blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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A Reading by Boris Fishman
captured November 10, 2015

John Ulmschneider: Good evening, everyone. My name John Ulmschneider, I’m the university librarian here at Virginia Commonwealth University. On behalf of the faculty, students, and staff of Virginia Commonwealth University, I extend to all of you a warmest welcome to out fourteenth celebration of the Cabell First Novelist Reward. I have a special greeting tonight for our Honors students. We all get full credit ourselves, we don’t have to do anything special, but you have to go out and sign after the end of the event tonight. In order to earn a credit that we get free.

The VCU Library is a proud sponsor with the Cabell Associates and others to provide some of the financial and logistic support for the Cabell First Novelist Program each year. Starting in the fall of 2016, next year, we will be able to provide a much better and more permanent home for the Cabell First Novelist Ceremony in our soon to be completed new library building right here on the corner. I hope some of you have been in there.

It’s a great building, and I promise you that next year we can all enjoy food, drink, and wonderful conversation after the reading out under the stars under our new third floor outdoor terrace that we have attached to our space, so I know that all the students are going to be excited to see that. Our new lecture hall, to which this terrace is attached, is a wonderful space, a fabulous space for readings and events, and there’s nothing like it at VCU right now. Here’s my advertisement for the evening: we need your help. We need your help to make this new space truly the very best of its kind in Virginia for events like the author reading that we’re having tonight and for scholarly lectures of the sort that we do all year round. We expect the complete construction and opening of the entire new library in January, although you’ve probably seen that the first two floors are already open and, by the way, completely filled with students working away, but your donations and your help are essential to help us fulfill the full promise of this fantastic new space over the next year. We have a lot left to do the state funds just will not support. So you can find out more with brochures that are out front, and please pick up some of that material and consider supporting us as we try to make this new building everything it can be for Virginia Commonwealth University.

This is the eighth year of cosponsorship between the College of Humanities and Sciences, the Cabell Associates, and the VCU Libraries to support the Cabell First Novelist Program, and I have to say that very few partnerships have enjoyed the kind of amazing success that we’ve had in this collaboration. Since 2008, the VCU Cabell First Novel Award has grown enormously in stature and recognition and is now a keystone award, I’m glad to say, for writers who publish their first novel and also a keystone literary event for the Virginia literary arts community.

Many thanks, especially though first and foremost, to the Cabell Associates for their support of the VCU Cabell First Novelist, founded way back in 1981 by Margaret Cabell, the wife of Richmond Novelist James Branch Cabell, after whom the library is named. The Cabell Associates continue today to encourage scholarly work about James Branch Cabell—to foster his legacy, to elevate his profile as one of America’s most distinguished literary artists. To help us all understand, he was a writer who helped define the role in the art of fantasy writing for the likes of Neil Gaiman and others, and who remains today one of the country’s most distinctive historical voices of political satire.

The VCU Cabell First Novelist Award annually honors an outstanding debut novel published during the preceding calendar year. Every year, the English department receives well over a hundred submissions and recruits a small army of students, faculty, staff, and others to screen books and to let us know their favorites. We have many members of our broader community who, as you can imagine, are a well-educated lot indeed when it comes to literary fiction. We’re delighted that they also participate in this review. In fact, community members, those of you who are included, VCU friends of the library, you can already check out books and read the novels for this year’s award. You can find them on the first floor of James Branch Cabell Library; just ask at the desk.

Guided by the screener reviews, the English department chooses three finalists for the Cabell First Novelist. These books are then sent to a panel of judges, which includes the previous year’s winner, other authors, and local readers who choose the final winner. The diverse group of past Cabell First Novelist winners includes many novelists who have gone on to become major voices in their field. Recent winners include Helene Wecker for her celebrated, fantasy-tinged The Golem and the Jinni, which has just been optioned for a TV series, so that ought to be pretty interesting, and Ramona Ausubel for No One Is Here Except All of Us,a magical tale that grapples with history and the horrors of war and has been optioned for a movie.

