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by Dzvinia Orlowsky

"This interview originally appeared in the Ukrainian Weekly in February 2009."

Alexander J. Motyl

Orlowsky/Motyl Interview
December 10, 2008

A resident of New York City, Alexander J. Motyl is a writer, painter, and professor. His novels include Whiskey Priest and Who Killed Andrei Warhol (which was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2008); his art is represented by The Tori Collection (; and his scholarly writing includes six authored books and over ten edited volumes. He's currently a professor at Rutgers University-Newark.

Dzvinia Orlowsky

Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of four poetry collections published by Carnegie Mellon University Press and currently teaches at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing Program of Pine Manor College in Boston.

Once, after giving a reading, when asked when you wrote, you responded that you wrote when you were bored. It reminds me of poet Frank O'Hara's reply when asked how he knew a poem is finished: "When the phone rings." I can't help but feel both you and O'Hara were winking at us with your answers. If I'm right, what's behind the wink?

Winking aside, tedium is a good reason for doing anything, isn't it? For instance, I know when a work is finished, whether non-fiction or fiction, when I get bored editing it. I usually go through some 20-30 edits, and most of them are either exasperating or exhilarating, but when they get tedious, I know it's time to move on. By the same token, part of the reason I took to writing fiction was that academic writing had stopped being a challenge. Once you know what your argument will be, the rest pretty much follows. In contrast, fiction was a whole new universe for me. You think it's easy: after all, it's all made up, right? But making it all up turned out to be incredibly difficult. And making it all up for some 200 pages or more was terrifying - but also exhilarating. You finish the draft, whether first or last, and you wonder, "Where did that come from?" In that sense, fiction is like painting: I always look at the finished painting with a sense of awe and mystery: "Did I do that?" On the other hand, it's true that I'm always winking, that I can never take anything too seriously - especially my own work. The universe is so big, history is so big, God is so big - and we're so ridiculously small. How can you not wink?

As a professor of political science, how did you become interested in writing fiction?

A bunch of things happened in the 1990s that led me to fiction. The Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine became independent, and the struggle - and I had been involved in the anti-Soviet struggle since the early 1970s - was suddenly over. At the same time, my own academic writing had become increasingly theoretical and meta-theoretical and meta-meta-theoretical, and at some point I began wondering what the point of so much unremitting self-refection and navel-gazing was. Searching for more concrete alternatives, I returned to painting after a hiatus of about 15 years and began reading novels with a vengeance. And then I had my first epiphany. I still recall the day I visited the galleries in Soho and thought, "Heck, my work is at least as bad as most of this." And if they could exhibit, why couldn't I? Something similar happened with fiction writing. The more I read, the more I thought: "Heck, I can do no worse than this." Fiction then became a new challenge, and it's remained that since.

What was your first literary publication?

That was actually a short story that appeared at the very end of my high-school senior yearbook. I had always struggled with English class, probably because I believed that writing had to "mean" something deep and important. Then, in my senior year, I accidentally stumbled into a creative writing class and, much to my surprise, did extremely well - mostly, I suspect, because I just threw all that meaning stuff out the window and let my imagination guide my hand. The teacher of that class asked me to write some appropriately serious conclusion for the yearbook; instead, I produced a silly story and he liked it. But that was an anomaly. It took me many, many years to feel confident about my creative writing and to get rid of that meaning albatross and to realize that writing is, first and foremost, about writing - just as painting is about painting. All that interpretation and meaning stuff is at best a bit of icing, at worst too much confectioner's sugar.

Do you have a favorite anecdote to share about your days as an emerging or just-published author?

That happened several years ago, when I was trying to find an agent for Whiskey Priest. I sent out hundreds of jazzy cover letters, with a neat synopsis and a brief cv outlining all my very many academic publications, prizes, etc. One agent sent back my letter, with a scribble at the bottom: "Interesting, but we don't represent unknown authors." Ouch.

Have you ever tried your hand at writing creative non-fiction or flash fiction? Any desires pulling toward poetry? (I'd be a first interested reader!)

