Russian-born Eugene Yelchin has had a long career illustrating picture books as well as writing numerous works of middle grade fiction, which also include his illustrations. His most recent work, The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, is a middle grade memoir of growing up in the former USSR. We talked with Yelchin about the difference between writing fiction and memoir, the particular brand of humor in his book, and the role that dance legend Mikhail Baryshnikov played in his life in Russia.
Why did you decide to write a memoir after writing numerous books of fiction?
The boy characters I’ve created in my fiction have always included a good portion of who I am. When I write fiction, I always put myself in the place of the main character and [ask], “What would I do?” So in a way I’ve always been writing about myself—those boys are mirror images of me.
To be perfectly honest, the idea to write this book was not mine. During one of my school visits, I was speaking to the middle-grade students about growing up behind the Iron Curtain and one 10-year-old boy pretty much demanded that I write a book about my childhood. I didn’t take his idea seriously at first but during subsequent school visits, I began to notice the astonishment on my listeners’ faces when I mentioned that all five members of my family had to share a room so small that I had to sleep under the table. Or when I would say that on certain nights, I was secretly drawing pictures on the underside of that table, which most likely contributed to me becoming an artist, I’d see the astonishment on their faces again. That sense of astonishment about things that you had never suspected existed is now at the heart of my book.
During the same time period, I had started meeting for lunch regularly with my older brother Victor, who lives not far from me. During those lunches our conversation inadvertently would turn to our childhood, and it became my turn to be astonished because of how differently he and I remembered certain events [at which] we had both been present. It made me begin to think and read about the nature of memory, about our life stories that we tell and retell, shaping and reshaping them as we age.
My mother, who joined me in the U.S. in 1989, also inadvertently played a role in the shaping of my memoir. She passed away in 2008. She was as poor in the United States as she had been in the Soviet Union, and the only material object that my brother and I inherited from her was her diary. I was so shaken by her death that even the sight of her handwriting made me terribly sad. So I locked her diary in my desk and didn’t open it until about 10 years later, when I was already deep into the revisions for the memoir. I read the whole thing in one sitting, stunned that at least half of her daily entries were written in verse. She had used an iambic tetrameter that became a beloved meter in Russia thanks to Alexander Pushkin’s use of it in the early 1800s. The discovery moved me a great deal. I had no idea that my mother was a poet in hiding, and reading her diary certainly influenced my revision process.
Victor and I still talk almost daily. I dedicated the book to him because he’s the one who opened my eyes to the unheard-of possibility of a free life in a free country, specifically in the United States. Victor and his wife Irina were figure skating champions, and so they had access to Western culture through their trips abroad. From those trips Victor would bring home vinyl records, clothes, and once, a richly illustrated book of the Beatles’ lyrics. I still vividly remember those Pop Art illustrations—they influenced my art no less than the Russian avant-gardists Kandinsky, Malevich, and Chagall.
How was the process of writing directly from your life different from writing fiction?
It was easier because I knew the story before I began writing! I knew how things came out. But there was no plot, so I had to impose a plot on my memories. I had to organize real events into cause and effect to make the memoir read like a story. That’s the only way to tell a story: something happened so something else happened. My early drafts were hundreds of pages long and included everything I thought was interesting, things my brother thought were interesting, things my wife thought were interesting. But I had to leave a lot of those things out because they didn’t fit into the cause-and-effect structure.
Also, when I work on a character, I try to be extra careful not to confuse what the character wants and what the character needs. Most of us know what we want, but rarely know or understand what we need. Yevgeny wants to uncover his family’s secrets and his country’s secrets, but he’s too polite, too well-behaved to demand truthful answers. He lacks the courage to fully confront the adults in his life. Instead he attempts to piece together his small discoveries like a puzzle. Only by the end of the book does he mature enough to demand answers.
The voice of the memoir is often humorous, or at least has a humorous aspect. Did you have a humorous approach to life as you were growing up?
I think the humor comes from the Yiddish culture. Yiddish was my grandmother’s first language and in the book you can sense her translating her thoughts from Yiddish into Russian before speaking. To cope with the realities of Soviet life, a sense of humor was essential. Everyone in my family was funny, which I suspect echoed, at least in part, the humorous Yiddish culture that had been destroyed by the Nazis and the communists by the time I was born. We lived with, if not exactly hopelessness, then with our inability to change things. Life in the USSR was dangerous, but it was also absurd, as every totalitarian regime is absurd, and as a result, laughable. We laughed at the absurdity and yet, afraid for our lives, we put up with it, unwittingly collaborating with the regime.
The celebrated Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov is a significant character in your book. How much of a role did he actually play in your childhood? Did your paths ever cross once you were both in the United States?
My mother and my brother knew Baryshnikov well. He moved in the same artistic circles as my family and occasionally visited our home. I originally wrote a few scenes of dialogue that included Baryshnikov, but I was uncomfortable with name-dropping and deleted them. None of us suspected that he would defect to the West, but when it did happen, we were not particularly surprised. At that time, his artistic drive was being stifled by the so-called Communist Cultural Committees, which rejected any attempt at creative freedom. Every time Baryshnikov pursued modern, innovative choreography, he was shoved back into the same dusty routines of the Russian classical ballet.
After my mother came to the U.S., I took her to see Baryshnikov dance with his White Oak Dance Project, and we cried through the entire performance. After it was over, I suggested trying to see Baryshnikov backstage, but my mother refused. I suspect that either she was afraid that he would not remember her, or that she didn’t want him to see her old and handicapped. She had had a stroke right before she emigrated to the United States.
In spite of the stroke, though, my mother was able to live a good life, which she so richly deserved, for nearly two decades in America. My family’s American life turned out to be challenging and often confusing, but unquestionably happy. I only wish that my father and my grandmother had lived to know this freedom themselves, and to share this happiness with us.
The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Eugene Yelchin. Candlewick $16.99 Oct. 12 ISBN 978-1-5362-1552-6