So these are folks who are very successful, and you can see that selecting the Cabell First Novelist is a rigorous process that leads to winners that go on to do just wonderful things. That’s why we’re so proud to have this year’s winner, Boris Fishman, with us tonight. I know we all look forward to hearing him read and to learning more about his work. Now, by tradition, the previous year’s VCU Cabell First Novelist coordinator who actually organized and did all the process to select this year’s winner gets to present the author each year. Introducing the winner tonight is Kate Zipse, a third-year student in the MFA and creative writing program who is specializing in fiction writing.

Kate Zipse: Good evening, everyone, and thank you for coming out tonight. As he said, my name is Kate Zipse, and I’m a third-year MFA student and co-coordinator of this year’s Cabell First Novelist Award. For you first-timers here tonight, this means I got to read through and fall in love and eliminate the stacks and stacks of first time novels contending to survive. But, as we all know, only one novel made it out alive, which is why we are here tonight, to mourn the death of those other novels. No, just kidding. We’re here to celebrate the winner, of course: Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life.

One cool thing about the First Novelist Award is that it began as an offshoot of the MFA’s novel workshop, with the idea that, as we students are writing our novels, we also get to study and ask questions to this really good or best published first time novelist. Last year, I got to take the novel workshop. In it, I began to write this coming-of-age story about a high school girl who struggles to understand herself and make decisions amidst a tangled and often oppositional web of identities and relationships. She feels like she has to choose between these separate and seemingly absolute parts of her. She, like many people, is figuring out how to navigate and constantly re-navigate the gray zones of herself.

So, how does this relate? After reading A Replacement Life, Boris and his characters taught me and my character something important about this journey, about entering and exploring and wrestling and befriending the gray zones of the self. In the back of his book you’ll see, if you buy it, which you should, there’s some commentary from Boris, and in one of the passages he says, “Arianna introduces Slava to the idea that you don’t have to be one thing or the other. That you can be as much or as little of both as you like and that no one, other than yourself, should tell you how much and from where. You can care both about high heels and poetry. You can be a little false and a little true. A little fraudulent and a little honest. A little Jewish and a little not. A little Russian and a little American. Slava is a fundamentalist when he begins, out of a discomfort with gray zones. But so often, that’s where the truth is, in the gray zone. It is the truth of which, I believe, writers must remind their audiences.”

So, there’s this other level to the gray zone I wanted to touch on. It’s how this book plays with heavy and light. I can’t tell you how many times over the last three years I’ve sat down and I’ve thought, “I want to write this, this part of me, but it’s so heavy,” and I’m faced with this question: how can I bring this other side of me into that darkness? The levity, resilience, connectivity, and humor into these complex and difficult narratives and questions? How do they make sense together, and how do they tell a story? One that’s happy and sad, funny and serious, and all at once? To answer that question, of course, I have to draw my own map. But I’m grateful I have books like Boris’s to draw and gain inspiration from.

Darin Strauss says, “A Replacement Life is a hell of a book. Told with amazing virtuosity, fun and serious, funny and sad, profound and eminently readable, it will make you happy until it’s over. And then it will make you sad.”

The San Francisco Chronicle says, “Fishman, like his protagonist, is a born storyteller with a tremendous gift for language on all brow levels, making for a captivating and rare first novel that is tender, learned, funny, and deeply soulful—frequently, all at the same time.”

I have to out Boris and tell you guys that he requested to please skip the sleep-inducing list of residencies, press, publications, and awards. So I thought, did he pull a Slava and make up a fraudulent bio or something? I crept onto his website, and printed out what I found. I think what he meant is that I just do not have time to read these accomplishments. I’m going to have to steal some of these myself for my own semi-fictional bio and learn from the very clever Slava.

Please join me in welcoming the winner of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Mr. Boris Fishman.