Back in the mid-1990s, I did try to write a kind of creative memoir, but that turned out awfully soppy and downright embarrassing. And once in a while, the poetry muse takes a wrong turn and inspires me to do some verse. The only really sustained poetry writing I did was quite spontaneous. Just after my father passed away in late May 2007, I wrote four short poems about his illness and death. Poetry felt like the only medium for the grief I felt. In general, though, I'm not sure I "get" poetry. I'm in awe of poets, as much as I'm in awe of musicians and composers. I'm still the high-school freshman who believes that all poetry must be about something incomprehensibly profound and is terribly intimidated by the very thought of composing verse. Who, me? No way!

Professor and writer Vasyl Makhno has remarked that you belong to a unique generation of Ukrainian writers who were born in the 1950s outside Ukraine and who write on Ukrainian topics in English. Who are some of the other writers of this generation and have they influenced your work in any way?

That's an easy question. Irene Zabytko has shown that a writer can tell great stories and still have a Ukrainian point of view. Askold Melnyczuk has shown that a Ukrainian writer can be concerned with questions of morality and identity without falling into Ukrainian clichés. And Marina Lewycka has shown that it's possible to be Ukrainian and still retain a sense of humor, as you have through your poetry. I only wish that Ukraine's writers would stop writing about their sexual awakening and personal Angst and turn to some of the themes and styles employed by Zabytko, Melnyczuk, and Lewycka.

I understand that as a political scientist you are also interested in the Soviet KGB as well as the Ukrainian nationalist Security Service. Tell us how the plot for your first spy-novel, Whisky Priest, evolved.

I've always been fascinated by spies. I'm not sure exactly why, though I suspect that it has something to do with the moral ambiguity of their world. My first exposure to fictional spies was in the sixth grade, when I got two paperbacks by Eric Ambler (who, by the way, is a terrific writer) from a friend for Christmas: Judgment on Deltchev and Cause for Alarm. That started the addiction. It was compounded by my own interest in the Ukrainian nationalist movement and my experiences with the KGB, which made several attempts to recruit me - and they in turn led to attempts by the FBI to recruit me. That sounds hilarious now, but then, back in the late 1970s, it was an extremely unpleasant experience, especially as it wasn't clear which side was more heavy-handed. Believe me, John le Carre's Smiley's People is an uncannily accurate depiction of the world of anti-Soviet émigrés and could have been written about Ukrainians.

The idea for Whiskey Priest began with a hunch about the ending. It occurred to me one day back in the summer of 2001 - and I have no idea why - that having a secret agent first save someone and then betray him would be an interesting twist with all sorts of morally ambiguous implications. I even imagined the last line, in which the agent says, "You can have him," to the killers closing in on their prey and just walks away. The next step was to write everything leading up to the last line. As I did so, my own experiences with the world of espionage began intruding and structuring the characters, the dialogues, and of course the plot.

How long did it take you to write it? Do you set for yourself a daily or weekly page requirement of writing? At the end of a single day of writing, what makes you feel like you've had a successful day's worth? I know for me it can sometimes be capturing a single, resonant image.

I wrote the first draft of Whiskey Priest in about three-four months. I get somewhat obsessive while I'm writing and can spend anywhere from two to six hours a day, every day, writing whatever comes to my mind. That's generally how long it takes me to write any book-length manuscript, whether fiction or non-fiction. But that's the easy part. I then spend another year or more rewriting, editing, and reediting - until that feeling of tedium comes over me and I know I'm done. My first drafts are usually pretty awful, but once they exist - once there's a real live text - that first hurdle is overcome and the real fun - the rewriting and editing - can begin.

Graham Greene has also been an influence on your work. Can you elaborate?

