In Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazier takes readers across Russia's great tundra expanse.
Was this your longest project?
Yes. I started in 1993, so it was 17 years. It wasn't the only thing I worked on, but there's no other project that I've done that's taken that long. I learned Russian well enough to travel and to read, slowly. There are bibliographies of people who've traveled in Siberia, and they always note how much Russian the person spoke. I didn't want to be listed as someone with no Russian, which was the case when I first went there.
Did you feel the need to defend or promote Siberia?
I did. When I started working on Great Plains, there was a phrase that people still use called "the flyover country." Siberia is also in a sense a flyover country. I'm always interested in the thing that people don't think about. Certain geographic places exist in your brain. You have a sense of Siberia. Everybody knows what they think Siberia is, just like in America everybody knows what they think the American West is.
Do you have a preference between longer research projects and humor writing?
Each creates a longing to do the other. A humor piece you can do in a couple hours and people laugh at it. That's really satisfying. If you write a whole lot of humor pieces, you've got a whole meal of hors d'oeuvres yet you think, "I'd like something substantial." I don't know if it's such a great thing to do both. Generally, you're supposed to do one thing. But I want reporting pieces to be funny. It may not be apparent at first glance, but Russia is a really funny country. It's like a slapstick country. The only thing is that when they punch you in the nose, it actually does break, not like in The Three Stooges. So it's slapstick, but it does kill you.
What were the people like that you met along the way in the small villages?
They call themselves "Siberiaki," or Siberian people. It was like being out in the country in America. They were generally friendlier. In Moscow or St. Petersburg, if you're an American and you smile, Russians think you're an idiot. "What are you smiling about? Why do you people smile all the time?" Whereas in Siberia, I didn't get the sense that I was being an idiot by smiling.
You were back in America when the Russian spies were recently exposed in New Jersey.
They lived in my town, in Montclair. Right after they were arrested, our town had a Russian spy float in the Fourth of July parade. It's incredible to think that that woman—Murphy was her last name in America—rode the same bus that I did. I'm pretty sure I remember where she got on and what she looked like. But she was riding that bus one day, and a few days after that, she and the other spies were meeting with Putin, who was telling them what a great service they'd done for their country, and they all were singing patriotic songs. In fact, I wondered, "Why were they in Montclair? Were they keeping an eye on me?" My friends told me I was insane.