Boris Fishman:What an amazing introduction! Thank you, Kate. I’m usually being introduced by people who haven’t read the novel. It’s a very different experience when this level of attention has been given to it, but that’s the level of attention I’ve gotten from VCU. This has been so well organized, which is also not something I can say for most of the events that I do. I don’t know if these names will mean anything to you, but I do want to single out Kate Zipse and Gregory Kimbrell and Cade Varnado. They all have very complicated names to pronounce. In fact I still don’t know if Gregory’s name—is Gregory here? Is it Gregory Kimbrell? All right.

When you’re doing something like this, and you’re traveling away from home, it’s so wonderful to be in the hands of people who know what they’re doing and are not only super competent but very warm and welcoming. I’m really grateful, to say nothing of the award or how smooth the ride has been up to here, and thank you again for that introduction. I don’t think I have to tell you what it means to get an award like this, first novel or tenth. It’s been mostly uphill on the way here, and it hardly stops being that way, even after an award such as this one, so it’s incredibly gratifying. I’m humbled and grateful, and when I learned that this award is unusual and that in its early stages the community contributes to the decision-making process (the semi-finalists and the finalists are picked, in part, by the members of the Richmond community), that was really gratifying to hear, as well. It’s not something I come across often, and it’s so refreshing and cool. We’ve had a bang-up time down here. It’s really nice where you live for all kinds of reasons, and I’m happy to be here. It’s too bad there’s no Cabell Second Novelist Award! I’ve got another one coming out in March.

I was only mainly supposed to read, and we were going to talk later on, and we are going to talk later on, but I just wanted to say a couple things quickly, because I’ve got this chance and I see a lot of young people in the room, students. Just out of curiosity, how many of you are here because you’re getting credit? I’m going to try to make it worth your while, dispense some wisdom from the stage. Get those notebooks out. No, very quickly, because I can go on, I try to write the smartest possible book for the broadest possible audience. There’s some kind of weird stigma attached to stories, to books that move quickly, to books where you want to turn the page, the books where you’re dying to find out what happens next. I’m not making that claim for this novel necessarily, but it was so important for me to write a book that you wanted to race through. There’s a lot of fretting around nowadays about books and the future of books and the future of fiction. Is the novel dead? It isn’t dead at all if you give people a reason to turn the page, and unfortunately, I encounter too many books where the author has forgotten his or her responsibility to do that. And so, those of you who are working on books of your own, I beg you to remember Dostoyevsky wrote smart page-turners, Elmore Leonard wrote smart page-turners, Graham Greene, William Styron—all these people wrote beautiful, complicated books that you couldn’t wait to finish. These two things, a page-turner and a novel of ideas, are not irreconcilable. You might have to work a little bit harder, but you can do it, and it’s what I was aspiring to do with this novel.

The other thing that I wanted to say is I wanted, in addition to waving the flag high for stories, I wanted to do that as well for fiction with a serious moral message. I was talking about this earlier in a round-table discussion that I had at the library. I feel like we live in a time when authors have abdicated their responsibility to tell people how to live. We live in a world of relative truths; you’ve got your own and I’ve got mine, and a lot of creative people that I encounter don’t feel authorized to put that kind of instruction in their work. I’m Russian-born and my undergraduate degree is in Russian literature, so maybe you’ll understand why I’m up here telling you that I believe that books ought to show people a way forward. You don’t have to agree with the conclusions that I come to in this novel; I don’t even come to any conclusions. But the questions that I try to discuss in it, I spent four years working over in my mind. I guess what I’m saying with the novel is that these things are worth thinking about, and it is so, so inspiring to me to come across books that take this incredible opportunity. If I’m going to ask you to sit down for 320 pages, I better have something worthwhile to say, and I better prompt you and prod you and challenge you on all sorts of things, including how you’re living your life, and that was one of my missions with this book. And again, to the extent that I have any authority with you as you’re working on yours, I wanted to encourage you to do the same. Be serious and go big; there is no shame and there is only honor in doing that. It is the noblest thing that I believe an author can do.