I love Greene. I love his crisp, compact writing; I love his concern with ethical-political issues and moral ambiguity; I love his interest in spies; and I love his story-telling. Greene makes writing look easy. But of course all good writers do. He also proves that a writer can be deep and complex and meaningful without having to resort to self-consciously deep and complex and meaningful prose. That's the trick - to say important things without seeming to say important things. Shevchenko was able to pull that off. As did Beckett, whose first line in Murphy - "The sun shone having no alternative on the nothing new" - has got to be one of the best in literature. That's why I love Morandi's simple bottles, Modigliani's portraits, and Matisse's still lives and detest the pretentiousness of painters like Dali, Damien Hirst, and Julian Schnabel. That's also why I love writers such as Arthur Schnitzler, James Agee, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, Albert Camus, and Peter Schneider - and hate Dostoevsky. Or why I'm completely blown away by Antonioni's L'Eclisse and L'Avventura (of course, I'm also madly in love with Monica Vitti) and think he then went off the deep end. That's also why I think your poetry is so compelling.

Thank you, Alex! I sincerely appreciate that. But getting back to your work, your second novel, Who Killed Andrei Warhol, has received well-deserved critical acclaim and continues to do well. Did you have a strong interest in the New York City Sixties Warhol scene prior to writing the novel, or did it develop as you researched Warhol's life and circle of artist friends?

Well, don't forget that I was born and raised in New York, in the Ukrainian Lower East Side, which is just a few blocks away from Warhol's Factory on Union Square. But I was too young, and too strait-laced, to have experienced the Sixties in New York. I do remember, very, very unclearly, walking along St. Mark's Place and seeing posters for some of Warhol's musical events. I also remember that Chelsea Girls played at the St. Mark's Theatre and that it was rated Adults Only. I vaguely recall seeing articles in Time or Life about Warhol's scene, and I do remember when he was shot in 1968. But none of that meant much to me. It was all taking place in the larger "American" world, and I, like many of my Ukrainian friends, was much more interested in rebelling against the Ukrainian establishment. Besides, I was a complete square. I resisted wearing bell bottoms until straight-leg pants went out of style, and I thought that Woodstock was just a big hoo-ha.

If I may interrupt -- I recall attending Ukrainian summer courses at Soyusivka with my sister and two friends, Chris and Nutia, and hearing about Woodstock which was in full swing not too far away. There was some effort on the part of management to organize a "field trip" to the "music festival." But rumor had it "there might be some hippies there" and the trip was cancelled. I was a flower child - denied. To this day I love imagining a small busload of us Ukrainian students arriving at the scene… Maybe in our next lives (sigh)… In the meantime, please, do continue…

My specific interest in Warhol began with seeing, back in 2001 or so, a documentary about his relatives in eastern Slovakia, Absolut Warhola. I was struck by how familiar they seemed, especially as I have Ukrainian relatives not far from his parents' home town. I suddenly realized what I had sort of known all the time - that Warhol was a Slav and that he grew up in an immigrant neighborhood, went to church every Sunday, celebrated Christmas on January 7, and then eventually broke out of the ghetto and came to the big city. His story was my story - well, sort of - and that piqued my interest in his life and career and work.

Writers, particularly those who write from a researched subject, are often faced with the challenge of finding the right balance between presenting too much back ground information or too little. Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write? How do you establish authority on your subject?

I assume that my readers will know a thing or two about literature and life, but I don't assume - or insist - that they know what I know or as much (or as little) as I do. I firmly believe that every artwork can be enjoyed - and must be enjoyed - on several levels. The most obvious level is the "surface" story or image. I firmly believe that has to be there, and it has to be persuasive to the reader or viewer. The surface level is arguably the most important. It's the structure, it's the meat and potatoes, it's the foundation - use whichever metaphor you like. And then there are other, supposedly "deeper" levels, where metaphors, jokes, inter-textual references, meanings, symbols, portentous implications, and all sorts of supposedly profound stuff come into play. A work that consists only of these deep levels is never persuasive; it's often just second-rate philosophy masquerading as art. A work that consists only of the surface may never be great, but, like Mickey Spillane's bone-crunching prose, it is what it is, and that's often enough. Then again, what the heck do I know?

E.L Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving across country at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way. Tell us something about your writing process. Do you work from an outline?

