Boris Fishman, 35, is the author of A Replacement Life, a dark, hilarious new novel about a failed young journalist who begins forging Holocaust restitution claims for Russian Jews in Brooklyn, at the behest of his incorrigible grandfather. I talked to Fishman about writing, grandfathers, Russian hirsuteness, and the immigrant experience.
So when I first saw that you were 35, I became quite jealous of your success. Then I looked at your author photo and realized you look like you’re 50 and like you might have killed someone in the Gulag.
Maybe you should be worried. Since the novel is about a crime and the first question anyone asks of a debut novelist is how autobiographical this is, I guess there’s a possibility that I have those tendencies. But I don’t. My temperament is the diametrical opposite… People assume you’re one kind of person but I’m a total teddy bear. Everyone’s kind of thrown by that.
You do seem awfully nice. I was expecting a Russian cliché.
I’m really nothing like the typical Russian person except for several key departments.
What are those key departments? Are you hirsute?
I am hirsute, absolutely, but nothing compared with my father. But really I’m talking about a certain quickness to intimacy. There’s a really wonderful essay in the New York Times by Alina Simone about the meaning of “How are you?” in American versus Russian culture. American culture is far more civil than Russian, if we are going to generalize and be reductive, but Russian culture tends to go soulful and deep much more quickly than American culture. I really don’t want to have small talk–I want to get down and deep very quickly. I don’t mean you, the person I’m speaking with right now, but hell, you too.
And the next thing is a real devotion to Russian literature and Russian culture. For all those horrible things that happened in the Soviet Union—there were many–the one thing that was remarkable was that there was state-mandated intellectualism, so to speak, in the sense that cultural production wasn’t dictated by the market, but the government. There was no low-brow literature published, and by the time you graduated high school, you were deeply familiar with all the Russian classics. In a society like that, there was obviously a big problem in the individual-freedom department, but at the same time you had a lot of people with a tremendous amount of respect for literature, a cultural literacy that was really impressive. I have a lot of respect for that heritage.
You got the good and none of the bad, except for the hirsuteness?
The hirsuteness gets rough especially when it’s warm. Some days, it really isn’t the most awesome cultural patrimony.
I’m speaking to an author about hairiness. I don’t know when exactly my life went wrong.
I do appreciate the novel direction this is going. There are only so many times I can talk about where I got the idea for the novel. [Laughs.]
That’s good–I really don’t care about that. I’m really more interested in your hair.
Well, I’ve got none on my head: an odd bargain. I took after my father. Meanwhile, my maternal grandfather, who is 87–may he live till 120, as we say–has a full head of hair and not a wisp on his chest. His hair is like goose down. He lives in Midwood. Sometimes I go down there just to eat his home-attendant’s cooking and rustle his hair.
We should trade grandfathers.
I should rent him out. Rent a grandfather.
He’d make a great pick-up line.
The thing about my grandfather is if I brought him as a wing-man, he’d collect more women than I would. He’s a really interesting storyteller.
When the story broke about the group of Russian Jews defrauding Holocaust restitution claims, did you see a novel in that?
The novel was formed by then. I started writing in November 2009 and this was exposed in November 2010. I had just gotten to a seven-month writing residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, which is very remote from all things Jewish and all things New York. I was stunned to see this in the Times, but I didn’t really feel like my thunder was stolen. It didn’t feel like it was a story that would own the mainstream news for weeks and weeks. It was more that it was a bizarre and really depressing vindication of what I imagined.
What happened afterward was quite interesting. I wrote an article in Tablet Magazine saying that, legally, there’s no question these people are culpable and they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But morally, let’s not dismiss them as pure evil. Let’s instead try to understand why they did something like this… The people who did this were primarily ex-Soviet Jews. For me, they’re trauma victims, and trauma victims inflict a lot of damage. But I feel that their culpability is mitigated by the trauma they underwent. I don’t know if they can plead insanity, but actually something close. They spent decades in a system whose perversity and abusiveness and discrimination against Jews is difficult to convey. That doesn’t make what they did okay–but I think it obligates us to be nuanced in our moral judgment of them. Certainly, you can’t write fiction about them without that capacity.
So what was the kernel that started the novel?
For me the genesis of the novel had to do with the fact that Holocaust survivors behind the Iron Curtain were not able to apply for restitution because it was felt that their governments would poach the money—a reasonable thing to have been concerned about. My grandmother, a survivor, did not become eligible to apply until we got here from the USSR in 1988. When she got set to submit her paperwork in the 1990s, it was given to me even though I was just a teenager because I had the best English in the family.
Two things stood out to me, one leading to the next. The first was that virtually no documentation was requested, for obvious reasons. You weren’t given a confirmation voucher when you went to the Minsk ghetto. So it kind of came down to how good a story you could tell; a matter of history became a matter of storytelling. I didn’t need to make it up for my grandmother since she went through it, but that idea was intriguing.
And the second thought I had was: It’s just a matter of time before someone has a field day with these applications. And that someone, I knew, might very well come from the ex-Soviet community. If you lived in that place, you couldn’t get certain basic things without going around the law. Some people remained honorable and did without; some people lucked out and knew the right people; others just wanted a little more for their families. I’m not talking about Rolls-Royces and gold watches. I’m talking about another pair of shoes or a banana. Tangerines were a once-a-year luxury. Sometimes, you could not get basic things without resorting to light crime.
Speaking of Russian Jewish writers, Gary Shtenygart just came out with his memoir. Was your arrival in America as painful as his?
I would guess that it was, but every pain is its own. That’s why people fail to learn from their mistakes, not because they’re stupid but because every mistake has its own character profile.
It’s brutal at such an impressionable age to switch from one place to another that’s so different. In my case, I became the adult of the family. I learned English the fastest and became my family’s ambassador to a world that had things going on that we had never dreamed about: phone bills, credit cards, medical insurance, car insurance… Suddenly I was responsible for all this being handled properly, for the family coming to no disadvantage or harm. I used to be so terrified of making a mistake that when I collected cans to bring to the supermarket for the five-cent deposit, not only did I wash them out with water, I sprayed them with my mother’s Parisian perfume so the supermarket would have no way to say no.