The last two things I wanted to say before I read to you is, for those of you who are working on books of their own, who here is working on something, anything, formal, informal? More than those who are getting credit for being here. Two things: number one, be kind to yourself. What I mean by that is, part of the reason it took so long is because I spent so much time beating myself up about not having the chops to do this. Certainly the world was giving me a lot of signals that I didn’t have the chops to do this, and it’s not easy to persevere. But precisely because the world just loves to say “no,” leave that incredible opportunity to the world and don’t waste time on it yourself. On the other hand, work like hell; be animals about it. Treat it like a job and do it every single day, except the weekend. If you sit down and write—I understand that people who have jobs, sometimes you’re tired when you get home, sometimes you can only get three hours on the weekend. I understand I’m getting into nuts and bolts here, but this is actually what matters. Whatever your time allotment is, make it religious and do that, and do it over and over at the same time, over and over and over week in and week out. If you do that, I guarantee you that after a year or two years, you will have manuscript on your hands. I think there’s a lot of mystery and romance that gets attached to the process, and a lot of it is just time at the keyboard. Be kind to yourselves but also be merciless; that’s the message that I wanted to give you. I will leave the rest of it to our panel discussion.

I’m just going to read to you briefly from the book. It is called The Replacement Life,and it’s about a young man, a failed writer, who starts forging Holocaust restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. These are the payouts the German government gives to survivors of the Holocaust, and Slava Gelman is indeed his name. He ends up doing it quite reluctantly on behalf of people who have suffered during the war, but not in the exact way that they need to have suffered in order to qualify legally for restitution. One of the questions that the novel tries to raise is, is there ever such a thing as a “just fraud”? Who gets to decide what suffering is? And so on in that vein. And the other question that it tries to bring up is, how do we honor elders whose definition of honor is different? The reason it talks about that is because Slava, who begins his life as an immigrant in America, much as I did, in a mainly Russian-speaking community in south Brooklyn, is just so profoundly embarrassed at having to live among these people, because what Slava wants above all is to become a proper American. He says goodbye to all that and runs off to Manhattan, which, despite being quite close to Brooklyn, is an entirely different universe, and kind of sits there and waits for the “Americanness” to show up. As we all know that’s not how identity works, but Slava doesn’t know that, and this novel is his painful discovery of just why.

About a year after he’s fled, refusing to call, refusing to visit, a phone call comes, and he finds out that his beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, has passed away. And the letter inviting her to apply for this restitution that I’m talking about has shown up in the mail just a week after she’s gone. And so Slava’s grandfather says to him, “Why don’t you write it anyway?” Slava says, “But how can I? She’s gone.” Slava’s grandfather says, “Well, don’t write it about her,” and Slava says, “About whom then?” and Grandfather says, “Write it about me,” and Slava says, “But you were evacuated to safety in Uzbekistan,” and Grandfather says, “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”

That’s the premise and how it starts, and of course Slava takes great pleasure in saying, “absolutely not,” until he has yet another failure at the magazine where he works and aspires to succeed. Tail between his legs, comes crawling back to his grandfather, takes on the assignment, and of course the experience ends up transforming his life and complicating his sense of justice and family and honor and all of that. That’s basically the context for the story. The section I’m going to read to you—it’s great when you plan to read one section but end up reading another; I’m going to read something else. This is the debate that Slava and Grandfather have about the thing that Grandfather wants Slava to do, and in the name of economy, I’ve crossed out a lot of things, so forgive me if I stumble a bit. This is at the funeral dinner: people are in the living room toasting to Grandmother’s health, and Grandfather has asked Slava to come into the bedroom to look at this letter that’s come.

[A Replacement Life, Boris Fishman, HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. 31–36.]  

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