I start with hunches or insights - never, ever from an outline. Whiskey Priest started with the notion that it would be interesting to explore just why a spy who saves someone would then turn on him. Who Killed Andrei Warhol was born when, while reading about Warhol's life, I came upon a reference to the fact that his Factory was located in the same building as the Communist Party USA. That coincidence struck me as surreal and tailor-made for an absurdist novel. My latest novel, The Jew Who Was Ukrainian, started in the most unlikely fashion. I was reading some German-language novel a few years ago and came upon the word, Frauenzimmer, an antiquated version of Frau, or woman. For some reason, I started rhyming Frauenzimmer with Volodymyr and was amused by the flow and silliness of the name. And then I knew I had a hero for my next novel: Volodymyr Frauenzimmer, a man who has a Ukrainian mother who hates Jews and a Jewish father who hates Ukrainians. And once I had the name, I was able to construct something like a story around it.

To continue with interesting observations made by well-established authors, Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone author, Dennis Lehane, once said that given complex characters, the plot will find itself. Do you agree?

Absolutely. The one thing I've learned about writing fiction is that, somewhere along the way, you lose control, and the characters take over. I had read about that, but never quite believed it, but it's quite true. You start a scene between X and Y and you think you know what they're going to say and how the scene will end, but more often than not, they just start blabbering and, before you know it, the characters have mutinied and taken hold of the ship. At best, you then try to keep the ship on course, although that sometimes doesn't work and then you have no choice but to change direction. You can't beat the characters. They always win - or should win.

Which of the three novels proved more challenging to write, and why?

They've all been hard, but The Jew Who Was Ukrainian was by far the hardest. Whiskey Priest is, after all, a story. There are flashbacks and internal monologues, but it is a story with a beginning, middle, and end. So, too, is Who Killed Andrei Warhol, though there the challenge was twofold: to make the encounter between the Soviet Ukrainian journalist and Andy seem natural, and not contrived, and to turn a curious encounter into something with dramatic tension, a story. But The Jew Who Was Ukrainian takes the cake. It doesn't really have a plot; it doesn't really have a beginning, middle, and end; and it incorporates third-person narrative, first-person reflections, two-person, three-person, and five-person interrogations, and actual texts from published sources. Stitching all that together into something that flows (I hope) and is tight (I pray) was extremely challenging.

By the way, congratulations again, on your Pushcart Prize nomination for Who Killed Andrei Warhol. My feeling is this won't be the only time your work is nominated for the prize. As a great fan of your work, I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

I'm keeping my toes crossed.

Tell us something about your revision process. Do you have writers with whom you share early drafts of your work? How deep into a work do you feel you need to be before exposing it for feedback?

For me, writing is editing. The first draft is, as I've already said, pretty lousy, but that doesn't matter, because the real writing takes place only after that first draft is in place. So I never share first drafts with others; that would be an insult to their intelligence. But I tend to share works about two-thirds of the way through the editing process. By then, I usually feel fairly comfortable with the text and, although I know it's not quite there yet, it's no longer embarrassing.

By the way, I do my academic writing in exactly the same way. I also paint that way. You start with some smears, vague outlines, hints of something or other. And then you refine the whole picture by continually adjusting something here in light of the whole or the whole in light of something there. I suppose you could say I'm obsessed with composition - with the relationship of the words to words, with the relationship of lines and colors and forms to lines and colors and forms. As far as I'm concerned, the artwork is inside the artwork - not outside. I'm with Susan Sontag in being, as she put it in her famous essay, "Against Interpretation." The New York art critic Clement Greenberg also had it right. When he first looked at a painting, he'd stand with his back to it and then suddenly pivot to view it, thereby hoping to acquire as direct, and meaning-less, a relationship with the artwork as possible.

Poet Melanie Drane and I were just discussing this morning over the phone the need to share early drafts of (in our case) a particular poem with another poet. She made the wonderful analogy of putting a meal out on a dinner table with the hope of someone tasting it - letting you know if it's too heavily or not carefully seasoned enough - before it's gotten cold. The flipside, however, is that too many cooks spoil the soup.

There's the rub. Ideally, just the right person or persons will provide just the right commentary at just the right time. So the meal should be ready enough to be served, and the taster should be discerning enough - and gentle enough - to tell you exactly what ingredients are missing or should be missing, without gagging too visibly in the process. But what do you do when trustworthy and discerning people respond differently to the same text? That's why I let others view the work-in-progress only after I feel more or less confident that it's at least good enough. That way, if the criticism is negative, one can always dismiss it. And if the criticism is targeted and useful, one can always say, "But of course!"

