Published March 2004
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One man shock-and-awe
How David Bezmozgis went from literary unknown to next big thing
Starving artists, ignore those rejection slips for a minute. Forget your overdue rent, your Canada Council applications, and that manuscript that publishers just love to ignore.
David Bezmozgis was unknown once, too. A nobody, really, in publishing at least. Until last year. It’s true that he probably hasn’t been plugging away at his fiction as long as you have. And he didn’t have to bother much with grants or rejection letters. And perhaps he is only 30. And yes, he will be in Italy this winter, possibly working on his next book.
But you have to forget all that.
The main thing is that David Bezmozgis was unknown once. And now he isn’t – far from it, thanks to a New York agent, book deals in the U.S. and Canada, and short story credits in The New Yorker and Harper’s.
In June, HarperCollins Canada will publish Bezmozgis’s debut story collection, Natasha and Other Stories, while Farrar, Straus and Giroux will release it in the States. Rights have also been sold in Germany, Holland, Spain, Italy, France, Israel, the U.K., and Japan. Robert Fulford, the Canadian critic and literary gadfly, has described Bezmozgis’s string of successes as a “one-man shock-and-awe invasion of North American literature.” Rookie or not, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
So maybe Bezmozgis, on the phone from L.A., where he’s sitting out on a patio visiting friends, has a right to chuckle. “I think the only way you can try and explain something like this is two things,” he says. “It’s the quality of the work and it’s connections.” Which is all a rather understated way of putting it.
Starving artists, listen up.
I. Write what you know
Bezmozgis’s family came to Canada when he was six, leaving Latvia during the exodus of Soviet Jews, and arriving in Canada in 1980. Bezmozgis, to his credit, knew not to mess with a good thing. His stories are all linked, following a family called the Bermans, who, like the author’s own family, arrive in Canada from Latvia and struggle to adapt as best they can to a strange place and a new life.
The Bermans have the same address as the Bezmozgis family once did; young Mark Berman goes to the same schools that young David did; Mark Berman’s father, like Bezmozgis’s father, earns his massage license in Canada and labours to build his business.
Bezmozgis’s stories are made up, he says. “The stories may be called autobiographical fiction but the part that interests me is the fiction. The autobiographical part is largely context; the plot and most everything else is fictional.
“I’ve basically been writing about the same characters, the same sort of community, the same sort of thing for a long time,” Bezmozgis explains. “That’s really what’s always interested me and it’s the one thing that I felt was my obligation as a writer to do.”
An obligation, perhaps, but one any aspiring writer would be happy to bear: Bezmozgis’s community happens to make for great stories. Though as Bezmozgis puts it, after reading his stories, his family, still living in Toronto, wished that more of the collection had been a bit farther from fact. “My father said a funny thing about [the character] Roman Berman, which was, ‘Couldn’t you have made him a chiropractor?’” Bezmozgis recalls. “And I said, ‘Now you’re the most famous massage therapist in Canada. It’ll be great for business.’”
II. Talent helps
Bezmozgis didn’t exactly blunder his way into success. While doing his undergraduate degree in English literature at McGill University in Montreal, he already knew he wanted to write, he says. He completed a one-act play about a boy who finds an old photograph that he’s seen before, and who believes the couple it shows, a Jewish man and woman moments before their death in the Holocaust, are his grandparents. The play, called The Last Waltz: An Inheritance, was produced at McGill’s theatre festival, then at the Playwrights’ Workshop Montreal.
After graduating, Bezmozgis signed up at The University of Southern California’s film school, where he wrote screenplays and learned to direct. In 1999, his first documentary, a 25-minute film called L.A. Mohel, followed three Jewish ritual circumcisers – including one touted as “the Mohel to the Stars” – around Los Angeles as they performed the 3,700-year-old rite. The film won a major award for student filmmakers, and screened at Jewish film festivals in Florida, Seattle, Miami, L.A., Boston, and Hong Kong, as well as in Toronto and Vancouver. The next year, Bezmozgis directed The Diamond Nose, a short narrative film about a boy who tries to get rid of his massive nose. While still at USC, he also wrote a screen adaptation of a short story by an older writer named Leonard Michaels. So Bezmozgis called Michaels. Which, as it turned out, wasn’t such a bad call to make. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
III. Go south, young man
“When I was sixteen I was high most of the time,” says Mark Berman, the narrator of “Natasha.” “That year my parents bought a new house at the edge of Toronto’s sprawl. A few miles north were cows; south the city. I spent most of my time in basements.”
Of an uncle in the same story, Mark says, “He could speak with equal authority about the Crimean War and the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
And in that same story, Mark Berman works as a dope delivery boy for a dealer in the suburbs named Rufus, who one summer installs Doric columns in his back yard and sleeps with Mark’s sexy young cousin (and former lover), Natasha.
Even though Canada is present in his stories – there are references to Canadian Tire and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre – Bezmozgis did not follow the usual Canadian route to literary “It”-ness. He’s never bothered finding a Canadian agent. He doesn’t much follow Canada’s literary scene. “You have to remember I didn’t live in Canada for most of the time. I was in Los Angeles for five years and when I came back I was really concentrating on film.
