Published or accepted by The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Raleigh Review, The Oregonian, 2River, Identity Theory, Contrary, Pif, and many more, A. Molotkov is winner of New Millennium Writings and Koeppel fiction contests, two poetry chapbook contests, and a 2015 Oregon Literary Fellowship. His full-length poetry collection, The Catalog of Broken Things, is forthcoming from Airlie Press in 2016. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Molotkov’s new translation of a Chekhov story was included by Knopf in their Everyman Series. Visit him at AMolotkov.com.
Geosi Gyasi: What is it about your new chapbook, “The Invention of Distance”?
A Molotkov: It’s a series of poems revolving around the topics of solitude, alienation. The chapbook examines the walls and the bridges we build.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write, “The Invention of Distance”?
A Molotkov: The poems were selected by the editor, Jerry Brunoe, from my full-length manuscript Instruments of Perspective. Although most of the work in that collection is from the last few years, certain poems date back to mid-90s. Among the selections found here, Correction and Borders are the oldest, the latter written in response to 9/11.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you face any challenges in writing, “The Invention of Distance”?
A Molotkov: Same challenges as usual: the empty page demanding to be filled, the work one has already done one doesn’t want to repeat.
Geosi Gyasi: Why did you choose to become a writer?
A Molotkov: As a teenager, I discovered that nothing impacted me as much as narrative art (literature and film). It made sense to pursue these paths. In the Soviet Russia at the time, arts and literature programs in colleges bore a heavy ideological slant. Therefore, I made a decision to pursue technical education and work on art as a life passion. Although I’ve made some short experimental films in my 20s and 30s, it became obvious that being a writer AND a filmmaker would not work out. I chose to focus on literature, the more independent pursuit.
Geosi Gyasi: Where do you actually belong in-terms of nationality?
A Molotkov: I’m half Russian, one quarter Jewish and one quarter Polish
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in St. Petersburg. Did you grow up there too before coming to the United States of America?
A Molotkov: Yes. I lived in that city until the age of 22.
Geosi Gyasi: Who is your ideal reader?
A Molotkov: A person whose perception is attuned to the beauty and the drama of life, someone with a sense of reverence and responsibility. Someone who wants to listen to others, to cry with them, to understand what makes them tick. Someone who will laugh at themselves before laughing at others.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you an avid reader?
A Molotkov: Yes. However, with so much to do, I found that I had very little time to read. Fortunately, in the last few years I have compensated by listening to audiobooks whenever I drive, cook, clean the house, or practice my tennis serves.
Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read growing up as a child?
A Molotkov: Only selected literature was available in the U.S.S.R. Several Russian writers remain among my favorites. Fortunately, we also had access to the translations of many classics, and even some 20th century authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Remarque. The Catcher in the Rye was published in the late 80s and made a big splash. We had the fortune to read Kafka and Cortázar, both of whom have my unending respect. Great Japanese writers, especially Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe, were available in Russian.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind introducing me to some Russian writers and also tell me about what you think of Russian writers?
A Molotkov: Russian literature has offered much to the world. To me, modern novel begins with Mikhail Lermontov’s “The Hero of Our Time”, published around 1840, a work that reads fresher than its contemporaries. Turgenev and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, Bunin and Nabokov, and currently Tatyana Tolstaya, are my favorites. Most of these authors were/are inquisitive, worldly people with much concern for humanity. Similarly, Russian poetry is robust and revered by the public. Among the poets, I tend to love “the others” – not the most famous Russian poets who often appear in translation. I don’t care much for Pushkin outside his longer works. I love Lermontov’s poems. I admire Esenin, Gumilev, Evtushenko. I have to confess that I’m not up to date on the most recent developments in the Russian literature.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any way you could compare American literature to that of Russian?
A Molotkov: I think both cultures share a “big place” mentality – the (usually) open-minded capability to deal with differences and contrasts, with a diverse ethnic mix. There is a certain “bigness of scope” to stories that come from these two places.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn a living from writing?
A Molotkov: No, not at all. Maybe in the future. So far, I’ve earned roughly $7,000 for my 30 years as a writer. But this is not at all unusual, as you know. Few people become writers hoping to earn a lot of money.
Geosi Gyasi: When and where do you often write?
A Molotkov: I write most days, at home. I skip the occasional day when my time is spent on quasi-literary activities.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you a happy as a writer?
A Molotkov: This is perhaps your most difficult question. I’m happy when years go by, yet something remains. I’m moderately satisfied with some of my work. I worry about my large backlog: several novels, a collection or two of short stories, a few poetry manuscripts. I feel that my responsibility as a writer is both to create this work, and to find a home for it in the world – and in this way, I have not fulfilled my responsibility yet.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific theme(s) you often write on?
A Molotkov: I tend to be interested in interpersonal connections and disconnections – on our capacity and desire to self-define – on obstacles we face in our humanity. I’m moved by attention and empathy.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your collaborative chapbook, “The End of Mythology”?
A Molotkov: My friend John Sibley Williams and I have collaborated in various ways since 2009; he is one of my favorite contemporary poets and co-editor at The Inflectionist Review, www.inflectionism.com. It was something to try. It didn’t take us long to select a small batch of short poems in a certain shared mood.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite among all the poems you’ve written?
A Molotkov: A number of favorites – ones that have gone as far as possible (and occasionally farther) down the path I have tried to send them on (or, indeed, a path of their own choice). Many poems are as they are, but for whatever reasons, don’t rise to that top level.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage to find time to write?
A Molotkov: I work either on my bill-paying business or on writing 80% of my waking time.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any difference between writing for film and writing poetry/fiction?
A Molotkov: I’m not really an authority on writing for film. This said, I think writing for film must be more dynamic than fiction due to the famous one page per minute ratio. Poetry is a different mode of thinking. It’s less narrative, more intuitive. Some films employ it well (like that Rilke poem in Synecdoche New York).
Geosi Gyasi: How many languages do you speak? Does language matter to you at all as a writer?
A Molotkov: I’m fluid only in Russian and English. I have been studying Italian for over 10 years, but very slowly. I could probably have a small conversation. Luckily, all high-brow words have Latin roots, same as English. My partner keeps promising to teach me German. One day I will take her up on that. To answer your second question: the language matters a great deal. Before my emigration, I had written in Russian long enough to develop a style and a freedom with the language. Those qualities took a great effort to recover in a second language (and it’s up to others to judge the degree of my success), but I have found the transition to English to be most beneficial. Not only is English the vastest, by far, of all modern languages, but it’s also more laconic than most. I switched to writing in English in 1993, three years after my arrival here – and have found it to be the most delightful tool ever since.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?
A Molotkov: I’m looking for an agent for my novel “The Escaping Truth”, an international story dealing with human rights and their violations. It tackles parental abuse, alcoholism, and in the case of a couple of characters from Senegal, female genital mutilation. In the meantime, I’ve begun work on the next novel, “A Slight Curve”, contrasting the experiences of an East German immigrant with that of a young lady born in the U.S., among other themes and plots. I write poetry on Wednesday nights and every now and then write or revise short stories. If you add three writers’ groups, you can see that my schedule is rather full. But who wants to have a boring life?