Elif Batuman’s first novel, The Idiot, was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK. She is also the author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, which was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism. She has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010 and holds a PhD in comparative literature from Stanford University.
Where are you writing to us from?
Istanbul, but headed back to New York soon…
What has been most important for you, personally/artistically/habitually, during the pandemic?
As a writer, introvert, and capitalist subject, I experienced the pandemic as a new wrinkle in the ongoing giant puzzle of how to balance intellectual and emotional community against solitude/ solitary work. Mindfulness and meditation helped, especially the Headspace app and Tara Brach’s podcast.
I also really appreciated the Nike running app, which has guided runs where the Nike running coach and one of the Headspace founders talk to you about things like inner narratives, the nature of mistakes/ learning, and the journey of life, in a running context—I did a lot of guided jogs around the Brooklyn Piers while making eye contact with poodles.
Which writers, artists, and others influence your work in general, and this book, specifically?
There are two sets of influences on Either/Or: influences on the protagonist, Selin, back in the 90s (Kierkegaard, Pushkin, Tolstoy, André Breton, Henry James, Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, Picasso, The New York Times…) and influences on me, Elif, in the years between 2017 and 2020 (Shulamith Firestone, Adrienne Rich, Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, Alice Miller…). There’s actually a reading list in the back of the book!
What books are you reading right now and would you recommend any to others?
I’m reading In the Margins by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein), and Stalin: Passage to Revolution by Ronald Grigor Suny. I would recommend either or both! Try them simultaneously!
If you opened a bookstore, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?
Maybe I could open a City Lights franchise on the Aegean Sea? City Lights Aegean? The bestseller would be a form-pushing work of radical ecofeminism. I love how this question takes you from designing a bookstore to designing the readers/ world!