“Then when that got frustrating, that’s really when I started focusing on prose. I have no bones to pick with the Canadian system. I just didn’t use it. I didn’t know enough about even how to use it.”
References to Canadian Tire aside, Bezmozgis doesn’t consider his writing Canadian. “I wouldn’t call these Canadian stories, but I don’t see why someone else couldn’t,” he says. “It depends on one’s definition. Most are set unambiguously in Toronto. That is probably enough.”
IV. Get a mentor with the right friends
Back to UCLA and the screenplay that Bezmozgis hoped to write and Leonard Michaels, the writer Bezmozgis called. In time, Bezmozgis and Leonard Michaels (“for my money, the best writer I’ve read”) became friends.
Michaels, the son of Polish immigrants, had grown up on the Lower East Side of New York, speaking only Yiddish for the first five years of his life. Michaels’ novel The Men’s Club was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for best fiction in 1981. (It lost to the third installment of John Updike’s Rabbit series, Rabbit Is Rich.) More recently, Michaels’ short stories appeared in The New Yorker and The Threepenny Review. (Michaels died in May last year.)
“What I learned, I learned from his work – not any explicit instruction,” Bezmozgis recalls. “His best stories always have something real at stake. There is great attention to language and a premium placed on succinctness. He never lingers.”
Michaels had a few friends, too.
“There’s a whole network of people who know each other through Lenny,” says Bezmozgis. “He was one of those writers’ writers. Writers know of Lenny Michaels. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, he was very influential. He also taught at Iowa, so he came across writers there.”
Michaels, who also taught at Berkeley for more than 30 years, is said to have inspired such writers as Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and Amy Tan. The old master introduced Bezmozgis into his circle. This put Bezmozgis in touch with Wyatt Mason, a young writer and translator of Rimbaud’s letters and poems.
“I sent him stuff and he sent me stuff. I sent him ‘Natasha,’ the story. He really liked it,” says Bezmozgis. Wyatt Mason was friends with Lorin Stein, who is an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “He read the story, he liked it, he asked for some more. And slowly, in parts, I just gave him the book. And he passed it on to his superior at Farrar, Straus.” Before long, FSG offered to buy the book.
V. Get an agent with the right friends
Book offer more or less in hand, Bezmozgis breezed through Manhattan, and over a couple of days he met with a half-dozen literary agents recommended by Stein. Bezmozgis picked Ira Silverberg, an agent who represents Adam Haslett, author of You Are Not a Stranger Here, a collection of short stories released in 2002, and Neil Strauss, the New York Times rock critic who is ghostwriting porn star Jenna Jameson’s autobiography. Silverberg then sent Bezmozgis’s stories to fiction editor Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker.
Last May, it all came together. Bezmozgis, still 29 years old at the time, saw “The Second Strongest Man” published in Zoetrope:All Story, the literary magazine founded by director Francis Coppola. In the same month, “Roman Berman, Massage Therapist,” appeared in Harper’s, and another story, “Tapka,” was published in The New Yorker.
Such a literary hat trick is rare. “His voice stood out from the crowd,” says Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at The New Yorker. “Not only was his subject matter – the story of Russian immigrant life in Canada – interesting, he was able to tell his stories with humour and poignancy, and a density of language that was impressive in such a young writer.”
Bezmozgis was more pragmatic about the sudden appearance of his name in all the right places. “If you [are] a New York publisher … when you buy a collection of stories, what you want to do is place them [in a magazine],” Bezmozgis explains. “So they did.”
VI. Ride the wave
The way he explains his run, Bezmozgis makes it all sound so easy. And maybe it was. He suffered from a few nerves last May when his stories hit the magazines, he says, but he doesn’t let on if it was worse than a night’s tossing and turning.
His friends have all been supportive; he’s a little less anonymous now than before, but he doesn’t seem to complain.
“Writing is no harder or easier than before,” he says. “Having published a story in The New Yorker doesn’t help you write the next story.” Bezmozgis says he hasn’t given up on film entirely, though he adds he wouldn’t be too upset if he never made another. He says he has a narrative film in development, but adds that it’s still too early to say if the film will get made. He still has a film agent in L.A., too, and as he puts it, “If the right opportunity presented itself I’d like to do more screenwriting and directing.” But for now, Bezmozgis says he’ll focus on his fiction. Getting the publishing deal for Natasha and Other Stories was “the realization of a life’s ambition,” he says in an e-mail in January, “meaning, publishing a book on this particular community. I felt like my life was not entirely a failure.”
Bezmozgis is not an easy man to pin down these days. He’s between apartments, out of the country, and coy about his work. He won’t say much about his next book, a novel, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish in the U.S.
He won’t say anything about it, actually. He won’t say whether the novel’s why he’s in Rome with his girlfriend Hannah. He won’t say much about the deal for the novel, and he won’t answer questions about his deals for Natasha, except for saying, “I’m not rich,” then adding later, when adding a couple of countries to the places where Natasha’s been sold, that he’s “hardly any less not-rich.”
Still, we can presume he probably won’t have trouble making rent for the next few months. And he won’t likely be seeing any letters beginning: “Thank you for sending your manuscript . . .”
Remember, not so long ago, David Bezmozgis, Canadian Latvian Jewish refugee kid from Toronto, was pretty much a publishing nobody. And now, he’s doing just fine.