Monday, July 14, 2008

How many ways can you tell a story?

Illya Szilak wrote this novel, Reconstructing Mayakovsky that I read in manuscript and thought was unlike anything I had ever read before. Not content to just have a terrific manuscript, she's transformed the novel and made it into a multimedia event. I found it so startling and haunting that I wanted to ask Illya some questions.

1. Tell me the origins of Reconstructing Mayakovsk? How did you come to write it?
I was working as an HIV physician in New York City. 9/11 happened. A few months later, I happened upon an article in The New Yorker about Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Russian Futurist poet who killed himself in 1930 at the age of thirty-six. The poetry—raging, lyrical love poetry—was like nothing I had ever read. I became obsessed. I ordered every book in English that I could find. I hired a tutor to teach me Russian. It’s cliché, to say, but I had to write this story. I had no choice. It was only much later that I understood that the urgency had arisen from my need to find answers to questions I’d asked since 9/11: what role does tragedy play in human life, if we could get rid of it, should we, what price would we pay?

2. What made you decide to structure the novel like this in this form?
I realized early on that I had to tell the story in the context of my own desire for it. If I told it like conventional historical fiction, it would be utterly false. I remembered a Philip K. Dick novel called Time Out of Joint, which is about a man who thinks he is living in the 1950’s but who is really living in the future made to look like the 1950’s. Of course, Dick was writing this in the actual 1950’s. I am not an avid reader of science fiction, but I realized that I had to tell the story of Mayakovsky’s life in the framework of my present-day fears and fantasies about the future. Interestingly, many of Mayakovsky’s own works were set in the future, and, in his poem “About That,” he actually asks to be resurrected.

3. You've said that you wanted to tell the story of Mayakovsky in a radically different way--which I think this video does beautifully. Where do you go from here? Literature is the last stronghold for the modernist ideal of “originality.” (as if any artist creates tablula rasa.) I think the Internet is changing this. The amount of content available and the way we process information—hypertext, multiple layers of image, text, and sound, even font choice and “cut and paste” editing is changing how we write and read. In the future, the novel will exist in multiple iterations. The written work will function both as stand-alone art and entertainment and as an engine that drives the creation of work in other media. For this novel, I’ve been collaborating with a wonderful artist named Pelin Kirca, who, believe or not, I found through Craig’s list. Together, we created the animation, and a graphic version of my manifesto. We’re also collaborating on a modular multimedia space for book readings. And, I have a plan for curating a gallery exhibition around the text of my novel.

4. What I really admire is that after being told by a huge agent that your novel was ambitious and well written, but too far out, you refused to compromise, and instead, stretched the boundaries of what is possible even further. Can you talk a little about that?
I’m a forty-year-old physician and mother of two small children. I have never taken a creative writing class. Up until now, the only thing I’ve published are scientific papers. For my first novel, I chose to write about the resurrection of an obscure Russian poet in the post-apocalyptic American future. Clearly, I forgot to read the “Publish Your Novel” rulebook. Given the reality of my situation, I decided that I ought to be brave and follow my own vision. With these projects finished, I’ve resumed my search for an agent.

5. Will you write another novel?
I’ve already started. It's about a gay man who gets caught up in an act of violence and in that context must examine the nature of love. The protagonist may or may not be a saint. I wanted to examine the idea that saints are perverse in the way that divine love is. I have always loved that chapter in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan rejects God because he cannot accept that he is supposed to love the murderers of little children.

6. What question didn't I ask that I should have?
Why did you begin a work of fiction with the quote from Plato “This story isn’t true?” That seems obvious.
Yes and no. As you can see from the website, the novel can be read in many different ways: both horizontally and vertically. I wanted to put the reader into a position where, like the characters in the novel, she can decide how she wants to read information. Readers can go deep or stick with plot and character. For the deep answer, they can go to the archive, click on the hyperlink to Plato’s Phaedrus and read the text themselves.

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