I admit it — I’m a Russophile. Be it Gogol or 80s wrestling superstar Nikita Koloff, I’m into it. I like taking long train rides to Brighton Beach on my days off, and even though my family lineage doesn’t trace back to Mother Russia, I still sometimes call my grandma “babushka.”
With that said, I will also admit that I was temped to read Alina Simone’s debut book, You Must go and Win, based solely on the fact that the back of the book mentioned that she was Ukrainian. But as soon as I got a few pages deep, I realized that Simone has less in common with the current crop of Ruskie-American writers like Gary Shteyngart or Anya Ulinich, and more in common with Sloane Crosley, Rachel Shukert, and David Sedaris. That’s probably because Simone moved to the United States at such an early age, but her triumphs and pitfalls chronicled in the book feel universal.
Her warm and hilarious new book is full of self-effacing anecdotes about trying to make it as an artist in New York and other madcap adventures–making it one of few memoirs that stands out in a crowd.
You’ve spent the last few years becoming recognized as a musician, and now you’ve released You Must go and Win. Is everything going according to some grand plan you cooked up when you were a child? Like, “I’m going to put out some music, then I shall write a book!”
Yes, and I have been executing that plan with uncanny, Nostradamus-like accuracy since age four. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the Alina plush toy and my new luxury line of handbags.
Actually, for much of my life, I suffered debilitating stage fright and only played my first show when I was 26. Until existential panic overtook me in my mid-twenties, I was sure I’d never even achieve the modest goal of putting together a band and releasing an album, let alone publishing a book. Much of my book, in fact, deals with battling the demons of failure, fighting a war of attrition while defending a molehill of accomplishment. Even now — far from being part of some grand design — every good opportunity that comes my way still feels like an 11th hour reprieve.
Do you want to continue writing books as well as making music? Or is there
not enough room on your buisness cards to say Alina Simone: Musician and
In my own tiny way, Jewcy, I want to eat life, and I wish my business card were the size of a billboard with room for everything — making music and books and movies. Even developing the aforementioned plush toy! What I don’t want is to repeat myself. If I publish another book, it will be different. I’ve been working on both a screenplay and a novel. And when I record another album, I’m planning to retire my guitar and try something more beat-driven. Dare I say…dancey? No, I don’t. Forget it. I didn’t say it.
I was really interested to read about Yanka Dyagileva, and also how you used her music to try and connect with Russian culture. Care to explain how you became interested in her music?
Yanka was one of the only female “indie” rock singers of the Perestroika era and surely the most significant. I first stumbled across her music after I struck up a conversation with some Russian buskers in Brighton Beach and one of them later made me a mix tape. I was immediately struck by her voice, the starkness of her music and her powerful melodies. But I also saw a parallel — we were both young singers, trying to compensate for our technical limitations with sheer intensity.
You left Ukraine for the United States when you were a baby. I’m wondering if people classify you as a “Russian artist,” and if so, how do you feel about that?
Meh. I feel like it’s a misnomer since I left when I was only a year and a half. That said, I was obviously raised by Russians and have eaten more than my fair share of beet soup and mayonnaise-based salads. I’m very comfortable with Russian culture, just feel ill-qualified to be its standard-bearer.
You grew up with Eugene Mirman? Any funny stories to share?
My senior year of high school, Eugene introduced me to his best friend, Josh Knobe, and we started dating. At the time he joked, “When you guys get married, I get to be the Maid of Honor.” Well, eight years later we got married and, true to our word, Eugene got to be the Maid of Honor. (Amanda Palmer, two years our junior in high school, was the Best Man.)
Funny question time: You identify a chunk of your fan base as “depressed Jews.” Who are your top five favorite sad Jewish people?
1. In a crowded field, the top slot has to go to my editor, Eric Chinksi, who offered me a book deal after hearing my music on Pandora even though I’d never published anything before. In addition to Sad Jew, one might also call him Potentially Crazy Jew or Highly Impractical Jew.
2. Marc Maron. I love Marc Maron’s standup and his podcast, What the Fuck. He is a very funny sad Jew. But aren’t they all?
3. Harvey Pekar. I’m a huge fan of alt-comics in general, especially autobiographical comics, and American Splendor is at the top of genre. I always loved Pekar’s naked candor and the plainspoken, yet eloquent way he laid out his desires. When Pekar writes, “I wish more people would buy my comic book because it’s good for my morale,” it comes across as so pure. His endless striving somehow redeems all my grubby little desires, and yours too.
4. Todd Solondz. (For reference, see any movie by Todd Solondz.)
5. Jonathan Ames. Bored to Death is good, but I’m a huge fan of his early essays. He was also at the last show I played (a book release party). And he seemed kinda sad.