No one will deny the solitary act of writing. Building a community of writers, however, is of critical importance, and it's just plain fun. You and Irene Zabytko co-run the popular "Ukrainian Literary Night" series, first at the Bowery Club, and more recently at Cornelia Street Café. Can you tell us more about how that series evolved?

That was all Irene's inspiration and work. It would never have occurred to me that one could just contact the Cornelia people and suggest a Ukrainian literary anything. Irene said, "Why not?" She sent them an email - not even a formal letter or anything like that - and they said, sure, you're in. And that was that. I was totally floored by how simple and obvious the whole process was. Of course, Irene is fearless and smart and experienced and she knows how to get things done. I'm just a neophyte.

Alex, you are also an accomplished painter with work represented by The Tori Collection specializing in international contemporary fine art. Does one activity resonate with the other, or do you keep the two muses separate?

I do paint and write at the same time, all the time, but I'm not sure I see any cross-fertilization, certainly not thematically. My fiction is very much "Ukrainian", while my paintings have, as far as I can tell, nothing Ukrainian or Slavic or East European about them. But the two activities do overlap and, I'm tempted to say, are identical in one way. Being obsessed with composition, I want my texts and artworks to "hang together." And that means that, ideally at least, no word and no brushstroke should ever be extraneous. Of course, that's an impossible goal, but it is possible, I think, to prevent texts and artworks and films from "sagging" - from feeling like wet blankets. I wouldn't remove a single word from Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, Kurban Said's Ali and Nino, or Volodymyr Vynnychenko's Na toy bik, or a single drip from a Pollock, or a single scene from Dovzhenko's Zemlya. Most of Fellini's later films, on the other hand, could easily be cut by half - any half - and you'd never know the difference. Since editing a text is like "editing" a painting, I suppose there's some sort of resonance going on between these two activities.

Warhol states everyone is entitled to fifteen minutes of fame. How will you know when you've achieved yours? Or, perhaps you already have?

You know, he never said that it was supposed to be fifteen consecutive minutes. And since fifteen minutes make for 900 seconds, I suspect I've had just about that many moments of extremely transitory fame. But my major claim to fame took place back in late 1993, when I was on Charlie Rose together with David Remnick and some Russian journalist. I couldn't figure out just why I had been invited, until, at one point, Rose turned to me and said, "Now you're from the Ukraine, Mr. Motyl, aren't you?" I'm usually at a loss for repartees, but this time I managed to blurt, "No, I'm just a New York boy," and watch his jaw drop as he realized that I wasn't the Ukrainian complement to the American and Russian. I haven't been invited back.

I understand you are currently working on a play with one of the Warhol's Factory Superstars, Ultra Violet. Can you tell us more about that?

I met her at one of my readings about two years ago, at the Ukrainian Institute of America. We exchanged cards, she said to call her - and, naturally, I didn't. And then, last spring, I received several telephone calls and emails from her in one day. She invited me to lunch, I came - having no idea just why and feeling completely intimidated - but she turned out to be one of the sweetest and warmest and funniest people I know, and we hit it off immediately. She then showed me a text - featuring a dialogue between Warhol and Hitler - and, after a few more meetings and some to-ing and fro-ing, we agreed that I'd help her make a play of it. It's called Wintertime for Warhol. Meeting her has been quite an experience, especially for a Ukrainian boy from the Lower East Side. She's an excellent artist in her own right and she's very religious. She's a Mormon, and I even accompanied her one Sunday morning to the Mormon Church on East 87th Street in Manhattan.

Speaking of fifteen-plus moments of fame, should we announce our next Ukrainian Literary Night at the Cornelia Cafe? It promises to be a particularly good one…

It'll be on April 25th, 2009 - but this time there'll only be one session, from 6pm to 8pm. And with you, Askold Melnyczuk, and Irene Zabytko in the spotlight, I think we'll have a super-duper show and a standing-room only crowd.

Thank you, Alex, for sharing your work and thoughts with us.


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