

T&T:  Thank you for speaking with us today, Mr. Dostoevsky.

FD:  Please.  Call me Fyodor.

T&T:  You wrote some of the great masterpieces of Russian literature.  But when did you first realize you wanted to write?

FD:  Da. Is good question.  I have always interests in writing.  At Military Engineering Academy, in St. Petersburg, they give us much study of the mathematics, you know? But—ptui! I spit on mathematics.  It is language of the mind, not the soul.  At academy, I write plays, like Schiller.  You know Friedrich Schiller?  Everyone love Schiller at academy.  But now, not so much.

T&T: Your father was killed by serfs when you were 18, you were sentenced to death for seditious activities when you were 28, you did 4 years hard labor in a penal colony in Siberia, you suffered from epilepsy, you were poor most of your adult life, and your gambling addiction got so bad in later years, your wife had to sell her clothes.  Which of these tragedies would you say influenced your writing the most?

FD:  The wedgies.

T&T:  Wedgies?

FD:  Da.  In penal colony, I am—how you say?—RichieRichovich.  The other prisoners, they are peasants, yes?  So every day, they are giving me the wedgies.  The underpants, they are wool, so there is much chafing.  Now I cannot wear underpants, and in Siberia, no underpants means frostbite.  So when I am writing, is very painful.

T&T:  Well, aside from the wedgies, which event would you say influenced your work most?

FD:  There are two, I think.  First, death of my father.  He was wonderful man!  Okay, so he does not like noise. And when he comes home, he makes us to stand silent and brush flies off of him while he sleeps.  And he drinks too much vodka and becomes angry and violent. But is vodka, you know?  You give vodka to Jesus, and He will turn Last Supper into—how you say?—Last Smackdown.  So, the serfs kill my father, which is very upsetting to me.  Then I write books like The Brothers Karamazov.  Is good book, no?

T&T:  Yes.  Definitely.  I mean, I never actually finished it, but the first hundred pages were great.  But you said there were two events?

FD:  Da. First, father.  Second, putting 1,000 rubles on red instead of black.

T&T:  Really?

FD:  No, no!  I am joking!  Second event is getting—how you say—shot.

T&T:  You mean, when you were in the Petrashevsky Circle.

FD:  Petrashevsky Circle.  Bah!  Is fancy name for stupid twenty-years old drinking expensive wine and talking about utopias. You Americans with all the Emersons and Alcotts and the Fruitlands, you are talking utopias all the time.  But in Tsarist Russia, utopia is living to 30 without getting sent to Siberia.  So ptui!  I spit on utopias.

T&T:  Okay.  So they shot you?

FD:  No, is exaggeration. Tsarist police arrest us, and the Tsar give us sentence to death.  So we are standing in snow, waiting to be shot, and I am thinking, “Blindfold or no blindfold?  How many cigarettes?”  Then a troyka comes thundering into square, and messenger jumps out and shouts, “Stop the shootings!”  He has paper saying we are to be sent to Siberia instead.  So we are saved!  Hooray!  Except you know, is a con, as you Americans say.  Tsar never wants us shot.  Only wants to make us wet our pants and cry like babies so we will never talk utopias again.  Even today, word utopia makes me have to go to bathroom.  (Where?  Down hall to left? Spasibo.)

[Pause]

T&T:  Most of your novels end with the main character embracing Christianity.  Do you consider yourself a Christian writer?

FD [laughing]:  Christian?!  I am sleeping with married womans and secretary and pawning wife’s clothes to do the gamblings.  I am drinking like fish.  I am having characters chop landlady with axe and fall in love with underage prostitute and murder fathers, and you are saying I am Christian writer?  No, no, no!  As I told Lev Nikolaevich [Tolstoy], is only because I have—how you say?—painted myself into corner. In Russia, there are only three fates for troubled peoples:  suicide, murder, and religious salvation.  (Except, you know, in Crime and Punishment—Is good book, no?—prostitute saves Raskolnikov.  But publisher is telling me put in religious savings, too, because—how you say?—focus group is “mixed” about prostitutes.)

Anyway, all my works have “dysfunctional” protagonists.  But American 12-Steps programs and culture of therapy not invented yet, so . . .

T&T:  What advice would you give today’s writers?

FD:  Give up.

T&T:  That doesn’t sound very helpful.

FD:  Oh, I see. Mr. Tags and Tows wants me to be cheerful and supportive and say to Amerikantsy writers on the Twitters and Facebooks and Internets, “Yes, you are special!  Keep writing!  Work and believe in yourselves and the fames and fortunes will fall in your lap.”  I  am supposed to say, “Yes, be family person.  Deal with issues and childhoods, take the medications, see the therapists, do the Downward Dogs; it will all be good.”  No!  It is not all good.  It is all very, very bad.

So this is what I say:  You want to write?  Get shot.  Go to prison. Have large angry peasants give you wedgies every morning.  Drink and gamble and say things on the Internets you will have to apologize for later. Suffer!  Then you will have something to write about.

T&T:  Isn’t that a little bit of a clichée—suffering for your art?

FD:  Is very big clichée.  So is wanting to be writer.  So is having sex and babies and hating telemarketers.  Look, I am dead 130 years and you are digging me up to ask questions, and you are not happy with what I am saying?  You want exciting new things?   Okay, here I give you quote for your Tags & Tows bumper-sticker:  “Writing is like a box of poisoned chocolates.  Without the poison, it is just dessert.”

T&T:  That doesn’t make any sense. No one wants poison.  And everyone likes dessert.

FD: Oh God! Somebody please save me from this product of a decadent American educational system! It’s a metaphor, you idiot! A metaphor!

T&T: Thank you for your time, Mr. Dostoevsky.
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Illustration: Woodcut for “The Idiot” – by Fritz Eichenberg

(This post originally appeared on Beyond The Margins.)

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